I Believe Because it is Absurd

tertullian.jpegQuintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus was his name, or to most of us, Tertullian: a remarkable man. Born in 160 CE to a Roman centurion, he grew up to be a Carthaginian lawyer, a Christian convert, a prolific apologist and the most influential of the Church Fathers. He invented the terms “Trinity” (trinitas) and “Old” and “New Testament” (vetus/novum testamentum), as well as the classic formula, “Three Persons, one Substance.” He was first to call Christianity the vera religio, the True Faith. He raged against heretics. And ultimately, ironically, he fell into heresy himself.

Beyond this, details are scant. This lion of early Christendom, who sketched the outline of modern orthodoxy, is mostly a shape in the shadows. We know little of his personal life, how he became Christian or why—only that he was about age 42, and the conversion was radical and sudden. Though married, Christians in Carthage made him a priest (not unusual in the day).

Tertullian left 31 extant books, all in well-heeled Latin, some quite lengthy; unusual arguments; and passionate opinions. He had irony, and a solid sense of rhetoric. He could be sarcastic, clever and funny, even to modern eyes. From the Apologeticum, here’s an example:

If the Tiber rises so high it floods the walls, or the Nile so low it doesn’t flood the fields, if the earth opens, or the heavens don’t, if there is famine, if there is plague, instantly the howl goes up, “The Christians to the lion!” What, all of them? to a single lion?

In De Monogamia (On Monagomy) and De Exhortatione Castitatis, he argued that remarriage is a sin even for widowers. In Adversus Valentinianos he blasted Gnostics parading as Christians. In De Testimonio Animae (Testimony of the Soul), he argued that men instinctively believe in one god—why? Because our very swear words prove it.

He also had an apocalyptic bent. In Adversus Marcionem, a five-book assault on his opponent Marcion, he breathlessly told of a walled city seen in the morning sky above Judea. Surely it was the New Jerusalem, the Celestial City as St. John foretold (Rev 21:1-6). To appreciate the drama of this, remember that the City measures 12,000 by 12,000 stadia at the base and stands 12,000 stadia high—a cube 1500 miles on a side, made of gold! Descending, it would well engulf all Palestine; due to earth’s curve, the corners will be 15 miles above ground. Please bring a ladder.

Tertullian probably would not have cared for such problems, had they occurred to him—the City was a sign of the last days, that’s all. In fact, Ezekiel had seen it some six centuries before (Ez 48:15-35), and nine centuries later the Crusaders reported seeing it, as did Hildegard of Bingen and other visionaries. So perhaps Tertullian was right: the City is on its way, just taking its time.

Of all his words and writings, Tertullian is most renown for Credo quia absurdum, “I believe because it is absurd.” In fact it is a slight misquote. “The Son of God was born,” he wrote: “there is no shame, because it is shameful. And the Son of God died: it is wholly credible, because it is ridiculous. And, buried, He rose again: it is certain, because impossible.” The idea was that the first Christians would not have believed such palpable nonsense unless it had happened. This was not unreasonable, as lawyers’ arguments go; but the phrase lives in the simpler form, and will live, as it seems to distill and embody a Christian mystery, a rubric without sense that speaks in a place where we are alone with our name. So it will continue to speak, and haunt and inspire believers, and annoy freethinkers. That is a quality of faith. The mystery can endure, the paradox live, even when history becomes leaves and dust, and blows away.

According to St. Jerome, writing about 200 years later, Tertullian died peacefully of old age; but we are unsure even of that.

What of the heresy? At about age 52, apparently, he had a second conversion—again, details are lost. He joined the Montanists, an apocalyptic sect. Their leader, Montanus, fell into prophetic trances, predicted the imminence of Christ’s return, and claimed an authority only just second to Jesus. Resenting this, the mainstream Church cast out the sect. By the Sixth Century, Tertullian’s name had become anathema to the very community he helped create.

In fairness, remember: the Church now calls it heresy, but in his day it was just one of many understandings that bubbled and fermented within the nascent Christian world. Poor Tertullian. He bet and lost. There is another quality of faith, and of politics too. The winners write the history.

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