Prescription Against Heretics background information.

Early Christian Writings

Title: De praescriptione haereticorum (On the prescription of heretics)


From: (

Ante-Nicene Fathers

Τὰ ἀρχαῖα ἔθη κρατείτω. The Nicene Council

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By: Roger Pearse  

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ECST: 167.11.1.T77

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How to think about heresy and how to argue with heretics.  And how not to.


“Our appeal, therefore, must not be made to the Scriptures; nor must controversy be admitted on points in which victory will either be impossible, or uncertain, or not certain enough.”(ch. 18)

This book is about how Christians think about heresy and respond to the arguments of heretics. Tertullian is concerned at the way Christians are disputing with heretics and pagans, and the effect this is having on believers. He feels that it is never possible to convict a heretic from the scriptures, because they simply deny the authority of whichever bit of scripture they are quoted, and shift their ground every moment. At the same time the spectacle of the dispute seems to put their opinions on the same level as that of the scriptures. In general, how do we recognise and deal with heretics – people who pretend to be Christians but actually accept no authority but their own opinions?

In this treatise, Tertullian shows that it is completely dishonest for heretics to use the scriptures in argument with Christians. The reason is that they do not use them, but only abuse them. Praescriptio – a form of procedure based on length of possession – excludes the accuser at the opening of the process by showing that the case is vexatious. The origin and nature of heresy is discussed, and the point made (elaborating Irenaeus) that only the legitimate owners of the scripture – the churches founded by the apostolic writers and holding their views – have any right to use it in argument. He concludes by pointing out the evil effects of heresy in the life of the heretic. Throughout he pokes fun at the pretensions of the heretics.


Roman law made provision for ‘praescriptiones’ of various types, which ruled a plaintiff’s case completely out of court. (cf Berger, A Encyclopedic Dictionary of Roman Law, (1953) 645 f.) Tertullian has cast a whole treatise into the form of a legal simile. To paraphrase his own words, he applies for an injunction to restrain any heretic from trespassing upon holy scripture, which is the sole property of the Christians.

But a lot of the heretics pose as Christians, and are very successful in misleading the faithful(1.2). How do we recognise them?

Tertullian addresses the general issue of what is a heretic. “We ought not to be surprised, ” he begins, “at the existence or success of heresies”.(1.1) 

Heresy has the following characteristics:

• Heresy, he proclaimed, like persecution, tests men’s faith.(2.8,3.6,4.5)

• It was predicted by Christ, and condemned by Paul, who uttered a warning against philosophy and vain deceits.(4.1ff, 6.1ff)

• It is caused by boundless and unfettered curiosity.(8.1ff)

• The heretic, therefore, can be easily discovered: since he seeks endlessly without ever finding, he must always try to doubt the ‘regula fidei’ which genuine Christians believe without question.(12.5f)

Tertullian’s argument relies on two texts and a definition: ‘seek and you will find’ (Mt. 7.7), ‘Your faith has saved you’ (Lk. 18.42) and that ‘faith’ by definition means ‘faith in something’, and hence involves assent to a credal formula. Since the heretic still seeks, he cannot have found; since he has not found, he cannot believe; and if he does not believe, he is no Christian.(14.10)

However, the skilful heretic makes effective play with biblical texts, which he uses to confuse those who believe the bible, though he doesn’t himself.(14.14) Tertullian must convince his readers that such use of the scriptures is illegitimate. Accordingly he denies the heretic any right whatsoever to cite or discuss the Bible.

Paul forbade discussion with heretics, and it can serve no useful purpose. For the heretics reject part of the scriptures, and pervert the sense of what they accept to suit themselves. In any discussion they must perforce impute to their opponents their own dishonest tampering with the sacred text. Appeal to scripture, therefore, will be ineffectual.

So how then can we know who is right?

Tertullian replies as follows:

• Jesus chose twelves disciples to be the teachers of mankind.

• After his resurrection, he ordered the eleven surviving apostles to go and teach all men to be baptised in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

• The eleven preached the faith and founded churches, first in Judaea and then throughout the whole world.

