Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine And Western Theology
With the first century drawing to a close and the apostles establishing a strong hold for Christianity in Rome, Greece, and Turkey, the second century brought forth the church fathers who would ensure that the prosperity of Christianity would last forever. Having their work cut out for them, Christianity was still in its infancy stage requiring a great deal of time, effort, and dedication in establishing the ideas that formed the doctrine of Western theology. Out of the early church fathers, Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine are known to have been key members in establishing the foundations of Western theology and, still to this day influence theological debate and help shape the body of Christ.
The Life and Work of Tertullian
Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus was born in Carthage, a Roman province in North Africa, around 155 A.D. Much remains unclear about Tertullian’s life, but there are some facts that can be drawn out from his writings as well as other writers of that time. Tertullian was born into a pagan family and received a full education. It is speculated that Tertullian studied law and philosophy given his mannerisms, style of writings, and sharp tongue that is depicted by Jerome in the fourth century and Eusebius. After converting to Christianity in his late thirties to early forties, Tertullian began his endeavors in becoming known as the father of Latin Christianity. Translations of the bible already existed in Latin, but Latin apologists that knew and translated Greek were far and few in between. Furthermore, Tertullian trained in Latin and would become the first church father that primarily wrote in Latin. Tertullian began to shape Carthage into becoming the center point of Latin Christianity and produced over thirty-one written works that covered almost every aspect of Christian life and thought.
Some of Tertullian’s more prevailing works include: Apologeticum (Apology), Adversus Marcionem (Against Marcion), Adversus Praxean (Against Praxeas), De Baptismo (On Baptism), De Oratione (On Prayer), and De Paenitentia (On Repentance). Most notable of these writings was Against Marcion. Marcion believed and expressed his view that the Old Testament was primitive, and that God was different now than what He was like in the Old Testament. Along with other various statements and views that Tertullian disagreed with, Tertullian sought to make a stand against heretics like Marcion and ensure what was being taught was from the Word of God. Another key writing from Tertullian was Against Praxes, this is where Tertullian coins the word Trinity to describe the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The historical importance of Tertullian’s work could not be overstated. In his writings he covers topics such as policies, war, dress, prayer, pastimes, baptism, and much more. In defining the Trinity and establishing the groundwork to later be fine-tuned, Tertullian cleared the mystery that lied behind one God but three distinct entities. “Thus, the connection of the Father in the Son, and of the Son in the Paraclete, produces three coherent Persons, who are yet distinct One from Another. These Three are one essence, not one Person as it is said, “I and my Father are One,” in respect of unity of substance not singularity of number.” Within the realm of prayer, Tertullian expanded on prayer in the life of the church as well as the fellowship it offers between man and God. He urged his readers and other followers to address Christ in their liturgical prayers. In his writings of Apologeticum and De Spectaculis this can be seen throughout. Tertullian stresses the importance and acceptance of the “Christian community corporately and directly addressing Christ with words, hymns, acclamations, etc.” Moving from Tertullian to Cyprian, it is clear that Cyprian was influenced greatly by the work of Tertullian.
The Life and Work of Cyprian
Born around 205 A.D., Thascius Caecilius Cyprianus was part of a wealthy pagan family that lived in Carthage. Being afforded to attend school, he was well trained in literature and rhetoric, affording him to earn fame and a spot among the higher society at that time. After maturing, Cyprian was attracted to Christianity, becoming bishop of Carthage shortly after being baptized. He studied the works of Tertullian to a great extent and would even come to call Tertullian “the teacher.” During his time as the bishop of Carthage, persecution erupted across the land towards Christians requiring them to sacrifice to false idols or suffer martyrdom, this time was known as the edict of Decius. Some Christians performed the required sacrifices turning from their faith while others managed to obtain forged documents saying they performed the sacrifices, and then you have those that fled. Cyprian being a member that fled, did so with the intent of leading those to Christ from afar and being able to lead again in person once tensions died back down. In the face of the schism and rebellion during his time, Cyprian could not avoid what seemed to be his fate and was executed on September 14, 258.
However, before Cyprian was executed, he was able to greatly contribute to the body of Christ to those of his time and for the future to come. Cyprians most notable writings include De Eclesiae Catholicae Unitate (On the Unity of the Catholic Church), De Lapsis (On the Fallen), Ad Donatum (To Donatus), and Testimonia ad Quirinum (Testomonies to Quirnius). Other works have been mentioned to be written by Cyprian, but they have not been accurately verified to be his written works.
“Anyone reading Ad Donatum would find in it an exhortation to serious Christian living that is inextricably bound up with a vivid and appealing portrait of its author.” Though it could be seen as a debatable topic, Cyprians most influential work is his writing De Eclesiae Catholicae Unitate penned in 251 to try and avoid or at least forewarn of the effects of a splitting church. “What Cyprian wishes to stress is simply this, that Christ, using the metaphor of an edifice, founded His Church on a single foundation which shall mani- fest and insure its unity. And as Peter is the foundation, bind- ing the whole Church together, so in each diocese is the bishop. With this one argument Cyprian claims to cut at the root of all heresies and schisms.” Calvin even utilized Cyprians Unity of the Church to help emphasis that a separation from the church actually separated an individual from the salvation which was blessed by God.
The Life and Work of Augustine
As Tertullian was known as the father of Latin Christianity, Augustine was known as the greatest of the Latin church fathers of his time. Born in 354 A.D., Aurelius Augustinus was part of a middle-class family. His mother was Christian, but his father was a pagan who converted to Christianity on his death bed. His upbringing set the stage for him later becoming the bishop of Hippo Regius. Augustine is best known for his writings On Christian Doctrine, the Enchiridion, On the Trinity, and Retractions. “The prayer of Matthew 6:12 features frequently in Augustine’s thinking and writing. In particular, it contains three major points: the necessity to forgive, the reality of human sin, and the operation of grace.”
The importance of Augustine’s work is extensive in terms of shaping Western theology. As Gundlach stated in his research on Augustine:
His theories of history, Christian society, ethics, and just war shaped Western civilization. His views on the essential goodness of creation, the nature of evil, the will, sin, predestination, faith, the sacraments, and the authority of the church were pivotal in the development of Latin church doctrine, furthering its distinctive interest (as versus Eastern Orthodoxy) in human nature and the operations of grace. Most Western theological movements claiming orthodoxy take their stand in the Augustinian tradition.
These founding church fathers, Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine were instrumental and irreplaceable in paving the way for second century believers and the church to this day. They not only established the foundational construct of Western theology, but their works are still utilized to this day in shaping believers and in the theological debates that help shape the body of Christ. God has shown us that regardless of the life we are born into, the situations we are presented with, and the work that we accomplish, He has a purpose for all of us if we are willing to press forward through the good and the bad and bring glory to His name. As Augustine stated, “Let those who think I have said too little, or those who think I have said too much, forgive me; and let those who think I have said just enough join me giving thanks to God. Amen.”