With all of that said, despite how long it took me to finish the volume, it was worthwhile. Tertullian is one of the two most important writers of the pre-Augustine/post-NT church (along with Origen), and as such is worth taking a bit more time to work through. He ably defended the faith in the face of persecution, was direct and assertive in facing down heresy, stood staunchly on revealed truth in a world of relativistic morality, and was the first to articulate several key theological ideas (for example, he coined the word "Trinity"). While not every work in the volume is of equal value, they're all interesting and have much to say. That in later years Tertullian stumbled into heresy himself is unfortunate, but does not diminish his contributions to the formation of the church. (The heresy in question was Montanism, which if it existed today would be an extreme form of ascetic Pentacostalism--so not the worst heresy you can end up in, and I will be surprised if the good Mr. Tertullian is not in heaven when I get there, since to the best of our knowledge he never rejected the Trinity or the atonement, and only held a distorted view of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.)
This volume contains:
The Apology: In this work, Tertullian defends Christianity by pointing out how wrong it is of the Romans to persecute Christians both morally and legally. After all, if Christianity is just another philosophy (as some claim), then why aren't other philosophies persecuted? And if Christians are being persecuted for being immoral, why not go after pagans, who are so much worse? In point of fact Christians are persecuted merely because they carry the name "Christian", which has been declared illegal, which in turn is just evidence that the law can err. Tertullian ends by giving a picture of Christian life and practice, and encouraging Christians to hold to the truth even through persecution. "The oftener we are mown down by you [pagans], the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed." (55)
On Idolatry: Idolatry is, according to Tertullian, the chief crime of humanity, since all sins ultimately flow back to it. In this sense, "idolatry" is not merely the act of bowing down to idols (though it is certainly that), but it is at root the desire to worship something other than God. Statues are actually later additions to this practice.
But this is really just the surface concern of the book, on a deeper level Tertullian is attempting to explain how Christians can live in a society so dominated and defined by sin. Idolatry, in his time, pervaded everything--public events, the marketplace, popular worship, politics, entertainment, and so on. While any of these things might be fine by themselves (nothing wrong with athletics, after all), when idolatry is mixed in it becomes a matter of conscience that the Christian has to work through. [We might consider similar questions in the context of sexuality or greed today.] Overall, we must think carefully and try our best to live pure and clean lives so that we are a model of the truth to others and pursuing holiness ourselves. The good news is, we are not left to ourselves in this pursuit, indeed God has given us faith as the means by which we can live in as redeemed sinners in a sinful world: ""Amid these reefs and inlets, amid these shallows and straits of idolatry, Faith, her sails filled by the Spirit of God, navigates; safe if cautious, secure if intently watchful." (75)
The Shows, or De Spectaculis: Christians should not attend events in the public theaters (including athletic contests, plays, gladiatorial combats, etc) because doing so exposes us and incites us to all manner of sins. These include (but are not limited to): idolatry, lust, mob frenzy, violence, and a whole host of others. This is not to say that Christianity is a dour and joyless religion, it is in fact ultimately a patient one. Because we have a show and a spectacle stored up for us the likes of which the world cannot begin to imagine: present salvation and the coming return of Christ are a spectacle without parallel. "For what more delightful than to have God the Father and our Lord at peace with us, than revelation of the truth, than confession of our errors, than pardon of the innumerable sins of our past life? What greater pleasure than distaste of pleasure itself, contempt of all that the world can give, true liberty, a pure conscience, a contented life, and freedom from all fear of death?... These are the pleasures, these the spectacles that befit Christian men--holy, everlasting, free." (90-91)
But even more than the games and contests of the world, Christians are participants in the great spectacle of salvation: "Behold unchastity overcome by chastity, perfidy slain by faithfulness, cruelty stricken by compassion, impudence thrown into the shade by modesty; these are the contests we have among us, and in these we win our crowns. Would you have something of blood too? You have Christ's." (91)
The Chaplet, or De Corona: This treatise asks the question of whether a Christian can, in good conscience, receive honors from the world. Under consideration here are specifically military awards, "the crown" being something akin to a modern Congressional Medal of Honor. Military service in the ancient world involved all sorts of things which were objectionable to Christians, including worship of the Emperor and idolatry. But even those sins aside, the biggest objection to a Christian wearing "the crown" is that it is rooted in warfare itself: "shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law?" (99)
Christians should not kill, when God has forbidden it and so much has been done to bring us to life. And if we still desire the glory of the crown, we should remember that the crowns of the world are sinful for Christians when there is a heavenly crown awaiting those who patiently wait for the return of Christ. That is all the reward we should need or desire.