• From the churches they founded other churches acquired, and still today continue to acquire, a graft of faith and the seeds of true doctrine.

• Hence these churches too are considered apostolic, being offshoots of the original apostolic churches.

• Since the nature of every object is determined by its origin, every church is apostolic, so long as unity is maintained.

So the logic is that Christ received the truth from God and transmitted it to his apostles; they in turn handed it on to the churches they founded; outside this chain, no one can possess the truth.(20.1ff)

Tertullian then deals with possible objections.

He considers and rejects three objections:

• that the apostles did not know the whole truth,

• that they did not reveal all they knew,

• that the heretics, so far from perverting the truth, are rescuing it from misinterpretation by the churches.(22.1ff)

Then he denounces the heretics for interpolating scripture, for innovations in ecclesiastical discipline, and for involvement in the occult. (36.3)

He winds up by promising some detailed rebuttals of individual heretical teachings, and repeats his prohibition on heretics using the scriptures. He ends humorously with a wicked satire of the ‘Christ’ of the heretics, visualising him pondering his own confused doctrine aloud.


A famous quote in chapter 7 – ‘What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ – is usually misquoted. Tertullian is pointing out that philosophical methods of enquiry have nothing to do with the teaching by authority of the scripture:

Whence spring those “fables and endless genealogies,” and “unprofitable questions,” and “words which spread like a cancer? ” From all these, when the apostle would restrain us, he expressly names philosophy as that which he would have us be on our guard against. Writing to the Colossians, he says, “See that no one beguile you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, and contrary to the wisdom of the Holy Ghost.” He had been at Athens, and had in his interviews (with its philosophers) become acquainted with that human wisdom which pretends to know the truth, whilst it only corrupts it, and is itself divided into its own manifold heresies, by the variety of its mutually repugnant sects. What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? what between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from “the porch of Solomon,” who had himself taught that “the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart.” Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief.

He also deals with attempts by the heretics to suggest that Paul and the other apostles did not teach the same things, in order to win space for their own heretical ideas. (ch. 23)

He lists churches that have evidence of apostolic descent, and notes in passing the deaths of Peter and Paul, and the story that John emerged unscathed from immersion in boiling oil (ch 36):

‘Since, moreover, you are close upon Italy, you have Rome, from which there comes even into our own hands the very authority (of apostles themselves). How happy is its church, on which apostles poured forth all their doctrine along with their blood; where Peter endures a passion like his Lord’s; where Paul wins his crown in a death like John’s[the Baptist]; where the Apostle John was first plunged, unhurt, into boiling oil, and thence remitted to his island-exile.’

Some notes on Marcion (ch 30), and the ebionites.

There are also personal comments about Valentinus, Apelles and other heretics:

Where was Marcion then, that shipmaster of Pontus, the zealous student of Stoicism? Where was Valentinus then, the disciple of Platonism? For it is evident that those men lived not so long ago,-in the reign of Antoninus for the most part, and that they at first were believers in the doctrine of the Catholic Church, in the church of Rome under the episcopate of the blessed Eleutherus, until on account of their ever restless curiosity, with which they even infected the brethren, they were more than once expelled. Marcion, indeed, [went] with the two hundred sesterces which which he had brought into the church, and, when banished at last to a permanent excommunication, they scattered abroad the poisons of their doctrines. Afterwards, it is true, Marcion professed repentance, and agreed to the conditions granted to him-that he should receive reconciliation if he restored to the church all the others whom he had been training for perdition: he was prevented, however, by death.

He refers to Polycarp being ordained by John at Smyrna, and Clement or Rome by Peter (ch 31).

He gives a definition of the rule of faith (regula fidei) as it was understood at his time.

