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IV

THE ATTITUDE OF TERTULLIAN TOWARDS GREEK PHILOSOPHY

 

Apparent contradiction leading to opposite verdicts—The antagonism of Tertullian to philosophy—Christian truth is revealed—The influence of his Montanistic leanings—Basis for resolving the apparent contradiction— The ‘soul by nature Christian’—Tertullian’s relation to Stoicism—The corporeity of all being—Opposition to Plato—Anthropology—Pervasion of the body by the soul—Sleep and dreams—Theory of perception— Relation to Plato, to the Stoics, and to the Epicureans—The theology of Tertullian and Stoicism—God—The Logos—Ethics.

TERTULLIAN apparently presents so variable an attitude towards Greek philosophy that scholars have been led to such opposite conclusions regarding it that one can aver that he is no philosopher, while another asserts that in him such a philosophic spirit lived as is found in no other writer in Latin literature of his time, and that he was one of the first men who philosophized in the Christian sense. The former judgement is based upon apparently clear and plain evidence. The latter, which is nearer to the truth, is not so obvious.

The antagonism of Tertullian to philosophy is evident. Philosophy is the parent of heresy1 and the philosophers are the patriarchs of heresy.2 Valentinus was of Plato’s school3; Marcion learnt of the Stoics4; the idea that the soul dies came from the Epicureans5; the denial of the resurrection of the body is traced to all the schools of philosophers in general6; the notion of the equality of matter with God springs from the teaching of Zeno.7 The same subject-matter and the same arguments are used by philosophers and heretics, and to Tertullian heresy is the arch-enemy. |p64

He accuses the philosophers of filching the truth from the Jewish Scriptures. ‘Whence is it, I pray you, that you have all this so like us in the poets and philosophers? The reason simply is that they have been taken from our religion’ (Apologeticus, c. 47). But in reality the philosophers are ‘mockers and corrupters of the truth,’8 who merely pretend to care for the truth; what they really care for is the glory. The moral life of philosophers is no better than their writings. 9 They ‘bark out against the rulers’ of the empire. Socrates could, even at the point of death, order a cock to be sacrificed to Aesculapius10; moreover, he was called a corrupter of youth. Diogenes and Speusippus were immoral, the one in desire, the other in act.11  ‘They are ambitious, unchaste, untrustworthy, insincere, extravagant, traitorous. Tertullian even quotes approvingly the dictum that Socrates was actuated by a demon. 12

The relation of philosophy and Christianity is such that the adherents of the latter can have nothing to do with the former. ‘So, then, where is there any likeness between the Christian and the philosopher? between the disciple of Greece and of heaven? between the man whose object is fame and whose object is life? between the talker and the doer? between the man who builds up and the man who pulls down? between the friend and the foe of error? between the man who corrupts the truth and one who restores and teaches it? between its thief and its custodier? ‘ (Apologeticus, c. 46).

This antagonistic attitude towards philosophy is in accord with the view which Tertullian takes of Christian truth. It came originally from Christ Himself, through the apostles and the Churches.13 Its substance is found in the regula fidei, and that has been transmitted without reserve and without corruption. 14 That revealed and transmitted truth must be accepted without condition or alteration. The only speculation that is legitimate is that which moved within the circle of the ideas contained in the Rule of Faith. 15 It is all that is necessary. ‘To know nothing in opposition to the Rule of Faith is to know all things’ (De Praes. Haer., c. 14). ‘That which is learned of God is the sum and substance of the whole thing’ (De|p65 Anima, c. 2).He even goes so far as to say that the Rule of Faith ought to be accepted before the reason for accepting it is known: ‘I praise the faith which has believed in complying with the rule before it has learnt the reason for it’ (De Corona Militis, c. 2); and crowns his claim by demanding that the truth that the Son of God died is to be believed because it is absurd, and the fact that He rose again is certain because it is impossible. 16

The Montanistic tendency of Tertullian’s later days was also inimical to philosophy. It strengthened the view already taken by him that the truth is a matter of revelation, and the revelation, which had been corrupted by the heretics under the influence of philosophy, is now clarified and amplified by the Paraclete and his prophets. No doubt now remains as to the meaning of Scripture or tradition. ‘He has accordingly now dispersed all the perplexities of the past, and their self-chosen allegories and parables, by the open and perspicuous explanation of the entire mystery through the new prophecy, which descends in copious streams from the Paraclete. If you will only draw water from His fountains you will never thirst for other doctrine, no feverish caring after subtle questions will again consume you’ (De Resurrectione Carnis, c. 63). Tertullian is careful to point out (De Virginibus Velandis, c. 1) that the Rule of Faith is constant, and that it is only within its limits that the activity of the Paraclete is exercised. ‘ The law of faith being constant, the other succeeding points of discipline and conversation admit the novelty of correction; the grace of God, to wit, operating and advancing even to the end.’