To Scapula: Akin to the Apology, To Scapula is written to the Proconsul of Carthage (Scapula) in defense of Christians against their legal persecution. This short work is simply wonderful, and is a stirring defense of Christianity at its best. "For our religion commands us to love even our enemies, and to pray for those who persecute us... For all love those who love them; it is peculiar to Christians alone to love those who hate them." (105) Or again: "A Christian is enemy to none, least of all to the Emperor of Rome, whom he knows to be appointed by his God, and so cannot but love and honor; and whose well-being moreover, he must needs desire, with that of the empire of which he reigns so long as the world shall stand--for so long as that shall Rome continue. To the emperor, therefore, we render such reverential homage as is lawful for us and good for him." (105-106)
Ad Nationes: The first book of this work is a defense of Christian morality in the face of Roman criminal charges, and a challenge to the pagans to clean their own house before pointing fingers at the sins of the Christians. The pagans are quick to blame the problems of the world on the Christians, when in fact there were problems in the world long before there were ever Christians. Also in this book Tertullian clears up some misconceptions about who and what the Christians worship, which in turn tells us what some of the stories circulating around the Empire at the time must have been. Tertullian argues that Christians do not worship the head of an ass, the cross, or the sun. Nor do we sacrifice infants, in fact Christians are the first to rush to save "aborted" (i.e. abandoned--the ancient version of abortion) babies whenever possible. You pagans need to fix yourselves of all these ills first, though of course if you truly fix all your own problems, you will have become Christians!
The second book holds up Christianity as truth in the face of pagan religion and philosophy. He does not give an extensive overview of the pagan systems, but deals generally with the more absurd of their beliefs and ideas, concluding that the mythic "gods" of the pagans are morally awful ("Must we regard it as a subject of ridicule or indignation, that such characters are believed to be gods who are not fit to be men?") and that the greatness of the Romans is not due to their piety or the generosity of their "gods", but only to God alone who distributes kingdoms and empires as He sees fit.
An Answer to the Jews: This work apparently began in the form of a public debate between an unnamed Christian and Jew. The onlookers got a little raucous, and the debate was broken up. Tertullian thought this was a good thing, because it meant that the debate became a written one, which means that each point can now be dealt with in detail.
The big two points Tertullian engages are 1) the relationship between the Gentiles and the Law and 2) Christ's fulfillment of the Law. As for the first, the Law of God is for all mankind, beginning in the Garden of Eden and passing down through the generations. "For in this law given to Adam we recognize in embryo all the precepts which afterwards sprouted forth when given through Moses." (152) The summary of all these is that we should love God and our neighbor. Yet when Christ came, these laws were superseded by Him about whom they were ultimately written. "But Christ's Name is extending everywhere, believed everywhere, worshiped by all the above-enumerated nations, reigning everywhere, adored everywhere, conferred equally everywhere upon all. No king, with Him, finds greater favor, no barbarian lesser joy; no dignities or pedigrees enjoy distinctions of merit; to all He is equal, to all King, to all Judge, to all God and Lord." (158)
The Soul's Testimony: If you won't listen to us Christians or read our books for the evidence for Christianity, maybe, Tertullian argues, you'll listen to the evidence--the "testimony"-- of your own soul. Even the naked, untaught, and unregenerate heathens know in the depths of their souls that there is a God, that we are sinners, that there are demons and a spiritual world, and that there is a coming resurrection and judgment. We see these things reflected in our thoughts, words, and actions, will we not then believe the evidence we produce from the very depths of our being?
A Treatise on the Soul: Tertullian begins this treatise by reminding us that all truth is founded only on Revelation. To be sure, some philosophers from time to time stumble on the truth--we after all have intelligence. Yet, even when pagan philosophers have truth they can't help but pervert it. Christians, however, have the Scriptures and need not--indeed are commanded not to--go beyond what God has revealed.
