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Tertullian and an unreasonable faith?

I was listening to some older episodes of the Stand to Reason podcast and one sceptic pulled out what he said was a quote from the church father Tertullian: “I believe because it is absurd.”

The sceptic used this quote as a way to summarize what he saw as the truth about the Christian faith; that it is really the acceptance of what is absurd in light of the facts. In other words, he was making the assertion that one can only believe in Christianity by holding to a faith that not just disconnected from reason, but one that goes against reason.

I’m not going to go into this mis-characterization of the faith right now (we’ve discussed this briefly before), but when I heard this I wanted to know more about the quote itself. I have heard Tertullian’s writings referred to before and was curious; did he actually say this … did he really mean what the quote seems to convey?

I found the following in the Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 3 by Philip Schaff:

The Son of God was crucified; I am not ashamed because men must needs be ashamed of it. And the Son of God died; it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd1. And He was buried, and rose again; the fact is certain, because it is impossible.

So was Tertullian really saying that we believe what is irrational?

The introduction to this section of this book provides us with an overview of what Tertullian was writing about:

This was written by our author in confutation of certain heretics who denied the reality of Christ’s flesh, or at least its identity with human flesh—fearing that, if they admitted the reality of Christ’s flesh, they must also admit his resurrection in the flesh; and, consequently, the resurrection of the human body after death.

By reading the quote in its broader context, both with the purpose of the writing in mind along with reading the section as a whole, we can actually see that Tertullian is making a very sound point. The idea that the Son of God would be crucified, die and be resurrected seems foolish and impossible (1 Corinthians 1:23); the only valid explanation for the acceptance of this teaching is it was true as corroborated by many trustworthy eyewitnesses (1 Corinthians 15:5-6).

As one author put it:

Thus far from seeking the abolition of reason, Tertullian must be seen as appropriating Aristotelian rational techniques and putting them to apologetic use. (God & Nature, David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, P.26)

In short, by reading Tertullian’s work – not just an out of context phrase – it is very hard to see how anyone could use him as poster-boy for an unreasonable faith.

1. As a side note, often when this is quoted online, the original Latin phrase is said to be “credo quia absurdum” … interestingly this cannot be found in the original Latin. The word translated “absurd” by Dr. Holmes is ineptum, not absurdum. Elsewhere I’ve seen ineptum translated as silly or unsound … one online dictionary gives the following definition: silly, foolish; having no sense of what is fitting.