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Athens and Jerusalam Revisited: Reason and Authority in Tertullian

  • Justo L. González (a1)


Very few ancient Christian writers have been as maligned by posterity as Tertullian has been. This is understandable, for Tertullian made little effort to endear himself to either his contemporaries or his future readers. His conversion to—many still say “lapse into”—Montanism was not calculated to make him popular with Catholic historians. His so-called legalism has become a favorite straw man for Protestant writers. The disappearance of both Montanism and the ancient African church destroyed the two logical communities where his name might have been venerated. In the sixteenth century a number of scholars became sufficiently interested in him to produce editions of his works; but although his rhetorical ability attracted some attention from the humanists, they found his manner and spirit too uncouth. Protestant rigorists who ought to have welcomed his stringency rejected him because of his emphasis on tradition. Catholic polemicists who could be expected to welcome such an emphasis ignored him because of his apparent denial of the authority of tradition in becomeing a Montanist. Rationalist scholars who ought to have enjoyed his wit and his unflinching logic were unable to sympathize with the seemingly illogical consequences of that logic. The result of these various biases has been a surprising agreement on a generally negative evaluation of Tertullian as a thinker and as a person.



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1. Loofs, F., Leitfaden sum Studium der Dogmengeschichte, 6th ed. (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer, 1959), p. 118: “Das ihm nachgesagte ‘credo, quia absurdum’ ist zwar apokryh; aber Tertullian hat ähnlich sich ausgesprochen: Crucifixus … [then follows the crucial text of De Carne Christi 5].” Bardy, G., “Tertullien,” Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique (Paris: Letouzey et Ane 19031946), “Ce n'est pas littéralement le Credo quia absurdum, mais c'en eat l'équivaient.” de Vries, G. J., Bijdrage tot de psychologie van Tertullianus (Utrecht: Kemink en zoon, 1929), p. 50: “Het ‘credo quia absurdum’ moge dan legendair zijn, het geeft den inhoud van het bovenstaande [credible est, quia ineptum est] goed weer.” Wolfson, H. A., The Philosophy of the Church Fathers (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970), 1:102106, interprets Tertullian along the same lines, and then proceeds to show how Tertullian contradicts himself. This could well be an indication not of contradiction in Tertullian, but of an error in interpretation.

2. McGiffert, A. C., A History of Christian Thought (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1954), 2: 16: “The more unreasonable it appears to us, so Tertullian seems to think, the greater the merit of our faith.” As sources for this assertion, McGiffert mentions Adv. Marcionem 2.2 and 5.5. But to draw such a conclusion from these texts would require a great deal of unreasonable (and meritorious?) faith in McGiffert!

3. Neve, J. L., A History of Christian Thought (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1946), 1:93: “Faith is consent in a state of absolute obedience. The more unreasonable the articles of faith are, the more opportunity there is for faith to develop its strength.”

4. Quasten, J., Patrology (Utrecht: Spectrum, 1953), 2:320.

5. De testimonio animae passim. See also the excellent discussion by Lortz, J., Tertullian als Apologet (Munster: Aschendorff, 1927), 1:224248.

6. For instance, Tillich, Paul, A Complete History of Christian Thought (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), Pt. 1, p. 38, credits Tertullian with “a sharp rational mind.”

7. Shortt, C. de L., The Influence of Philosophy on the Mind of Tertullian (London: Elliot Stock, 1933); Refoulé, F., “Tertullien et la philosophie,” Revue des Sciences Religieuses 30 (1956): 4245, argues—as I shall in this paper—that Tertullian is not an anti-rationalist. He does not seem to think, however, that this argument can be made while insisting on the coherence of Tertullian's thought. For the influence of Platonism on Tertullian, see Waszink, J. H., “Observations on Tertullian's Treatise Against Hermogenes,” Vigiliae Christianae 9 (1955): 129147.

8. Two excellent examples of this are Brandt, Th., Tertullians Ethik: Zur Erfassung des systematischen Grundanschanuung (Gutersloh: Bertelsmann, 1928) and Nauman, V., “Das Problem des Bösen in Tertullians zweiten Buch gegen Marcion: Ein Beitrag zur Theodizce Tertullians,” Zeitschrift für katholische Theologie 58 (1934): 311363.

9. De carne Christi 5.4. “The son of God was crucified; it shames one not, because it is shameful. And the son of God died; it is believable, because it is foolish (absurd). And having been buried he resurrected; it is certain, because it is impossible” (A number of manuscripts include “prorsus” before “credibile”, but this does not appear in the best manuscripts. In any case, it wouldn–t affect my argument in any significant manner.)

10. “Ineptum,” although not quite the equivalent of “absurdum”, comes close to it. It does not carry the connotation of logical impossibility; but it does mean foolish or inappropriate.

