Pause Tape: Tertullian?

We were whizzing through our Very Brief History of Faith & Reason (Part I: From the Dawn of Time to the Middle Ages) when an unexpected name came up (unexpected, that is, for moi): Tertullian. Specifically, this oddly modern-sounding statement: “I believe because it is absurd” (credo quia absurdum). Like a line from Alfred Jarry’s great Dada classic “Ubu Roi.” (Jarry quote: “You’re looking exceptionally ugly tonight, madame. Is that because we have company?”)

Tertullian Was There In Spirit

What do we here at The God Project Dot Net know about this Roman cat Tertullian? Hmm. Well, he’s Roman. A lawyer. Also a historian — his annals about something are quoted a lot in histories of the early church. He has some disputed quotes about the historical Jesus. (Or is that Tacitus?) He’s considered a so-called Church Father, which makes him beloved of Roman Catholics, professors, and nobody else. And?

… because it is absurd?” This phrase seems to open the cargo bay doors, Hal, to all manner of beliefs. I believe the dead walk by night because it is absurd. I believe Justin Bieber is a genius because it is absurd. I follow The God Project Dot Net because it speaks the Truth. (Hah – fooled ya!)

Turns out, as usual, popular academic culture’s caricature of Tertullian’s statement is too simple by half. There’s a thorough reference site called The Tertullian Project that shows the scope of this bro’s life and work. He was born about a century after Jesus’ death in North Africa to a captain in the Roman legion; well educated, he worked as a lawyer until he turned 40 and converted to Christianity.

Game on. He became an eloquent early Christian apologist — which, in the technical sense, doesn’t mean he was apologizing for the faith but presenting an Apologia, or reasoned legal defense against opponents. In fact, he wrote a work called The Apology that makes the famous statement: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” (paraphrasing), meaning “If you Romans don’t kill us, you make us stronger.” Later, he took a hard line against the relevance of pagan philosophy — even brilliant pagan philosophy — to faith. “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?

Which gets us to “… because it is absurd.” Other early apologists like Justin Martyr (actually a guy named Justin who was martyred so famously it became his name) — they argued strenuously that someone like Socrates can be seen as a kind of Christian prequel; and in this, described the line the great later theologians like Augustine and Aquinas would take. Not Tertullian. Faith was faith, the Truth supreme, quite beyond the understanding of the sharpest unbeliever.

But “… absurd“? Here’s the passage, from Tertullian’s “De Carne Christi” (“The Body of Christ”):

“The Son of God was born: there is no shame, because it is shameful.
And the Son of God died: it is wholly credible, because it is unsound.
And, buried, He rose again: it is certain, because impossible.” (5:4)

Pause tape. Rewind. “I believe because it is absurd” — if you look again — is not actually in the quote. The famous “quote” is a famous mis-quote. But what does it mean?

In context, Tertullian was arguing against Marcion, who took hyper-rationality to an extreme, arguing in his Antitheses that because of the many, many rational contradictions in the Hebrew Bible and between it and the New Testament, Christians should utterly reject Judaism and its books. (He only liked Luke and parts of Paul.) Marcion and other Gnostics also believed it was “absurd” to think Christ could be an actual human being and a God. Tertullian is taking a stand against the absolute requirement for literal rationality in faith, and in fact his view is current Christian orthodoxy. Tertullian won.

In context, then, his statement means simply that cold rationality does not apply in the case of the revolutionary super-truth of Christ. In fact, the apparent absurdity of some of its truth claims — Jesus is God and man, God is three but one, Christians are Jews but not Jews — makes them more credible, in the way you’d expect a once-in-a-lifetime world-changing event to be qualitatively different from every other event.

Aristotle made a similar point in his Rhetoric: If something is widely believed, and is totally unlikely, its very unlikeliness makes it more likely to be true, since people have an inherent bias for likelihood. So in saying “It is certain, because impossible” about the Resurrection event, what Tertullian is saying, in effect, is: “A lot of people believe this thing, based on transcribed eyewitness testimony, and it’s so incredibly unlikely that it’s actually more rational to believe that it did happen.

Both our old friend Ziggy Freud and H. L. Mencken ridiculed Tertullian’s statement as showing how stupid Christians are. And again, we find it’s easier to ridicule a (misquoted) sentence than a complicated argument, especially one that alludes to Aristotle.

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