Tertullian: Wisdom Is Believing The Foolish Things Of God

Writing against the gnostic docetism of Marcion, Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus'(c. 160 – c. 225 AD) De Carne Christi is a robust defense of the real human nature of Christ. In this work, Tertullian, who is known for introducing the term: tres Personae, una Substantia (three Persons, one Substances) showed how one would not be wise unless he become a fool to the world by believing the foolish things of God:

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.” Have you, then, cut away all sufferings from Christ, on the ground that, as a mere phantom, He was incapable of experiencing them? We have said above that He might possibly have undergone the unreal mockeries of an imaginary birth and infancy. But answer me at once, you that murder truth: Was not God really crucified? And, having been really crucified, did He not really die? And, having indeed really died, did He not really rise again? Falsely did Paul “determine to know nothing amongst us but Jesus and Him crucified;” falsely has he impressed upon us that He was buried; falsely inculcated that He rose again.

We, Christians in modern period, often take for granted the great achievement of the first four centuries of our faith. We know that the good news of our Savior Jesus Christ presupposes an eternal Son of God taking on flesh as Immanuel, God with us, but we rarely ponder how splendid and scandalous this notion is.

Ponder these with me: A God who is born, a God who grows in wisdom, a God who obeyed his earthly parents, a God who was humiliated, a God who was mocked, a God who washed the feet of his followers, a God who was hanged, a God who suffered,a God who died and a God who bought his church with his blood. Can you see how this is foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews?

Marcion rejected the idea of a God in real human, born of a betrothed Nazarene virgin woman, Mary.  He wanted to rescued Jesus from all the foolish things by denying that Christ was fully human. Marcion could not see how God would still be God if He really took upon flesh. How foolish is it to think that the flesh is worthy of the dignity of Holy God?

“There are, to be sure, other things also quite as foolish (as the birth of Christ),” wrote Tertullian, “which have reference to the humiliations and sufferings of God. Or else, let them call a crucified God “wisdom” “. He continued:

But Marcion will apply the knife to this doctrine also, and even with greater reason. 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!”

God in flesh “hungered under the devil’s temptation; He thirsted with the woman of Samaria; He wept over Lazarus; He trembles at death (for “the flesh,” as He says, “is weak”); at last, He pours out His blood.” contended Tertullian. He went on:

Spare the whole world’s one only hope, thou who art destroying the indispensable dishonour of our faith Whatsoever is unworthy of God, is of gain to me. I am safe, if I am not ashamed of my Lord. “Whosoever,” says He, “shall be ashamed of me, of him will I also be ashamed.” Other matters for shame find I none which can prove me to be shameless in a good sense, and foolish in a happy one, by my own contempt of shame. 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. 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?

I mean this flesh suffused with blood, built up with bones, interwoven with nerves, entwined with veins, a flesh which knew how to be born, and how to die, human without doubt, as born of a human being. It will therefore be mortal in Christ, because Christ is man and the Son of man. Else why is Christ man and the Son of man, if he has nothing of man, and nothing from man?

Unless it be either that man is anything else than flesh, or man’s flesh comes from any other source than man, or Mary is anything else than a human being, or Marcion’s man is as Marcion’s god. Otherwise Christ could not be described as being man without flesh, nor the Son of man without any human parent; just as He is not God without the Spirit of God, nor the Son of God without having God for His father.

Thus the nature of the two substances displayed Him as man and God,—in one respect born, in the other unborn, in one respect fleshly in the other spiritual; in one sense weak in the other exceeding strong; in one sense dying, in the other living. This property of the two states—the divine and the human—is distinctly asserted with equal truth of both natures alike, with the same belief both in respect of the Spirit and of the flesh. The powers of the Spirit, proved Him to be God, His sufferings attested the flesh of man.

