Revisiting Robert Sider on Tertullian Research

By Joshua Gibb

In 1982 Robert Sider wrote a survey of scholarship on Tertullian entitled “Approaches to Tertullian: A Study of Recent Scholarship.”[1] Although not so recent anymore, Sider’s article remains helpful and worth revisiting, especially for those unfamiliar with some of the well-worn trends in Tertullian scholarship.[2] This post will summarize the major points from Sider’s article and also provide brief comments on significant research developments and publications since 1982.

1. Patristic Research Tools

Sider’s first section focuses on several key patristic research tools introduced in the 1970s. These tools are still invaluable for doing advanced work in Tertullian. Sider notes the publication of Claesson’s two-volume index of Tertullian’s vocabulary, Index Tertullianeus (1974-75), and the essential index of patristic biblical citations and allusions, Biblia Patristica (1975). The Chronica Tertullianea et Cyprianea (see footnote 2 below) is described along with the Base d’Information Bibliographique en Patristique (1973).

2. Editions and Commentaries

Sider’s second section lists more than a dozen editions and commentaries published between 1970 and 1982. Four editions (with translation and commentary) were published in Sources Chrétiennes during this period, and many more editions on Tertullian have been released in the collection since 1982 (e.g., Braun, Contre Marcion I-IV[1990-2001]). Fredouille’s work on Adversus Valentinianos (SC, 1980-81) receives special praise from Sider, particularly for its contribution to an understanding of Tertullian’s language.

3. Biographical Issues

Sider’s third section deals with biographical issues in Tertullian studies. He devotes a lengthy paragraph to Timothy Barnes’ highly influential book, Tertullian: A Historical and Literary Study (1971), which by 1982 was already considered a classic work of revisionist scholarship on Tertullian. Barnes’ sweeping reappraisal of many traditional interpretations of Tertullian’s life has, for the most part, been well received in scholarly circles. Sider also addresses the problems of Tertullian’s conversion to Christianity, his relation to Judaism, and his relation to Montanism. The latter two issues especially have continued to draw scholarly attention and debate since 1982 with many seeing more direct contact with Jews and less of a “conversion” to Montanism (i.e., a break with the church) than has traditionally been assumed.[3]

4. Language, Style, and Scripture

Section four addresses Tertullian’s language and style. A focus on Tertullian’s language has been a mainstay in academic study of Tertullian in part because of Tertullian’s foundational role in the development of theological Latin. Sider works through several word studies before addressing the influence of the Bible, classical rhetoric, and satire on Tertullian’s style.[4] His section on Tertullian and the Bible centers on Tertullian’s principles and methods of exegesis, and he notes the rhetorical and rabbinical roots of Tertullian’s biblical exposition. Additionally, Sider highlights the problem of authority in the relationship between Scripture, tradition (regula fidei), and the Holy Spirit in Tertullian’s writings and, in agreement with Charles Kannengiesser, calls for “a more extensive investigation of Tertullian’s understanding of the relation between “the Faith” and Scripture”, pointing out that scholarship has not gone beyond Karpp’s classic 1955 study.[5] Brian Litfin’s 2002 dissertation is the most recent large-scale exploration of Tertullian’s exegesis. Litfin (à la Paul Blowers) argues for a narrative understanding of the regula fidei as the key to Tertullian’s hermeneutic.[6]

5. Athens and Jerusalem

While Sider mentions a few studies that find Tertullian to be largely anti-philosophic, most scholars no longer see him as anti-rationalistic. Many have found that Athens actually has much to do with Jerusalem in Tertullian’s thought, especially in relation to philosophy of the Stoic kind. Although, “Jerusalem does not need Athens because it has included and gone beyond it [in Christ],” as noted by Eric Osborn, who relentlessly relates Tertullian to Stoicism in his full-length theology.[7]

6. Methodology

Sider approaches Tertullian’s theology with a methodological question – “What is the best method by which to approach the theology of Tertullian? – and then emphasizes the importance of linguistics (rhetoric, lexicography, etc.) in studying Tertullian’s theology.[8] For a more recent treatment of rhetorical strategy and structure in Tertullian, readers are advised to consult the work of Geoffrey Dunn.

7. Ecclesiology and Ethics

Sider focuses specifically on three aspects of Tertullian’s theology – Trinity, church, and ethics – and identifies a common theme in the study of Tertullian’s ecclesiology as “the change in his views as he moved closer to Montanism”.[9] Rankin’s definitive 1995 study on Tertullian’s ecclesiology can be seen as the culmination of various strands of research described in Sider’s article.[10] Additionally, Tertullian’s moral rigorism never fails to attract scholarly attention and debate, and Sider provides a helpful discussion on the issues of marriage and military service in his concluding section on Tertullian’s ethics.[11]

8. Sociological Approaches

In his conclusion, Sider posits a “sociological” approach to the church fathers as a potential “fresh” approach to Tertullian studies. This prediction has certainly born fruit in recent decades, as evident for example in David Wilhite’s 2007 publication, Tertullian the African.[12]

Sider’s article remains the best introduction to scholarship on Tertullian. I have noted just a few significant publications and developments in the literature since 1982. One can only hope that an updated survey of scholarship on Tertullian is on the horizon.

[1]Robert D. Sider, “Approaches to Tertullian: A Study of Recent Scholarship,” Second Century 2 (1982): 228-60.
[2]I am not aware of any attempt since Sider to synthesize decades of scholarly work on Tertullian. Sider’s study focused primarily on research conducted in the 60s, 70s, and early 80s. In addition to Sider’s article, readers may consult the Chronica Tertullianea et Cyprianea (CTC), published annually in Revue d’Études Augustiniennes et Patristiques, for a comprehensive and critical bibliographic review on Tertullian. The CTC reaches back to 1975 and “is easily [still] the best bibliographic review of Tertullian scholarship available”. Ibid., 230
[3]On the Jewish issue, see, Geoffrey D. Dunn, Tertullian (New York: Routledge, 2004), esp. 63-68; on the church and Montanism question, see David Rankin, Tertullian and the Church (Cambridge: University Press, 1995) and, before 1982, Gerald Lewis Bray, Holiness and the Will of God: Perspectives on the Theology of Tertullian (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1979), esp. 54-63.
[4]Sider, “Approaches to Tertullian,” 238-44.
[5] Heinrich Karpp, Schrift und Geist bei Tertullian (Gutterssloh: C. Bertelsmann Verlag, 1955).
[6] Sider, “Approaches to Tertullian, 244; Brian Litfin, “Tertullian’s Adversus Marcionem: A Case Study in ‘Regular Hermeneutics’” (PhD diss., University of Virginia, 2002).
[7] Eric Osborn, Tertullian: First Theologian of the West (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 44.
[8]Sider, “Approaches to Tertullian,” 251; Robert D. Sider, Ancient Rhetoric and the Art of Tertullian (Oxford: University Press, 1971).
[9] Sider, “Approaches to Tertullian,” 253;.
[10] David Rankin, Tertullian and the Church (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
[11]Sider, “Approaches to Tertullian,” 255-56.
[12] David E. Wilhite, Tertullian the African: An Anthropological Reading of Tertullian’s Context and Identities (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2007).