Church History, Lesson 11: Christianity in North Africa, Part 1

Tertullian 2Intro

Several influential theologians in early Christianity were Africans, including Tertullian (160-225 AD), Cyprian (200-258 AD), and Augustine (354-430 AD).  Today, we will only learn about Tertullian.

So, when did Christianity first arrive in Africa?  We aren’t sure.  Irenaeus mentioned the spread of Christianity around 180 AD.  In his first volume of Against Heresies (last week’s lesson), he gave us our first documented testimony of Christians residing in North Africa before 180 AD.

While scattered throughout the whole world, the Church has received this message and faith and still—as if living in only one house—carefully preserves it….  The tradition has remained the same.  For the churches planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different than those in Spain, Gaul, the East, Egypt, Libya, or the central regions of the world.


11, The Spread of Christianity, circa 180 AD


  • Irenaeus says these churches were already planted and were preserving and handing down what Jesus gave to His Apostles. What does this imply about how well they were established?


Excerpts from Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs, 17 July 180 AD

The earliest Christians in Africa left no surviving records.  The first record we do have deals with the execution of six Christians from a town called Scilli.

Today, we know little about Scilli, located about 90 miles west of Carthage and 37 miles south of the coast.  Below are excerpts from the official court transcripts, which for some reason, survived.

Saturninus, the Governor: “You can have mercy from our lord, the Emperor, if you return to your senses.” …

Cittinus: “We have no one to fear but the Lord our God, who is in heaven.” …

Saturninus, the Governor: “Do you persevere in being a Christian?”

Speratus: “I am a Christian,” and all uttered their agreement with him….

Saturninus, the Governor, said: “What sort of things do you have in that case of yours?”

Speratus said: “Books and letters of Paul, a righteous man.”

Saturninus, the Governor: “Have a delay of 30 days and think things over!”

Again Speratus: “I am a Christian,” and all uttered their agreement with him.

Saturninus, the Governor, read aloud the sentence from a tablet:

Concerning Speratus, Nartzalus, Cittinus, Donata, Vestia, Secunda and the others [a total of 12; seven men, five women] who have confessed that they live according to the Christian religion.  Despite the opportunity given to them to return to the Roman way of life, they have stubbornly persisted in maintaining theirs.  Therefore, they are to be put to the sword.

Speratus: “We offer thanks to God.”

Nartzalus: “Today we are martyrs in heaven.  Thanks to God.”

All said: “Thanks to God.”

And immediately they were decapitated for the name of Christ.

  • Scilli, was a “one-horse town,” with a marble quarry. That it had 12 martyrs by 180 AD tells us what? (Refer back to map)



“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”  “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”  Such pithy statements are from Tertullian.  A pagan native of Carthage, he grew up in a military family.  His education was unexcelled, first in Leptis Magna (a prominent town in Roman Libya), then in Rome, and finally in the practice of law, rhetoric, and teaching in the leading city of Roman North Africa: Carthage.


Tertullian understood sins to be linear: The way God forgave someone’s sins, only forgave the sins of someone up to that point regardless of one’s faith.  With this thinking, he came to some unusual conclusions, which had not existed earlier in the church.

In his treatise on Baptism, Tertullian urged:

According to the circumstances, disposition, and age of the individual, I prefer to delay baptism, especially in the case of infants….  Because of weakness, they may fail to fulfill their [baptismal] promises, and may later develop an evil disposition. [On Baptism 18.4]

  • Why did Tertullian want to delay baptism?


  • What does Tertullian’s teaching not to baptize infants reveal about the practice of the Church at his time?


Emergency Baptisms

How can anything come into use [in the Church], if it was not handed down to us? … I begin with baptism.  Before we enter the water, in front of the congregation and the Bishop, we renounce the devil, and his pomp, and his angels.  After that, we are immersed three times. [On Military Dress 3]

  • How were baptisms performed in Tertullian’s day?


Tertullian taught the authority to baptize belonged primarily to the bishop.

