Monday, February 28, 2011

What Does Athens Have To Do With Jerusalem?

The Biblical authors, as well as ancient Jews and Christians in general, are often dismissed as unreasonable. The criticism takes different forms, and the appropriate response depends on how the objection is nuanced. Ancient Jews and Christians, or ancient people in general, will be accused of being gullible, superstitious, unconcerned with evidence, or anti-intellectual, for example. Sometimes they're even criticized for their ignorance of modern science. Apparently, Matthew's ignorance of the latest theories in physics or Paul's ignorance of the latest astronomical discoveries makes that Biblical author unreliable in what he reports about the activities of Pontius Pilate or whether he saw the risen Jesus. I've responded to these kinds of objections in the past. I've often recommended Glenn Miller's treatment of the subject. I've discussed some passages in Origen's treatise Against Celsus that are often misused in support of the notion that ancient Christians were irrational.

What I want to do in this post is address two passages in Tertullian that are often cited in this context:

"What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?" (The Prescription Against Heretics, 7)

"And the Son of God died; it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd. And He was buried, and rose again; the fact is certain, because it is impossible." (On The Flesh Of Christ, 5)

As with the passages in Origen, reading the immediate and larger contexts goes a long way in correcting the common misuse of these passages. Tertullian wasn't the sort of fideist or irrationalist he's often made out to be.

The following are some of the comments Eric Osborn made about these two passages in Tertullian. Osborn was a scholar who specialized in the study of second-century Christianity, and one of his books was about Tertullian. The following is from that book:

He [Tertullian] gave reasons and set out arguments. Interpreters with wide knowledge of early Christian thought have singled out his intellectual quality as pre-eminent. To this strength he added the rarer gifts of paradox, metaphor and wit, all necessary for a thinker who fashions a language....

Third, he was engaged in vigorous controversy, where a kind of brilliance was needed. Most of what he wrote was directed against someone....

These two claims [in the two passages in Tertullian quoted above] have become slogans in fideist alternatives to the Enlightenment where they have each acquired a meaning which is foreign to Tertullian. Analysis of Tertullian's text will show that both puzzle and paradox make good sense, and that Tertullian's explicit claim to follow the discipline of reason (disciplina rationis) and his demand 'here again I must have reasons' are amply justified....

It is equally necessary [as refuting other misconceptions about Tertullian] to show that Tertullian was not a fideist....

Tertullian is the most improbable fideist; no one has argued so irrepressibly....

Therefore Tertullian does not reject or accept philosophy as a whole. He knows his philosophers better than do most Greek fathers....

...in the apoligeticum [Apology] alone, Tertullian cites thirty different authors. Tertullian's literary formation begins from the richer heritage of Carthage rather than Rome and goes on to include Silver Age writers like Pliny, Tacitus and Seneca. Still further, Homer and Herodotus are fundamental, while his extensive knowledge of Plato's writings is seen as a late growth from his controversy with Gnostics....His corpus of citations goes well beyond the requirement of style and exceeds that of any other early Christian writer....

To the historian, Tertullian's occasional rejection of philosophy is outweighed by his positive general attitude....Tertullian's description of Justin [Martyr] as 'philosopher and martyr' is not antithetical but complementary....

Reason is [according to Tertullian] natural and comes from the God who is himself essential reason. Unreason comes from the devil and is against nature (an. 16.2). Reason finds God in the natural order of the world (Marc. 1.13.1 and 1.18.2)....

Philosophy points the way to God (Marc. 2.27.6; virg. 11.6), immortality (test. 4.1-8) and even resurrection (test. 4.9-11). Philosophers and Christians agree on many points (ap. 14.7)....Christianity is the 'better philosophy' (pall. 6.2). Tertullian condemns the curiosity of heretics but commends Hadrian [a Roman emperor] as an 'explorer of all curiosities' (ap. 5.7). His own curiosity goes beyond elementary inquiry (res. 2.11), is insatiable and ever-present....

Clement [of Alexandria] and Tertullian use philosophy openly and attack fideism frequently....

Tertullian's objections against his philosophers concentrate on their inconsistency and interminability....

Christians claimed that their rule and gospel had come from heaven and that the incarnate logos included rather than precluded the discipline of reason. There was no excuse which might justify the evasion of persistent thought. Jerusalem does not need Athens because it has included and gone beyond it....

For Tertullian there are three stages in the development towards the Christian gospel: natural religion, philosophy and Judaism. These may all be recognized; the chief error is to take one of them as the final stage. The perfection of Christ is the climax of a history which includes Greek philosophy. After the [Christian] rule there is no need for philosophy because it has been summed up in Christ. Summing up means totality and perfection....

What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? Everything, provided you travel (economy class) by way of Ephesus and disembark at Jerusalem....

A refrain of the treatise [that contains the second Tertullian passage cited as evidence of his irrationality] is 'But here again I demand reasons' (carn. 10.1)....

...Augustine's claim that human reason has an affinity with God...is already firmly established in Justin, Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian....

Bonaventure's claim for the consummation of the innate light of reason by the infused light of revelation is remarkably close to the position of Tertullian....

What is, for the worldly, morally and intellectually inappropriate (impudens, stultus) is good and profitable in the presence of God. So the alleged 'antirationalism' of Tertullian (like that of Paul in 1 Corinthians) is simply a rationalism which takes account of a wider, eschatological range of factors....

Credo quia absurdum [believing something because it's absurd] misquotes and misrepresents Tertullian's logic and exegesis. Logically, it isolates a proposition from the context which gives it meaning, alters it, and then generalizes from the particular irrationality of the crucifixion to the universal rejection of reason. Exegetically, it neglects the two scriptural sources which, for Tertullian, represent the word of God....

The point of the argument [in Tertullian's second passage] is plain. If God, who is wholly other, is joined to mortal man in a way which is not inept [absurd], then either God is no longer God or man is no longer man, and there is no true incarnation. Truth on this issue can only be achieved by ineptitude [absurdity]. Tertullian does not universalize his claim; most ineptitude is false. This argument is put into paradox, to imitate Paul and to make it more striking and provocative. Paradoxes are useful because they are wonderful and against common opinion....

The paradox requires that ineptitude commonly implies falsehood but does not imply falsehood in this special case....

Against irrationalist interpretation stands Tertullian's anthropology which finds the divine image in human rationality, his opposition to Marcion's irrational god and his Stoic priority for all that is according to nature.

(Tertullian: First Theologian Of The West [New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003], pp. xiv, 27-29, 31-35, 37, 42, 44-45, 47, 49, 52, n. 21 on p. 52, pp. 53, 55, 58, 63-64)

People often write and speak in terms that are hyperbolic or provocative, for example, in order to underline their point or make it more memorable. Tertullian's comments have to be read in their wider context. To some extent, even the immediate context of these two passages significantly lessens the likelihood of the anti-intellectual interpretation that's often attributed to them. The larger context makes that sort of interpretation even more unlikely.

I haven't read as much of Tertullian as a scholar like Osborn has. But from what I have read, I've frequently noticed Tertullian's use of rational argumentation and appeals to eyewitness testimony, hostile corroboration, and other evidential concepts.

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