Though the opposition of Tertullian to philosophy is thus evident, it is no less evident that there is another aspect to be considered. He does not hesitate to claim the support of the philosophers when it suits his purpose. He makes the point that Zeno confirms the Christian view that the Logos is the Creator of the universe, and that Cleanthes maintains that the Spirit is the Creator of the universe.17 Christians believe in demons and angels, but so also do Socrates and Plato (Apologeticus, cc. 21-22). In De Anima, c. 5, he boldly says: ‘I call on the Stoics also to help me, who, while declaring almost in our very terms that the soul is a spiritual essence, will yet have no difficulty in persuading us that the soul is a corporeal  |p66 substance.’ Moreover, the frequency with which Tertullian quotes the philosophers is itself an indication that the subjects with which they deal are far from being uninteresting or unimportant to him. He even admits that ‘philosophers have sometimes thought the same things as ourselves,’18 ‘while in Adversus Praxean he adopts the “prolations” of the Gnostics for the purpose of his own explanation of the “economy” of the divine nature.’ 19

A basis for resolving the apparent contradiction is found in the assertion of Tertullian (Apologeticus, c. 17) that the soul is by nature Christian. It bears testimony simple, true, universal, commonplace, and natural, to the existence of God, ‘His goodness and law and the final end both of itself and its foe.’ Nature is the teacher of the soul, and God is the teacher of nature. Sin has darkened but has not obliterated this natural knowledge of the soul. When (De Anima, c. 16) we are further told that the rational element in the soul is its natural condition, impressed upon it from its very first creation by its Author, who is Himself essentially rational, and that the irrational element has come later from the instigation of the serpent, we are well on the way towards understanding Tertullian’s position. It is God whose truth is revealed in the Rule of Faith, and it is God who has created rational human nature. Hence it is that reason and revelation are harmonious and not contradictory. Reason, it is true, has gone astray on account of sin, but in revelation the way of wisdom is shown to it. Thus reason finds its full freedom in the domain of revealed truth. What contradicts that truth is false and futile. What has no relation to that truth is useless. Thus philosophy has gone astray in purposeless search, but at the same time it has not been entirely corrupt. Now, however, since the fuller revelation of Christianity has come, the only philosophy that has any value is Christian philosophy. To that Tertullian devotes his intellectual powers ; for the other, it is not surprising that he shows contempt.

When, however, Tertullian comes to build up a Christian philosophy, it is evident that what he accepts from the older philosophies is far from being inconsiderable. His dependence upon Stoic philosophy is particularly noticeable. His theology, psychology, and ethics are full of its influence. |p67

His use of Stoic teaching is discriminating. He does not accept anything simply because it is taught by the Stoics. The fact that they taught a doctrine is more likely in his view to be a reason for rejecting it. He derides Marcion for being an admirer of the Stoa, and says (Adv. Hermogenem, c. 1) that Hermogenes had learnt from the Stoics to make matter equal to God. He also definitely opposes the Stoic doctrine as to life after death (De Anima, cc. 54, 55).Even the assumption of philosophic doctrines into Christianity is a thing that evokes his scorn. ‘Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition’ (De Praes. Haer., c. 7). But when be expounds a doctrine that is within the Rule of Faith, he does not disdain the help of philosophy and dialectic, and it is the Stoic doctrine that is at once congenial to his mind and helpful in his task, though he does not disdain either to use conceptions borrowed from Plato, Epicurus, and others.

The basic idea of Tertullian’s philosophy is that of the corporeity of all beings. ‘For nothing it (the soul) certainly is if it is not a bodily substance’ (De Anima, c. 7). ‘Everything which exists is a bodily existence sui generis. Nothing lacks bodily existence but that which does not exist’ (De Carne Christi, c. 11). ‘For Spirit has a bodily form in its own kind, in its own form.’ These are clear and explicit statements of a thought which lies at the basis of Tertullian’s reasoning. It reveals itself, as we shall see, in his doctrine of God and of the Logos, and in his view of the nature of the soul of man.

