The life of Tertullian is fascinating study.
He is the father of Western Christianity and one of the greatest influences God has ever used in His Church. But there is a tragedy associated with Tertullian. While remaining 'orthodox' in his beliefs, he was subdued by an error that falls short of being called heresy, yet is dangerous and has led many Christians down the road towards heresy. This is the error of mysticism coupled with legalism.
Birth and Rebirth
Tertullian began life in North Africa in the great city of Carthage. (Carthage was home to the greatest opposition to Rome just a couple of centuries before the birth of Christ.) Born around 150 a.d. and raised in pagan religion, he was miraculously converted to Christianity at about thirty years of age. Christians at this time were still persecuted on all sides. Into this environment appeared Tertullian and immediately took the offence, as was the nature of the Carthiginians.
Tertullian's 'Apology' was written against the pagans. It was a defense of Christianity that actually read as though it were on the offence, as indeed it is when we remember that Christ has already won the victory.
Probably the most significant works of Tertullian were those written to the Church. Among these works were 'Against Praxeas' and 'The Prescription Against Heretics'.
'Against Praxeas' was the spark of genius that Christianity can never escape. In it Tertullian defends the doctrine of the Trinity in a manner that influences the church and all discussion surrounding the doctrine to this day. Even in the years after Tertullian and the enigma that surrounded caused trepidation in those who would discuss or write theology, as B. B. Warfield notes, "Men might carefully avoid speaking of him; they could not escape his influence." (Warfield, B. B. The Works Of Benjamin B. Warfield. Eds. Ethelbert D. Warfield, William Park Armstrong, Caspar Wistar Hodge. New ed. 14 vols. New York: Oxford, 1932. vol. iv, 5.)
'The Prescription Against Heretics' is a work that models a more literal exegesis of the Biblical text than had formerly been known. It is written mainly against those who would take scripture out of context, allegorize it, and then make it say what they wanted.
These 'Orthodox' works of Tertullian were also instrumental in the formulation of the doctrine of 'Original Sin'.
Another of Tertullian's works that I enjoy very much as a Baptist is 'On Baptism'. A particularly helpful section is titled, Of the Persons to Whom, and the Time When, Baptism is to Be Administered.
A 'Montanist' is not a Christian from Montana. The Montanists were a sect of Christians that somewhat resemble the modern day 'Pentecostal' movement. For more on 'Monatanism' click here.
After Tertullian begins his journey in Montanism there is a markedly different approach to his writings. This is seen clearly in their titles. ('On the Veiling of Virgins', 'On the Apparel of Women', 'Exhortation to Chastity', etc.) These writings take a legalistic approach coupled with a mysticism that was a distinguishing mark of 'Montanism'.
Tertullian's life and writings are a great inspiration to us, but there is also a warning, that anyone, no matter how 'orthodox' can fall prey to legalism and mysticism. May we be able in the Word and vigilant over our souls lest we become prey to this error as well.
Or it may be another area in our own lives. May God search our hearts and show us our own faults.
The Early Church Fathers, edited by Phillip Schaff
The Tertullian Project
Studies in Tertullian and Augustine, by B. B. Warfield
Men of Fire, by Walter Russell Bowie
Historical Handbook of Major Biblical Interpreters, edited by Donald K. McKim