The chief priest (who is the bishop) has the authority [to baptize].  Next, the presbyters and deacons, but not without the bishop’s authority to do so.  Lay persons also have the authority, for what is equally received can be equally given…. In cases of necessity … when the situation of the one endangered is urgent. [On Baptism 17]

  • Who baptized in Tertullian’s day?


  • That baptisms were considered a “necessity” testifies to what about baptism?


  • When did a layperson baptize?


  • What two reasons does Tertullian give?


Baptism, Confirmation, and First Communion

Tertullian wanted to delay baptism because he understood the forgiveness received in baptism did not forgive someone’s sins after baptism.  However, he did not try to change the Church’s rite of baptism and what immediately followed.

After coming out of the baptismal pool, we are anointed with the blessed oil according to the ancient discipline …  to receive the priesthood.  It is with this oil that Aaron was anointed by Moses; from which comes his name of the Anointed [Christus], which comes from chrisma, meaning “anointing.” [On Baptism 7]

  • What happened after baptism?


Next, the Bishop lays hands on us, invoking and inviting the Holy Spirit … This also derives from the old sacramental rite in which Jacob blessed his grandsons, Ephrem and Manasses.  With his hands laid on them, slanted one over the other in the shape of a cross, he pointed forward to Christ, even foreshadowing the future blessing of Christ.  [On Baptism 8]

  • According to Tertullian, who is doing the work, the “confirming” of the Holy Spirit after baptism, God or the person?


After receiving baptism and what we came to call “confirmation,” they joined the faithful for the prayers in their “mother’s house,” the Church (Baptism 25).  Then they received their first Eucharist (On Military Dress 3, Against Marcion 1.14).


The Church Militant

We use the term, “Church Militant,” to emphasize our life is one of struggle.  For Tertullian, the Church being “militant” meant more.  When younger, Tertullian could accept Christians avoiding persecution (On Patience 13.6, To his Wife 1.3.4), but his thinking changed.  In 208-209 AD, Tertullian wrote:

[Persecution is the] fan, which cleanses the Lord’s threshing-floor, the Church.  [Through persecution, the Lord] separates the mixed heap of believers, separating the grain of the martyrs from the chaff of the deniers. [On Fleeing in Time of Persecution 1]

  • If persecution is the Lord separating believers from unbelievers, what was Tertullian saying?


Around 200 AD, the Roman Emperor, Severus (ruled 193-211 AD), resumed his Christian persecution.  Tertullian appears to be exempt from the state’s killing of Christians.  Why?  Perhaps, because of his family or military connections.  Either way, Tertullian enjoyed a secure identity.

He saw the world as a prison, so a jailed Christian simply left one prison for another (To the Martyrs 2).  With the prison and the world under the devil’s domain (To the Martyrs 1.4, Martyrdom of Perpetua 20.1), Christians are called to give their lives in a “war” against the enemy (To the Martyrs 1.4-5).

Though Tertullian is not the first to use military language to describe Christianity (see Ephesians 6:11-17), he established a trend.  The Church in North Africa would later use Tertullian’s language with an unusual vehemence in succeeding generations.


Living as a Christian in a Non-Christian Society

With Tertullian’s militancy against the world, one would think he would teach to be uncompromising with the world in any way.  Not so.  Tertullian developed a helpful matrix to think through a Christian’s participation in a non-Christian society, which is becoming more needed for us every day.

His thinking went like this.  We affirm what is proper to be used if it…

  • Is fitting for the service of God
  • meets the needs of human life
  • is useful, assists, or provides honorable comfort [On Military Dress 8]

Christians need to reject only those items unique to idolatry.  What matters is “the ministries to which they are devoted” (On Military Dress 10).  Tertullian even brought up the example of eating chicken despite Socrates sacrificing a rooster in some pagan rite.

  • What should a Christian avoid doing? Why?