This idea is clearly borrowed from the Stoics. They held the corporeity of all things, with the exception of empty space, place, time, and thought.

Let us first consider the influence of Stoicism upon the anthropology of Tertullian. As a Christian writer he was a pioneer in dealing with the subject of human nature, and prepared the way for the great work of Augustine in this department of Christian theology. He was a dichotomist. According to him, man is composed of two parts, the body and the soul. In De Anima he gives a full treatment of the nature of the soul and its relation to the body.

First he claims that his doctrine is derived from the biblical account of the creation of man. ‘We relied . . . on the  |p68 clear direction of the inspired statement which informs us how that “the Lord God breathed on man’s face the breath of life, so that man became a living soul ” ’ (De Anima, c. 3). But, having asserted so much, he at once indicates his indebtedness to the Stoics. ‘But I call on the Stoics also to help me, who, while declaring almost in our very terms that the soul is a spiritual essence (inasmuch as breath and spirit are in their nature very near akin to each other), will yet have no difficulty in persuading us that the soul is a corporeal substance’ (De Anima, c. 5).

He approves of Zeno’s argument for the corporeity of the soul. Zeno’s argument is thus stated by him: ‘That substance which by its departure causes the living being to die is a corporeal one. Now it is by the departure of the spirit, which is generated with (the body), that the living being dies, therefore the spirit which is generated with (the body) is the soul; it follows, then, that the soul is a corporeal substance’ (De Anima, c. 5).

He claims the support of Cleanthes in that the latter speaks of the transmission of characteristics of soul from parents to children. Such transmission is only possible, Tertullian claims, if the soul is corporeal. ‘It is therefore as being corporeal that it (the soul) is susceptible of likeness and unlikeness’ (De Anima, c. 5).

Chrysippus also is brought in to support Tertullian’s view. ‘Chrysippus also joins hands in fellowship with Cleanthes when he lays it down that it is not at all possible for things which are endowed with body to be separated from things which have not body, because they have no such relation as mutual contact or coherence’ (De Anima, c. 5). The soul, therefore, Tertullian concludes, is endued with a body, for if if were not corporeal it could not desert the body (ibid.).

This belief in the corporeity of the soul is in plain contradiction to the teaching of Plato. That philosopher had declared that the soul is pre-existent and incorporeal. The fundamental idea of the corporeity of all existences is also the direct contrary of the fundamental conception of Plato’s philosophy. According to the latter, all reality is ideal. The material world is but a putting forth in image and form of an ideal world. Everything material has an ideal, and therefore real, counterpart. |p69  The idea reflected in Tertullian’s statement that the soul is a spiritual essence (inasmuch as breath and spirit are very near each other)—is a clear reflection of a Stoic usage. That is just what is meant by them when they maintain that the soul is pneu~ma.

The same may be said of his description of the soul as afflatus dei. It is easily recognized as a Christianized statement of the Stoic idea that the soul is a warmer breath.

Another idea which Tertullian derived from the Stoics is that of the pervasion of the body by the soul. They believed that as the world soul permeates the world, so the human soul permeates the human body. Tertullian maintained that the soul has a form and shape identical with that of the body which it inhabits. ‘It must needs be that every individual body, of whatever size, is filled up by the soul, and that the soul is entirely covered by the body. How, therefore, shall a man’s soul fill an elephant? How, likewise, shall it be contracted within a gnat? ‘ (De Anima, c. 32).

The union of body and soul is a most intimate one. ‘Well, then, has He placed, or rather inserted and commingled it, with the flesh? Yes, and so intimate is the union that it may be deemed to be uncertain whether the flesh bears about the soul, or the soul the flesh, or whether the flesh acts as apparitor to the soul, or the soul to the flesh. It is, however, more credible that the soul has this service rendered to it, and has the mastery, as being the more proximate to God’ (De Resurrectione Carnis, c. 7).

When he treats of the question as to whether there is a supreme or directive principle in human nature or not, he follows those Stoics who believe in such a directing and governing principle, and who place it in the heart. But here, as elsewhere, he agrees with the philosophers, because they agree with the Scriptures. ‘We are taught by God concerning both these questions, namely, that there is a ruling power in the soul, and that it is enshrined in one particular recess of the body, i.e. in the heart’ (De Anima, c. 15).