What, then, has been revealed about the soul? 1) It was created by God at birth from nothing, it has neither eternal existence nor its origin from matter; 2) the soul is tied to the body, as the Stoics teach and the Platonists deny; 3) the soul, however, is also spiritual and simple, as Plato teaches, and not just tied to our bodies; 4) the mind and the soul are connected, but the soul is superior and drives the mind; 5) the soul is divisible in the sense that we can speak of different aspects of it (intelligence, reason/irrationality, the senses), it is not divisible in the sense that it can be cut into pieces like an arm or a leg; 6) the soul has free will, though this is itself under grace; 7) the soul is not God, contrary to Plato's claim; 8) the soul is created at conception, and so abortion ought to be condemned; 9) the soul is neither reincarnated nor transmigrated, contrary to Pythagoras; 10) the soul is the source of sin, though we must not push this too far lest we end up as reverse-Gnostics--the flesh too is guilty; 11) the soul has something to do with sleep and dreams, even if we're not exactly sure what--though ti seems that they can be diabolical, Divine, or natural; 12) death separates the soul from the body temporarily as a result of sin; 13) magic cannot affect the soul--only God can do this.
Overall, this is a fascinating little treatise with some key points for Christian theology, and obviously some ideas and doctrines that would become less important over the years :)
The Prescription Against Heretics: The existence of heresy should not surprise us, nor should the departure of heretics from the body of believers. Falling into heresy is not a failure of faith, it's a sign of lack of faith in the first place. In fact, it's a sign that the person has followed his own will rather than the will of God by choosing to align himself with the wisdom and philosophy of the world, and after all what does this wisdom have to do with true righteousness? "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? what between heretics and Christians?... Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief. For this is our palmary faith, that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides." (246)
We should of course seek the truth, but we should also stop seeking once we've found it. And this is the true point of the treatise: heretics appeal to Scripture, and we must deny them this. They should not be allowed to use Scriptures when by their words and actions they deny their content.
The general pattern that heretics follow is to deny the authority of the traditional teachings of the church, and instead claim that a new and "secret" teaching of the Apostles has been discovered and revealed only to the few. In truth, there is no "secret" doctrine and no new revelation of truth. The church and tradition have faithfully transmitted the teachings of Scripture from the Apostles to us, and we should hesitate to claim that all the faithful believers who have gone before us were wrong in their faith. And what is that faith which was held by the Apostles, written down in Scripture, and carried on by the church?
Now, with regard to this rule of faith--that we may from this point acknowledge what it is which we defend--it is, you must know, that which prescribes the belief that there is only one God, and that He is none other than the Creator of the world, who produced all things out of nothing through His own Word, first of all sent forth; that this Word is called His Son, and, under the name of God, was seen "in diverse manners" by the patriarchs, heard at all times in the prophets, at last brought down by the Spirit and Power of the Father into the Virgin Mary, was made flesh in her womb, and, being born of her, went forth as Jesus Christ; thenceforth He preached the new law and the new promised of the kingdom of heaven, worked miracles; having been crucified, He rose again the third day; (then) having ascended into the heavens, He sat at the right hand of the Father; sent instead of Himself the Power of the Holy Ghost to lead such as believe; will come with glory to take the saints to the enjoyment of everlasting life and of the heavenly promises, and to condemn the wicked to everlasting fire, after the resurrection of both these classes shall have happened, together with the restoration of their flesh. (249)If that sounds familiar, it's the seed form of what would eventually become the Apostle's and Nicene Creeds. Heretics are those who reject these teachings and hold to their own imaginations.
The Five Books Against Marcion: Oh goodness, this is the big one. Weighing in at about 1/3 of the whole volume, Tertullian's response to Marcion is probably not worth the time it takes to read the whole thing, especially if you've read Irenaeus' Against Heresies from Volume 1 of this series. While Marcion wasn't exactly a Gnostic (the objections of Irenaeus' ire), Tertullian thinks he's close enough for government work. In short, Marcion argues that there are actually two "gods" found in the Bible, the cruel and just god of the Old Testament, who created matter and judges the world with fire and brimstone; and the loving and kind god of the New Testament, who comes in the person of Jesus and who is loving and forgiving. What, then, do we do with all the New Testament stuff about justice and judgment? We cut it out of course. Marcion skimmed down the New Testament until all that was left were Luke, Acts, and certain writings of Paul. Tertullian of course has an aneurysm over this, and the five books against Marcion is the result.
