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Tertullian’s belief in creation ex nihilo—Exposition of the same in opposition to Hermogenes—Scriptural basis—Five points—The purpose of creation— Man the crown of creation—Angels and demons—The purpose of the divine providence and its problems.

TERTULLIAN had firmly grasped the distinctively Christian conception of the creation of the universe out of nothing. He defended this doctrine with all the acumen and ability of a jurist in his treatise against Hermogenes. The latter was a philosopher who had embraced Christianity, and who seems to have accepted the doctrines of Christianity in their entirety, with the exception of the theory of the creation of the universe out of nothing. On this point he brought with him the notion he had imbibed with his philosophy, and which he found it impossible to discard, of the creation of the universe out of pre-existent matter. Tertullian showed that such a belief was inconsistent with the fundamental ideas of the Christian doctrine.

The Christian view, as expounded by Tertullian, was this: ‘There is one-only God (unicus deus), who has nothing else co-eternal with Him, because there was present with Him no power, no material, no nature which belonged to any other than Himself.’ If matter had existed, out of which He effected the creation, then the nature of matter would have determined the operations of God, and not vice versa. If there was something out of which He made the world, that something was His own Wisdom. It was with His own Wisdom that He took counsel (Prov. viii. 27-31). Even Wisdom was created by God, not being co-eternal with Him, but being prior to all else. The nature of Wisdom (unlike that of matter) does not impose conditions upon God, but is itself the expression of His nature. ‘Now, who would not approve of this as the |p141 fount and origin of all things, of this as, in very deed, the matter of all matter, not liable to any end, not diverse in condition, not restless in motion, not ungraceful in form, but natural and proper, and duly proportioned and beautiful, such as even God might well have required, who requires His own and not another’s.’

The basis of Tertullian’s view of the creation is scriptural. It is in the first instance a truth of revelation. He is frankly opposed to the idea that speculative philosophy can discover the truth of this matter. But he uses all the arguments which his reason can suggest to defend both the interpretation of the Scriptures and the dogmatic statement which he bases thereon, of the creation of the universe ex nihilo.

Dealing with the account of the creation in Genesis, he makes five points.

(1) ‘In the beginning’ refers to the first original creation of all that exists except God Himself. Principium cannot have here a material significance. It may be used to signify the material out of which something is made, as, e.g., the clay is the beginning of the vessel. But it is never so used to denote the origin of a thing, unless the name of that original thing (here the clay) is mentioned. When ‘the beginning’ is used apart from such qualification it refers to ‘order,’ and indicates priority in time to that which follows. Moreover, the text says that God made the heavens and the earth ‘in’ principio; whereas if He had made them out of a beginning (a principio, a material), the preposition should have been ‘ ex.

(2) The negative form of the proof ‘that God made the world out of nothing because Scripture does not say that He made it out of matter’ is reliable. The same form of proof might be used on the other side, because Scripture does not say that God made the world out of nothing. But there is a difference in the substance of the arguments, because the implication that if no pre-existent material is mentioned it did not exist is forceful, whereas the implication that if the creation is not definitely stated to be out of nothing it must be out of pre-existent matter carries no conviction.

(3) ‘Earth’ is not a synonym for ‘ matter.’ The narrative in Genesis speaks consistently of ‘earth’ and never of ‘matter.’ So, unless the words are clearly interchangeable, it is wrong to substitute one for the other. But ‘matter’ is a |p142 generic term wider than ‘earth,’ and including it together with much else; while ‘earth’ is a specific term applicable to a particular form or portion of matter only. So the reference of the words ‘the earth was without form and void’ to the pre-existent state or condition of matter is unsound.

(4) The whole narrative is an orderly and concise statement of the sequence of creation. There is a series of prefatory statements, each followed by fuller details, and there is a progressive statement of the stages by which the earth, ‘formless and void,’ was transformed into the cosmical order as we know it. Tertullian further indicates that the general statement found in Genesis is amplified in particulars in other portions of Scripture, e.g., Isaiah makes the Lord say, ‘I formed the light and I created darkness,’ while Amos says of the Lord, ‘He that strengtheneth the thunder and createth the wind and declareth His Christ unto men.’

