Men of Marked Individuality: Tertullian and Origen


In treating of martyrs, apologists, and theologians, we have already portrayed most of the representative men of the era, as far as suits our purpose. But there are two who may well claim a somewhat fuller sketch, as being eminent exponents of peculiarly interesting types of character. We refer to Tertullian and Origen.

TERTULLIAN was born at Carthage, not far from the middle of the second century. He was the son of a centurion in the service of the proconsul. The advantages of a good education seem to have been supplied to him. He became sufficiently versed in the Greek to write treatises in that language. Eusebius speaks of him as a "man who made himself accurately acquainted with the laws of the Romans." [Hist. Eccl., ii. 2.] This may be taken as an indication that he pursued for a time the life of an advocate. The style of his writings is also strongly suggestive of training in such a vocation. Apart from the testimony of his numerous writings to his energetic use of his pen, few definite facts are given of his life after his conversion. Jerome speaks of him as "Tertullianus presbyter," and there are some indications in his own writings that he belonged to the clergy. [De Anima, ix.] He lived in marriage relations, and me have two letters from him addressed to his wife. His career as a Christian was divided into two sections by his espousal of Montanism; though as a Montanist he simply exhibited, in intensified form, the traits by which he had previously been characterized. Obscurity rests upon the close of his life. He probably died about the year 220.

Tertullian, no doubt, took no small element of character from the national stock. He was in native temperament a Carthaginian, filled with the ardor and passionate impulses congenial to the burning African soil. He gave his whole soul to whatever he espoused. Though we have no definite account of his conversion, we are justified in presuming that his conviction was no sooner enlisted on the Christian side than Christianity filled his whole horizon, and became the one object of his hopes and ambitions. Unreserved devotion to an object of his affection, and vehement opposition to an object of his dislike, were irrepressible tendencies of his nature. No virtue was so difficult for him to cultivate as patience. It was an oft-defeated struggle after this grace which led to his pathetic exclamation, "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." [De Patientia, i.] "To him," says Pressensé "moderation was impossible: he went to extremes both in hatred and love, both in language and in thought; but every act and word was the result of deep conviction, and was animated by that which alone can give vitality to the efforts of any human spirit, --a sincere and earnest passion for truth. Even the excess of his vehemence gave him an element of power, for it commanded the service of a fiery eloquence. His whole character is summed up in the one word "passion," --passion made to subserve the holiest of causes, pure from all petty ambition, but constantly betraying itself into harshness and injustice toward others." [Martyrs and Apologists, Book II., chap. iii.]

This fulness of the emotive element naturally conditioned the intellectual factor in Tertullian. We should not expect to find in him great philosophical breadth or thorough intellectual consistency. "Tertullian's mind," says Neander, "had acuteness, depth, and dialectic dexterity, but no logical clearness, repose, and arrangement; it was profound and fruitful, but not harmonious; the check of sober self-government was wanting. Tertullian, though an enemy of philosophical speculation, which seemed to him to be a falsifier of the truth, was not destitute of a speculative element; but it wanted the scientific form. Feeling and imagination prevailed above the purely intellectual. An inward life, filled with Christianity, outran the development of his understanding." [Antignosticus, Intro.]

In the style of Tertullian we see an image of the man. "It is strong, even to hardness; it is strained, incorrect, African, but irresistible. It is poured forth like lava from an inward furnace, kept ever at white heat; and the track of light it leaves is a track of fire too. The language of Tertullian is full of sharp antitheses, like those which characterize his thoughts. In every phrase one might seem to hear the sharp clash of swords that meet and cross, and the spark which dazzles us is struck from the ringing steel. Hence that incomparable eloquence, which, in spite of sophisms and exaggerated metaphors, rules us still." [Pressensé.] It is, perhaps, in his Apologeticus that Tertullian's power as a writer appears at highest advantage. This is not free from the faults commonly pertaining to his style. "Nevertheless," says Pressensé, "we do not hesitate to place among the very masterpieces of the human mind this incorrect harangue, so mightily is it moved with a great impulse."

As regards the range of his thoughts and principles, Tertullian cannot be excused from the charge of a certain one-sidedness, as might be judged from the single fact of his affiliation with Montanism. He carried his supernaturalism and asceticism beyond the true mean. He crowded out, in a measure, the thought of sanctifying the world by the thought of renouncing or repudiating the world. Piety, shaped according to his model, would savor of extreme Puritanism. Still, much is to be found in his conception of Christianity that is worthy of imitation; and, as a matter of fact, Tertullian has been a powerful factor in the religious and theological world. Especially influential has been his emphasis upon the practical side of Christianity. "The special claim," says Neander, "of this Father upon our attention, arises from his being the first representative of that peculiar form of the Christian and theological spirit which has prevailed in the Western Church through all successive ages, --that form in which the anthropological and soteriological element predominates. In Tertullian we find the first germ of that spirit which afterwards appeared with more refinement and purity in Augustine; as from Augustine the scholastic theology proceeded, and in him also the Reformation found its point of connection."

