Q. Howe, Tertullian: On the Testimony of the Soul (2008)
This translation was created in conjunction with the Patristics Project at
[Translated by Q. Howe]
© Q. Howe, 2007
On the Testimony of the Soul, written in 198 A.D, is a defense of Christianity against the pagans. This was a time when Christians could be put to death for their beliefs and Tertullian is attempting to persuade the pagans that they do not have a convincing case against the Christian faith. This tract seeks to appease the educated pagan by reviewing the close affinity between Christian and pagan beliefs.
What evidence, what line of thought, what frame of reference, and what acceptable authority could one cite to a readership that viewed the Christians as exotic and irrational cultists, radically set apart from the world they shared with the pagans? Tertullian’s ally of choice in this endeavor is the soul, an entity well known to the literate pagan. By using the soul as his immediate spokesman, Tertullian does not need to venture off into such radical and novel concepts such as Christ as the Son of God, the Christian era as a new dispensation in the spiritual history of the world, or the Word made flesh. He seeks to enlist a witness whose disposition and reflections will be familiar and who style of expression is measured and unintrusive. At Tertullian’s hands, the declarations of the soul have a facile and fluent continuity with what pagans had been thinking for centuries.
The soul had been a known player on the stage of pagan thought as far back as Plato, the Epicureans, and the Stoics – 500 years. The method and substance of this tract is that Tertullian poses questions to the soul and then answers. What emerges is that the soul appears to have always had a natural inclination toward Christian concepts. The immediate impetus for this tract occurs in Tertullian’s Apologia, where he comments on the fact that whenever a person recovers his composure from some hardship, confusion, or disorientation, the soul will spontaneously invoke the goodness of God, the omniscience of God, the grace of God. This passage has a musical momentum in a manner typical of Tertullian at his best and ends with the exclamation, "O testimony of the soul, Christian by nature."
The persistent message of this tract is that when viewed with reflection and reason, the soul expresses itself in a matter that is unmistakably and spontaneously Christian. The pagan critics should then recognize in the soul’s responses a view of man’s deepest nature that accords with their conventional learning.
This tract starts by discouraging the tendency to seek strands of Christian teaching in the works of pagan literature. This could have the effect of making Christianity appear derivative rather than primal, and it could also allow some of the distinctly non-Christian aspects of paganism to creep into Christianity.
What is required here is a resource that is not influenced by the presumption and foolishness of the pagan experience. Tertullian now asks his readers to be prepared for the possibility that there is a presence in man that is pure, innocent, and unformed. This is in fact the soul, which has the potential to become Christian, but is not born Christian. He is asking his reader, the educated pagan, to recognize that at the deepest level of our being there exists an entity that is inclined toward Christian truth. This entity has not as yet, however, made the full acquaintance of those verities that comprise Christian belief. If the intended reader looks deep within, he will see that the soul naturally resonates Christian truth.
Great curiosity and an even greater gift of memory will be required of anyone who seeks to draw evidence of Christian truth from the most popular works of the philosophers, the poets, or the masters of worldly learning and wisdom -- particularly if this is being undertaken to convict our rivals and enemies of error on their own behalf and injustice toward us Christians. There are in fact those in whom an intensity of curiosity and persistence of memory have prevailed. They have placed at our disposal works in this vein where they recall and attest in detail the reasoning, sources, traditions, and arguments through which it becomes clear that we have launched nothing novel nor ominous. In this respect we require no support from popularandpublic letters to ensure that we reject error and embrace justice. The natural stubbornness of humankind has subverted faith even in your most esteemed and outstanding teachers whenever they have advanced plausible arguments in behalf of Christianity. Your poets are misinformed when they endow the gods with human passions and portray them in fanciful stories. The philosophers are obtuse when they knock at the doors of truth. One is considered wise andsensible only as long as his declarations are merely approximately Christian. But if he has set his heart upon wisdom and enlightenment while rejecting this pagan world, he is branded as a Christian. We want nothing to do with a literature and body of instruction that espouses false happiness by advocating what is false rather than what is true.