(5) The Scriptures teach that all things will ultimately be brought to nothing. This affords a presumption that they were made out of nothing in the first instance, for God would not have made that which was to perish out of what was eternal, i.e. out of matter.

Defending the dogmatic statement, Tertullian uses the following arguments:

(1) The title’ Lord’ applied to God does not carry the implication that matter is eternal; for the name God denotes the eternal substance, while Lord is the relative designation, applicable to God when He is thought of in His relation to the created world. To support this argument Tertullian makes use of an ingenious exposition of the way in which the names ‘God’ and ‘Lord’ are introduced in Genesis. The former is the one consistently used in describing the process of creation; the latter is used when the creation is complete. So Tertullian turned to account for the establishing of his theory a circumstance which later knowledge has shown to be due to a far different cause.

(2) Eternity is an attribute of God without which He could not be God. It is a peculiar and exclusive attribute of His. To claim that it may be possessed by anything else is to claim in effect that that something else is God. At first sight this might seem to be a precarious argument. It may be maintained that as goodness, e.g., is an attribute of man and of |p143 God, and as man’s sharing it does not rob God of goodness, so eternity is an attribute which may be possessed by matter as well as by God.

But there is an essential difference between attributing goodness to man and eternity to matter. Goodness in God is original; in man it is derived from God. But if eternity is ascribed to matter, it must be original in matter. Likewise, if ascribed to God it must be original in God. Thus a second original eternal existence is set over against God, and He is no longer supreme, because He is eternally conditioned by that other original existence. So Tertullian maintains that eternity is an inalienable, peculiar property of God.

(3) The existence of evil must not be attributed to God, but that is what follows as a necessary inference if matter is eternal. To explain evil as inherent in matter is not to relieve God of the responsibility. Tertullian states the familiar dilemma—if God wills to exclude evil, but cannot, He is not omnipotent; if He is unwilling to exclude evil, though He has the power of doing so, He is not good. Applied to the notion of evil as inherent in matter, which is eternal, the dilemma may be stated thus. If God willed matter to be free from evil, but could not give effect to His will, then where is His omnipotence? If He acquiesced in the inherent evil of matter, what becomes of His goodness? So the explanation of evil as inherent in matter is inconsistent with the truth of the supremacy and goodness of God.

The world, created out of nothing, was created by the good ness of God, for the purpose of making that goodness known. ‘The first goodness, then, was that of the Creator, whereby God was unwilling to remain hidden for ever; in other words, (was unwilling) that there should not be a something by which God should become known.’ Even before man was created, and there was no one to learn and appreciate the goodness of God, this was the motive that underlay the creation of the universe. It was so because goodness was not in God a sudden, or accidental, or excited impulse, whose existence dates no farther back than its manifestation or operation. ‘It must therefore be accounted an eternal attribute, inbred in God and everlasting.’

But the crowning work of the creative goodness of God was the forming of man. Man was made in the image of God. It |p144 was for him that the world was made—both the world that is and that which is to be, ‘the vast fabric (of the world) to begin with and then afterwards the vaster one (of a higher world) that He might on a great as well as on a smaller stage practise and advance in his probation.’ Thus in a world created out of the goodness of God man was brought into being, and the whole world was made to minister to the growth of goodness in him. On the stage of the world he was to practise and advance in his probation, ‘and so be promoted from the good which God had given him, that is from his high position, to God’s best, that is to some higher abode.’ In this world he was given dominion over all things: ‘Goodness gave him dominion over all things, which he was to enjoy and rule over and even give names to.’ Pleasures also were added to his lot. ‘In addition to this, Goodness annexed pleasures to man, so that, while master of the whole world, he might tarry among higher delights.’

