Tertullian II: Against Philosophy

02 Jan

I’m going to open this post with a brief discussion of Tertullian’s method of argument before moving on to where he represents a major change in the direction of religious discussion which is his opinion of philosophy itself. I wanted to talk about this before addressing areas where he has influenced the development of doctrine and dogma.

As I mentioned in the first post, Tertullian does not use methods of argument common to Platonism. Platonic discussions do not seek to arrive at “the truth” but to, through rational, reasoned argument and discourse, draw ever closer to an understanding of the truth. A Platonist will not want to shut off an argument. He will want to “win” it, but still this will not mean that all discussion has ended. The search for truth will go on and through good argument, Platonists will continually approach it.

Stoicism, which much more closely resembles Tertullian’s method, believes in a world in conflict where it has achieved a balance between opposites. There is good and evil, passion and dispassion, heat and cold, dry and wet. These opposites are at war with one another. In addition, truth is identifiable. It can be found and distinguished from fallacy. Tertullian approaches many (most?) of his topics as if he has the absolute truth. This does not mean that his arguments are less labyrinthine, complex and lengthy than, say, Clement of Alexandria’s. However Tertullian offers his opinions as truths, not something which may be interpreted to be the truth. While this approach is different from prior Christian writers, mostly, this still represents a Classical inheritance as Stoicism was an active philosophical school with many adherents.

Where Tertullian marks a substantial break from earlier Christian writers is his opinion of, and use of, ancient philosophers. He obviously has received a Classical Education. He refers to philosophers often enough (usually negatively) to reveal his knowledge. However for Tertullian, there is one source of truth. He relies almost exclusively (there are a few exceptions) on scripture when making his arguments. While some others use the Old Testament on a par with him, he easily outdistances all prior Christian authors in utilizing the New Testament. He uses the Gospels and Acts extensively and refers to the Pauline Letters even more. Unlike Clement or Origen, Christianity is not one of the schools of philosophy but The One Truth. Philosophers are in error and have been misled by Demons. For Tertullian the source of and inspiration for heresy is not any of the usual subjects; Simon Magus, Valentinus, Marcion, or even Lucifer. It is the philosophers:

“We should then be never required to try our strength in contests about the soul with philosophers, those patriarchs of heretics, as they may be fairly called. … Whatever noxious vapours, accordingly, exhaled from philosophy, obscure the clear and wholesome atmosphere of truth, it will be for Christians to clear away, both by shattering to pieces the arguments which are drawn from the principles of things — I mean those of the philosophers — and by opposing to them the maxims of heavenly wisdom — that is, such as are revealed by the Lord; in order that both the pitfalls wherewith philosophy captivates the heathen may be removed, and the means employed by heresy to shake the faith of Christians may be repressed.” Treatise on the Soul (de anima), III


“These are ‘the doctrines’ of men and ‘of demons’ produced for itching ears of the spirit of this world’s wisdom: this the Lord called ‘foolishness,’ and ‘chose the foolish things of the world’ to confound even philosophy itself. For (philosophy) it is which is the material of the world’s wisdom, the rash interpreter of the nature and the dispensation of God. Indeed heresies are themselves instigated by philosophy.Prescription Against Heretics (de praescriptione haereticorum), VII

OK, we’ve seen earlier Christian authors such as Irenaeus and Justin Martyr point out errors of philosophers, though I don’t recall anyone tossing out all of them at one time (Tertullian does name specific philosophical schools and even which heresies were inspired by which school). However where Tertullian foreshadows what would later become a common theme among Church authorities is with statements like this:

“From all these, when the apostle[Paul] would restrain us, he expressly names philosophy as that which he would have us be on our guard against. Writing to the Colossians, he says, ‘See that no one beguile you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, and contrary to the wisdom of the Holy Ghost.’ He had been at Athens, and had in his interviews (with its philosophers) become acquainted with that human wisdom which pretends to know the truth, whilst it only corrupts it, and is itself divided into its own manifold heresies, by the variety of its mutually repugnant sects. What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? what between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from ‘the porch of Solomon,’ who had himself taught that ‘the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart.’ Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief. For this is our palmary faith, that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides.” Prescription Against Heretics, VII

and, expounding on the meaning of Matthew, VIII, “Seek and Ye shall find:”

