Christians should be thinkers and thinkers should be readers. Christian apologists should be critical thinkers and should read critically. That’s the purpose for this special series.
As we have seen so far in our series about A Reading Plan for Christian Apologists, the writings of Christ’s Apostles are vital to sound doctrine; the writings of the disciples of the apostles and the disciples of the disciples of the apostles are important to understanding how they defended the teaching of Christ and His Apostles. Christian apologetics is by definition a “defense” of the Christian faith.
We continue now with our look at some of the leading Christian apologists of the 2nd century. Next up is Tertullian.
Quintus Septimus Florens Tertullianus was born in ancient Carthage (now in Tunisia) about 160 AD. Carthage was second only to Rome as a cultural and education center in the West (Britannica.com). Tertullian wrote in Latin and is often thought of as the founder of Latin Christian theology.
Tertullian’s father was an army officer and not a Christian. Tertullian was educated in law and worked for a time in the practice of law. He became a Christian in his mid-30s and used his writing skills to argue powerfully for the Christian faith.
Tertullian began writing towards the end of the 2nd century, his undisputed works dating from c. 196 to c. 212 (New Dictionary of Theology, IVP Academic, 2016, p 894). He wrote in defense of Christianity and against those who opposed the Christian worldview. His works include Apologeticum, Adversus Marcionem, Adversus Hermogenem, Adversus Valentinianos, De resurrectione carnis, De praescriptione haereticorum, De idollatria, Ad Nationes, and De fuga in persecutione.
Tertullilan’s apologetics focused on four primary topics: Verbal attack, Ethics, Religions, and Philosophy (New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics, IVP Academic, 2006, p 694-695). His most famous work is thought to be The Apology.
In the last years of Tertullian’s life he became a Montanist, then started his own movement that became known as the Tertullianists. The group is believed to have existed until the 5th century in Africa. Many ancient Christians were unforgiving of Tertullilan’s journey to the heresy of Montanism (based on the prophecies of Montanus who reportedly fell into a trance and began to prophesy under the influence of the Holy Spirit).
Here are some highlights from Tertullian’s writings. As you read these excerpts, think about modern heresies and how Christian apologists should address them today. We will include a link to all of his writings at the end of this article.
The Apology, Chapter I
“Rulers of the Roman Empire, if, seated for the administration of justice on your lofty tribunal, under the gaze of every eye, and occupying there all but the highest position in the state, you may not openly inquire into and sift before the world the real truth in regard to the charges made against the Christians; if in this case alone you are afraid or ashamed to exercise your authority in making public inquiry with the carefulness which becomes justice; if, finally, the extreme severities inflicted on our people in recently private judgments, stand in the way of our being permitted to defend ourselves before you, you cannot surely forbid the Truth to reach your ears by the secret pathway of a noiseless book. She has no appeals to make to you in regard of her condition, for that does not excite her wonder. She knows that she is but a sojourner on the earth, and that among strangers she naturally finds foes; and more than this, that her origin, her dwelling-place, her hope, her recompense, her honours, are above. One thing, meanwhile, she anxiously desires of earthly rulers–not to be condemned unknown. What harm can it do to the laws, supreme in their domain, to give her a hearing? Nay, for that part of it, will not their absolute supremacy be more conspicuous in their condemning her, even after she has made her plea? But if, unheard, sentence is pronounced against her, besides the odium of an unjust deed, you will incur the merited suspicion of doing it with some idea that it is unjust, as not wishing to hear what you may not be able to hear and condemn. We lay this before you as the first ground on which we urge that your hatred to the name of Christian is unjust. And the very reason which seems to excuse this injustice (I mean ignorance) at once aggravates and convicts it. For what is there more unfair than to hate a thing of which you know nothing, even though it deserve to be hated? Hatred is only merited when it is known to be merited. But without that knowledge, whence is its justice to be vindicated? for that is to be proved, not from the mere fact that an aversion exists, but from acquaintance with the subject. When men, then, give way to a dislike simply because they are entirely ignorant of the nature of the thing disliked, why may it not be precisely the very sort of thing they should not dislike? So we maintain that they are both ignorant while they hate us, and hate us unrighteously while they continue in ignorance, the one thing being the result of the other either way of it. The proof of their ignorance, at once condemning and excusing their injustice, is this, that those who once hated Christianity because they knew nothing about it, no sooner come to know it than they all lay down at once their enmity. From being its haters they become its disciples. By simply getting acquainted with it, they begin now to hate what they had formerly been, and to profess what they had formerly hated; and their numbers are as great as are laid to our charge. The outcry is that the State is filled with Christians–that they are in the fields, in the citadels, in the islands: they make lamentation, as for some calamity, that both sexes, every age and condition, even high rank, are passing over to the profession of the Christian faith; and yet for all, their minds are not awakened to the thought of some good they have failed to notice in it.” Translated by S. Thelwall, Late Scholar of Christ’s College
