If any church father has been subjected to the rigorous twisting and distorting of his views to accommodate modern agendas and historical revisionism, it is the third-century apologist Tertullian.
Tertullian, whose full name was Quintus Septimus Florens Tertullian, earned the title of “Father of Latin Theology.” He lived mainly in Carthage, in North Africa, between a.d. 160 and 220. Converted in midlife, he applied his skills as a trained lawyer to the intellectual defense of the Christian faith.
Two quotes frequently are attributed to Tertullian. The first is surely genuine; the second highly suspect.
The first quote is this: “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What agreement is there between the academy and the church?” These questions are rhetorical, and the answer to each is assumed to be an emphatic negative. Tertullian fiercely upheld the superiority of apostolic revelation to speculative philosophy. He was sharply critical of the philosophers of Athens—Plato, Aristotle, and others—but not so critical that he would never appeal to them when they could be enlisted in the cause of the defense of Christianity. Tertullian was engaged in intellectual combat with the heretics of his day, especially with the Gnostics, who sought at times to supplant Biblical revelation with their own mystical and speculative theories, and at other times to claim apostolic endorsement of their views.
Tertullian defended both the authority of Scripture and the authority of the church, standing on the shoulders of Irenaeus.
The second quote is probably spurious, but it is regularly attributed to Tertullian. It is the phrase, “Credo ad absurdum,” which literally means “I believe because it is absurd.” The idea that there is some sort of virtue in believing something because it is absurd is a welcome creed to a postmodern culture heavily influenced by existential irrationalism. A whole tradition of twentieth-century “dialectical” theologians gloried in the irrational, with Karl Barth declaring that one does not become a mature Christian until he is willing to affirm both poles of a contradiction. His compatriot, Emil Brunner, insisted that the contradiction is the hallmark of truth. These theologians had such an aversion to rationalism that they ended by sacrificing rationality.
This approach to theology breeds fideism, by which faith is not only distinguished from but separated from reason as the sole basis for Christian truth. Fideists tend to be skeptical about the use of reason or evidence to defend Christian truth claims. In their view, to be “rational” is to sink into a sub-Christian or anti-Christian form of pagan Greek thinking.
Even in modern Reformed theology, we see a tendency toward irrationalism, even to the point where some “Reformed” scholars actually argue that the law of non-contradiction does not apply to the mind of God. This view would destroy all confidence in Scripture because whatever the Bible teaches might mean its antithesis in the mind of God. In His thinking, Jesus could be both Christ and Antichrist at the same time and in the same relationship.
For such thinkers, who abhor logic, Tertullian rises as a hero. But when we examine the writings of Tertullian, especially his Prescriptions Against Heretics (De Praescriptionibus Haereticorum), we see that Tertullian was not opposed to reason. The quote attributed to him was actually an allusion to the Biblical idea that what is true may be regarded as foolish by those whose minds are darkened by sin. Tertullian also appealed to natural revelation as the basis for certain truths that were grasped and defended by pagan philosophers. His critique of Gnostic thought provides rich insights sorely needed in our time as we witness the resurgence of Neo-Gnosticism, not only in the culture, but in the church as well.
Like Tertullian, Origen (a.d. 186 to 255) was a third-century apologist. His ministry was exercised, for the most part, in Alexandria, which had been a center of Hellenistic Judaism. The major intellectual center in Egypt yielded such leaders as Clement, who also labored as an apologist.
Origen was not unlike the fabled little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead. Like this damsel, Origen, when he was good, was very, very good, but when he was bad, he was horrid. In Origen we see the conjoined strengths and weaknesses that tended to characterize the early church fathers. In the sub-apostolic age, the church lacked the titanic power of the original apostles. Neither did it enjoy the cumulative insight that took centuries to develop and geniuses like Augustine to express.
Among Origen’s accomplishments were his apologetic reply to the philosopher Celsus (Contra Celsus) and his defense of the divine inspiration of the Bible. Unfortunately, in his defense of the Bible he was weak in his understanding of the historical reliability of Scripture. To defend the Bible, he hastened to employ an allegorical method of interpreting it, a method that harmed the church’s understanding of Scripture for centuries to come.
The irony of Origen’s allegorical approach to Scripture is seen in his rash act of self-castration. Because both men and women were attending his classes, he sought to guard against sexual temptation. He took Jesus’ words, ” ‘There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake'” (Matt. 19:12b), in a radically literal way, taking no solace in the allegorizing of this text. This action created a credibility problem for him, and Origen soon came under attack from Bishop Demetrius, who made life miserable for Origen for years to come.
In his teaching, Origen adopted a Greek view of the pre-existence of the soul, taught universalism, raised questions about the physical nature of Christ’s resurrection body, and held a defective view of the Trinity. (We must remember that the church was still reflecting deeply on the matter of the Trinity and had not yet come to a fixed understanding of it.) However, his work on prayer has come down as a treasured treatise, as well as his teaching on martyrdom. He expressed hope that his life would end in the highest manner of virtue, by being martyred for Christ’s sake. That was not to happen, as he died of natural causes in 255. However, the church historian Eusebius testifies that Origen suffered profound agony during the Decian persecution—being tortured, stretched, and confined to a dungeon in chains.
Origen’s personal love for and devotion to Christ gives us a glimpse of Christian piety in the third century.