The goodness upon which Tertullian lays such stress appears to be at variance with the legal nature of God’s will and dispensation, which looms so large in Tertullian’s outlook. But he is at pains to show that it is not so. The law was a product of God’s goodness, and even the warning of the results which would follow transgression were promoted by the goodness of God. ‘The law, however,’ &c. (see c. 5).

ANGELS AND DEMONS.—Though man is the crown of creation, there are other beings, spiritual in nature, who find a place within the scheme of the universe. These are the angels and demons. ‘We affirm the existence of certain spiritual essences.’

ANGELS.—The nearest approach to a definition of angels in Tertullian’s writings is his assertion that certain ‘spiritual essences’ exist. But this must be qualified by the recognition of the fact that to Tertullian every spiritual being is endowed with corporeity of a kind. God, the soul, angels, and demons, all have bodies more tenuous in texture but not less real than the fleshly bodies of men. It is within the range of God’s power to create for angels bodies of flesh like those of men. So He endowed the angels who met Abraham with bodies that might be seen and touched. But they were not born in human-wise. Their bodies were created after the similitude of that of Adam. The God who created his body could create theirs. As a general rule, however, the angels are endowed, |p145 according to Tertullian, with bodies which are not visible in the ordinary course to mortal eye.

The angels are divided into two classes, good. and bad, the bad angels being synonymous with demons. There is some inconsistency in Tertullian’s statements concerning the nature of angels. Speaking of the incarnation,, in which Jesus became ‘a little lower than the angels,’ he implies that the angels are superior to men, but, dealing with the purpose of the incarnation, he implies the opposite. ‘Forasmuch, however, as it has been declared concerning the Son Himself, “Thou hast made Him a little lower than the angels,” how will it appear that He put on the nature of angels if He was made lower than the angels, having become man with flesh and soul as the Son of Man?’ ‘As bearing human nature, He is so far made inferior to the angels.’ ‘For although. there is assigned to angels also perdition, yet a restoration is never promised to them.’ The latter aspect is more clearly indicated in Adversus Marcionem, II., c. 8, where Tertullian is discussing the freedom of man: ‘No doubt it was an angel who was the seducer, but then the victim of that seduction was free, and master of himself, and, as being in the image and likeness of God, was stronger than any angel, and, as being, too, the afflatus of the Divine Being, was nobler than that material spirit of which angels were made.’

As to the work of the angels, it consisted originally in ministering in the service of God. They are, as the name indicates, ‘messengers.’ They are material spirits in God’s service, ‘who maketh His angels spirits and His messengers a flame of fire.’ But some of the angels fell from their high estate, and it is with the activities of these fallen angels that Tertullian mainly deals. He calls them indifferently angels and demons. Their chief work is the ruin of mankind. In pursuance of this purpose they harry men, body and soul. Diseases, calamities, aberrations of mind, are all their work. Their tenuity of substance is of great service to them in this work. Being invisible and intangible, they are able so to act that the effects alone of their destructiveness are evident. They possess wings, and so are apparently omnipresent; they are deceitful tricksters, who impose upon the credulity of men. But women are their chief victims, Having fallen through their impure relations with women, they requited the |p146 ill turn they themselves had suffered by misguiding the minds of those simple women, teaching them to love ostentation and ambition, and made them become offensive to God.  Thus originated the love of finery and jewellery in the hearts of womankind, and every art and device for the furtherance of the destruction of womanly simplicity and sincerity was instilled into the minds of men by evil angels.  These are the angels whom Christians are destined to judge.

In conclusion it remains to be said that Christians are destined to become like the angels.  This does not mean that in the resurrection they shall lose their own bodies and take those of the angels, but the bodies with which they rise shall be the fleshly bodies of their  human state, only denuded of earthly passions and weaknesses.  The angels here referred to are, of course, those who have kept their high estate.