Tertullian notes incidentally, when dealing with this subject, that Plato agrees with him in believing that there is a supreme directive principle in the soul, but disagrees with him in that he places this principle in the mind. |p70

Tertullian’s teaching concerning sleep and dreams is confessedly in agreement with that of the Stoics. Concerning sleep he says, ‘Our only resource, indeed, is to agree with the Stoics by determining sleep to be a temporary suspension of the activity of the senses, procuring rest for the body only, not for the soul’ (De Anima, c. 43). This is the foundation for Tertullian’s theory of dreams. They are the activity of the soul, but of the soul which is not in control of itself. Dreams are, in fact, a form of ecstasy. But Tertullian will not agree that they are a supplement to the natural oracles. In so far as they are from God they are a substitute for the profane oracles. But they may be demon-inspired, or they may have no moral significance.

Turning to Tertullian’s theory of perception, we find that he welcomes the fact that the Stoics do not agree with Plato in discrediting the evidence of the senses altogether. ‘ The Stoics are more moderate in their views, for they do not load with the obloquy of deception every one of the senses at all times’ (De Anima, c. 17). But the Epicureans are still nearer to the truth, in that they maintain that the senses are all equally true in their testimony, and regularly so. From this point Tertullian proceeds to state his own views, which are that in illusions of various kinds it is neither the soul which is at fault nor the senses. The soul forms an opinion based upon the evidence of the senses. But there is sometimes a discrepancy between the report of the senses and objective reality. That is due to objective causes; e.g. the apparent break in the line of a stick partly immersed in water is due to the different qualities of air and water through which it is viewed. ‘Now if special causes mislead our senses, and so our opinions also, then we must no longer ascribe the deception to the senses, which follow the specific causes of the illusion, nor to the opinions we form; for these are occasioned and controlled by our senses, which only follow the causes’ (De Anima, c. 17).

The whole trend of Tertullian’s discussion of the reliability of the senses is in direct opposition to the Platonic doctrine, according to which the evidence of the senses is not to be depended upon. Plato had asserted in the Timaeus that the operations of the senses are irrational. He used the illustrations of oars immersed in water, of the apparent converging |p71 of parallel lines, of the seemingly variable contours of objects according to the distance from which they are viewed, of the confusion of noises heard, and of the apparent fading of perfumes and tastes after the first impression has passed. In the Phaedrus he had averred that he himself could not know himself, and that knowledge of the truth is postponed until after death. In the Theatetus he had said what amounted to a denial of the possibility of sensations and knowledge. The logical sequence of such a theory was that Plato should not have philosophized, since his philosophy could thus have no value at all. But in practice Plato refused to draw that conclusion, and so Tertullian condemned him for his want of consistency. Here Tertullian was well aware of the bearing of the Platonic theory upon Christian truth. It would have nullified the witness of Christ, and would have favoured the docetic view of His Person.

A few other points of contact between the teaching of Tertullian on the soul and the teaching of Greek philosophy may be noted.

As to the nature of the soul, he avers that ‘it is essential to a firm faith to declare with Plato that the soul is simple; in other words, uniform and unconfounded; simple, that is to say, in respect of its substance.’

With regard to Aristotle, Tertullian opposed his distinction between the soul and the mind as two separate things. They are intimately associated, and suffer together. Aristotle mentions as one of the two natural constituents of the mind a divine principle which is impassible, or incapable of emotion, thus removing it from all association with the soul (for Aristotle see De Anima, 12, 19).

The division of the soul into its rational and irrational elements by Plato is a point that meets with the approval of Tertullian, but with an important distinction. To Tertullian these are not two parts of the nature of the soul. The soul is by creation rational, in accordance with the nature of its Maker, who is Himself rational. But the irrational element accrued later by the instigation of the serpent. But when Plato further sub-divides the rational element into the irascible and the concupiscible, Tertullian is cautious as to how far he can agree. He will not agree that the irascible element in man is cognate with the irascible element in the |p72 beasts, and the concupiscible element in man cognate with the concupiscible element in insects. The rational element in man is what he shares with God, not with the lower creation, and that rational element has its irascible and concupiscible parts, as is shown in the indignation of Christ, and in His desire to eat the Passover with His disciples. But there is an irrational irascibility and an irrational concupiscibility in man. That belongs to the other, depraved, side of his nature.