He makes some notes about literary fraud in the pagan world, including a rare reference to his family (ch 39):

‘You see in our own day, composed out of Virgil, a story of a wholly different character, the subject-matter being arranged according to the verse, and the verse according to the subject-matter. In short, Hosidius Geta has most completely pilfered his tragedy of Medea from Virgil. A near relative of my own, among some leisure productions of his pen, has composed out of the same poet The Table of Cebes. On the same principle, those poetasters are commonly called Homerocentones, “collectors of Homeric odds and ends,” who stitch into one piece, patchwork fashion, works of their own from the lines of Homer, out of many scraps put together from this passage and from that (in miscellaneous confusion). ‘

In chapter 40 he notes that pagan religions old and new (he mentions Mithraism, perhaps – the word itself is possibly a gloss) imitate the Christian practises and sacraments.


The work is present in three different collections of the works of Tertullian.

1.  It is contained in the members of the Cluny collection. (q.v.).  The primary witnesses, therefore, are:

• The Payerne MS, Codex Paterniacensis 439 (P), now at Selestat. (From the Alpha branch)

• The 15th century Florence MS, Codex Florentinus BNC Conventi soppressi J.6.9 (N). (From the Alpha branch).  The text is not in the remaining portion of M, the earlier codex from which N was copied.  [I don’t know if there are readings from D or G for this work]

• The 15th century Luxembourg MS, Codex Luxemburgensis 75 (X).

• The 15th century(1426) Florence MS, Codex Florentinus BNC Conventi soppressi J.6.10 (F).

• Rhenanus edition of 1521.  This is because his only source for this work was the now lost Hirsau MS (H), the ancestor of F and X.

Possibly also to be considered are:

• The Naples MS, Codex Neapolitanus, Mus. Naz. 55, portions of which were once in Vienna as Codex Vindobonensis 4194 (V).

• The BPL Leiden MS, Codex Leidensis latinus 2 (L) has been considered independent but is merely a copy of V.

which may or may not have some independent witness.  Many consider them simply copies of F, however.

2. It is contained in the 9th century Codex Agobardinus (A) or Parisinus Latinus 1622.

3. It was contained in the manuscripts of the Corbie collection.  This forms the base of the text of the Gagny/Mesnart edition (B) of this work.


Incipit de praescriptione haereticorum. Lege feliciter Agobardinus (A)
De Praescriptione haereticorum. Incipit eiusdem Paterniacensis 439 (P)
Incipit liber eiusdem de praescriptionibus haereticorum Luxemburgensis 75 (X)
Incipit eiusdem liber de praescriptionibus haereticorum Florentinus Magliebechianus,
. Conventi soppressi VI, 10 (F)
De praescriptionibus haereticorum Florentinus Magliebechianus, 
. Conventi soppressi VI, 9 (N),
. Leidensis lat. 2 (L),Mesnart (B),
. ,Gelenius,Pamelius
De praescriptione haereticorum Rigaltius

Note that in Migne’s Patrologia Latina edition, the text contains not just the 44 chapters of our text, but a further 8 containing a list of heresies.  This is found separately in the Cluny-collection MSS as the spurious work Adversus Omnes Haereses, and appears as an appendix to De praescriptione haereticorum only in B, where a marginal note indicates the join is the work of the editor.

De Carne Christi 2:6 refers to De praescriptione haereticorum, but refers to it as ‘ praescriptionibus adversus omnes haereses’ — plural, rather than singular.


This runs up to 1955.  Where not otherwise indicated, details are from Quasten’s Patrology, 2 (1955). See also Editions page and Critical Editions page for more information, particularly on collected editions of more than one work.


T.H. BINDLEY, Quinti Septimii Florentis Tertulliani De praescriptione haereticorum: Ad martyras: Ad Scapulam, Adv. omnes Haereses, ed., with intr. and notes, by • T.H. Bindley. Oxford &c. 1893. 19cm. (Details from Bodleian online catalogue).  Introduction and notes are in English; text is Latin. Checked. (Personal copy).  None of the notes or introductory material is very interesting.

