The act of baptism is an ordinance of the Lord Jesus Christ that has been widely discussed and debated throughout the history of the church. Christians have traditionally come to different conclusions regarding the purpose and meaning of baptism. Like many other doctrines and practices in the Christian church, baptism had to be dealt with by the early church fathers in order to stand against heretical perversion and misrepresentation.
Tertullian of Carthage played a primary role in representing the traditional practice of baptism in the late second and third century church. In fact, he wrote the first surviving treatise on baptism in his work entitled De Baptismo or On Baptism. The bulk of Tertullian’s thoughts and beliefs concerning baptism are represented in this treatise. Since his arguments are most fully developed in his treatise on baptism, this paper will focus primarily on that text with occasional reference to his other works that sporadically speak to the subject.
The article is by Tye Rambo, a Ph.D student specializing in the area of Patristic Spirituality at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky. Born and raised in Texas, Rambo holds a B.A. in History from West Texas A&M University and an M.Div from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus was born at Carthage around A.D. 160 to heathen parents and likely died during the second decade of the third century (around A.D. 220-225). He was the first Latin-writing Christian author whose works we still posses. Tertullian was responsible for much of the theological vocabulary of Western Christianity and we are able to see something of African Christianity in its early years because of him. There is disagreement among scholars concerning the specifics of his life. Traditionally, Tertullian was known to be a presbyter from Carthage who was skilled in Roman law and whose father was a centurion. Timothy Barnes and Geoffrey Dunn both reject this picture of Tertullian in their biographies. For a more extensive overview of Tertullian’s life including his eventual turn to Montanism and further information on the disagreement over Tertullians’s background see Timothy David Barnes, Tertullian: A Historical And Literary Study (Oxford University Press: USA, 1985), 57-84 and 130-142 and Geoffrey Dunn, Tertullian (Routledge Press: New York, 2004), 2-36 and Gerald Lewis Bray, Holiness And The Will Of God: Perspectives On The Theology Of Tertullian (John Knox Press: Atlanta, 1979), 33-65.
Everett Ferguson, Baptism In The Early Church: History, Theology, And Liturgy In The First Five Centuries (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eermans Publishing Company, 2009), 336. A work entitled peri loutrou, On the Laver, by Melito of Sardis may have been known to Tertullian, though too little of it remains for us to judge the extent of his indebtedness. See Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiae 4.26, trans. Paul L. Maier under the title The Church History (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 199), 143. Cf. Earnest Evans, ed. and trans., intro in Tertullian’s Homily On Baptism (London: SPCK, 1965), xi. This is also the translation I used for this paper.
Tertullian’s treatise or homily on baptism was likely written around the turn of the third century (198-203). It is hardly possible to give an exact date. This would place On Baptism as having been completed sometime after his apologetic works and before (or along with) the beginning of his disciplinary and theological works. This would also be before his Montanist conversion. See Evans, Baptism, xi.