Tertullian the (Semi-)Arian?

Johannes Quasten, Patrology, vol. II: The Ante-Nicene Literature After Irenaeus (Westminster: Christian Classics, 1990) 326-327.

…Tertullian could not shake off entirely the influence of subordinationism. The old distinction between the Logos endiathetos and the Logos prophorikos, the Word internal or immanent in God and the Word emitted or uttered by God…made him regard the divine generation as taking place gradually. Although Wisdom and Word are identical names for the second person in the Trinity, Tertullian distinguishes between a prior birth as Wisdom before the creation, and a nativitas perfecta at the moment of creation, when the Logos was sent forth and Wisdom became the Word: ‘Hence it was then that the Word itself received its manifestation and its completion, namely sound and voice, when God said: Let there be light. This is the perfect birth of the Word, when it proceeds from God. It was first produced by Him for thought under the name of Wisdom, The Lord established me as the beginning of his ways (Prov. 8, 22). Then he is generated for action: When he made the heavens, I was near Him (Prov. 8, 27). Consequently, making the one of whom He is the Son to be His Father by his procession, He became the first-born, as generated before all, as only Son, as solely generated by God’ (Adv. Prax. 7). Thus the Son as such is not eternal (Hermog. 3 EP 321)…The Father is the whole substance…while the Son is only an outflow and a portion of the whole[,] as He Himself professes, Because my Father is greater than I (John 14, 28). The analogies by which Tertullian tries to explain the Godhead also indicate his subordinationist tendencies, especially when he states that the Son goes out from the Father as the beam from the sun…(Adv. Prax. 8 ANF).

Here’s how I read Quasten’s summary of Tertullian (ca.160 – ca.220 C.E.), and I welcome correction from those who are more familiar with Tertullian’s writings:

Before the creation of the world, Wisdom was born within God. But Wisdom became a “Word” (Greek, “logos”) when God said “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3). This Word was generated from God at that point. He shared the same substance with God, and yet (in some sense) he was also a separate entity. The Word was like a ray extending from the sun, which represents God in Tertullian’s analogy. This is the Word who later became Jesus Christ. For Tertullian (as I understand him), the Word has been God since his generation, yet he is still inferior to God the Father.

Here are some thoughts:

1. Is Tertullian saying that the Word had an origin at a specific point in time? In the fourth century C.E., Arius claimed that the Word was a created being, and his slogan was “There was a time when the Word was not.” The church rejected his position as heretical, affirming instead that the Word was begotten, not made, and proceeded from the Father for all eternity. My understanding is that Arius did not believe that the Father and the Son shared the same substance, so he and Tertullian would disagree on that point. Unlike Arius (perhaps), Tertullian viewed the Word as God, for Tertullian was the first to use the term “trinitas,” plus he affirmed that Jesus Christ was both divine and human in his incarnation. But would Arius and Tertullian agree that “There was a time when the Word was not”?

2. When I was at DePauw University, I struggled with my faith, as undergraduates are expected to do, I guess. During that time, I had good conversations with my supervisor at a nursing home, where I did community service to receive a scholarship. She was an evangelical Christian who attended a mainline Protestant church. I once asked her how she viewed Genesis 1, having in my mind the theory of evolution. Her response was, “In light of John 1.”

Her point was that the creative “word” that God spoke in Genesis 1 was the Word of John 1 who became Jesus Christ. I often wondered about this. I knew that my supervisor was not an Arian, but didn’t the word of Genesis 1 have an origin? One moment, God was not speaking. The next moment, he said “Let there be light.” For Tertullian (if I am understanding him correctly), the Word came to exist as the Word once God said “Let there be light.” (Before then, he was wisdom inside of God.)

This logic may fall apart when we remember that God said a lot of other words after that point. Was God generating a new Logos-being each time he spoke? When God said “Let there be a firmament” et al., was God begetting Logos number 2? That may be why Garner Ted Armstrong translates “logos” in John 1:1 as “spokesman,” meaning that the Logos spoke for God at creation and was the one who said “Let there be light,” and God’s other words after that point.

3. In my post, Good Nimrod, Justin the Arian?, Projecting, I struggle with Proverbs 8:22-31, which states that God created or established wisdom at the beginning of his works. Arius supposedly alluded to this passage to argue that the Logos was a created being, since Arius equated the “wisdom” who was a “master worker” with God at creation with the Logos of John 1. I state in my post:

“What was God like before he made wisdom? Was he unwise? Or maybe Proverbs is saying that wisdom was an emanation from God, who already is wise. The rabbis [in Genesis Rabbah 1:1] treat wisdom as God’s plan for the universe: when an architect designs a house, he draws up a plan, and that’s what wisdom was for God. God was already wise when he drew up the plan, but the plan (wisdom) was a concrete expression of God’s intended order for the universe.”