Let us acknowledge that there are those pagans who have declared in favor of the one true God. Better that nothing were declared that a Christian might accept, lest he turn it as a reproach against the pagans. Not everyone knows what the pagans have declared, nor do those who do know have full faith in what they know. It is even more improbable that readers are assenting to works of ours to which no one has access unless he is already a Christian.
Now I invoke a new witness better known than any literature, more compelling than any theory, more widely circulated than any publication, greater than the fullness of man – which is to say the very sum of man. O soul, step forth into our midst, whether you are divine and eternal as many philosophers attest. All the more would you not lie! Or whether you are not divine, since you are material as only Epicurus suggests. All the more you ought not to lie. Whether you are received from heaven or conceived from the earth; whether you are assembled from numbers or atoms; whether you originate with the body; whether you are introduced into the body after birth. However you originate, you make of mankind a rational animal, supremely receptive to awareness and knowledge.
I do not summon you as one formed by schooling, instructed by libraries, nurtured by Platonic and Stoic academies that you may trumpet your wisdom. I invoked you in your simple, unfinished, untutored, unformed nature -- such as you are for those who have only you alone. Such as you are at the crossroads, on the street, in the workshop. I need you in your innocence since no one trusts even the smallest measure of your experience. I demand of you those primal sparks you confer on man, those insights that you have learned from your own depths or from your creator, whoever he may be. As far as I know, you are not inherently Christian. The soul can become Christian, but it is not born Christian. But Christians are now demanding evidence from you to be presented to your adversaries from without so that those may blush before you who have hated and mocked us for the very beliefs which they now discover you have always known.
Having introduced the protagonist of this tract, Tertullian proceeds to address the soul as "you" and ask questions. The first goal is to confirm that the soul acknowledges the existence of God and grants Him all power over humanity. The method is very different from that of the typical modern a clergyman, who is beseeching his listeners to make a leap of faith to an unknown and invisible Godhead. Tertullian merely points out a visible and familiar common denominator between pagans and Christians – the tendency of the soul to invoke the name of God. In the midst of life’s routine experiences pagans will exclaim, "God is good," or "May God bless you." By the end of this chapter, the pagan is found to be calling upon the Christian God even while engaged in pagan worship.
We are deemed offensive when we preach the one God under one name from whom and under whom everything exists. Give witness, O my soul, if such is your conviction. For we hear you proclaiming openly and with full freedom – such as is never granted to us Christians at home and abroad – "May God grant it," or "If God wills it." With these words you indicate that God exists and you concede all power to him You are subject to his will at the same time you deny that the others are gods since you address them by their specific names such as Saturn, Jove, Mars, Minerva.
You confirm that he alone is God whom you address as God. When you occasionally refer to the others as "God," you appear to be using the term in a displaced and borrowed sense. The nature of the God whom we preach does not escape you. You claim, "God is good," or "God is bountiful." Clearly you are implying "But man is evil." With this reversal of meaning you are suggesting indirectly and figuratively that man has departed from the good God.
Since every blessing from the God of goodness and kindness is for us the consummate sacrament of doctrine and discourse, you exclaim, "May God bless you" -- as readily befits a Christian. But when you convert your blessing into a curse, you are admitting according to us that God holds all power over us.
There are those who, even though they do not deny God they do not think of him as the final witness, arbiter, and judge. In this respect they are profoundly at odds with us who take refuge in this belief in fear of the threat of condemnation. They thus honor God by releasing him from the toil of keeping watch and the burden of punishment. They do not even attribute anger to him for they say that if God is capable anger, he is subject to corruption and passion. What is corruptible and passionate is then subject to annihilation, which cannot touch God.
But elsewhere, confessing that the soul is divine or bestowed by God, you stumble against the testimony of the soul itself thus refuting the prior notion. If the soul is divine or bestowed by God, then without doubt, it knows its own creator and, knowing this, fears him as its ultimate resource. And does it not then fear the one whose good will is preferable to his wrath? How can there be a natural fear of the soul toward God if God does not know rage? How can one be feared, if he cannot take offense? What is to be feared, if not wrath itself? What gives rise to wrath, if not outrage? What provokes outrage, if not judgment? What enables judgment, if not power? And in whom is all power vested, if not in God alone?
