Tertullian and the Trinity

One who gave much thought to the problem presented by the relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and who contributed substantially to the conception which became dominant, was Tertullian. With his legal mind, Tertullian had the gift of precise and clear statement. He also employed terms with which he was familiar in the law courts to give expression to Christian conceptions. He was polemical and, like an advocate, not always fair to his opponents. Often emphatic and startling, he was at times betrayed into inconsistencies. While pouring scorn on philosophy, he owed a great debt to the Stoicism in which he must have been nurtured in his youth, and his ideas were sometimes moulded by Stoic thought and expressed in Stoic terms. Yet he sought to base his beliefs squarely upon the Scriptures and argued from Scriptural passages and texts.

Like the Monarchians, whom he attacked, Tertullian believed in the monarchia, or sole government, of God. As to the Monarchians, so to him, God is one. In connection with God Tertullian employed the Latin word substantia, taken from Roman legal terminology and meaning a man's status in a community. He declared that in his substantia, or substance. God is one. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, so Tertullian said, are three persons, or persons. In persona Tertullian seemed to have in mind the use of that word in Roman law, where it meant a party in a legal action. These persons, or parties, have their place in the otKovo^ta (economy), or administrative activity of God. They are seen in the government through which the monarchia, the rule of the one God, operates. Here is unity of substantia, but a unity distributed in a trinity, a unity of substance, but a trinity in form and in aspect. Before the world was created, Tertullian went on to say, God was alone, but always, since God is rational, there was in Him Reason, the Greek Logos. This Reason was God's own thought. The Reason expressed itself in Word, Word which consists of Reason. This Reason or Word is identical with what the Scriptures call Wisdom. Wisdom and Reason became also the Son of God. Yet there was a time when the Reason had not yet expressed itself in Word, when, namely, the Son was not. Here was a point which, as we are to see, later became a centre of contention. The Son was conceived by Tertullian as being subordinate to the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father through the Son.

In Jesus, so Tertullian averred, quoting The Gospel according to John, the Word became incarnate. Yet in Jesus the divine and the human did not fuse, as do gold and silver to form a new metal, electrum, for in that case Jesus would be a tertium quid, a third something which would be neither God nor man. Instead Jesus was both God and man. In Jesus Christ there is one persona, but two "substances" or natures, the divine and the human, the Spirit and the flesh. In the one "person," Jesus, the Spirit and the flesh exist together, without either the Spirit becoming flesh or flesh becoming Spirit. Yet, so Tertullian insisted, Jesus Christ was only one "person." Christ was merely a designation, mean ing the anointed, and did not imply a person distinct from Jesus as the adoptionists had argued. Here, as in his use of substantia and persona, Tertullian contributed to later creeds through which the Catholic Church expressed its faith.

Tertullian aided in formulating and probably also in part expressed the theological convictions which prevailed in the western part of the Empire. Certainly that part of the Church was not so torn by the theological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries as were the Eastern portions of the Church. This may have been because the Latin mind was less speculative and more practical and ethical than was the Hellenistic mind of the East. It may be significant that the greatest schisms over questions of morals and discipline, the Novatian and Donatist, had their rise in the West, while the main divisions over speculative theology, divisions which we are soon to describe, had their birth in the East.

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