Tertullian holds that all the natural properties of the soul are inherent in it, and grow and develop along with it, and here he quotes Seneca,’ whom we so often find on our side.’ ‘There are implanted within us,’ says Seneca, ‘the seeds of all the arts and periods of life, and God, our Master, secretly produces our mental dispositions.’ From that statement Tertullian develops his theory of the development of the soul according to circumstances of birth, health, education, and condition.

In setting out to confute the heresies connected with the origin of the soul, Tertullian perceives that their theories are derived ultimately from Plato. ‘I am sorry from my heart that Plato has been the caterer to all these heretics’ (De Anima, c. 23). He forthwith attacks him directly. Plato teaches the ‘pre-existence of the soul,’ ‘anamnesis,’ and ‘recollection.’ Tertullian objects that the soul is not capable of such a loss of memory as is implied by Plato (De Anima, c. 25). He opposes the view of the Stoics and of Plato that the soul is inhaled with a child’s first breath, and exhaled with the last gasp of life (De Anima, c. 25). He likewise opposes the opinion of Plato that two souls cannot co-exist in one body, and that hence the soul does not dwell in the pre-natal body.

In the same manner he rejects the teaching of Epicurus and that of Seneca on the subject of death. Epicurus says there is no death. That which is dissolved lacks sensation, and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us. The natural inference from this is that life is nothing to us also. Seneca says: ‘After death all comes to an end, even death itself.’ It is obvious that Tertullian could never agree with an opinion of that kind.

On the question of the future abode of the soul, Tertullian disdains the opinions of Plato and the Stoics, as, indeed, he does those of all the philosophers, and resorts to the teaching |p73 of Scripture. But he welcomes the fact that the philosophers testify to the soul’s immortality. Seneca, indeed, says: ‘After death all things come to an end, even death itself’ (De Resurrectione Carnis, c. 1; De Anima, c. 42), and there is nothing after death, according to the school of Epicurus. ‘It is satisfactory, however, that the no less important philosophy of Pythagoras and Empedocles and the Platonists take the contrary view, and declare the soul to be immortal, affirming, moreover, in a way which most nearly approaches (to our own doctrine), that the soul actually returns into bodies, although not the same bodies and not even those of human beings invariably’ (De Resurrectione Carnis, c. 1).

It is not, however, Tertullian’s anthropology alone that is influenced by Stoic teaching. His theology likewise shows its influence. The conceptions of God and the Logos are worked out by him from a scriptural basis, with such a seemingly exclusive reference to that source that it is easy to infer that the source is Scripture alone. As far as the teaching of the unity of God is concerned, this seems, indeed, to be the case. The ground is fundamentally and exclusively scriptural. But in other respects an undercurrent of Stoic influence is clearly at work.

God, in Tertullian’s view, is both body and spirit. ‘For who will deny that God is a body although God is a spirit?’ (Adversus Praxean, c. 7). The Stoic doctrine of the corporeity of all existence is applied by him without hesitation to God, but he finds support for this idea in the anthropomorphic presentation of God in the Bible. God is there spoken of as having hands and feet and eyes and ears. At the same time Tertullian is careful to draw a distinction between the bodily members of God and those of men. The former are spiritual, while the latter are material. The spiritual has, however, with Tertullian a material cast. It is like breath or air.

There is something, too, of Stoic origin in his portrayal of God as the great Supreme (Adv. Marcionem, I. 35). It is a spatial conception, and is allied to the Stoic conception of spirit. Tertullian seems never to rise to the thought of God as pure spirit, but he does not draw the pantheistic conclusion of the Stoics. The influence of his Scripture reading keeps him from that.

He with equal readiness applies the notion of corporeity to  |p74 the Logos. ‘I, on the contrary, contend that nothing empty and void could have come forth from God, seeing that it is not put forth from that which is void and empty, nor could that possibly be devoid of substance which has proceeded from so great a substance, and has produced such mighty substances, for all things which were made through Him, He Himself made. How could it be that He Himself is nothing without whom nothing was made? How could He who is empty have made things which are solid, and He who is void have made things which are full, and He who is incorporeal have made things which have body?’ There is, however, this important distinction to remember ; the Stoics made the Logos but another name for God. In reality they were identical. Tertullian never confuses them. His fault is rather that he accentuates the distinction between the Logos and God.