Hence, O soul, it is accorded to you to proclaim from your own awareness, at home and abroad, no one mocking, no one objecting, "God sees all." "I trust in God." "God will make it good." "God will judge between us." How does this come to you, O soul, if you are not Christian?
When bound in the ribbon of Ceres , when clad in the scarlet pallium of Saturn, when robed in the linen gown of Isis, when in the very temples of the gods, O soul, you often call upon God as your judge. You stand at the feet of Asclepius, you adorn the brazen image of Juno, you decorate the helmet of Minerva with dark omens. And yet while doing this, you do not invoke the god you are addressing. In your own forum you summon a judge from beyond. In your temples you experience an alien divinity. O testimony of truth which conjures up a Christian witness in the midst of these pagan demons!
This chapter is essentially an appendage to chapter 2, affirming that knowledge of God naturally implies knowledge of Satan. Since we spontaneously refer to people as demons when they indulge in hateful behavior, it must follow that the soul is also acquainted with the "Angel of evil." Having Satan in the soul’s store of instinctive knowledge, Tertullian makes brief but explicit reference to damnation and estrangement from God. It is conceivable at this point that the thoughtful but resistant pagan might stop to ponder whether the recognition of "demonic" flaws in our fellow humans leads inevitably to the reality of Satan and the ensuing fall of man from God’s favor. In the resourceful hands of Tertullian this generic and spontaneous soul is making rapid progress toward becoming a comprehensive messenger of Christian doctrine.
When we assert that demons exist, some follower of Chrysippus1 will sneer at us – as if we did not in fact prove they exist since we alone can cast them out. Your curses confirm that they exist and that they are the object of loathing. You will call a person a demon who is flawed by indecency or malice or arrogance of whatever odious defect we attribute to demons. Satan, whom we call the angel of evil, you invoke to express shock, contempt, or loathing. He is the architect of all error, the corrupter of the entire world by whom man was defrauded from the beginning that he might transgress the command of the Lord. As a result man is now given over to death and has made his entire progeny the vehicle of damnation, now infected by his own seed. Therefore you know your downfall and only those know him who are Christians or have abided by the word of the Lord. Nevertheless, you know him, for you have hated him.
1. Chrysippus (280-207) was a Stoic philosopher, who in fact asserted that there were both good and evil demons.
Continuing to draw on the testimony of the soul, Tertullian proceeds to develop a theory of the afterlife with rewards or punishments accorded to the merits of life in this world. By Tertullian’s account, the soul cannot experience the afterlife unless it is reunited with the body through which the life experiences took place. Implicit in this vision of an afterlife is the resurrection of the body. Unlike the Ātman of Vedanta and the psyche of Platonism, the soul as conceived by Tertullian is not capable of disincarnate experiences. This becomes a critical assumption in later Christian doctrine and stands as a barrier against reincarnation finding acceptance within Christianity. For the present Tertullian steers clear of the state of the soul between the time of death and the resurrection of the body. The soul’s reflections about the post-mortem existence of friends and loved ones, however, proves the soul’s post-mortem existence.
Now, O soul, for something that impinges even more immediately on your awareness – how this reaches out to your very essence – we are affirming that you survive beyond the final reckoning and that you can expect a day of judgment when you are eternally consigned to torment or delight according to your merits. In order to undergo this, you must recover your original essence by reviving the substance and memory of the person you once were. Without the awareness of sentient flesh, you can perceive neither good nor evil; there is no basis for judgment without the living presence of the one who actually earned the inflicted punishment. This Christian concept of the soul is more high-minded than Pythagorean, for it does not relocate you into animal bodies. It is more bountiful than Platonism, for it restores to you the gift of the body. It is more majestic than Epicureanism, for it delivers us from death. And yet solely because of the Christian name, this belief is rejected as a delusion or a misconception – or as some say, an act of arrogant presumption.
