CLASSICAL WORLD 73 (APRIL-MAY 1980), pp.417-9.


Paul Ciholas ("Plato: The Attic Moses", CW 72 [1978-79] 217-25) follows a venerable tradition in portraying Tertullian as a Christian who, though "aware of Greek philosophical tenets," nevertheless rejected rationalism and accepted a Gospel which addressed itself to the "non-rational levels of perception." Three centuries ago Sir Thomas Browne, man of science and letters, supported the authority of faith over reason by an appeal to Tertullian's certum, quia impossible est.1  By far the largest portion of modern scholarship, too, has understood Tertullian in this way. C. N. Cochrane in his widely read Christianity and Classical Culture has popularized the view that Tertullian was a fideist,2 while Tertullian's opposition to philosophy received a classic scholarly statement in André Labhardt's "Tertullien et la philosophie ou la recherche d'une position pure."3 Modern text-books written for the easy dissemination of Christian thought often follow uncritically the lead given by the majority of scholars.4 As Ciholas observes, two passages in particular have been extracted to demonstrate the anti-rationalist position of Tertullian: first, the famous credo quia absurdum, and second, the equally dramatic "Quid ergo Athenis et Hierosolymis." But the context of these two statements belies the evidence scholars have drawn from them.5

Credo quia absurdum is, of course, a misquote.6  Tertullian's words are credibile est, quia ineptum est (De carne Christi 5.4). The difference between the imputed and actual words is striking and important. James Moffatt in a sadly neglected article of a half-century ago discovered the clue to the interpretation of the words in observing that here Tertullian "follows in the footsteps of that cool philosopher Aristotle."7  In Rhetoric 2.23.22 Aristotle shows that an argument |[P.418] from probability can be drawn from the sheer improbability of a story: some stories are so improbable that it is reasonable to believe them. On this view, the words presuppose a tidy correlation between faith and reason, and a consideration of Tertullian's aims in the treatise in which they are found supports this interpretation.

In writing the De carne Christi Tertullian undertook to demonstrate that the flesh of Christ was real; in fact, was exactly what sense data made it appear to be to the rational mind. His opponents were a variety of "heretics" who refused to admit that Christ's flesh was like ours. The most formidable of these opponents was Marcion, who regarded the flesh of Christ as phantasmic - not, therefore, what it appeared to be - and it is to the refutation of Marcion that he devotes the first major portion of his treatise. In this debate two reasons constrained Tertullian to be thoroughly rationalistic. First, his case depended, as we have just seen, on the validity of mind and sense to establish truth. Second, Marcion rested his case, however perversely, on a claim to be absolutely logical. Hence his book of Antitheses, in which he showed impossible contradictions between Old and New Testaments; hence also his expurgation of the Gospel of Luke, and his Apostolicon which freed the New Testament from "later" accretions and made - to his mind - a logically consistent gospel.8 Tertullian was never a man to skirt an issue, and he readily saw that his case would be strengthened by using Marcion's own weapons against him. Consequently he shaped his argument against Marcion in this book into a calculated appeal to rational probability through methods established by a long tradition of rhetorical theory on the nature of conjecture, a tradition going back at least to Aristotle.9 It is significant that in this same chapter (5.7) Tertullian uses fides to mean not "blind faith," but "token of evidence." Moffatt then was right: in this context a sudden intrusion of anti-rationalism is improbable, and we should regard the whole section as a manifesto on behalf of reason in religious faith.

If the second passage, "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem," opposes Greek philosophy to the truth of the Bible, it is not because Tertullian is anti-rationalist, but, quite the reverse, because he looks upon heathen philosophy from a radically rationalist point of view which rejects falsehood of every kind. The words appear in the introduction to the De praescriptione haereticorum. This treatise is much more than its central, highly technical, argument proving that "heretics" have no right to use the Scriptures10 might suggest. It is, in fact, nothing less than a study in the nature of heresy: how and why do heresies exist? Tertullian explicates his answer in the lengthy introduction (1-14) and conclusion (39-44). If heresy emerges from Greek philosophy, it is because the two are at heart alike: a groping for truth on the part of men who do not know God. Never fully escaping the Stoicism once impressed upon him, Tertullian saw an essential continuity between God and the world. God is reason and the fundamental characteristic of the world created by him is rational order. Not to know the creative reason behind the world is to see in distorted forms - that is, in false-|[P.418]hoods, the "order" in the world.11 Accordingly, the portrait in chapter 41 of the disordered lives of heretics is drawn as a symbol of their disordered minds. In a similar way, philosophers, too, not knowing the God who created a rational order can only systematize the disordered perceptions they have of the world.