G. RAUSCHEN, Tertulliani liber de praescriptione haereticorum (adnotavit G. Rauschen). Bonnae 1906. 23cm. Series: Florilegium patristicum 4 (Details from Bodleian online catalogue)

P. DE LABRIOLLE, De praescriptione haereticorum, texte, tr., intr., par P. de Labriolle. Paris. 1907 . 18cm. Series: Textes et documents pour l’étude hist. du christianisme 4 (Details from Bodleian online catalogue)

E. PREUSCHEN, 2nd ed. Freiburg, 1914.

J. MARTIN, FP 4. Bonn, 1930.

A. KROYMANN, CSEL 70 (1942) 1-58. Checked.

J. N. BAKHUIZEN VAN DEN BRINK, Tertullianus Libri de praescriptione haereticorum, Adv. Praxean (Scriptores christiani primaevi 2). The Hague, 1946.

R. REFOULÉ, CCSL 1 (1954), pp. 185-224. Checked.

R. REFOULÉTraité de la prescription contre les hérétiques, Sources Chrétiennes 46 (1957).  Checked. Latin critical edition with fascinating notes and a subset of the CCL apparatus.  French translation reprint of that by De Labriolle.  Useful introduction also.  The Latin text is online.

Dietrich SCHLEYER, Tertullian: Vom Prinzipiellen Einspruch gegen die Häretiker / De Praescriptione haereticorum. 364 p., (2002) Series: Fontes Christiani series 3, vol. 42. [ISBN 2-503-52105-3 HB (Leinen) 43,90 EURO– ISBN 2-503-52106-1 PB (Kartoniert) 37,90 EURO] (Details from Brepols). Latin text of REFOULÉ, German translation.


English : 

• J. BETTYTertullian’s Prescription against Heretics. Oxford, 1722. — Tertullian’s Prescription against Hereticks and the Apologeticks of St. Theophilus, Bishop of Antioch, to Autolycus against the malicious calumniators of the Christian Religion, translated … with notes and preliminary dissertations by Joseph Betty, etc.. [8],313,[1]p.,plate: ill.: 8vo. Printed at the Theatre: Oxford, 1722. 8o.(Details from BL online catalogue.  Personal copy.  Also in CUL).  Notes: Another issue of this work appeared in 1722 with the imprint: printed at the Theatre (Details CUL catalogue)  Now online.

• [Anon], The Shield of Catholic Faith, or Tertullian’s Prescriptions, Dublin: Printed by J. Coyne 1823 Translated from the Latin, with copious notes and illustrations: containing a general answer to all traducers of the Roman Catholic Church.. 122p. 12mo, boards a little age worn & slightly warped, tear to spine, text mostly fine, a fair copy. orig. leather.Price: EUR 68.00 [May 2004][ZVAB: from a dealer catalogue]

C. DODGSON, Library of Fathers 10. Oxford, 1842, 434-480.

P. HOLMESANCL 15 (1870) pp.1-54; reprinted ANF 3 (1885), pp. 243-265.  Online.  Checked.

T. H. BINDLEYOn the Testimony of the Soul and On the ‘Prescription’ of Heretics (SPCK). London-New York, 1914.

S.L. GREENSLADEThe Library of Christian Classics V: Early Latin Theology (1956), 31  Checked.


D. HEBERTTertullien. Des Prescriptions contre les hérétiques, de l’Habillement des femmes, de leur Ajustement et du Voile des Vierges. De la traduction de M.H, Publisher : Paris : Simon Trouvin (1683) Description : 3 parties en 1 vol. : bandeau aux armoiries du dédicataire, F. de Harlay ; 12°. Notes : Traduit par Hébert, d’après son épître dédicatoire et le privilège.(Details from the Montpellier library catalogue)

M. l’abbé de COURCYTertullien, L’Apologique et les Prescriptions de Tertullien. Nouvelle édition revue et corrigée d’après les manuscrits, les éditions et différents ouvrages de Tertullien, avec la traduction et des remarques par M. l’abbé de Courcy…, Publisher : Paris : Sorin ( 1780). Description : XXXVI-423 p. : errata, approbation et privilège ; 12°. Notes : Le texte latin précède la traduction. (Details from the Montpellier library catalogue)

M. CHARPENTIEROeuvres de Tertullien: Apologétique. Prescriptions contre les gentils. Du Baptême. De l’Ornement des femmes. [Contre les spectacles. De la Patience. De la Couronne du soldat. Contre Marcion, extrait. De la Chair de Jésus-Christ. De la Résurrection de la chair. Aux nations. – listed in table of contents but not on title page] Paris : Ed. M. Charpentier, 1844. 12o, III-504 p.  Another title page has the address:”A. Delahays, 1845″. “Oeuvres de Tertullien traduites en français” Checked (Details from BNF catalogue and personal copy).  De Praescriptione is pp.85-121.

