Tertullian: Is the gospel absurd?
Some Christians have cited Tertullian (145-220 A.D.) to support their contention that early Christians believed in the gospel all-the-more because of its very absurdity. They claim that Tertullian believed the gospel of Christ against reason, because he is quoted as saying that the gospel “was absurd and impossible of being true.” Of course, if the gospel were believed because it was absurd and impossible of being true, then, indeed, the gospel would be contrary reason.
As an example of a typical citation of Tertullian, Dr. Donald Bloesch in his A Theology of Word & Spirit: Authority & Method in Theology wrote,
Tertullian, though also involved in the apologetic task, held that the gospel “is believable because it is absurd . . . it is certain because it is impossible.” p. 35. 1
Christians who negate the role of reason in faith find support for their fideistic views in Tertullian. But, we need to ask the question, Was Tertullian actually against the role of reason in his Christian apologetic?
A book by Gottfried W. Leibniz (1646-1716) entitled, Theodicy, is a classic on the problem of evil in a world created by an all-good God who is also all-powerful. In his book, Leibniz presented what I believe is the correct view of Tertullian’s famous passage in his treatise “On the Flesh of Christ.” Tertullian actually believed that the gospel had only an “appearance” of absurdity, not actual absurdity or logical contradiction in the gospel.
It is true that the counsels of God are inscrutable, but there is no invincible objections which tends to the conclusion that they are unjust. What appears injustice on the part of God, and foolishness in our faith, only appears so. The famous passage of Tertullian (De Carne Christi), ‘mortuus est Dei filius, credibile est, quia ineptum est; et sepultus revixit, certum est, quia impossible,’ is a sally that can only be meant to concern appearances of absurdity. p. 101 2
We should notice that Tertullian’s remarks did not include the word, absurd. This mistranslation results in a erroneous representation of Tertullian’s true views.
According to Webster’s New World Dictionary, absurd means “so clearly untrue or unreasonable as to be laughable or ridiculous.” But Tertullian did not use the Latin word “absurdum,” he used the Latin word, “ineptum.” The Latin word, ineptum, should have been translated “foolish.” From the context, we see that Tertullian was commenting upon the phrase, “the foolishness of God” as found in 1 Corinthians. He was not affirming that he was attracted to Christianity because of its absurdity, i.e. because of its laughably untrue nature. Rather, he was commenting upon 1 Corinthians Chapter 1.
Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men. 1 Cor 1:25
The following paragraphs from The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol: III: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, give, in better context, what Tertullian sought to express.
… For which is more unworthy of God, which is more likely to raise a blush of shame, that God should be born, or that He should die? that He should bear the flesh, or the cross? be circumcised, or be crucified? be cradled, or be coffined? be laid in a manger, or in a tomb? Talk of “wisdom!” You will show more of that if you refuse to believe this also. But, after all, you will not be “wise” unless you become a “fool” to the world, by believing “the foolish things of God.”
… 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 absurd.10 And He was buried, and rose again; the fact is certain, because it is impossible. But how will all this be true in Him, if He was not Himself true–if He really had not in Himself that which might be crucified, might die, might be buried, and might rise again? p. 525 3
In addition, footnote 10 has the Latin word, “ineptum,” supporting Liebniz’s Latin text in his Theodicy.
What was “the foolishness and weakness of God?” It was the truth of Christ coming into this world, dying upon the cross for our sins, being buried in a tomb, rising the third day, and returning back to glory. The Son of God’s dying was the “foolishness,” albeit the truth, in which Tertullian believed but which was opposed by Marcion. What made Tertullian “certain” was the resurrection of Christ’s dead body from His burial tomb; this was what, according to nature, would be “impossible” ( 1 Cor 15). He was absolutely certain of the truth of the gospel because the naturally impossible resurrection actually happened. The power and approval of God was shown in the glorious resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. His resurrection from the tomb provided Tertullian with good historical grounds for his faith in Christ.
1 p. 35, Bloesch, Donald, A Theology of Word & Spirit: Authority & Method in Theology
2 p. 101, Leibniz, Gottfried W., Theodicy, Open Court, La Salle, IL
3 p. 525, Tertullian, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol: III: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian