Tertullian And Stoic Materialism

Tertullian And Stoic Materialism January 29, 2021

Within the blessed Trinity the three persons of the Godhead are distinct but united in nature.  Throughout history many have tried to explain the Trinity in various ways.  For example, St. Patrick used the very popular description of the three-leaf clover.  In the earliest days of the church a theologian by the name of Tertullian laid out a theory known as stoic materialism.  However, this term would ultimately lead to subordination in his Christology.

Tertullian And His Defense

Tertullian was hugely influential in defending and developing doctrine in the early church.  During his time there were opposed the positions of Monarchianism and Pagan Polytheism.  The latter set forth that only one person is God, and because of this it was actually the Father that was crucified.

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This position, and his retort, can be followed very easily is his work titled Against Praxeas.  He also opposed Pagan Polytheism which held to the view that the incarnation could only be possible if there were more than one god.

Tertullian’s response was to say that the Son was real, but distinct and not a different God.  The fact that Christ existed is a reality, and to this end he used the definition of the word that was found in Stoic philosophy.

Tertullian’s meaning of “reality” took for granted the materialist notion found in Stoicism. If it is real, it is material or physical.  Since Christ was composed of a material substance He must exist.

Material Substance

This material substance is what composes our souls and God even though it is invisible.  When it comes to the rational principle of the universe, Tertullian, feeds of the wisdom of St. Justin Martyr.  He calls the Son the eternal Logos, but he only becomes the Logos when the Father speaks.

Tertullian describes this type of relationship as being like a ray of sunshine emanating from the sun.  Father and the Son are united in a Stoic krasis (unconfused union), an inter-penetration of spiritual material.

Tertullian And Subordinationism

The view of Tertullian led him into subordinationism (which was unintended).  Subordinationism holds that Christ and the Holy Spirit are subordinate to the Father in nature and being.  This can be seen in the way that Tertullian uses the metaphor of the sun and ray.

Though Tertullian defended the deity of Christ the idea of subordinationism would lead to further problems.  Up until the 4th century, subordinationism was used in an attempt to define the Trinity.  This would later be declared heretical and a key component of Arianism.

The nature of the divine persons of the blessed Trinity have always been, nd always will be divine.  They may be subordinate by relation, but not by nature.  All three are equally God.  From subordination other Christological and Trinitarian heresies will emerge that would outright challenge the divinity of Christ.

Overall the work of Tertullian went a long way in defending the Trinity.

Tertullian Quotes On The Trinity

Bear always in mind that this is the rule of faith which I profess; by it I testify that the Father, and the Son, and the Spirit are inseparable from each other, and so will you know in what sense this is said. Now, observe, my assertion is that the Father is one, and the Son one, and the Spirit one, and that They are distinct from Each Other. This statement is taken in a wrong sense by every uneducated as well as every perversely disposed person, as if it predicated a diversity, in such a sense as to imply a separation among the Father, and the Son, and the Spirit.- Tertullian

Thus the Father is distinct from the Son, being greater than the Son, inasmuch as He who begets is one, and He who is begotten is another; He, too, who sends is one, and He who is sent is another; and He, again, who makes is one, and He through whom the thing is made is another. Happily the Lord Himself employs this expression of the person of the Paraclete, so as to signify not a division or severance, but a disposition, of mutual relations in the Godhead.-Tertullian

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