The rabbis equated wisdom, God’s blueprint for the universe, with the Torah. Tertullian and other Christians, however, identify it as the Word who became Jesus Christ. I still wonder what the ramifications of that are. Was the Logos an expression of the order that came to underlie the universe? We know there are biblical passages (John 1; Colossians 1; Hebrews 1) affirming that Jesus was the creator of the heavens and the earth. Maybe Tertullian would say that God came up with a blueprint inside of himself for the universe, then God begot that blueprint as a divine being, the Word. The Word, an embodiment of the blueprint, then proceeded to create everything according to the rationality that was inside of him.

But would the Word always have that blueprint inside of him? Would John say that? A professor of mine once said that Jesus didn’t know calculus when he was a human being, so who knows?!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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7 Responses to Tertullian the (Semi-)Arian?

  1. Polycarp says:

    Excellent post, James, one which I would like to dialog with. Here is something that I have written a long time ago, which may or may not be relevant.



  2. Polycarp says:

    I think that the problem is, is that Tertullian is speaking of externalities very internalities. When God did something, He expanded, perhaps, into a dyad or a triad – into Wisdom and Word.


  3. James Pate says:

    Thanks for the link, Polycarp. I appreciate it because it’s the primary source with which Quasten was interacting. I wish that “Irishanglican” had addressed Tertullian’s writing, rather than calling you unorthodox and flashing his credentials.

    Here are a few ramblings in response:

    1. You say, “God was alone, as attested in a unreasoning, unspeaking, and unwise God.” In the quote above this statement, Tertullian says that, technically-speaking, God was not alone, since he had reason inside of him. But your quote seems to agree with Quasten’s interpretation of Tertullian: reason/wisdom at some point originated within God.

    So did Tertullian believe that God wasn’t wise before that? Or that he had the potential for thought, and he just needed to start thinking, which was what produced reason? That brings me to the second quote that stood out to me:

    2. “For although God had not yet sent out His Word, He still had Him within Himself, both in company with and included within His very Reason, as He silently planned and arranged within Himself everything which He was afterwards about to utter through His Word.”

    I really like this quote because it appears so similar to how the rabbis interpret Proverbs 8–wisdom was a blueprint for what God was about to speak at creation.

    3. “Thus, in a certain sense, the word is a second person within you, through which in thinking you utter speech, and through which also, (by reciprocity of process,) in uttering speech you generate thought.”

    This was where I began to get lost. Is Tertullian saying that the Son was within the Father before he was generated out? He seems to be saying that, when we reason, we do so with words, so does that mean there was a word-being before the Father generated the word through his speech? I may be misreading here.


  4. James Pate says:

    On my blogger blog, Looney comments:

    “It seems to me that half of the problems go away if we keep in mind that everything happened ‘before time began’. Temporal order can’t be discussed if there isn’t any time.”


  5. Polycarp says:

    Hey, I’ve had Looney on mine as well! Fr. Robert (IrishAnglican) and I have become better acquainted, and email from time to time, friendly – more friendly than our earlier conversations.

    1.) What is Wisdom unless it is exercised (or excised?)? The same with Reason/Logos/Word? What are words if they are unsaid? While God was never without Wisdom or Reason, there was a time with Wisdom and Reason was simply in God. What there a time when Wisdom was not excised from God, when the Word was not excised from God? Indeed. I believe that Marcellus, and Athanasius for a time, stated that at times, God would expand to a dyad or a triad – yet, God is always a monad, before and after the expansion (Hence the Economy.)

    3.) I do not have the Latin in front of me, but Tertullian’s ‘person’ is most likely the Greek ‘prosopon’, or face, presence, as I am sure you know. While I have a greater appreciate for Tertullian, there are times when he went to far on purpose, just to distance his opponents from the Truth.

    I think that you are indeed correct. I believe that Tertullian’s analogy of the Sun and the Sunbeam are the best method in describing his opponent.


  6. James Pate says:

    Yeah, Looney’s well-read in the classics. It’s a good thing you have a more friendly interaction with Fr. Robert.

    What you say about Athanasius is interesting. I thought he was as trinitarian as they came. Are you saying that for a time he thought the Word was a Dyad generating out of God at a specific point?

    I’ll be learning more about Athanasius pretty soon, since he’s in volume 3 of Quasten’s book. Volume 3 has a lot about Nicea. I enjoyed your presentation of the history of Nicea on your blog.


  7. Polycarp says:

    In the 4th century, the bishop of Alexandria (who for a time was Athanasius) was he most powerful Bishop in Christendom, even outshining Rome. During the controversies which was fought in the 4th century, Athanasius and Marcellus was on the same side for most of it, until the former decided that it was politically expedient to disown Marcellus for a time. It was easier, after a bit, to level the attacks against Marcellus, instead of Athanasius.

    We must remember that the Semi-Arians kept applying Hypostasis to the Son, which Marcellus, and indeed Julius, Bishop of Rome, fought against – along with Athanasius. As a matter of fact, Athanasius only spoke of a plurality of hypostateis one time, I believe. While everyone was ‘Trinitarian’ very few before the 380’s would be recognized as Trinitarians by those attending Chalcedon, I would contend.

    Have you read much on the Council of Serdica?


    Also, bear in mind that the letter from Bishop Dionysius of Rome in the middle of the 3rd century was preserved by Athanasius in his defense against the (semi-) Arians.



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