Was Tertullian an Irrationalist?

AyersRobert H. Ayers’  book Language, Logic, and Reason in the Church Fathers: A Study of Tertullian, Augustine, and Aquinas has helped me understand and appreciate how philosophy can be used, ministerially, in defense of the faith. I’ve learned much about  the men studied by Ayers’ work than I had previously knew. Among the info I gathered, I was surprised to learn that Tertullian was not an advocate of irrationalist apologetics. Rather, Tertullian’s famous quip – “I believe because it is absurd” – conformed to known and practiced logical and rhetorical norms of Tertullian’s day. His quip, in other words, was actually a logically sound response to critics of the Christian faith, albeit clothed in sharp rhetorical garb.

Ayers explains this in the following long, but informative and profitable, quotation.

…it has been claimed by some that Tertullian’s thought is anti-philosophical and anti-rational. This claim should not go unchallenged…instead of being irrational, Tertullian in fact demonstrates a rather amazing capacity for semantical and logical analyses in his defense of the Christian faith against heretics and persecutors. This is not surprising since the educational system in the Carthage of his day made available relatively sophisticated analytical and rhetorical tools of discourse. And it is obvious from his writings that Tertullian was highly educated in the several disciplines of the schools including those of rhetoric, logic, and philosophy.


It appears that the reason why Tertullian often is misrepresented as anti-philosophical and anti-rational finds its base in the two famous state-ments which are generally mentioned whenever there is a reference to Tertullian. Both of them often are treated in isolation from the context in which they appear and one of them is often misquoted as “I believe it because it is absurd.” These two statements as traditionally translated from the Latin are:  “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem” and  “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.”

It is a widespread practice to call the second quotation Tertullian’s paradox. In some cases it is labelled an “outrageous” or “grinding” paradox. For example, Henry Chadwick. claims that Tertullian insisted on “an absolute and radical discontinuity between Christianity and philosophy”, that Christianity’s supernatural character would be destroyed if it were reduced to “sweet reasonableness”, and that the “ultimate Christian confession is the grinding paradox ‘I believe it because it is absurd’.” Then in a parenthetical statement Chadwick says, “We must not, of course, take too literally Tertullian’s shrill rhetoric, but it is clear that his notorious utterance is a milestone along a path in Christian thought which leads through Sir Thomas Browne to Kierk.egaard and his modern disciples”.

Another striking example is to be found in the claims made about Tertullian’s thought by the philosopher Bernard Williams. Williams views the second quotation above as Tertullian’s acceptance of an instransigent and outrageous paradoxical conclusion and says of it, “I think that we should take Tertullian’s paradox seriously; not as just a rhetorical expression of his objections to a particular doctrine, but as a striking formulation of something which I shall suggest is essential to Christian belief.”

Admittedly the two examples presented here are somewhat extreme. Yet even those who because they are impressed with Tertullian’s brilliant use of rhetorical forms and with the rational force of most of his arguments view the statement as one which is not to be taken literally but as a striking way of making a point or as having a structural function as an exclamatory stop to an argument consciously developed along the lines of traditional rhetorical topics, nevertheless generally regard the statement as a paradox.

Certainly, prima facie it appears to be a paradox.

Is it possible, however, that it only seems so because all along it has been subjected to eisegesis rather than exegesis, and that Tertullian never intended and in fact did not here produce a paradox? If the answer to this question is in the affirmative, could it not be the case also, in light of this and other considerations, that Tertullian viewed reason and certain types and/or aspects of philosophy as the servants of faith rather than its antagonists, and that there is not, as is sometimes claimed, a basic inconsistency in his theological thought? An attempt will be made here to answer these questions in the affirmative.


Recent studies have demonstrated convincingly that Tertullian structured his treatises in terms of the conventional patterns which constituted the basic rhetorical forms of oratory, and that he used these forms in a creative way through skillfully adapting form to content. On this basis it is concluded that his knowledge of rhetoric was so deeply ingrained that the rhetorical forms furnished not merely a matter of stylistic adornment but rather “provided categories and distinctions which affected the structure of his thought.”


…James Moffat, has suggested that a different estimate of Tertullian might be gained through a comparison of Tertullian’s famous statement with a passage in Aristotle’s Rhetoric. The context of this passage is a discussion of the topics useful in forensic debate.

Aristotle recommends that attention be given to such items as definitions of terms, the logical divisions of a subject, the proper syllogism for sound argument, inductive proofs including considerations of time and place, previous decisions on analogous situations, motives people have for doing or avoiding the action in question, etc.

In this context Aristotle refers to a further type of argument in the following words:

Another line of argument refers to things which are supposed to happen and yet seem incredible; We may argue that people could not have believed them, if they had not been true or nearly true: even that they are the more likely to be true because they are incredible. For the things which men believe are either facts or probabilities: if, therefore, a thing that is believed is improbable or even incredible, it must be true,-since it is certainly not believed because it is at all probable or credible.

As Moffat points out the assumption in this argument is that all objects of human belief are either facts or probabilities. If a statement cannot be classified under the category of probabilities, then it must represent an actual fact. To quote from Moffat, “We are· invited to believe that if some statement is wildly improbable, it is more improbable still that anyone should have invented it; in other words, that it would never have been made unless there had been some evidence for it, and consequently that such evidence must be strong.”

Surely, the similarity between this argument form or “topic” recommended by Aristotle and Tertullian’s, “It is straightforwardly credible because it is improper; it is certain because impossible”, is striking.

…in the judgment of this writer there is strong circumstantial evidence in support of the claim that, however briefly stated, Tertullian consciously is using an Aristotelian argument form.


Defending the Sacrament against the claim that it is incredible for mere dipping in water to result in the attainment of eternity, Tertullian says, “But it is the more to be believed if the wonderfulness be the reason why it is not believed”.

In light of this evidence, it seems reasonable to conclude that in his famous passage Tertullian was using a familiar Aristotelian argument form instead of uttering an “outrageous” or “grinding” paradox. Therefore, the following paraphrase which does not seem to do violence either to language or overall context might well communicate what Tertullian meant by his famous passage:

The Son of God died. It is straightforwardly credible because it is improper, senseless, or improbable. That is, it is not the sort of statement that anyone would invent. He was buried and rose again. It is certain because it is impossible. That is, it is impossible in terms of those things which men imagine as possible.



One thought on “Was Tertullian an Irrationalist?

involve yourself

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s