Another indication of Stoic influence is seen in the distinction which Tertullian draws between ratio and sophia and sermo. The Stoics made a distinction, which was later developed by Philo between the immanent and the proceeding Logos, lo&goj e0ndia&qetoj and lo&goj proforiko&j, the former indicating the Logos as existing in the divine nature, and the latter indicating the activity of the divine power in creation. Though Tertullian does not use the terms, the distinction between them is reflected in his view of ratio and sophia or sermo. He agrees with the Stoics in making ratio the original essence of God. ‘Yet not even then was He alone, for He had with Him that which He possessed in Himself, that is to say, His own Reason. For God is rational, and Reason was first in Him’ (Adv. Praxean, c. 5). But in the sermo that Reason is hypostatized, and sermo is the later. ‘ It is now usual with our people, owing to the more simple interpretation of the term, to say that the Word was in the beginning with God, although it would be more suitable to regard Reason as the more ancient, because God had not Word from the beginning, but He had Reason even before the beginning’ (Adv. Praxean, c. 5). At the same time the Word existed before the creation, ‘For although God had not yet sent His word, He still had Him within Himself both in company with and included in His very Reason’ (ibid.). That this distinction was influenced by the Stoics rather than by Philo is probable, because Tertullian shows no other traces of Philonism but many of Stoicism. |p75

To the influence of Stoicism upon Tertullian’s theology and his anthropology must be added its influence upon his ethics. There is a fundamental difference between Stoic and Christian morality.20 The one is in essence self-sufficient and proud, the other humble and self-effacing. Tertullian’s ethics are not Stoic ethics, but Christian. But that does not exclude the possibility that traces of Stoic influence may be found in his ethical views.

One direction in which such a trace is to be found is in Tertullian’s view of nature. Nature is essentially the creation of the rational God, and bears the stamp of His character. To go against nature is to go against God. It is so certainly the work of the rational God that the terms Nature and Reason are practically interchangeable (cf. De Corona Militis). ‘Everything which is against Nature deserves to be branded as monstrous among all men, but with us it is to be condemned also as sacrilege against God, the Lord of Nature.’ What is this in essence but the Stoic doctrine of ‘living agreeably to Nature’?

Closely bound up with this view of Nature and Reason is the belief that all men everywhere are endowed with reasonable souls, and form a community of fellowship; a belief which is common to Tertullian and the Stoics. The Stoics also believed in the manifestation of goodness in the ordering of the world. This point is developed by Tertullian, but it is also a fundamental biblical idea.

NOTE

TERTULLIAN’S CONCEPTION OF THE RELATION OF FAITH AND REASON

THE famous dictum of Tertullian: ‘Mortuus est Dei Filius; prorsus credibile est quia ineptum est; et sepultus resurrexit; certum est quia impossibile est,’ is apt to convey a wrong impression of Tertullian’s view of the relation of faith and reason, especially when—as so frequently is the case—it is quoted apart from its context. In the first place, allowance must be made for his love of paradox. The man who could say of heretics, ‘Their very unity is schism,’21 and ‘How great might their offence have been if they had not existed’22 who could aver that ‘God is great when little,’ 23 and who could  |p76 advise Christian women ‘Belie somewhat of your inward consciousness, in order to exhibit the truth to God alone,’ 23 is obviously one whose statements at times demand a cautious interpretation. Tertullian would be the last to believe in a literal sense that a thing is true because it is absurd. 24 The main ground of his refutation of the doctrines of Valentinus, Marcion, Hermogenes, and Praxeas, is that they are absurd. In the second place, the context must be examined in order that the train of thought which led Tertullian to employ such an expression may afford some guidance as to what he intended to convey by it. In the third place, the general attitude of the man towards the question of the relation of faith and reason must be taken into consideration.

Tertullian was combating the opinions of Marcion, who regarded the notion that Christ could have possessed human flesh as one that was dishonouring to God. In pursuance of this purpose he employed Paul’s statement that’ God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise.’ Those foolish things are not ‘the conversion of men to the worship of the true God, the rejection of error, the whole training in righteousness, chastity, mercy, patience, and innocence.’ Such things are certainly not ‘foolish.’ But believing in a God that has been born, and that of a virgin, and of a fleshly nature, too,’ is foolish. And if anything more foolish is to be imagined it is that God should be crucified and buried. ‘For which is more unworthy of God, which is more likely to raise a blush of shame, that (God) should be born, or that He should die? that He should bear the flesh or the cross? be circumcised or be crucified? be cradled or be coffined? be laid in a manger or in a tomb?’ But even of this Tertullian is not ashamed, for ‘Whatsoever is unworthy of God is of gain to me. I am safe if I am not ashamed of my Lord.’ Then follows the startling statement, ‘The Son of God was crucified; I am not ashamed because men must needs be ashamed (of it). And the Son of God died; it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd. And He was buried, and rose again; the fact is certain, because it is impossible.’