Putting myself in Marcion’s reasoning, I can see the difficulty and foolishness of accepting the notion of the immaterial, timeless, spaceless Creator of gigantic universe, the Holy, Holy, Holy,  King of Kings, the God of gods, Christ Jesus, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant,being born in the likeness of men.And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”(Philipians 2:6-8 ESV).

But by faith I believe the foolish things of God. It is the wisdom of God that the One in whom everything was created by and for Him took on flesh to redeem the whole of me. How infinitely awesome is knowing that the Creator of the universe is your Lord and Savior.

Have you wrestle with the notion of Logos taking on flesh? Try to reflect on the notion of the Creator of the universe(see Journey to the Edge of the Universe) becoming a particular Nazarene man, born of a virgin, sacked milk, cried and did what babies do, learned to walk and talk, grew in wisdom, collected followers, got himself in trouble because of his works and claims, betrayed, beaten, mocked, nailed on the cross, died, buried in the tomb and rose again.

I am continuously blown by the wisdom of God. O God, worthy are You to receive all glory and all honor.

Source:

The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume III: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian. 1885 (A. Roberts, J. Donaldson & A. C. Coxe, Ed.) (525–530). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.

Bonus

In a general letter to congregations across Asia Minor (todays Turkey), apostle John calls the Marcion-type liars. He wrote “many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh.”(2 John 1:7, 4:2 ).

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3 thoughts on “Tertullian: Wisdom Is Believing The Foolish Things Of God

  1. Tertullian: Wisdom Is Believing The Foolish Things Of God

    Just to add to that statement- What the atheists,debaters, Acharya S’s,Zeitgeisters, Dawkins’,etc cannot accept is that the Love of God surpasses human knowledge.
    In other words, because their experience is limited to human knowledge, they think that is all there is.How could they think otherwise. Spiritual things can only be understood or comprehended by the Spirit.Truly it makes me sad, but it must be part of the hardening of hearts you wrote about recently. So true- “Wisdom Is Believing The Foolish Things Of God”
    Another thing they don’t understand is that many of us feel a very real sadness, concern,empathy for their souls, minds, and spirit. We really want them to know the love of the Father that passes all understanding, and have that new ,regenerated spirit and mind that calls out ,”Father” and the joy that follows. They could never believe that we really care for them and by our faith, see their emptiness. Instead they would only take offense at that.
    Just the way it is, and at some point a great falling away will happen, if we aren’t at the beginning of that time now.

  2. As to the question of whether Jesus was born of a woman or not, it it interesting that Marcion has some support in both Matthew and Luke. Both gospels contain a saying by Jesus that “John the Baptist is the greatest of all those born of women” or “Of all those born of women, none has arisen greater than John the Baptist.” The Marcion-types of the first few centuries of the church took this to mean that Jesus was saying “I was not born of a woman” — otherwise, Jesus would have to be interpreted as proclaiming John the Baptist as the Messiah! So the ‘heretics’ took it that Jesus was proclaiming that he was not born of a woman and that the virgin birth story was added by false scribes. Further, in John 6, where Jesus says “I am the bread which came down from heaven” he adds “and the bread I will give is my flesh.” Together that can be understood as saying “my flesh came down from heaven” or “I brought my flesh down from heaven.” So, the ‘heretics’ understood Christ’s flesh as something brought with him down from heaven not something derived from being born of a woman. That is very interesting, because there it is, Marcionism tucked away and preserved in the canonical gospels themselves.

  3. Marcion didn’t say Jesus had no flesh. He said he wasn’t born, or that he brought his flesh down from heaven. Tertullian labors hard to make Marcion say “Jesus had no flesh” but Tertullian fails time and again, because he finds over and over that Marcion’s gospel DOES show Jesus having flesh. Tert ends up with egg on his face, particularly, at the end of the gospel where Jesus says “Look at me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and blood, which you see me have.” This is in Marcion’s gospel! Tertullian says so! But then Tertullian labors to explain it away to save his theory that Marcion said Jesus didn’t have flesh. Go figure.

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