Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Question of Apologetics and Tertullian

Reading N°54 in the History of the Catholic Church

 Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

Tertullian, the son of a pagan centurion, was born at Carthage about AD 160. He was carefully educated, made a thorough study of the Greek language and of jurisprudence, and for some years practiced law.[1] Shortly before AD 197, he was converted to Christianity, and was soon afterwards ordained to the priesthood. He began at once to display an incredible activity against the enemies of the Church.

Tertullian was first of all a polemic. He was possessed of a vigorous mind, a rare scholarship, and perfect mastery of Latin, to which he added new words and phrases. He was quick in repartee and sharp in speech; but his reasoning is more dazzling than reliable, and his arguments are often inspired by passion. In one place he writes:
Unhappily, I am always dominated by the fever of impatience.[2]
 Like St. Justin, Tertullian experienced the strength and the weakness of many philosophies before settling down in the Christian faith.[3] But, whereas Justin retained some friendly feeling for the systems he had left, Tertullian never finds enough epithets with which to belabor the pagan philosophers, those mountebanks, those despisers of God and man,[4] those patriarchs of heretics,[5] those animals of glory.

A recent historian of Tertullian's philosophy[6] has been able, by utilizing the researches of Nöldechen and Monceaux, to determine with almost certain assurance the date of the first works of the celebrated African priest. It must have been in AD 197 that he wrote his Ad nationes and his Apologeticus; in AD 197, his Testimony of the Soul; about AD 200, his treatise De praescriptione. The Ad nationes is an apology of the Christian religion addressed to the pagan nations; the Apologeticus is a plea addressed to the provincial magistrates of the Empire; the De praescriptione, his masterpiece, is directed against all heresies. Even in his first works, Tertullian makes known his threefold purpose: to confound paganism, to refute Judaism, and to pursue the last remains of the Gnostic heresy.

Amid incomparable beauties, his apologetic contains regrettable gaps and dubious rashness. When he looks for a sincere testimony about man, we see that he too disdainfully rejects that of philosophy; but with vigor and penetration he analyzes the deep aspirations of what he calls the soul of the artless man.
These testimonies of the soul are simple as true, commonplace as simple, universal as commonplace, natural as universal, divine as natural. [...] That which is derived from God is rather obscured than extinguished. It bears testimony to God [its author] in exclamations such as: 'Good God! God knows!' etc. [...] Therefore, when the soul embraces the faith [...] it beholds the light in all its brightness.[7]
But it would be wrong to suppose that in proposing a way to lead souls to the faith, Tertullian despises reason. The very center of his whole argument is the divinity of Christ. For this, he appeals to three proofs: the testimony of the Old Testament prophecies, of the Gospel miracles, and of the annals of the early Church. In the paradoxical exaltation of his high-minded fervor, he does indeed boast of the abasements in the Gospel and of the scandal of reason, going so far as to write, if not, "Credo quia absurdum" (I believe, because it is absurd), which is neither his nor St. Augustine's, at least an equivalent phrase, "Credibile est quia ineptum; certum est quia impossibile."[8] He means that the object of faith is that which reason without revelation would not perceive as something fitting or possible. The fiery apologist is so ardently convinced, and feels his conviction so keenly, that he cannot imagine that the truth, so clear to him, does not appear equally clear to others. Yet he writes this sentence, worthy of a real psychologist:
Faith, destined to a great reward, is acquired only at the price of great labor.[9]
The superb peroration of Tertullian's Apologeticus will illustrate his animated and captivating eloquence.
Your courts are battlefields where we contest for the truth. Sometimes death ensues. It is our victory over you. Sacrifice, excellent magistrates, sacrifice Christians; the mob will thank you. Torment, torture, condemn, grind; your injustice will reveal our innocence. Therefore does God let you go ahead. When your hand harvests us, we increase; the blood of Christians is a seed (Semen est sanguis christianorum).Your philosophers have made less disciples by their writings than Christians have by their example. People come to us out of curiosity; they join us through conviction; then they long to suffer that they may wash away their sins in their blood; for martyrdom wipes out everything. It is a strange contrast between things divine and things human: when you condemn us, God absolves us.
In his Ad nationes, in the Testimony of the Soul and in the Apologeticus, Tertullian has pagans and Jews in mind; his De praescriptione is addressed to the heretics.

With marvelous penetration, Tertullian conceives two ways of refuting heresies: an analytical method, resting on a detailed discussion of texts and points of doctrine; a synthetic method, settling the question as a whole by the simple establishing of a fact. He later uses the first method in defending the idea of God against the dualism of Marcion and the pantheism of Valentinus and the idea of creation against the doctrine of Hermogenes. But first he wishes to show how all heresy, that is, every doctrine resting on individual choice (hairesis), on unrestrained inquiry, may be averted by a preliminary question. Tertullian makes appeal to his knowledge of the law. He knows that before the courts there are nice points of non-acceptance, of exceptions as the Roman law calls them, among which the principal one is prescription, peremptory exception by which a possessor, under certain conditions, without any other procedure, sets aside any claim of a third party to his property. Tertullian pleads prescription against every heresy, whatever it may be.