I don't think it's worthwhile to give an extensive summary/review of these books. Instead, I'll just bring up a few things that jumped out at me:
1) Tertullian thinks this all started with an undue attention to the problem of evil: "Now (like many other persons now-a-days, especially those who have a heretical proclivity), while morbidly brooding over the question of the origin of evil, his [Marcion's] perception became blunted by the very irregularity of his researches." (272)
2) Tertullian argues that by definition, God must be one rather than two. Christ, he argues, reveals the Creator; Christ does not reveal an unbridgeable division between the Law and the Gospel.
3) God is perfect, but He has complex emotions--which are required for justice. Marcion's "god", on the other hand, is a limp-wristed weakling who can never be just. "Listen, ye sinners; and ye who have not yet come to this, hear, that you may attain to such a pass! A better god has been discovered, who never takes offence, is never angry, never inflicts punishment, who has prepared no fire in hell, no gnashing of teeth in the outer darkness! He is purely and simply good. He indeed forbids all delinquency, but only in word. He is in you, if you are willing to pay him homage, for the sake of appearances, that you may seem to honor God; for your fear he does not want!" (292) Tertullian goes on then to ask how, if they don't fear God, the Marcionites ever avoid sin? "Why do you not frequent the customary pleasures of the maddening circus, the bloodthirsty arena, and the lascivious theater?" (292-293) He notes that they reply by saying that they fear sin, and would never do such things, to which Tertullian responds that they are in a twisted way giving more homage to sin than they are to God.
4) We cannot separate God's goodness from His justice, and in these two together we see how it is that God "creates" evil. When we sin, He punishes us for our sin--this is a judicial evil that ultimately, for God's people, falls on Christ instead of on us. "If, however, you accept the gospel of truth, you will discover on whom recoils the sentence of the Judge." (309) We see woven through human history a mix of God's goodness and His justice, the two simply cannot be separated however we may take scissors to the Bible and try to make it happen.
5) Christ comes from the Creator, as prophesied on the Old Testament. What this means is that we cannot say that there are two separate gods in each Testament. Tertullian spends a great deal of time (and most of Book III) explaining exactly how Jesus can be seen in the OT and how He is the very God described there.
6) In cutting up the New Testament, Marcion has described a god and a christ who reflect his own character. But, just so he can't cry "foul," Tertullian engages Marcion on his own turf and argues in Books IV and V from Luke's and Paul's writings. Over and over Tertullian argues from Scripture the unity of the Godhead and the unity of the Testaments, arguing that the division between Old and New is one established by God, not a division of gods.
As I said, this work is long and dense, and probably will be most of interest to those who study how the church fathers approached and interpreted Scripture. If you're going to read this, I suggest just the first Three books and then skimming IV and V.
Against Hermogenes: Repeating a theme from Against Marcion and The Prescription against Heretics, Tertullian reiterates that heresy is always new and truth is always old. Hermogenes has rejected creation ex nihilo ("from nothing") and instead has embraced pagan philosophical creation accounts. He claims that for God to be eternally "Lord", there must have been eternal matter for God to be "Lord" of. Yet, Tertullian points out that while God is always God, "Lord" is a relative title that comes with creation.
Moreover, God alone has the property of eternity, while matter is created by God from nothing and will return to nothing in judgment when the world is recreated with a new, glorified matter.