Related thus to its context, the passage is seen to bear a different interpretation from that which finds in it nothing more than a mere negation of human reason. What Tertullian is rejecting is not the enlightened Christian reason, but the unenlightened reason of the world, as evidenced in Marcion’s attitude. To Marcion the process of human birth is objectionable, to Tertullian it is the reverend course of nature.’ On Marcion’s premisses the birth and death of Christ are ‘absurd’ and ‘impossible,’ since the Creator and His creation were not good, and though Christ might ‘appear’ as man, He certainly could not in reality so far submit Himself to the Creator as to be born and to die. But Tertullian has other premisses which make the incarnation and the crucifixion reasonable enough. The Creator is good, and Christ is the Creator’s Son, and as such He loved, and lived and died for, His Father’s creature—man. ‘Christ, at any rate, has loved even that man who was condensed in his mother’s womb, amidst all its uncleannesses. . . . For his sake He came down “from heaven,” for his sake He preached, for his sake |p77 He humbled Himself even unto death—the death of the cross. He loved, of course, the being whom He redeemed at so great a cost. If Christ is the Creator’s (Son), it was with justice that He loved His own (creature). . . . Well, then, loving man, He loved his nativity also, and his flesh as well. Nothing can be loved apart from that through which whatever exists has its existence. Either take away nativity, and then show us (your) man; or else withdraw the flesh, and then present to our view the being whom God has redeemed, since it is these very conditions which constitute the man whom God has redeemed.’ If Marcion’s standard of wisdom and foolishness is accepted, Tertullian is quite prepared to acknowledge that the truth that the Son of God was born and died is foolishness. The very fact that in Marcion’s opinion it is absurd and impossible is a reason why it should be believed and accepted as certain from the Christian point of view.26

But alongside of this train of thought another proceeds in Tertullian’s mind. The wisdom of God is accounted foolishness by the world. Yet the world acknowledges that the worship of the true God, and righteousness, and virtue, are not foolish. But according to the world’s standard the thought that God was born and died is foolishness. This Paul had noted, and it is present to the mind of Tertullian. Apart from the love of God it is inexplicable. Tertullian did not in general grasp the New Testament idea of the love of God, but here he does perceive the necessity of the love of Christ as the motive which made the incarnation and the cross conceivable, as the passage quoted above shows.

So we may gather from the context that Tertullian was very far from thinking that the Christian faith has no more solid foundation than the absurd and the impossible. He was perfectly conscious of the solid foundation of what to Marcion and to the heathen world appeared shameful and foolish. ‘Other matters for shame find I none which can prove me to be shameless in a good sense, and foolish in a happy one, by my own contempt of shame.’

On the general question of the relation of faith and reason in the view of Tertullian it is sufficient to say that he accepted the Rule of Faith, and expected others to accept it unconditionally as a revelation of God in contrast to the knowledge of the philosophers, which was acquired by the unaided human intellect (except where it had been filched from the Christian Scriptures). But within the circle of ideas contained in the Rule of Faith the Christian had a right and a duty of exercising his reason, 27 and within these limits Tertullian himself exercised his dialectical powers to the full. 28 Reason |p78 and faith could not—in his view—clash. The revelation of God brought by Jesus Christ, and transmitted through the apostles and the churches and embodied in the Rule of Faith, was a perfect revelation, and it came from God. The rational faculty in man was implanted by God, who is Himself rational. ‘Reason, in fact, is a thing of God, inasmuch as there is nothing which God the Maker of all has not provided, disposed, ordained by Reason— nothing which He has not willed should be handled and understood by Reason. All, therefore, who are ignorant of God must necessarily be ignorant also of a thing which is His, because no treasure-house at all is accessible to strangers’ (De Poenitentia, c. 1). Therefore reason finds its true sphere within the Rule of Faith. 29 In so far as the human mind retains the likeness of its original creation it is rational, 30 but the facts of experience show that the traces of the original creation are very faint. What was lost in Adam, however, was restored in Christ. He revealed anew, and in more ample fashion, the rational31 truth of God. Apart from that revelation it is foolish and futile for the human mind to strive after the truth. The only wisdom is to accept it in faith. ‘ I praise the faith which has believed in the duty of complying with the rule before it has learned the reason of it.’ 32 Once accepted, however, the revelation given by Christ leads the minds of men in those paths of truth which are rational.