11. Evans, E., Tertullian's Treatise on the Incarnation (London: S.P.C.K., 1956), p. x, and Tertullian's Treatise on the Resurrection (London: S.P.C.K., 1960), p. xiv, shows that what we have here is an actio prima and an actio secunda, as was common in forensic practice. He also shows how each of these two treatises follows the prescribed rules of rhetoric, although in a very imaginative fashion. On the same issue, see Sider, R. D., Ancient Rhetoric and the Art of Tertullian (London: Oxford University Press, 1971). On pp. 2728, Sider examines the rhetorical structure of De carne Christi.

12. Sider, pp. 13–14.

13. De carne Christi 3.1 “Necesse est, quatenus hoc putas arbitrio tuo licuisse, ut aut impossibilem aut inconvenientem deo existimaueris nativitatem,” Italics are mine.

14. Ibid.: “Sed deo nihil impossibile nisi quod non vult.”

15. Ibid., 3. 4–5: “‘Sed ideo’, inquis, ‘nego deum in hominem uere conuersum, ita ut et nasceretur et carne corporaretur, quia qui sine fine est etiam inconuertibilis sit necesse est. Converti enim in aliud finis est pristini. Non competit ergo conversio eius, cui non competit finis.’”

16. Ibid., 3. 6: “Alioquin par erit eorum, quae conversa amittunt quod fuerunt …”

17. Ibid., 4. 5: “Stulta mundi elegit deus, ut confundat sapientia.”

18. A point which has been very well made by Décarie, V., “Le paradoxe de Tertullien,” Vigiliae Christianae 15 (1961): 2331.

19. De carne Christi 4. 6. In numerous places, especially in De testimonio animae, Tertullian has shown that any wise man can know these.

20. Ibid., 4.5.

21. Adversus Praxean 10. 7: “Sed nihil Deo difficile, quis hoc nesciat? Et: Impossibilia apud saeoulum possibilia apud Deum, quis ignoret? Et: Stulta mundi elegit Deus, ut confundat sapientia. Legimus omnia.”

22. Ibid., 10.8: “Non autem, quia omnia potest facere, ideoque credendum est illum fecisse stiam quod non fecerit sed an fecerit requirendum.” Italics are mine.

23. Ibid., 10.8–9.

24. De praesc. haer. 7.10.

25. Ibid., 7.6: “Miserum Aristotelen! qui illis dialectican instituit, artificem struendi et destruendi, uersipellem in sententiis, coactam in coniecturis, duram in argumentis, operariam contentionum, molestam etiam sibi ipsam, omnia retractantem ne quid omino tractaverit.” Italics are mine.

26. See my comments on Adv. Prax., above.

27. De Pud. 22.11: “quaecumque auctoritas, quaecumque ratio.” If these two are not synonymous, at least they are two parallel ways in which the act of restoring murderers and fornicators could be justified by Tertullian's opponents.

28. Cicero, De Off. 3.113.

29. Ibid., 1.37; Cicero Topica 23.

30. In A History of Christian Thought (Nashville: Abingdon, 1970), 1: 181, I affirmed that Tertullian's conversion to Montanism invalidated his argument in De praesc. haer., and that it was for this reason that he felt compelled to write refutations of individual heresies. My uneasiness with that assertion was suggested at that time in a footnote, showing that in De praesc. haer. Tertullian had already promised such further refutations. I now have come to the conclusion that I must retract my earlier affirmation, for I find no evidence that Tertullian felt that there was any contradiction between his argument in De praesc. haer. and his having become a Montanist. On the contrary, in De carne Christi, which is clearly a Montanist work, he explicitly refers to De praesc. haer. as having refuted all heresies (De carne Christi 2.6).

31. De praesc. haer. 6.4: “Apostolos Domini habemus auctores qui nec ipsi quicquam exsuo arbitrio quod inducerent elegerunt, sed acceptam a Christo disciplinam fideliter nationibus adsignaverunt.”

32. Ibid., 37.3–4: habeo origines firmas ab ipsis auctoribus quorum fuit res. Ego sum heres apostolorum.”

33. Ibid., 32.6.

34. “Authority”, however, in the sense that the presence of the apostles Peter, Paul and John, the auctores, can be felt there, both in their “thrones”, and in their writings. “At hand”, because Tertullian has been suggesting various places where such authority may be found, and Rome is the nearest one (ibid., 36.1–6).

35. Philosophumena 9.67.

36. Adv. Prax. 1.5: “Ita duo negotia diaboli Praxeas Romae procuravit: prophetiam. expulit et haeresin intulit, Paracletum fugavit et Patrem crucifixit.”

37. De monogamia 2, 3.


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