Research into Tertullian’s beliefs, experience and intentions helps us to grasp why he came out with this memorable statement, “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem; what has the Academy to do with the Church?”
First - the full quote with the context, thus providing insight into Tertullian’s attitude to philosophy. Next - a look into the complex personality of the man, and the theological problems of his day, which he wrote about. Putting all of that together helps us understand that this is no mere sound-bite; no simple riposte. Tertullian was waging a verbal war, and his strategies were numerous and varied.
First, Bettenson provides this fulsome quote from De praescriptione haereticorum (c. 200), vii.
“It is this philosophy which is the subject-matter of this world’s
wisdom, that rash interpreter of the divine nature and order. In fact,
heresies are themselves prompted by philosophy. It is the source of
‘aeons,’ and I know not what infinite ‘forms’ and the ‘trinity of man’
in the system of Valentinus. He was a Platonist. It is the source of
Marcion’s ‘better God,’ ‘better,’ because of his tranquillity. Marcion
came from the Stoics. Again, when it is said that the soul perishes,
that opinion is taken from the Epicureans. The denial of the
restoration of the flesh is taken over from the universal teachings of
the philosophers; the equation of matter with God is the doctrine of
Zeno; and when any assertion is made about a God of fire, then
Heraclitus comes in. Heretics and philosophers handle the same
subject-matter; both treat of the same topics – Whence came evil? And
why? Whence came man? And how? And a question lately posed by
Valentinus – Whence came God? Answer: ‘From enthymesis and ectroma’!
“Wretched Aristotle! Who taught them dialectic, that art of building
up and demolishing, so protean in statement, so far-fetched in
conjecture, so unyielding in controversy, so productive of disputes;
self-stultifying, since it is ever handling questions but never
settling anything…. What is there in common between Athens and
Jerusalem? What between the Academy and the Church? What between
heretics and Christians?... Away with all projects for a ‘Stoic,’ a
‘Platonic’ or a ‘dialectic’ Christianity! After Christ Jesus we desire
no subtle theories, no acute enquiries after the gospel…” Henry Bettenson Doctrines of the Christian Church The Negative View – ‘The Wisdom of This World’ Tertullian (c. 160-240) pp 7-8
At first sight it might appear that Tertullian was diametrically opposed to philosophy, but Roy Kearsley, in his article on Tertullian, ‘New Dictionary of Theology’ (Leicester: IVP, 1988) shows that was not the case. On page 677 he points out that:
“In considering the death and resurrection of the Son of God,
Tertullian comments that ‘it is certain because it is impossible’.
This apparently irrational statement highlights his famous alleged
antipathy towards philosophy. Evaluation of Tertullian on this score,
however, should take account of the fact that he constantly, though
very selectively, plundered contemporary sources (especially
Stoicism), was severely rationalist in many of his discourses and was
concerned mainly to oppose syncretistic expressions of the Christian
faith rather than philosophy in general.”
When we look further back into his early years, we learn that he was born about AD 145 to a Roman centurion in Carthage.
“Quintis Septimus Florens Tertullianus was trained in Greek and Latin
and became a lawyer in Rome, where he was converted to Christianity
about AD 185. His education and experiences for his first 40 years
meant that he came to Christianity from a paganistic philosophical
background. While he is known as the father of Latin Christianity, and
some would blame him for the errors of the Roman Catholic Church, many
of Tertullian’s teachings stand against those errors. Tertullian laid
down the principle that custom without truth is only time-honored
error. In other words, tradition must be backed by Scripture for it to
have any value. Regarding baptism, he firmly taught against baptizing
children because they were not old enough to repent and believe.”
Tertullian “converted to Christ relatively late in life, but the wasted years were compensated for by the fact that he brought in his hands all the spoils of antique culture.” (D. Macleod, Shared Life, Christian Focus, p29) Or, as Martin J Walsh said, “Tertullian’s skill in formal Latin, disputation, rhetoric and legal practice, enabled him to create a technical vocabulary for the presentation of the Christian philosophy, or wisdom, which became the standard vocabulary of the Patristic age”. (‘A History of Philosophy’, London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1985, p91)
Questions arise: did some of those spoils spoil his Christian stance? After all, Tertullian and all the other early Church Fathers, came to Christianity influenced by the current philosophies and issues of their era. In that respect, they were no different to all other Church writers in succeeding ages, right down to this day. Has there been any such Christian perfect in all doctrine and practice? And if one has been schooled in worldly philosophies, even if grasping their dangers, can you be totally free from all their error? Did Tertullian’s demolition of the worldly philosophy of his day result in collateral damage to the establishment of Christian philosophy?
In the era of the early Church Fathers, some of them took the stance of tackling pagan philosophies on their own ground: “They attacked paganism head on, which was in line with a long tradition in Hellenistic and Jewish practice. They used arguments derived from current popular forms of rationalism propagated by the Stoics and the Cynics.” (Dr. A. M. Roger) Others deprecated that stance, treating philosophy with the contempt they felt it deserved, by ignoring it. This dilemma continued throughout the centuries. Even today, we find some Christians will quote from pseudo-Christian doctrines to argue against, and so expose the errors in them, whilst others refuse to publicise such errors and stick purely to biblical doctrine. Tertullian was in the former camp.
Tertullian “constantly, though very selectively, plundered contemporary sources (especially Stoicism)” in order to tear syncretism to shreds. This did not win him many friends. His character seems to have come through in his writing:
“Tertullian – brilliant, exasperating, sarcastic, and intolerant, yet
intensely vigorous and incisive in argument, delighting in logical
tricks and with an advocate’s love of a clever sophistry if it will
make the adversary look foolish, but a powerful writer of splendid,
torrential prose. In his Apology of about 197 he makes not merely a
defensive reply to popular or philosophical objections but a militant
and trenchant attack on the corruption, irrationality, and political
injustice of polytheistic society. Every page is written with the joy
of inflicting discomfort on his adversaries for their error and
unreasonableness, but in such a manner as to embarrass his own friends
and supporters.” Henry Chadwick, The Early Church, page 91 – Vol. 1
The Pelican History of the Church 1967
If “heresies are themselves prompted by philosophy” to produce worldly wisdom that considers the cross to be foolishness, there is scope for a two-pronged attack against worldly wisdom; expose the philosophy in question to be illogical, alongside teaching the cross of Christ to be the antidote to heresies. It is not always necessary to adopt an “either”, “or” approach. Sometimes both can be used. But a spiritual warrior can become a bit of a casualty. Tertullian died circa 220. By the latter stages of his life he had, at times, swung towards Montanism.
Tertullian specialised in Jude verse 3, and was one of the best at doing that. If he had tempered it with a bit of Ephesians 4:15 and 1 Peter 3:15, he might have done better.
However, the main question remains, “Whose philosophy, exactly” did Tertullian establish? By judicious use of pagan philosophy, and comparing it with the Wisdom of God – the cross of Christ which is the power of God unto salvation – he established Christian philosophy, most of which stands to this day. No mean achievement. But, worldly philosophy being the slippery, morphing mental creature that it is, we now have other attacks against Christian philosophy - mainly old ideas in new garb, yes, but Christians need to be up to speed on cunning twists that many do not spot. As Greek Orthodox Bishop of Pergamum John Zizoulias said last century, “There are no new heresies after the 5th century.”