A. DE GENOUDEDes Prescriptions contre les hérétiques, Tertullien-Oeuvres, Paris, 1852.  t.2, pp. 343-390 (includes Adversus Omnes Haereses).  Checked. Online.

M. HEBERT, Tertullien. Des prescriptions contre les hérétiques. De l’habillement des femmes, de leur ajustement, et du voile des vierges. De la traduction de M. H(ebert). (Eclaircissemens du livre de Tertullien des prescriptions, etc.).  Publisher: Paris : Simon Trouvin, 1683. Physical Desc.: 3 pt. ; 12o. (Details from COPAC. Listed at British Library).

P. DE LABRIOLLEloc. cit., 1907. Online.


H. KELLNER-G.ESSERDie Prozeßeinreden gegen die Häretiker, BKV2 24 (1915).  Online.

Dietrich SCHLEYERloc. cit.


H. U. MEYBOOM,Tertullianus, De protestrede legen de ketters (Oudchr. geschriften, dl. 43). Leiden, 1930.

CHR. MOHRMANN, Het principiële voorbehoud tegen de ketters (Tert. Apol. etc) : MC 1, 3. Utrecht, 1951, 131-182.


Gasparo OLMI, Tertulliano: Principio generale per combattere ogni specie di eresia ossia della prescrizione contro gli eretici. (1877) (Details from Rome Pontifical Libraries OPAC).

Bartolomeo CORTASSA, Tertulliano, Della prescrizione Contro gli eretici : Traduzione del sac. Bartolomeo Cortassa .Torino : Tip. S. A. I. D. Buona Stampa (1912) 8. p. 68. ( I padri della Chiesa) (Details from BN Florence OPAC

Gino MAZZONI, Tertulliano: De Praescriptione; Esortazione ai Martiri.  Siena: Ezio Cantagalli (1929).  Series: I Classici Cristiani 7.  (Personal copy).  Online

Igino GIORDANI, La prescrizione contro gli eretici. Brescia, 1935.

Carlo Fedele SAVIO, Tertulliano, Della prescrizione degli eretici / versione e cenni sulla vita e sulle opere dell’autore a cura di Carlo Fedele Savio.Varallo Sesia : Scuola Tipografica Dei Padri Dottrinari (1943) 8. p. 86. (Details from BN Florence OPAC).  Listed in Quasten as 1944.

Gennaro AULETTA, Tertulliano, La prescrizione contro gli eretici. Roma : S.A.S., stampa, 1947. (Roma) : Tip. Figlie di S. Paolo. 175 p. ; 18 cm. ( Il fiore dei santi padri, dottori e scrittori ecclesiastici ; 40.) (Details from BN Florence OPAC)

Igino GIORDANI, Tertulliano, L’ apologetico . La prescrizione contro gli eretici ; traduzione,introduzione e note di Igino Giordani. Pubblicazione: Roma : Citta nuova, ( c1967) 220 p. ; 22 cm. (Details from SBN OPAC)

C. MORESCHINI, Opere scelte di Quinto Settimo Florente Tertulliano. (Classici UTET). Turin, 1974. (Details from CTC 99, 5).