The Prescription Against Heretics
“THE character of the times in which we live is such as to call forth from us even this admonition, that we ought not to be astonished at the heresies (which abound) neither ought their existence to surprise us, for it was foretold that they should come to pass; nor the fact that they subvert the faith of some, for their final cause is, by affording a trial to faith, to give it also the opportunity of being “approved.” Groundless, therefore, and inconsiderate is the offence of the many who are scandalized by the very fact that heresies prevail to such a degree. How great (might their offence have been) if they had not existed. When it has been determined that a thing must by all means be, it receives the (final) cause for which it has its being. This secures the power through which it exists, in such a way that it is impossible for it not to have existence.” Chapter I, Translated by Peter Holmes
“On this point, however, we dwell no longer, since it is the same Paul who, in his Epistle to the Galatians, counts “heresies” among “the sins of the flesh,” who also intimates to Titus, that “a man who is a heretic” must be “rejected after the first admonition,” on the ground that “he that is such is perverted, and committeth sin, as a self-condemned man.” Indeed, in almost every epistle, when enjoining on us (the duty) of avoiding false doctrines, he sharply condemns heresies. Of these the practical effects are false doctrines, called in Greek heresies, a word used in the sense of that choice which a man makes when he either teaches them (to others) or takes up with them (for himself). For this reason it is that he calls the heretic condemned, because he has himself chosen that for which he is condemned. We, however, are not permitted to cherish any object after our own will, nor yet to make choice of that which another has introduced of his private fancy. In the Lord’s apostles we possess our authority; for even they did not of themselves choose to introduce anything, but faithfully delivered to the nations (of mankind) the doctrine which they had received from Christ. If, therefore, even “an angel from heaven should preach any other gospel” (than theirs), he would be called accursed by us.” Chapter VI
The Five Books Against Marcion, Book I
“The heretic of Pontus introduces two Gods, like the twin Symplegades of his own shipwreck: One whom it was impossible to deny, i.e. our Creator; and one whom he will never be able to prove, i.e. his own god. The unhappy man gained the first idea of his conceit from the simple passage of our Lord’s saying, which has reference to human beings and not divine ones, wherein He disposes of those examples of a good tree and a corrupt one; how that “the good tree bringeth not forth corrupt fruit, neither the corrupt tree good fruit.” Which means, that an honest mind and good faith cannot produce evil deeds, any more than an evil disposition can produce good deeds. Now (like many other persons now-a-days, especially those who have an heretical proclivity), while morbidly brooding over the question of the origin of evil, his perception became blunted by the very irregularity of his researches; and when he found the Creator declaring, “I am He that createth evil,” inasmuch as he had already concluded from other arguments, which are satisfactory to every perverted mind, that God is the author of evil, so he now applied to the Creator the figure of the corrupt tree bringing forth evil fruit, that is, moral evil, and then presumed that there ought to be another god, after the analogy of the good tree producing its good fruit. Accordingly, finding in Christ a different disposition, as it were–one of a simple and pure benevolence–differing from the Creator, he readily argued that in his Christ had been revealed a new and strange divinity; and then with a little leaven he leavened the whole lump of the faith, flavouring it with the acidity of his own heresy.” Chapter II, Translated by Dr. Holmes
“But on what principle did Marcion confine his supreme powers to two? I would first ask, If there be two, why not more? Because if number be compatible with the substance of Deity, the richer you make it in number the better. Valentinus was more consistent and more liberal; for he, having once imagined two deities, Bythos and Sige, poured forth a swarm of divine essences, a brood of no less than thirty AEgons, like the sow of AEneas. Now, whatever principle refuses to admit several supreme begins, the same must reject even two, for there is plurality in the very lowest number after one. After unity, number commences. So, again, the same principle which could admit two could admit more. After two, multitude begins, now that one is exceeded. In short, we feel that reason herself expressly forbids the belief in more gods than one, because the self-same rule lays down one God and not two, which declares that God must be a Being to which, as the great Supreme, nothing is equal; and that Being to which nothing is equal must, moreover, be unique. But further, what can be the use or