But we feel no shame for arrogant presumption as this is a line of thought that we hold in common with you pagans. First, when you recall a deceased person to memory, you refer to him as miserable, not because he has been snatched away from a good life but because he is condemned to punishment and judgment. At other times, however, we refer to the dead as carefree, admitting that life is arduous and death is a boon. Moreover, you speak of them as carefree if you are venturing abroad to the tombs with dainty dishes and delicacies to entertain yourself in the name of the dead or if you are returning somewhat inebriated from the tombs. But I am demanding your sober opinion. You refer to them as miserable when you are speaking from your own perspective, when you are at a distance from them. You really cannot find fault with the state of the dead when you are reclining and carousing as if in their actual presence. You have to extol those on whose account you are at the moment living festively.
Do you call him miserable who feels nothing? What about the one you curse as though he were aware? When someone has left you with the memory of a biting injury, you pray that the earth may rest heavy upon him and that his ashes suffer torment among the dead. By the same token, under benign conditions when you owe thanks, you pray that renewal may descend upon his bones and his ashes and that he may rest in peace among the dead. If after death there is in fact no awareness, no continuity of perception – if, in short, there is nothing left of you once you have left the body, why would you lie to yourself as if you could suffer any further? In fact, why do you fear death at all? There is nothing whatsoever to fear after death, for there is no experience after death.
One could venture to say that death should be feared, not because it threatens any further hardship, but because it cuts off the delights of life. But fear of death is diminished by a much more significant dividend. The hardships of life, far more numerous than the delights, depart at the time of death. The loss of pleasure is not to be feared when it is weighed against another boon, namely the loss of hardship. Nothing is to be feared that frees us from all fear. If you fear to depart from life, which you know as a supreme good, you certainly should not fear death, which you do not necessarily know as evil. But when you fear death, it is because you know it is evil. You would not know it as evil, however, nor would you fear it, were it not for the fact that there is something after death that renders it evil – so that in fact you do fear it.
Let us now leave aside our instinctive fear of death. Let no one fear what he cannot avoid. Coming from a different perspective, I shall now consider death as the source of happier hopes. Almost everyone is endowed with an inborn desire for fame after death. It would be overlong to review Curtius and Regulus and the Greek men about whom there are countless eulogies of their contempt for death in expectation of posthumous fame. Who today does not strive to celebrate his own memory after death so that he may preserve his name either in works of literature or by the recognition of his good character or by the grandeur of his tomb? Why is it that in the present the soul wishes to provide something for after death and fashion it with such exertion for use after passing? The soul would care nothing for the end unless it knew something of the end. Or perhaps you are more confident of consciousness after your passing than you are about resurrection – for which belief we are censured as being presumptuous. This too, however, is proclaimed by the soul. If anyone inquirers about someone already dead as though he was alive, we answer from beneath the hand, "He has departed and he must come again."
Tertullian now seeks to demonstrate why the testimony of the soul supersedes anything based on written evidence. This is accomplished not so much by sequential argument as by direct assertion. Whatever the soul knows has been conveyed by nature and whatever nature knows has been conveyed by God. The authority for this is not stated but the educated pagan might well accept it without further reflection because of its affinity with traditional Stoic thought. From here the argument flows with ease. Since the soul predates published works, philosophy, and writing, its teachings about God and the afterlife cannot be traced back to written words, but arise spontaneously from within – which is to say from God. It now follows that Christians thought has not made some kind of an oblique journey from its pagan origins. It is the natural expression of the divinely instructed soul.
These testimonies of the soul are as true as they are straightforward, as straightforward as they are widespread, as widespread as they are universal, as universal as they are natural, and as natural as they are divine. I do not believe anyone would find it frivolous or laughable, if he reflects on the majesty of nature, which is regarded as the wellspring of the soul. As much as you attribute to the teacher, so much you will concede to the pupil. The teacher is nature and the pupil is the soul. Whatever the teacher has conveyed or the pupil has learned has been communicated by God, who is the teacher of nature. Whatever the soul can surmise about its original teacher, this power resides in you that you may reflect upon that which is in you. Be aware of that which has given you awareness. Recognize her who is the seer of your forebodings, who is the prophet of your inklings, who is the oracle of your outcomes. Is it any wonder if, having been bestowed by God, she holds powers vision. Is it any wonder if she knows God, by whom she was bestowed?