Tertullian recognizes, however, that in spite of its distortions, pagan philosophy has often enjoyed glimpses of the truth. In recalling his quotable strictures against philosophy, we must not forget his equally quotable Seneca saepe noster (De anima 20.1). In the Ad nationes, an early work, Socrates becomes a forerunner of the Christian martyrs, because he suffered, as they suffer, on behalf of the truth at the hands of those ignorant of it (1.4.6-7). If there is a change of tone in the more artful Apologeticum, Tertullian still grants that Socrates aliquid de veritate sapiebat deos negans (46.5).

Tertullian's position is not, in fact, substantially different from that of Greeks such as Clement and Origen. Here, too, we meet ambiguities. In the Protrepticus Clement stigmatizes the theories of philosophers as "old wives' tales" (6.67.1), and yet he is delighted that philosophers have sometimes hit upon the truth, though they have borrowed from the Bible (6.70.1-2). In the De principiis Origen contrasts the wisdom of this world with the wisdom of God, and attributes the false notions which prevail among the Greeks to the "spiritual princes of this world," who tried to destroy the Saviour (3.3.2-4). Yet Origen also believed that the philosophers of the "glorious and distinguished schools of Greece" shared in the divine Logos (Commentary on John 2.3.30).

In the second and third centuries Christians of both East and West generally accepted a common mythos about God and the world. They believed that the world was rationally ordered, because it was created by God through his reason, his Logos. The same Logos spoke to man through rational terms in the Revelation embodied in the Bible and in Jesus. Even apart from Christ, men have caught glimpses of the truth, whether borrowed from the Bible or gathered from the order of nature. Unfortunately, the demonic, in one form or another, has entered to distort the vision of man, so that pagan philosophy never attained the wholeness and integrity of truth. Such integrity can be found only in Christ, the Logos; but because he is the Logos the integrity of truth implies the necessity of rational perception. Differences in apologetic aims, in individual style, and in personal temperament led to formulations of the relationships between faith and reason, and Christianity and philosophy which undoubtedly varied in tone and emphasis, but the common commitment on the part of all the major Christian thinkers of the second and third centuries, including Tertullian, to a belief in Christ, the Logos, eliminated fideism as a possible mode of Christian self-understanding.

Dickinson College ROBERT D. SIDER

Notes to p.417:

1 Geoffrey Keynes (ed.), The Works of Sir Thomas Browne (Chicago 1964) vol. 1 , 18,

2 C.N. Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture (New York 1957) 222-24.

3 André Labhardt, "Tertullien et la philosophie ou la recherche d'une position pure." MH V I I (1950) 159-80.

4 Cf. for example, L.H. DeWolf, The Religious Revolt Against Reason (New York 1968): "More famous and thorough-going (than that of Tatian) is the irrationalism of Tertullian" (pp. 40-41).

5 Their position, indeed has not gone unassailed. In an article written many years ago, "Die natürliche Gotteserkenntnis bei Tertullian" (Zeitschrift für katholische Theologie [1927] 1-34, 217-51), Lorenz Feutzcher argued that reason and revelation were held together in a theologically adequate balance in Tertullian, and recently Timothy Barnes (Tertullian. A Historical and Literary Study [Oxford 1971] 210) has shown that Tertullian is willing to use both reason and philosophy in the interests of persuasion. But for a convincing statement of this case, it must be shown how the relationship between faith and reason, Christian revelation and classical philosophy is reflected in the literary form and motivation of Tertullian's writings, and how form and motivation, in turn, are controlled by fundamental theological presuppositions shared by Tertullian and other Christians of his day. I offer this note as a beginning to this task.

6 For a discussion of the source of the error, see Barnes, Tertullian 223, footnote 4.

7 James Moffatt, "Aristotle and Tertullian," Journal of Theological Studies 17 (1915- 16) 170-71.

Notes to p.418:

8 Adolf von Harnack's study, Marcion: das Evangelium vom fremden Gott (Leipzig 1921) includes a reconstruction of Marcion's Book of Antitheses, Gospel of Luke, and Apostolicon.

9 For some details, see my Ancient Rhetoric and the Art of Tertullian (Oxford 1971) 56-59.

10 The technical legal argument is worked out in detail by J. K. Stirnimann, Die Praescriptio Tertullians im Lichte des romischen Rechtes and der Theologie (Freiburg 1949).

Notes to p.419:

11 For a further explication of Tertullian's understanding of truth, see my "Tertullian: On The Shows," Journal of Theological Studies 29 (1978) 345-46, 358-59.

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