ORIGEN was born at Alexandria in the year 185. The character of his parents was such as to shed a sanctifying influence upon his early years. His father, Leonides, was a man of stanch and intelligent piety, and spared no pains to foster the holy flame in the heart of the thoughtful and gifted boy. Origen more than realized his best hopes; and we have the picture of the father taking such delight in the piety of the son, that betimes he would bend over his sleeping form and reverently kiss his uncovered breast, as being a sanctuary of the Spirit of God. The alert faculties of the youth were developed under the able tuition of such teachers as Pantænus and Clement. The period of youth was hardly passed before he became a teacher of others, and was compelled to shoulder the full responsibilities of manhood. In his eighteenth year, through the martyrdom of his father, --whom he exhorted to confess Christ even unto death, and was anxious himself to do likewise, -- he became chargeable with his own support and that of his mother. He resorted to teaching, beginning with lessons in grammar, but passing speedily to the presidency of the catechetical school, a perilous honor at that time. But Origen delighted in the opportunities of his position, and manifested his fearless fidelity by encouraging to the last such of his disciples as were called to the ordeal of martyrdom. Meanwhile, he spared no pains to become a master of sacred learning. That his time for his chosen studies might be increased, he sacrificed food and sleep, and lived after a pattern of extreme abstinence. To add still more to his asceticism, the enthusiasm for a theory was joined with the practical demands of his position; and he thought it incumbent upon himself to become a eunuch for the kingdom of God, an error of which he did not fail to repent in after-years. Broad-minded and intellectually daring, he resorted to the study of heathen philosophy as a preparation for defending Christianity, and did not hesitate even to attend the lectures of the Neo-Platonist philosopher Ammonius Saccas. He became a zealous student of the Hebrew, and made use of his acquaintance with the language in his extensive series of commentaries, which he commenced at the solicitation of his friends. His "De Principiis," containing a system of theology, was also sent forth among his earlier publications. Already he had reached a foremost place among Christian scholars. But at the zenith of this prosperity, adversity was prepared. Demetrius, Bishop of Alexandria, became animated by an implacable opposition to Origen. Jealousy of the overshadowing reputation of the great teacher may have been among the motives of the Alexandrian bishop, but the immediate occasion of his persecuting policy was the irregularhonors bestowed upon Origen by certain bishops of Palestine, --first, by inviting him, while yet a layman, to preach; and then ordaining him, without consultation with the Alexandrian see, to the office of presbyter. Demetrius seems to have regarded this as an unpardonable trespass against his episcopal dignity, and did not rest until he had deposed Origen from the priesthood, and ex-communicated him from the church of Alexandria. The Roman church concurred in this sentence; but in Palestine and some other Eastern districts it was regarded with profound disapprobation. To avoid dissension in the Alexandrian church, Origen retired from the Egyptian metropolis. An asylum was readily afforded him in Palestine, and a large portion of his remaining years was spent in Cæsarea. Abundant employment was still found for voice and pen. Among other memorials of this period is his great apologetic work, "Contra Celsum," a reply to the attack of the heathen philosopher Celsus upon Christianity. "Write ten very rapidly, at the pressing instance of Ambrose, it has no regular method. Origen wished to re-write it, but time failed him. It remains, nevertheless, the masterpiece of ancient apology, for solidity of basis, vigor of argument, and breadth of eloquent exposition. The apologists of every age were to find in it an inexhaustible mine, as well as an incomparable model of that royal, moral method inagurated by St. Paul and St. John, which alone can answer its end, because it alone carries the conflict into the heart and conscience, to the very centre, that is, of the higher life in man." [Pressensé, Martyrs and Apologists, Book II., chap. ii.] During the Decian persecution, Origen was made the victim of barbarous severities, being cast into a dungeon at Tyre and loaded with chains. His death, hastened by these tortures, occurred about the year 254.

As respects personal character, Origen presents us, beyond question, with a very lofty type of manhood. We see in him a nature broad, tolerant, gentle, and sincere, a nature in which composure and zeal, courage and meekness, steadfastness and self-renunciation, were united and reconciled. He disdained all artifices, desired no other weapon than the truth, and met opponents upon the open field of honest discussion. His view of life was too high that earthly fame and prosperity should beget in him any feeling of pride or self-sufficiency, and his loyalty to the same elevated standard kept him from complaint and malice under the sting of persecution. Referring to those who had cast him out of their fellowship, he said, "We ought much rather to feel pity than hatred for them, and pray for them rather than revile them. We have been called unto blessing, not unto cursing." In Origen, passion was subject to reason, and reason was under the sway of the milder principles of the gospel. He was not destitute of the element of enthusiasm, as may be judged from the powerful impression which he made upon his pupils; still, self-control appears more characteristic of him than intensity. In this, as in other respects, he stands in striking contrast with Tertullian. As Pressensé remarks, "These two men contrast with each other in every feature. On the one hand, we have a genius large and calm as a summer sea, serene in all its depth and breadth; on the other, we have a torrent foaming and eddying between narrow banks. On the one hand, we have a noble and lofty toleration, a sympathetic nature, everywhere seeking and finding allies for its cause, quick in discovering the points of contact between Christianity and all that had gone before it; on the other, a haughty intolerance, everywhere seeking and finding foes. The one interposes between hostile parties, he fulfils the part of a firm and conciliatory mediator between ancient philosophy and the gospel; the other will hear of no such reconciliation. The former takes pleasure in calm discussions, in conferences peacefully conducted, and in which mutual respect is shown; the latter will not suffer a heretic to speak, or, if he deigns to argue with him, he opens the argument with invectives."

When considering Origen, we are obliged to look for faults in the theologian rather than in the man. As a theologian, he exhibits defects just the opposite of those discovered in Tertullian; that is, he exhibits an undue comprehension and an undue idealism. In pursuance of the former, he included within the circle of Christian thought various items that belong outside of that circle. In pursuance of the latter, he undervalued the historical in revelation, gave too large a place to the allegorical in scriptural interpretation, and yielded a loose rein to speculation. These defects, however, while they qualify, do not cancel, the merits of his works, so amply are his speculative aberrations offset by products of profound thought and painstaking scholarship.