“You must ‘seek’ until you ‘find,’ and believe when you have found; nor have you anything further to do but to keep what you have believed provided you believe this besides, that nothing else is to be believed, and therefore nothing else is to be sought, after you have found and believed what has been taught by Him who charges you to seek no other thing than that which He has taught. When, indeed, any man doubts about this, proof will be forthcoming, that we have in our possession that which was taught by Christ. Meanwhile, such is my confidence in our proof, that I anticipate it, in the shape of an admonition to certain persons, not ‘to seek’ anything beyond what they have believed — that this is what they ought to have sought, how to avoid interpreting, ‘Seek, and ye shall find,’ without regard to the rule of reason.” Prescription Against Heretics, IX


“What you have ‘to seek,’ then, is that which Christ has taught, (and you must go on seeking) of course for such time as you fail to find, — until indeed you find it. But you have succeeded in finding when you have believed. For you would not have believed if you had not found; as neither would you have sought except with a view to find. Your object, therefore, in seeking was to find; and your object in finding was to believe. All further delay for seeking and finding you have prevented by believing. The very fruit of your seeking has determined for you this limit. This boundary has He set for you Himself, who is unwilling that you should believe anything else than what He has taught, or, therefore, even seek for it. If, however, because so many other things have been taught by one and another, we are on that account bound to go on seeking, so long as we are able to find anything, we must (at that rate) be ever seeking, and never believe anything at all.Prescription Against Heretics, X

and not to wear this point out but let me add:

“But yet, if I have believed what I was bound to believe, and then afterwards think that there is something new to be sought after, I of course expect that there is something else to be found, although I should by no means entertain such expectation, unless it were because I either had not believed, although I apparently had become a believer, or else have ceased to believe. If I thus desert my faith, I am found to be a denier thereof.Prescription Against Heretics, XI

I’ve bolded a few points for emphasis and probably overdid it with the number of quotes but we see this quite often as we move into the medieval period; where your run-of-the-mill Christian is instructed not to seek for further knowledge without the guidance of a learned cleric. Seeking after knowledge can be dangerous if someone isn’t there to help explain things. This type of prohibition/admonition really takes off in the later Middle Ages. Jan Hus, despite not seeming particularly heretical, is condemned and executed, largely for preaching the gospel though not a recognized cleric. Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible into the vernacular was condemned by the Church (though his anti-clericalism probably didn’t win him a lot of fans among the hierarchy).

There is an interesting twist though. The Church never, as far as I’m aware, officially forbade people to read philosophical texts. What they did forbid was for laypeople to preach or instruct, at least without religious supervision. And in the earlier Medieval Period they didn’t get that excited about people having copies of the Bible and a great many people had portions of a Bible; a prayer book or other devotional aid.

Still, when I read this admonition, it reminded me of Jerome; how he felt drawn to but despised philosophical writings. 1 And of course it also reminded me of the objections of religious authorities to someone going out and seeking after religious truth on his or her own, though this was never as extensively done as is sometimes portrayed. It was when I read this portion of Tertullian where I seriously started thinking of him as an anti-Clement. 2

This break with philosophy is important. During the first couple of centuries, Christian authors seemed to view their new belief system as one among many philosophical schools. After Nicaea, in particular when we get to the late 4th century, this had changed. Christianity was now the Truth. Christian authors still received Classical educations but now they used what they learned to utilize scripture to make their arguments. It was a merging of Classical and Christian which involved the use of Classical methods and Christian evidence. Their arguments were structured using scripture, not Plato. Tertullian is the first example of this that I’ve come across.

1 Jerome, Letters, XXII.30

2 I don’t mean that Tertullian writes in direct opposition, just that his ideas run in the opposite direction. Tertullian never mentions Clement, or Origen who is also much more Platonic, by name and, as far as I can tell, may not even be aware of their existence.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 1: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-083-1.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 2: Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (entire), Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004). ISBN: 1-56563-084-X.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 3: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian: I. Apologetic; II. Anti-Marcion; III. Ethical. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-086-6.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 4: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, Part Fourth: Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-086-6.

Schaff, Philip and Wace, Henry, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series Volume 3: Theodoret, Jerome, Gennadius, Rufinus: Historical Writings, etc. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2012), ISBN(for series): 978-1-56563-116-8.

Schaff, Philip and Wace, Henry, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series Volume 6: The Principal Works of St. Jerome. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2012), ISBN(for series): 978-1-56563-116-8.

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Posted by on January 2, 2014 in Religion


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