TERTULLIAN, a father of the Primitive Church, was an African. He is a most terrible author, and does not yield easily to the hand of the translator. He is all nerves; his pen pierces like a graver: his style would appear shocking to the present race of readers.
With him, Discipline means the Rights of Religion; Faith, its Theory; and God and Discipline, mean God and his Worship. He calls the Christians Little Fish, because they are regenerated in the waters of Baptism: those who are baptized, Candidatos Baptismi; alluding to the White Robes the baptized wore till the succeeding Sunday, which was therefore called the White Sunday. This is surely burlesquing the rites of baptism. In this style are all his works composed; and there have been many writers on Sacred topics who greatly admire these flourishes of his pen. We may approve of their religious zeal, but not of their taste in composition. Balzac, who pretends to be his admirer, gives a very ingenious reason for it: he says—“It must be confessed that his style is obscure; but that, like the richest ebony, through its excess of darkness, it is bright.” An idle conceit, like this, offers but a weak apology for the defects of a writer.
Lactantius censures him for his inelegance and harshness.
Malebranche says, that—“his manner of writing dazzles the understanding; and that, like certain authors whose imaginations are vivid, he persuades us without the aid of reason. But he was a visionary, and destitute of judgment. His fire, his raptures, and his enthusiasm, upon the most trivial subjects, plainly indicate a disordered imagination. What hyperboles! What figures!”
Salmasius, the acutest commentator of the moderns, when he undertook to examine his writings, declared, that certainly no one ever shall understand him.
Yet this is one of the fathers who established Christianity; and I am pained to observe, that a candid criticism on so bad a writer will be looked upon as committing an impiety towards Christianity, by certain zealots of religion, who seem in their notions to be at least some centuries remote from the enlightened spirit of this age. But let it be considered, that I presume not to decide on matters of religious faith, but only on those which concern the four-and-twenty letters of the Alphabet. Besides, we have so many other instances in men of all religions, who have proved very good saints, though they have been otherwise singularly illiterate. Inspiration has nothing to do with Knowledge. The Bible has little relation with the Cyclopædia. Had Whitefield and Wesley applied themselves to Literature, (so very mean were their abilities) we should not have heard of their names. But devoting themselves to Inspiration, they have been followed by thousands of the Canaille.