From A. Souter, Tertullian : Concerning the Resurrection of the Flesh, SPCK 1922, pp. xv - xxiii


The Argument

The treatise of Tertullian on "The Resurrection of the Body"1 is not the earliest surviving Christian treatise dealing with its subject. That honour belongs to the Greek treatises preserved under the names of Justin and Athenagoras, which were doubtless known to him.2 A short summary of Tertullian's argument is here furnished.

The doctrine of the resurrection of the body which is fundamental to Christianity, is an object of ridicule to the mob, who yet offer worship and sumptuous repasts to the burned bodies of their dead. Philosophers like Epicurus and Seneca are in their company, while others such as Pythagoras and Plato who do believe in another life, spoil this beautiful idea by the absurd doctrine of metempsychosis. Christ confounded the Sadducees, who were disciples of Epicurus rather than of the prophets, and Tertullian here sets out to confound the heretics Marcion, Basilides, Valentinus and Apelles who admit the immortality of the soul, but deny the resurrection of the body. The immortality of the soul finds few to question it. It is a primordial truth, easy of acceptance.

It is otherwise with the resurrection of the body. On this point pagan prejudice is strong, and the heretics draw some of their arguments from it. They insist on the body’s weakness, its earthy origin its return to earth.

To this, Tertullian answers with a remarkable eulogy of the flesh. God could not abandon what was the outward form of his own Christ, dear to Him beyond all others. Further, such a result does not go beyond divine power. He who could create the universe out of nothing, or transform pre-existing matter into the present order of things, can surely remake what He has made before. many analogies support this view. Day comes out of night, the stars shine after an eclipse, the seasons come round again, vegetable life finds its origin in corruption, and, finally, the phoenix, according even to Scripture3, rises from its ashes. The Lord who said, "You are more valuable than many sparrows" could do no less for man.

But resurrection is not merely appropriate. It is actually necessary, if we admit that the judgement of God is perfect. It would not be so, if man were not judged exactly as he had lived. Therefore the whole man, body and soul, must come to judgement. The enemies of resurrection try to dissever the natural unity of human nature. This they cannot do. The secret movements of the soul are placed by God in the physical organ called the heart (Matt. ix. 4; v. 28). Tertullian recognises no mental operation that does not depend on the body. Wherever we place the seat of thought, we must admit that it borrows the service of a corporeal power. The expression of the face indicates the emotions of the soul. True it is that the initiative belongs to the soul. But perfect justice would render to each attendant according to its works. The name 'attendant" would seem um suitable, because the body is an instrument rather than a slave. But why should not the instrument itself have its just share of honour or dishonour?

But the body is not really an instrument : it is all integral part of the moral being. Such is the doctrine of the Apostle ( 1 .Thess. iv. 4 ; 1 Cor. vi.20). The idea that the soul, apart from the body, could experience neither pain nor pleasure, though widely held4, is to be rejected. The soul is a body of a special nature, capable of impressions suited to itself as the instances of the souls of the rich man and Lazarus prove. The body is restored to the soul with the one object that divine justice may be satisfied. For the acts belonging especially to itself thoughts, desires, resolutions, the soul will have its separate reward or punishment : those which were carried out by the body, await its reunion with the soul. To sum up, everything conspires to prove the resurrection of the body. The dignity of the flesh, divine omnipotence, analogies from nature, the requirements of divine judgement.

All this part serves as a preface to the second and third parts of the treatise which contain the proof from Scripture. The question Tertullian puts to himself and the heretics is this: Do these passages have the soul alone in view, or the body also?

God's edict that the dead will rise again has the body in view. When God pronounced the sentence of death on man (Gen. iii. 19), this of course referred to the body. When Christ said to the Jews (John ii. 19), "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up," He spoke of raising up what they would have destroyed, namely, His body. The words must be taken as they stand, and not interpreted allegorically. Certainly there are allegories in Scripture, but they are not to be found everywhere. The numerous passages concerning resurrection ought to be understood literally; a matter so fundamental for. Christian doctrine must have been set forth with absolute clearness. It is impossible to see in resurrection either an illumination of the sou1 by the grace of faith, or an immediate glorification of this soul after death. In St. Luke (xxi. 26 ff) the Lord describes the scenes which will precede resurrection and judgement. Now, these signs do not yet show themselves. Therefore the spiritual resurrection of which heretics speak would he premature. St. Paul speaks to the Colossians (ii. iii.) of spiritual resurrection, but the context is clear, and does not exclude bodily resurrection which is affirmed elsewhere by the same Apostle (Gal. v. 5 , Phil. iii. 11 f ; Gal. vi. 9 ; 2 Tim. i. 18 . 1 Tim. vi. 14-15, 1 and 2 Thess. passim), by St. John) (1 John iii. 2) and by St. Peter (Acts iii. 19 f). The Apocalypse announces (Rev. xx.) a general resurrection) for the end of time, and not the spiritual resurrection which is a daily event. Further, if one were to appeal to allegorical interpretation, it would be easy to find the bodily resurrection predicted in many passages of the prophets. In Ezekiel's vision (c. xxxvii.) there is more than a simple allegory but heresy struggles to confine it to the restoration of Israel. This interpretation is, if not false, at least too exclusive. On the contrary, it presupposes the first interpretation, just as the image presupposes the reality and God's words to the prophet confirm this point of view. Ezekiel, prophesying before the Dispersion, wished to inculcate belief in the resurrection of the flesh, a lesson always living and often forgotten. Besides, the other prophets echo his words (Mal. iv. 2 f , Isa. lxvi. 14, xxvi. 19, lxvi. 22-24). For the manner of the resurrection we can trust to the divine power.5