advantage in supposing two supreme beings, two co-ordinate powers? What numerical difference could there be when two equals differ not from one? For that thing which is the same in two is one. Even if there were several equals, all would be just as much one, because, as equals, they would not differ one from another. So, if of two beings neither differs from the other, since both of them are on the supposition supreme, both being gods, neither of them is more excellent than the other; and so, having no pre-eminence, their numerical distinction has no reason in it. Number, moreover, in the Deity ought to be consistent with the highest reason, or else His worship would be brought into doubt. For consider now, if, when I saw two Gods before me (who, being both Supreme Beings, were equal to each other), I were to worship them both, what should I be doing? I should be much afraid that the abundance of my homage would be deemed superstition rather than piety. Because, as both of them are so equal and are both included in either of the two, I might serve them both acceptably in only one; and by this very means I should attest their equality and unity, provided that I worshipped them mutually the one in the other, because in the one both are present to me. If I were to worship one of the two, I should be equally conscious of seeming to pour contempt on the uselessness of a numerical distinction, which was superfluous, because it indicated no difference; in other words, I should think it the safer course to worship neither of these two Gods than one of them with some scruple of conscience, or both of them to none effect.” Chapter V
“WE are accustomed, for the purpose of shortening argument, to lay down the rule against heretics of the lateness of their date. For in as far as by our rule, priority is given to the truth, which also foretold that there would be heresies, in so far must all later opinions be prejudged as heresies, being such as were, by the more ancient rule of truth, predicted as (one day) to happen. Now, the doctrine of Hermogenes has this taint of novelty. He is, in short, a man living in the world at the present time; by his very nature a heretic, and turbulent withal, who mistakes loquacity for eloquence, and supposes impudence to be firmness, and judges it to be the duty of a good conscience to speak ill of individuals. Moreover, he despises God’s law in his painting, maintaining repeated marriages, alleges the law of God in defence of lust, and yet despises it in respect of his art. He falsities by a twofold process–with his cautery and his pen. He is a thorough adulterer, both doctrinally and carnally, since he is rank indeed with the contagion of your marriage-hacks, and has also failed in cleaving to the rule of faith as much as the apostle’s own Hermogenes. However, never mind the man, when it is his doctrine which I question. He does not appear to acknowledge any other Christ as Lord, though he holds Him in a different way; but by this difference in his faith he really makes Him another being,–nay, he takes from Him everything which is God, since he will not have it that He made all things of nothing. For, turning away from Christians to the philosophers, from the Church to the Academy and the Porch, he learned there from the Stoics how to place Matter (on the same level) with the Lord, just as if it too had existed ever both unborn and unmade, having no beginning at all nor end, out of which, according to him, the Lord afterwards created all things.” Chapter I, Translated by Dr. Holmes
“Our very bad painter has coloured this his primary shade absolutely without any light, with such arguments as these: He begins with laying down the premiss, that the Lord made all things either out of Himself, or out of nothing, or out of something; in order that, after he has shown that it was impossible for Him to have made them either out of Himself or out of nothing, he might thence affirm the residuary proposition that He made them out of something, and therefore that that something was Matter. He could not have made all things, he says, of Himself; because whatever things the Lord made of Himself would have been parts of Himself; but He is not dissoluble into parts,, because, being the Lord, He is indivisible, and unchangeable, and always the same. Besides, if He had made anything out of Himself, it would have been something of Himself. Everything, however, both which was made and which He made must be accounted imperfect, because it was made of a part, and He made it of a part; or if, again, it was a whole which He made, who is a whole Himself, He must in that case have been at once both a whole, and yet not a whole; because it behaved Him to be a whole, that He might produce Himself, and yet not a whole, that He might be produced out of Himself. But this is a most difficult position. For if He were in existence, He could not be made, for He was in existence already; if, however, he were not in existence He could not make, because He was a nonentity. He maintains, moreover, that He who always exists, does not came into existence, but exists for ever and ever. He accordingly concludes that He made nothing out of Himself, since He never passed into such a condition as made it possible for Him to make anything out of Himself. In like manner, he contends that He could not have made all things out of nothing–thus: He defines the Lord as a being who is good, nay, very good, who must will to make things as good and excellent as He is Himself; indeed it were impossible for Him either to will or to make anything which was not good, nay, very good itself. Therefore all things ought to have been made good and excellent by Him, after His own condition. Experience shows, however, that things which are even evil were made by Him: not, of course, of His own will and pleasure; because, if it had been of His own will and pleasure, He would be sure to have made nothing unfitting or unworthy of Himself. That, therefore, which He made not of His own will must be understood to have been made from the fault of something, and that is from Matter, without a doubt.” Chapter II