Against the Valentinians: You just can't talk to some people! Some heretics simply will not reply to challenges "If you propose to them inquiries sincere and honest, they answer you with stern look and contracted brow and say "The subject is profound." If you try them with subtle questions, with the ambiguities of their double tongue, they affirm a community of faith (with yourself). If you intimate to them that you understand their opinions, they insist on knowing nothing themselves. If you come to a close engagement with them, they destroy your own fond hope of a victory over them by a self-immolation." (503-504) In other words, Tertullian had troubles with hipsters too! This particular heresy (another variant of Gnosticism) is so broad and slippery that it can be hard to refute. "But this heresy is permitted to fashion itself into as many various shapes as a courtezan, who usually changes and adjusts her dress every day. And why not? When they review that spiritual seed of theirs in every man after this fashion, whenever they have hit upon any novelty, they forthwith call their presumption a revelation, their own perverse ingenuity a spiritual gift." (505)
Fortunately, it's okay to laugh at heretics sometimes, so long as we're not being unseemly when we're doing so.
Really, the chief value of this treatise is that it provides a short, accessible, hilarious introduction to Gnosticism and the Christian response. I would actually recommend reading this even before Irenaeus' Against Heretics, even if that's not the right chronological order. This little survey is an easier read and summarizes more clearly, as well as giving a bit of humor into the mix.
On the Flesh of Christ: There are some who argue that Jesus wasn't really a human being, he was just a god in human shape, or an illusion, or just a soul, or just a body. Jesus' flesh was just as ours is, save for not having a sin nature. Scripture is clear that if this is not true, then there is no resurrection and no salvation. That some people say the idea of a God-man is absurd should be no barrier to Christian belief. "The Son of God was crucified; I am not ashamed because men must needs be ashamed of it. And the Son of God died; it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd. And He was buried, and rose again; the fact is certain, because it is impossible." (525) This short, easy, work is well worth reading at least once, maybe more.
On the Resurrection of the Flesh: The Resurrection of the dead is a fairly unique Christian doctrine which flows from the Incarnation and the Crucifixion. There are of course a few of the heathen who believe in the resurrection, but the vast majority reject the flesh as unworthy or being brought back to life. After all, who really wants this gross thing back anyway?
But Christians teach that man was made in the image of God, and so is noble not because of anything inherently good in the flesh, but because of the skill and glory of the one who made it. And so when we are saved, we are saved both body and soul. Our souls are forgiven now and our bodies will be redeemed one day in the future. Our whole person is saved by the Gospel and will be renewed by grace for the purpose of joy and life. We will have restored bodies, new functions, glory like the angels, and a perfected identity.
Against Praxeas: Some people (Praxeas, presumably) have been arguing that in the Incarnation the Father became man (Monarchianism) and suffered on the cross (patripassianism). In response, we must understand the doctrine of the Trinity. This is hard for the common man to grasp (or the uncommon, for that matter), but we must always remember that the Son proceeds from the Father as the Word and Wisdom of God. The Trinity is unified and economically diverse at the same time.
We, however, as we indeed always have done... believe that there is one only God, but under the following dispensation, or oikonomia [economy], as it is called, that this one only God has also a Son, His Word, who proceeded from Himself, by whom all things were made, and without whom nothing was made. Him we believe to have been sent by the Father into the Virgin, and to have been born of her--being both Man and God, the Son of Man and the Son of God, and to have been called by the name of Jesus Christ; we believe Him to have suffered, died, and been buried, according to the Scriptures, and, after He had been raised again by the Father and taken back to heaven, to be sitting at the right hand of the Father, and that He will come to judge the quick and the dead; who sent also from heaven from the Father, according to His own promise, the Holy Ghost, the Paraclete, the sanctifier of the faith of those who believe in the Father, and in the Son, and int he Holy Ghost. (598)This is an excellent little treatise to begin a careful study of the Trinity, so long as it is not the place one ends such a study. For further reading on this, B.B. Warfield's essays on Tertullian on the Trinity are excellent, as is Edwards' unpublished essay on the Trinity.
Scorpiace: This short work is one of Tertullian's best, and is intended to encourage Christians facing persecution ("the scorpion's sting"). He reminds us that martyrdom is a duty ordained by God as the inevitable result of obeying His will. After all, no one complains about the brutality of sporting events--they celebrate the victory gained through the pain just as we are to celebrate the victory of heaven gained by the pain of martyrdom.
Against All Heresies: This work wasn't by Tertullian, but is a short survey of heresy from Simon Magus through Praxaeas. It's interesting, but not terribly useful beyond filling in a few details here and there.