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1. p.63 n.1De Praes. Haereticorum, c. 7.    

2. p.63 n.2 De Anima, c. 3.

3. p.63 n.3 De A nima, c. 18; De Praes. Haereticorum, c. 7.    

4. p.63 n.4 De Praes. Haereticorum, c. 7.

5. p.63 n.5 Ibid.   

6. p.63 n.6 Ibid.   

7. p.63 n.7 Ibid.

8. p.64 n.1 Apologelicus, c. 46.  

9. p.64 n.2 Ibid.   

10. p.64 n.3 Ibid.

11. p.64 n.4 Ibid.   

12. p.64 n.5 De Anima, c. 1.

13. p.64 n.6 De Praes. Haereticorum, cc. 13, 20.

14. p.64 n.7 Ibid., cc. 22, 26.      

15. p.64 n.8 Ibid., c. 14.

16. p.65 n.1 De Carne Christi, c. 5. See note at end of this chapter.

17. p.65 n.2 Apologeticus, c. 17.

18. p.66 n.1 De Anima, c. 2.

19. p.66 n.2 Adversus Praxean, c. 8.

20. p.75 n.1 A clear statement of the points of resemblance and of contrast in the teaching of Stoicism and Christianity may be found in Fisher, The Grounds of Theistic and Christian Belief, pp. 130-137. Compare also Davidson, The Stoic Creed.

21. p.75 n.2 De Praescriptione Haereticorum, c. 42.

22. p.75 n.3 Ibid., c. I.

23. p.75 n.4 Adversus Marcionem, II., c. 2.

24. p.76 n.1 De Virginibus Velandis, c. 16.

25. p.76 n.2 Adversus Marcionem, V., c. 1 : ‘ I who at the same time can believe nothing, except that nothing ought to be believed hastily (and that I may further say is hastily believed, which is believed without any examination of its beginning), I, in short who have the best reason possible for bringing this inquiry to a most careful solution.

26. p.77 n.1 Adversus Marcionem, II., c. 27: ‘What in your esteem is the entire disgrace of my God, is in fact the sacrament of man’s salvation. God held converse with men, that man might learn to act as God. God dealt on equal terms with man, that man might be able to deal on equal terms with God. God was found little, that man might become very great. You who disdain such a God, I hardly know whether you ex fide believe that God was crucified. How great, then, is your perversity in respect of the two characters of the Creator!’

27. p.77 n.2 Cf. De Baptismo, c. 1 : ‘A treatise on this matter will not be superfluous . . . instructing . . . them who, content with having simply believed, without full examination of the grounds of the traditions, carry (in their mind), through ignorance, an untried (and merely) probable faith.’

28. p.77 n.3 ‘So long, however, as its (i.e. that of the Rule of Faith) form exists in its proper order, you may seek and discuss as much as you please, and give full rein to your curiosity, in whatever seems to you to hang in doubt, or to be shrouded in obscurity’ (De Praescriptione Haereticorum, c. 14).

29. p.78 n.1 What you have to seek, then, is that which Christ has taught’ (De Praescriptione Haereticorum, c. 10). ‘Let our seeking, therefore, be in that which is our own, and from those who are our own—that, and only that, which can become an object of inquiry without impairing the rule of faith’ (ibid., c. 12).

30. p.78 n.2 Apologeticus, c. 18: ‘But that we might attain an ampler and more authoritative knowledge at once of Himself, and of His counsels and will, God has added a written revelation for the behoof of every one whose heart is set on seeking Him, that seeking he may find, and finding believe, and believing obey.’

31. p.78 n.3 Apologeticus, c. 21 :‘But how deeply they have sinned, puffed up to their fall with a false trust in their noble ancestors, turning from God’s way into a way of sheer impiety . . . their present national ruin would afford sufficient proof . . . Accordingly, He appeared among us, whose coming to renovate and illumine man’s nature was pre-announced by God . . . I mean Christ, that Son of God. And so the supreme Head and Master of this grace and discipline, the Enlightener and Trainer of the human race, God’s Son, was announced among us.’

32. p.78 n.4 De Corona Militis, c. 2.

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