Carlo TIBILETTI, Tertulliano, La prescrizione contro gli eretici ; dottrina, traduzione e appendice critica di Carlo Tibiletti .Roma : Borla, [1991]. 136 p. ; 19 cm. ( Cultura cristiana antica) ISBN 88-263-0850-0 (Details from BN Florence OPAC)

C. MORESCHINI, Contro gli eretici; introduzione, traduzione e note a cura di Claudio Moreschini, Roma: Città nuova (2002). 102 p. ; 21 cm. (transl)(Series: Collana de testi patristici, 165) (Details, Dr. Andrea Nicolotti, CTC 2002)


Salvador VICASTILLO, Tertuliano: “Prescripciones” contra todas la herejías; introducción, texto crítico, traducción y notas de Salvador Vicastillo. Publicación: Madrid : Ciudad Nueva, [2001]. 329 p. ; 24 cm. Colección: Fuentes patrísticas ; 14. Notas: Traducción de: De praescriptionibus aduersus haereses omnes . – Texto en
original y traducción en español. (Details from BN Spain).


• [Unknown], Tertuliano: Direito de prescrição contra os hereges / Quinto Sétimo Florêncio Tertuliano.- Lisboa: Ed. Paulistas, 1960.- (Patrística, 9) . 158, [1] p. 16 cm. (Details from BN Portugal)

Norwegian: 1887 :

Udvalgte Skrifter af Tertullian. Oversatte af J. Arnesen. (= Vidnesbyrd af Kirkefædrene 15), Christiania 1887, VIII+258 s. ( Collection: De testimonio animae – De spectaculis – De praescriptione haereticorum? – De anima).  (Details from Holger Villadsen).  I do have a copy of this, but being in Fraktur and in Norwegian, I wasn’t able to work out what was in it.


László VANYÓ &c, Tertullianus muvei (The works of Tertullian), Budapest: Szent István Társulat (1986) 1100pp. (Ókeresztény frók 12). (Details CTC 2002.75).  The older translations of István Városi (Pat, Apol, Orat, Ux, Cult) and Marcell Mosolygó (Mart) have been recycled; the rest are new.


P. DE LABRIOLLE, L’argument de prescription : RHL 11 (1908) 408-428, 497-514.

P. U. HÜNTEMANN, De praescriptione haereticorum libri analysis. Quaracchi, 1924.

H. KOCH, Tertullianisches: ThStKr (1929) 471-474.

F. J. DÖLGER, Die Sphragis der Mithrasmysterien. Eine Erläuterung zu Tertullian De praescriptione 40: AC 1 (1929) 88-91; idem, Sacramentum militiae (De praescr. 40): AC 2 (1930) 268-280.

F. CUMONT, La fin du monde selon les mages occidentaux: RHR 103 (1931) 31 ff.

A. D’ALÈS, Tertullianea (De praescr. 9, 1): RSR (1935) 593 ff.

A. VELLICO, La rivelazione e le sue fonti nel De praescriptione haereticorum di Tertulliano. Rome, 1935.

L. DE VITTE, L’argument de prescription et Tertullien (Collectanea Mechliniensia 3). Malines, 1936.

G. ZIMMERMANN, Die hermeneutischen Prinzipien Tertullians. Diss. Leipzig, 1937.

J. L. ALLIE, Nature de la prescription ou des prescriptions dans le De Praescriptione: Revue Univ. Ottawa 6 (1937) 211-225; 7 (1938) 16-28.

W. C. VAN UNNIK, De la règle d’or mh&te prosqei~nai mh&te a0felei~n dans l’histoire du canon (De praescr. 38) : VC 3 (1949) 1-36.

J. STIRNIMANN, Die Praescriptio Tertullians im Lichte des römischen Rechtes und der Theologie (Paradosis 3). Fribourg, 1949.

Dimitri MICHAÉLIDÈS,  Foi, écritures, et tradition : ou, Les “praescriptiones” chez Tertullien.  Series: Théologie ; 76. Paris : Aubier (1969). 166 p ; 23 cm (Details from COPAC).

Matthias WELLSTEIN, Nova verba in Tertullians Schriften gegen die Häretiker aus montanistischer Zeit. Stuttgart: B.G. Teubner, (c1999) 351 p.; 24 cm. Series: Beiträge zur Altertumskunde; Bd. 127 (Details CUL)



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