On Repentance: This excellent little treatise explores the nature of Christian repentance, especially in contrast to pagan views of the same. Tertullian points out that pagans believe that repentance is disgust at previously cherished sentiments based on rightly-ordered reason. This, he admits, is true as far as it goes--it simply doesn't go far enough. True repentance is rational, to be sure, but it is founded on grace rather than on reason and involves a changed life, rather than merely a feeling of disgust. When we repent, we put to death sin and pursue good deeds. We have a changed life both physically and spiritually (the two are of equal value). True repentance does not return to sin, and without true repentance we can expect no forgiveness--even if we've been baptized (so much for baptismal regeneration!). When we do sin, the church is there to support us and to encourage us towards true repentance so that we may live lives worthy of the forgiveness we've received.
On Baptism: Baptism is a requirement: claiming to be a Christian while saying that baptism isn't necessary is heresy. Yet, we don't receive the Spirit by baptism, baptism merely prepares us for that.
Overall, this treatise is a little bit confused, and it's easy to see why there's a lot of debate over whether or not the early church believed in baptismal regeneration. As a Protestant, I can read it and say that I see here a high view of baptism, but not one that's salvific. But I can also see how a Catholic could read it and come to the opposite conclusion.
On Prayer: The New Testament, Tertullian argues, gives us a new form of prayer that is based on speech, wisdom, and the Spirit and takes form in the Lord's Prayer (though we may of course pray beyond what is revealed there). In order to prepare ourselves for prayer, we do not need to wash our hands first, and we may stand, sit, or kneel with our hands raised (or not) so long as we're doing none of these things to extremes or disruptively. What we should do in preparation is reconcile with others and calm ourselves mentally.
Ad Martyras (To the Martyrs): If you are in prison and about to be martyred, take heart! The world is the true prison, and you're about to get an early release by imitating Christ as you are wrongfully executed. Just as soldiers suffer in training, so you are suffering into holiness. If even the heathen suffer to earn worldly glory on the battlefield or in the stadium, how much more so should those of us who hold the truth suffer for the glory that awaits us in heaven?
The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas: Another not by Tertullian, but an apparently legit story of martyrdom from Carthage in the early church. This is short, a good picture of early piety, and well worth reading.
I fully confess unto the Lord God that it has been rash enough, if not even impudent, in me to have dared to compose a treatise on Patience, for practising which I am all unfit, being a man of no goodness; whereas it were becoming that such as have addressed themselves to the demonstration and commendation of some particular thing, should themselves first be conspicuous in the practice of that thing, and should regulate the constancy of their commonishing by the authority of their personal conduct, for fear their words blush at the deficiency of their deeds.... So I, most miserable, ever sick with the heats of impatience, must of necessity sigh after, and invoke, and persistently plead for, that health of patience which I possess not; while I recall to mind, and, in the contemplation of my own weakness, digest, the truth, that the good health of faith, and the soundness of the Lord's discipline, accrue not easily to any unless patience sit by his side. (707)With this confession, Tertullian launches into a treatise on patience that is among the best I've ever read (not that I've read all that many). He argues that God the Father and Christ the Son are both models of patience to us, God by not destroying us instantly when we sin, and Christ by all the abuse He takes from a sinful world, leading up to and including the cross. When we are patient, we are giving evidence of our own faith. When we are impatient, we are showing the covetousness that defines our natural selves and our desperate need of salvation.
Tertullian gives explicit advice for how to be patient in persecution, bereavement, when we desire revenge, and when we're trying to obey. Above all, we must remember that patience has great rewards and virtuous effects. Our patience as Christians is not the same thing as the heathen's patience--we wait because we have a solid hope of a better world to come, not because we think there is value in the waiting itself. "Let us, on the other hand, love the patience of God, the patience of Christ; let us repay to Him the patience which He has paid down for us! Let us offer to Him the patience of the spirit, the patience of the flesh, believing as we do in the resurrection of flesh and spirit." (717).
Overall, this volume is tough but mostly worthwhile. I don't know that I'd say Tertullian is the place to start a study of the ancient church, but he is definitely a writer you should get to sooner rather than later.
You can read this for free here, or not for free from Amazon on Kindle or in print.