Tertullian’s writings spend a lot of time focusing on sin. It may be surprising then to find that he considers flesh to be blameless, without sin (other than what Adam gave it). Sin is vested in the soul and will. Something done without volition is not sinful. God created the flesh of man and it is good; a suitable vessel for the soul. Before his disobedience, Adam’s flesh was without sin; it is not inherently sinful or evil. If it was not good why would man be bodily resurrected? Most importantly, if it was not good, why would God have sent his son to dwell in it?
On the Flesh of Christ (de carne Christi) is largely an anti-heretical text written against various groups such as the Valentinians and Marcions who deny that Christ assumed the flesh as he would not have so demeaned himself. Keep in mind these groups believed that matter and/or flesh was corrupt or evil and that only the spirit was good. In this treatise Tertullian says that when Christ assumed the aspect of man he assumed all aspects of man including a fleshly existence and everything that comes with it. Tertullian isn’t quite as explicit as I’ll be but his inference is pretty clear. Do babies get diarrhea and poo all over their mothers? Then Christ as a baby may have messed all over his mother. Do Human bodies get sweaty and smell bad? Then Christ got sweaty and smelled bad. Is dying by crucifixion a shameful death? Then Christ died a shameful death.
In unlocking the door to man’s salvation, the Son of God was willing to accept every single aspect of the Human condition. Christ became hungry, he may have snored, he had excretory functions, and when he was hung from a tree he suffered. He did not have to do all of this, he chose to do all of this for man’s salvation. The denial of this by heretics, that Christ would not have subjected himself to such ignominy, is also a denial of man’s resurrection. And that Christ was able to assume the flesh and yet be wholly without sin, shows that in and of itself, flesh is sinless.
As with his other arguments, Tertullian builds this theme piece by piece and I’ll try to capture a sense of this by offering some quotes. Keep in mind that his thoughts on this are not confined to this one treatise. Tertullian uses his various themes in various places.
“’Away,’” says he[Marcion], ‘with that eternal plaguey taxing of Cæsar, and the scanty inn, and the squalid swaddling-clothes, and the hard stable. … Spare also the babe from circumcision, that he may escape the pain thereof; nor let him be brought into the temple, lest he burden his parents with the expense of the offering; nor let him be handed to Simeon, lest the old man be saddened at the point of death.'” On the Flesh of Christ, II
“Come now, beginning from the nativity itself, declaim against the uncleanness of the generative elements within the womb, the filthy concretion of fluid and blood, of the growth of the flesh for nine months long out of that very mire. … Of course you are horrified also at the infant, which is shed into life with the embarrassments which accompany it from the womb … Christ, at any rate, has loved even that man who was condensed in his mother’s womb amidst all its uncleannesses, even that man who was brought into life out of the said womb, even that man who was nursed amidst the nurse’s simpers. … If Christ is the Creator’s Son, it was with justice that He loved His own (creature) … Well, then, loving man He loved his nativity also, and his flesh as well. … Inquire again, then, of what things he spoke, and when you imagine that you have discovered what they are will you find anything to be so ‘foolish’ as believing in a God that has been born, and that of a virgin, and of a fleshly nature too, who wallowed in all the before-mentioned humiliations of nature?” On the Flesh of Christ, IV
“The sufferings attested His human flesh, the contumely proved its abject condition. Would any man have dared to touch even with his little finger, the body of Christ, if it had been of an unusual nature; or to smear His face with spitting, if it had not invited it (by its abjectness)? Why talk of a heavenly flesh, when you have no grounds to offer us for your celestial theory? Why deny it to be earthy, when you have the best of reasons for knowing it to be earthy? He hungered under the devil’s temptation; He thirsted with the woman of Samaria; He wept over Lazarus; He trembles at death (for ‘the flesh,’ as He says, “is weak”); at last, He pours out His blood.” On the Flesh of Christ, IX
I hope these are enough quotes to show where Tertullian was going with this.
A second point within this treatise relates this to the lack of inherent sinfulness in flesh. First he describes the heretical argument for why Christ must have only appeared to have been present in the flesh:
“But since Apelles’ precious set lay a very great stress on the shameful condition of the flesh, which they will have to have been furnished with souls tampered with by the fiery author of evil, and so unworthy of Christ … The world, then, must be a wrong thing, according to the evidence of its Creator’s repentance; for all repentance is the admission of fault, nor has it indeed any existence except through fault. Now, if the world is a fault, as is the body, such must be its parts — faulty too; so in like manner must be the heaven and its celestial (contents), and everything which is conceived and produced out of it. And ‘a corrupt tree must needs bring forth evil fruit.’ The flesh of Christ, therefore, if composed of celestial elements, consists of faulty materials, sinful by reason of its sinful origin; so that it must be a part of that substance which they disdain to clothe Christ with, because of its sinfulness, — in other words, our own.” On the Flesh of Christ, VIII
However by taking a fleshly body, Christ has removed the stain of sin from it:
“In the flesh, therefore, we say that sin has been abolished, because in Christ that same flesh is maintained without sin, which in man was not maintained without sin. Now, it would not contribute to the purpose of Christ’s abolishing sin in the flesh, if He did not abolish it in that flesh in which was the nature of sin, nor (would it conduce) to His glory. For surely it would have been no strange thing if He had removed the stain of sin in some better flesh, and one which should possess a different, even a sinless, nature! Then, you say, if He took our flesh, Christ’s was a sinful one. Do not, however, fetter with mystery a sense which is quite intelligible. For in putting on our flesh, He made it His own; in making it His own, He made it sinless.”
Flesh in and of itself is not sinful. It can carry sin. Adam gave it sin. But Christ has removed it. Through Christ, man’s flesh can become sinless, worthy of resurrection.
I’m not sure how influential this theme was on the development of Christianity. Did the Pelagians pick up on it and use it to declare that men could live completely sinless lives? Did Augustine oppose Tertullian when he wrote against the Pelagians or did he perhaps show that you can’t use this treatise without also considering Tertullian’s thoughts on Original Sin? I’ll be looking for this as I move forward.
One of the reasons I enjoyed this theme is that for once, Tertullian shows a glimpse of empathy toward people who weren’t him. Humans aren’t a complete messed up bucket of sins; the capacity for good is a part of every person’s being, incorporated into their flesh by a perfect God who creates nothing which isn’t good. This capacity for good is so much a part of man that God saw it as a fit attire for his son. It’s nice that he’s willing to provide this hopeful message regarding the Human condition. Without this treatise, I think someone reading Tertullian could be forgiven for thinking that he believes the Human Race is a pathetic, sinful mess.
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.