Even when the soul is deceived by the adversary, she recalls her creator, his goodness, his decree, her own fall, and the fall of the adversary. Is it any wonder if, having been bestowed by God, she pronounces those things which God gave his creatures to know? But whoever does not think that these explanations of the soul are the promptings of nature and the silent expressions of our inborn and native awareness, he will attribute them to the vice of citing opinions from the published literature in circulation among the masses.
Certainly the soul predates writing, and speech predates the book, and thought predates the pen, and man himself predates the philosopher and the poet. Is it to believed that before literature and its spread, man lived in silence on such subjects? Did no one ever speak of God and his goodness? Did no one speak of death and the afterlife? Speech, I believe, was impoverished, in fact nonexistent, if it once lacked those elements without which it cannot exist today. And now, of course, speech is richer, fuller, and wiser than ever before. If those things which today are so accessible, so immediate, so near at hand, so springing from the lips – if they did not exist before writing emerged, before, as I believe, Mercury1 was born – then indeed speech was a beggar. How was it possible, I ask, that literature could know and launch into spoken usage what no mind had previously conceived, no tongue had uttered, no ear had heard?
But since the divine scriptures belonging to us or to the Jews – onto whose olive branch we had been grafted – are much older or at least somewhat older than pagan literature, then credence must be given to our literature rather than to yours. Our literature is more forceful for instructing the soul than yours, having come into being earlier rather than later. Even if we grant that the soul was educated by your literature, tradition derives from its primal origin. Whatever you have taken or assimilated from our letters is still ours. This being the case, it does not make a great deal of difference whether the awareness of the soul was shaped by God or by writings about God. Why, O humankind, why do you insist that these notions about the soul emerged from opinions about your writings, only to ripen then into common usage?
1. The god Mercury was credited with the invention of writing.
This tract concludes on a triumphant crescendo. We are all joined by the common bond of our humanity, which in turn is united by the testimony of the soul. The spontaneous utterances of the soul cut across language, culture, race, and time. The soul is a repository for these primal inklings because it has been instructed by nature, which had a distinct place in pagan philosophy. Having now proven that the soul is by nature Christian, Tertullian hopes that the pagans will be convinced that by persecuting the Christians they are in fact acting against their own deepest nature.
Go ahead and believe in your literary sources; even more believe in our divine sources. But as for the insight of the soul, believe in Nature. Select whichever of these you believe to be the faithful sister of the truth. If you have doubts as to your own sources, be assured that neither God nor Nature lie. In order that you may believe in both Nature and in God, believe in the soul. So it shall come to pass that you will believe in yourself. It is the soul you value as having made you as great as you are.
You belong to her entirely; she is everything to you. Without her you can neither live nor die. For her sake you neglect even God. When you fear to become a Christian, come onto her. Why does the soul invoke the name of God when she is worshiping another? When she enlists spirits for cursing, why does she addressed them as demons? Why does she invoke the heavens and curse the earth? Why does she serve the Lord in one place and summon his vengeance in another place? How does she judge the dead? What words does she take from the Christians, whom she wishes neither to see nor to hear? Why does she either communicate these expressions to us or keep them from us? Why has she either taught us or learned from us?
Be suspicious of such a convergence of words amidst such a divergence of the message. You are deluded if you attribute this to the Latin language alone or to the Greek language, which is closely related, for you are thus denying the universality of nature. The soul has descended from heaven, not just on the Latins and the Greeks. One humanity comprises all races, although the name varies. There is a single soul, but language is various. There is a single spirit, but speech is various. Every race has its own discourse, but the content of this discourse is universal. God is everywhere and the goodness of God is everywhere. The demons are everywhere and the curse of the demons is everywhere. The summons of God’s judgment is everywhere. The awareness of death is everywhere and the testimony of the soul is everywhere. By its own right every soul proclaims those things we Christians are not even allowed to murmur. Rightly then, every soul is both defendant and witness – as much a defendant against the charge of error as a witness to the truth. And she will stand before the court of God on the day of judgment with nothing to say. You were preaching God, but you were not seeking him. You shuddered before the demons and still you worshipped them. You would invoke the judgment of God and yet you denied it. You believed in eternal punishment and yet you took no steps to avoid it. You were aware of the Christian name and yet you have persecuted it.
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