He takes his start from a series of undeniable facts, namely, that Christ has entrusted His teaching to His Apostles, that the latter have handed it on to the churches they founded, and that from these Apostolic churches have sprung all the others, like shoots inseparable from their common stock. In other words, the method instituted by Christ for the spread of His teaching is tradition, and the authentic organ of that tradition is the Church, in so far as it is connected with the Apostles by an uninterrupted chain. Hence, no one is allowed to appeal to his own personal interpretation against her. Tertullian says:
Who are you? When and whence did you come? As you are none of mine, what have you to do with that which is mine? Indeed, Marcion, by what right do you hew my wood? By whose permission, Valentinus, are you diverting the streams of my fountain? This is my property. I have long possessed it. I am the heir of the Apostles.[10]
We can scarcely imagine a more overwhelming fervor. This very fervor does at times speak in rough, bitter tones, in which passion has too great a part. In his De spectaculis, which appeared about AD 200, the "severe African" cannot suppress his satisfaction at the thought of the future punishment of the persecutors.
What a spectacle is that fast-approaching advent of our Lord, now owned by all, now highly exalted, now a triumphant One. [...] What there excites my admiration? Which sight gives me joy? Which arouses me to exultation? - as I see so many illustrious monarchs, whose reception into the heavens was publicly announced, groaning now in the lowest darkness. [...] Governors of provinces, too, who persecuted the Christian name, in fires more fierce than those with which in the days of their pride they raged against the followers of Christ! What world's wise men besides, the very philosophers now covered with shame! Poets also trembling before the judgment-seat of Christ. The tragedians, louder voiced in their own calamity, the play-actors, much more 'dissolute' in the dissolving flame.[11]
Christian apologetics strikes a gentler note with the Octavius of Minutius Felix and the Epistle to Diognetus.

Was Tertullian's Apologeticus published before or after the Octavius? Critical study has not yet found a definite answer to this question, but it has concluded that the latter work was written in the last years of the second century. It is in the form of a dialogue. Its author, like Tertullian, was a lawyer and perhaps an African. But there is a contrast between the two. Minutius Felix avoids whatever may be offensive to the prejudices of the pagan scholars he is addressing. He lays stress on the depravity of polytheism and clears Christianity of the calumnies heaped upon it. But to establish his arguments, he appeals to the wise men of Greece and Rome rather than to the sacred writers. The mysteries of the Christian faith are left in the background. The author's aim is not to bring his reader into the interior of the temple, but to facilitate the approach to it. Even when most sharply criticizing the pagan horrors, his words breathe a contagious mildness. Its artistic composition and elegant style have given this little dialogue the title of "the pearl of Christian apologetics." The best profane writers of the second century - Frontinus, Aulus Gellius, Apuleius - cannot refuse the author of Octavius a place in the foremost ranks.

The same charm of style and the same gentleness are to be found in another small work, written in Greek, by an unknown author and at a date that can be determined only approximately. Probably it should be put at the close of the second century or, as Zeller and Funk think, in the first years of the third. The work is the Epistle to Diognetus.

The author's principal argument consists in describing the supernatural life led by true Christians, then in showing how the Church, the depositary of the treasure of Revelation and dispenser of grace through the Sacraments, is not merely the divinely organized "economy" for the sanctification of a chosen few, but also, either by the radiant influence of its virtues or by the blessings it draws down upon the world, an instrument of salvation for all mankind. With fine depth of thought, the writer says:
To speak simply, what the soul is in the body, Christians are in the world. [...] The flesh detests the soul and makes war upon it, because it is prevented by the soul from indulging freely in pleasure; the world for the same reason detests Christians. [...] The soul is confined in the body, and does itself hold the body in check; the Christians are in the world as in a prison, and they restrain the world.[12]


[1] It is doubtful whether we should attribute to him the passages introduced in the Pandects under the name of Tertullian.
[2] Tertullian, De patientia, Chapter 1.
[3] Apologeticus, 46.
[4] Ad nationes, Book 1, passim.
[5] De anima, 3.
[6] D'Alès, La Théologie de Tertullien.
[7] De anima, 5; 41.
[8] De carne Christi, 5.
[9] Apologeticus, 21.
[10] De praescriptione, 37.
[11] De spectaculis, 30.
[12] Letter to Diognetus, VI, 1, 5-7.


Join the discussion at:

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated according to both content and form. If you would like to keep your comments private, please indicate this, and include your email if you would like a personal response. Thank you for commenting.