The Gospels also give evidence in favour of bodily resurrection. Some people take advantage of the parables to turn the whole teaching of Jesus into allegory. But we have no right to forget that Jesus frequently speaks unfiguratively. This is particularly true of the Judgement and the resurrection of the body, both when He threatens (Matt. xi. 22-24), and when He promises (Matt. x. 7; Luke xiv. 14). Besides, He said distinctly that He came to save that which was lost (Luke xix. 10; cf. John vi. 39-40). Is not "that which was lost" the whole man? Nothing must be wanting there. Full redemption must include both body and soul. Jesus also says, "Fear him who is able to cast both body and soul into hell" (Matt. x. 28). It is impossible here to turn the one into the other, seeing that the sacred text contrasts the body with the soul. Unless to rise again, the body could not fall into gehenna. And as this avenging fire is inextinguishable, everlasting also must be the punishment of the body which the divine justice hands over to it, not to be consumed, but to be tortured. Other words of the Lord confirm this doctrine (Matt. X 29; John vi 39; Matt. Viii 11, etc). Answering the Sadducees (Matt. Xxii. 23 f.) who did not believe even in the immortality of the soul, He implicitly affirms that Scripture teaches such a resurrection as they denied, that is, complete resurrection. If He compares the condition of the elect with that of angels (Matt. Xxii. 30), if He declares that the flesh is of no use, we cannot conclude anything from that against resurrection; He wished merely to urge His hearers to the life of the spirit. Finally, in raising the dead, He gave as it were the earnest of a general resurrection, by miracles which were, besides, much less than the miracle of His own resurrection.

From the Gospels he passes to the Apostolic writings. The Apostles introduced no new teaching about resurrection beyond the great fact of the Lord’s resurrection. Their only opponents were the Sadducees. Paul confessed his belief in resurrection before the sanhedrin, as between the Sadducees and the Pharisees (Acts xxiii. 6), before Agrippa (Acts xxvi. 8), and before the court of the Areopagus (Acts xvii. 31), where he provoked smiles of incredulity. He inculcates the same belief in almost all of his Epistles. We ought not, therefore, as the heretics do, to stop at certain obscure texts, such as 2 Cor. Iv. 16, v. 1f., 1 Thess. Iv. 14 f., 1 Cor. Xv 51f., 2 Cor. V 6f., eph. Iv. 22 f, Rom. Viii. 8 f., vi. 6, and above all 1 Cor. Xv. 50. Of all these texts he gives an exegesis favourable to his argument. This last text he explains as referring to men of earthly inclinations. Further, all flesh will rise again; but to enter into possession of the heavenly heritage, one must be transfigured. Those who pretend, in the name of St. Paul, to exclude all flesh, without distinction, from the Kingdom of God, have only to raise their eyes to heaven, and there they will see, seated at the Father’s right hand, Jesus, God and man, eternal word and last Adam, with His flesh and His blood, purer than ours, yet of the same nature. This is the pledge of our resurrection. But the flesh would not be able to penetrate this Kingdom, except it were first rid of all corruption and reclothed with immortality.

What will be the condition of the glorified bodies? According to St. Paul (1 Cor. Xv. 36 ff.), the raised body will be to the mortal body what the plant is to the seed. God sowed a living body (ver. 44). This perishable life must give place to the full life of the spirit. The mortal life must be absorbed by life, that the body may put on immortality, not by a destruction, but by a change which will communicate to it a new way of being. Divine justice would not be pleased with a substitution which would withdraw the moral being from reward or punishment. All physical mutilations or infirmities will have disappeared, as the resurrection is complete. Glorified bodies will have no suffering, but will enter into the possession of cloudless happiness (Isa. Xxxv. 10; Rev. vii. 17; xxi. 4). Even the clothes and the shoes of the Israelites were miraculously preserved in the desert, as were the lives of the three boys in the furnace, of Jonah, of Enoch and of Elijah; so that there is no need to take such passages figuratively. The mysteries of eternity do concern our mortal natures (cf. 1 Cor. Iii. 22). As regards the coarseness of bodily functions, resurrection requires all parts of the body, but not their use. The body will abstain in future from all acts that have no purpose in the Kingdom of God. The Lord Himself likened His elect to angels (Matt. Xxii. 30). The conclusion : all flesh will rise again, identical, complete; Jesus Christ, Mediator between God and man, in His own person united flesh and spirit. The flesh may seem to perish, yet it is only temporarily eclipsed. It will appear again one day before God to hear itself invited to glory. This is the charter of salvation, brought to men by Jesus Christ, and, adds Tertullian, illustrated in these latter times by the effusion of the new prophecy, due to the Paraclete.

Souter's Notes

1. Tertullian avoids the use of corpus in this connexion, because it was sometimes used of the anima also.

2. Cf. A. D’Ales, La Theologie de Tertullien, Paris, 1905, p. 153, n. 2, to whose account of our present treatise I am greatly indebted in this section. An excellent English summary is to be found in Bp. Kaye’s Ecclesiastical History of the Second and Third Centuries, pp. 134-145 (of cheap edition).

3. On this curious mistake see the note on chapter 12, below.

4. Even by Tertullian himself, as d'Ales points out; in Apol. 48, Test. Ann. 4 (p. 145, n. 1)

5. Here Tertullian quotes a passage from the Book of Enoch, which to him had the value of Scripture.

Note that I have occasionally split a paragraph, to improve readability, and moved notes to the end and renumbered them, as we don't have page breaks in HTML. Otherwise the text is Souter's.

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