“At this point, then, I shall begin to treat of Matter, how that, (according to Hermogenes,) God compares it with Himself as equally unborn, equally unmade, equally eternal, set forth as being without a beginning, without an end. For what other estimate’s of God is there than eternity? What other condition has eternity than to have ever existed, and to exist yet for evermore by virtue of its privilege of having neither beginning nor end? Now, since this is the property of God, it will belong to God alone, whose property it is–of course on this ground, that if it can be ascribed to any other being, it will no longer be the property of God, but will belong, along with Him, to that being also to which it is ascribed. For “although there be that are called gods” in name, “whether in heaven or in earth, yet to us there is but one God the Father, of whom are all things;” whence the greater reason why, in our view, that which is the property of God ought to be regarded as pertaining to God alone, and why (as I have already said) that should cease to be such a property, when it is shared by another being. Now, since He is God, it must necessarily be a unique mark of this quality, that it be confined to One. Else, what will be unique and singular, if that is not which has nothing equal to it? What will be principal, if that is not which is above all things, before all things, and from which all things proceed? By possessing these He is God alone, and by His sole possession of them He is One. If another also shared in the possession, there would then be as many gods as there were possessors of these attributes of God. Hermogenes, therefore, introduces two gods: he introduces Matter as God’s equal. God, however, must be One, because that is God which is supreme; but nothing else can be supreme than that which is unique; and that cannot possibly be unique which has anything equal to it; and Matter will be equal with God when it is held to be eternal.” Chapter IV
Against the Valentinians
“The Valentinians, who are no doubt a very large body of heretics–comprising as they do so many apostates from the truth, who have a propensity for fables, and no discipline to deter them (therefrom) care for nothing so much as to obscure what they preach, if indeed they (can be said to) preach who obscure their doctrine. The officiousness with which they guard their doctrine is an officiousness which betrays their guilt. Their disgrace is proclaimed in the very earnestness with which they maintain their religious system. Now, in the case of those Eleusinian mysteries, which are the very heresy of Athenian superstition, it is their secrecy that is their disgrace. Accordingly, they previously beset all access to their body with tormenting conditions; and they require a long initiation before they enrol (their members), even instruction during five years for their perfect disciples, in order that they may mould their opinions by this suspension of full knowledge, and apparently raise the dignity of their mysteries in proportion to the craving for them which they have previously created. Then follows the duty of silence. Carefully is that guarded, which is so long in finding. All the divinity, however, lies in their secret recesses: there are revealed at last all the aspirations of the fully initiated, the entire mystery of the sealed tongue, the symbol of virility. But this allegorical representation, under the pretext of nature’s reverend name, obscures a real sacrilege by help of an arbitrary symbol, and by empty images obviates the reproach of falsehood! In like manner, the heretics who are now the object of our remarks, the Valentinians, have formed Eleusinian dissipations of their own, consecrated by a profound silence, having nothing of the heavenly in them but their mystery. By the help of the sacred names and titles and arguments of true religion, they have fabricated the vainest and foulest figment for men’s pliant liking, out of the affluent suggestions of Holy Scripture, since from its many springs many errors may well emanate. If you propose to them inquiries sincere and honest, they answer you with stern look and contracted brow, and say, “The subject is profound.” If you try them with subtle questions, with the ambiguities of their double tongue, they affirm a community of faith (with yourself). If you intimate to them that you understand their opinions, they insist on knowing nothing themselves. If you come to a close engagement with them they destroy your own fond hope of a victory over them by a self-immolation. Not even to their own disciples do they commit a secret before they have made sure of them. They have the knack of persuading men before instructing them; although truth persuades by teaching, but does not teach by first persuading.” Chapter I, Translated by Dr. Roberts
You can read more of Tertullian’s writings here.
We will look at some of the apologetic writings of Clement of Alexander in the next installment of our series about A Reading Plan for Christian Apologists.