Tertullian said a Christian could attend celebrations common to human life, such as a marriage.  If a sacrifice was offered as part of the festivities, the Christian must not take an active role—but he could attend if the religious ritual was incidental to the principal purpose of the gathering (On Idolatry 16.1-5).


The Development of the Term, “Original Sin”

Original sin is a corrupted state of being, which each person inherits from Adam.  Because of our sinful state, we commit sins.  The Apostle Paul also taught the idea of both original and actual sin.  “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man [original sin], and death through sin, in this way death spread to all men, because all sinned [actual sin]” (Romans 5:12).

Tertullian wrote:

Every soul because of its birth, has its nature in Adam until it is born again in Christ.  It is unclean while it remains without this regeneration [baptism].  For an unclean soul is actively sinful and even infuses the flesh with its shame. [On the Testimony of the Soul 40]

  • From whom do we inherit “original sin”?


  • From whom do we receive the solution for our sin?


Tertullian’s approach influenced the Western doctrine of original sin (the East prefers the term, “ancestral sin”[1]).  Adam’s sinful inheritance is passed on through the soul, which each child inherits from his parents at conception.


Latin Becomes the Language of the Western Church

The Christian Church first began to speak and use Latin in Africa.  There, the translation of the Scriptures into Latin also began.  By the end of the 2nd century, Tertullian was using a complete Latin Bible.  From Tertullian’s use of Latin, we inherited these terms, which Tertullian first used.

  • Sacramentum = sacrament, which was the Latin translation for “mystery.”
  • Trinitas = trinity, to refer to God as “Three in One.”
  • Persona = person, to apply to the different persons of the Trinity.
  • Substantia = substance, though God is one in “substance,” He is composed of three “persons.”
  • Satisfactio = satisfaction, as in “satisfaction for sins,” which is what Jesus achieved on the cross.
  • Regula Fidei = “Rule of faith.” Tertullian’s wording for what Irenaeus called “the Truth of Faith.”  Jesus handed this down to His Apostles, which the Church is to keep whole and unaltered.


The Trinity

We … believe there is one only God … This one-and-only God has a Son, his Word, who proceeded from himself, by whom all things were made and without whom nothing was made….

We believe Him to have suffered, died, and been buried, according to the Scriptures.  After, He was raised by the Father and taken back to heaven, to sit at the right hand of the Father.  He will come to judge the living and the dead.  He sent from heaven, from the Father, according to His promise, the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete.  The Spirit is the sanctifier of the faith of those who believe in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit….  This rule of faith has come down to us from the beginning of the Gospel … [Against Praxeas 2]


Tertullian Becomes a Montanist

Montanists believed in new revelation and also held perfectionist notions for the Christian.  This attracted Tertullian.  Even before joining the Montanists, however, one can find Tertullian’s perfectionist ideals aligning closer to Montanist thinking.

After joining them around 206 AD, Tertullian responded against a decree that stated adultery and fornication are forgivable sins (On Modesty 1.6).  He insisted, since people could only marry once, they could only be forgiven for adultery and fornication once (On Modesty 1.20-21).

Later, Tertullian “also separated from them and propagated his own assemblies” (Augustine, On Heresies 86).


Link to the next Lesson.


[1] The Eastern Orthodox do not believe we are born “dead in [our] trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1).  Instead, because we fell away from God’s grace through Adam’s disobedience, each person now has a propensity, disposition, or inclination toward sin.  Theoretically, a person is capable of not sinning because what he inherited in not a sinful state of being but only an inclination toward sin.


  1. Glenn Pearson says

    You stated: “Adam’s sinful inheritance is passed on through the soul, which each child inherits from his parents at conception.” Will you please explain the inheritance of one’s soul with Biblical references? Thank you.

    • Glenn,

      That was a summation of Tertullian’s thought on how the sin of Adam transmitted to later generations. This is a series on Church history and what the Church held and taught. Not every thought has a direct line to a biblical reference. I can connect the dots but will have to do so later.