Tertullian and Stoic Materialism

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.  The purpose of this essay is to define this term and explain how it lead to subordination in his Christology.

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.  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.

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.

The view of Tertullian led him into subordinationism.  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.  Among them were outright challenges to Christ’s divinity.

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