THE DEVIL—Concerning the origin and existence of the devil the ideas of Tertullian are clear and unmistakeable.  Basing his statement on an ingenious exposition of Ezek. xxviii. 11-16, which he makes to refer to the devil, he shows that God created an angel endowed with free will.  This angel was formed for good, but by his own choice became evil.  ‘He was once irreproachable at the time of his  creation, formed for good by God as by the good Creator of irreproachable creatures, and adorned with every angelic glory, and associated with God, good with the Good, but afterwards if his own accord removed to evil.’  The motive which led to his fall was his own lusting after the wickedness which was spontaneously conceived within him.  This is more precisely indicated as envy, and malice, and impatience, prompted by the fact that God subjected the works which He made to man.  The  fall of the devil (or Satan) was from the heights of heaven, where he dwelt in the Paradise of God.  Henceforth he became the adversary of God, and the author and instigator of evil and wickedness in men.  He seduced the woman in the garden, and through her the man also.  As he had misused his own free will, so he taught men to misuse theirs.  Every manner of subtlety is employed by him to alienate men from God.

THE PURPOSE OF THE DIVINE PROVIDENCE AND THE PROBLEMS ARISING THEREFROM.—One problem in connexion with the providence of God presented itself to the Christians of Tertullian’s day, and he faced that problem boldly. How  |p147

could persecuation find a place in the providental ruling of a good God?  The answer which he gives to that question reveals Tertullian's view of the relationship of God to nature, to man, and to the devil.

Persecution is not, in the first instance, of the devil, but of God.  It is by His Will that persecution comes. ‘The question in hand is persecution. With respect to this, let me say that nothing happens without God's will’ (De Fuga in Persecutione, c. 1). The decision of such a point helps to clearness in discussion, because ‘of everything one’s knowledge is clearer when it is known from whom it has its origin’ (Ibid.). Not only is persecution from God, but it is even good. It is the winnowing fan whereby God cleanses the Church, separating the martyrs from the deniers. Or it may be regarded as a contest proclaimed by God, who offers the rewards.

But though the origin of persecution is in the will of God, the devil has a part to play in it, too. He is the agent, and his injustice works in it. But he does not originate it. What he does is by the permission of God. So it was in Job’s case, and so it was in Peter’s, since in the one case God gave Job into the hands of Satan, and in the other Satan asked that he might sift the apostles as wheat. The petition in the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Lead us not into temptation,’ indicates the same thing. The purpose of God in so delivering Christians into the power of the devil is manifold. It may be to manifest their faith; it may be that the devil, as executioner, may inflict deserved punishment, as in the case of Saul; ‘And the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord troubled and stifled him.’ It may be to humble; as the stake, the messenger of Satan, was given to Paul to buffet him.

Hence Tertullian draws the conclusion that persecution is not a thing from which Christians ought to flee. But this applies to Christians only, who are so guarded by God that not a hair of their head is unnumbered. As for the rest, they are as a drop in the bucket.

Thus we are led to the conclusion that Tertullian conceived of the providence of God as follows. The world was created by God. It was created ‘good,’ and for man’s good, that he might, through the goodness of creation, learn to know the goodness of God. It was a part of the divine plan to endow  |p148 both man and the devil with freedom of the will. To man endowed with free will was given a law to obey. The penalty attached to disobedience was clearly set before him. Of his own free will, at the instigation of the devil, who had preceded him In the way of disobedience, man transgressed the law, and so in the course of time the greater part of the world passed into the power of the devil. Deliverance from the power of the devil is offered to all who receive the revelation of God given by Jesus Christ, and handed down by the apostles through the Church, and who renounce the devil in baptism. The human race is divided into two sections: (1) Those who remain under the dominion of the devil ; and (2) Those who belong to the Christian faith. The former are regarded by God as ‘a drop in the bucket,’ deserving at His hands nothing but punishment, in this world and in the world to come. The latter are precious in the sight of God, so that the very hairs of their head are numbered. It may be that they are allowed to suffer at the hands of the devil and his agents, but such suffering has a merciful and disciplinary purpose, and is but temporary. It is outweighed by the assurance of eternal bliss. Such is the background to Tertullian’s view of the Christian revelation.


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This document ( last modified 14th July 2001) from the Tertullian Project.
© Epworth Press, Methodist Publishing House.  Reproduced by permission.