Archives For Tertullian

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With civil discourse in such short supply today, it may be beneficial to consider some wisdom from the past about disagreeing calmly.

If you’re a thoughtful person, and you interact with other rational people, it’s inevitable that you will sometimes disagree. These differences of opinion are not bad things, in and of themselves. They help us sharpen our thinking and occasionally result in someone (from either side) recognizing the errors in their opinions.

There are times, however, when disagreements are not handled respectfully. In such situations, they seldom result in a positive end. In cases where quarrels arise, people don’t persuade others. They do the opposite—they motivate them to entrench themselves and hide behind mental and verbal barricades that reinforce their “errors.”

You can go all the way back to the Scriptures to find the recognition that this sort of debate is destructive. Here is the counsel of the apostle Paul to his protégée Timothy, a young pastor:

Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. (2 Timothy 2:14-17)

In the second century, Tertullian, a brilliant North African Christian scholar, penned one of my favorite passages in all of patristic literature.

I might be bringing forward this objection from a want of confidence, or from a wish to enter upon the case in dispute in a different manner from the heretics, were not a reason to be found at the outset in that our Faith owes obedience to the Apostle who forbids us to enter into questionings, or to lend our ears to novel sayings, or to associate with a heretic after one admonition—he does not say after discussion.

Indeed, he forbade discussion by fixing on admonition as the reason for meeting a heretic. And he mentions this one admonition, because a heretic is not a Christian, and . . . because argumentative contests about the Scriptures profit nothing, save of course to upset the stomach or the brain.

This or that heresy rejects certain of the Scriptures, and those which it receives it perverts both by additions and excisions to agree with its own teaching. For even when it receives them it does not receive them entire, and if it does in some cases receive them entire, it none the less perverts them by fabricating heterodox interpretations.

A spurious interpretation injures the Truth quite as much as a tampered text. Baseless presumptions naturally refuse to acknowledge the means of their own refutation. They rely on passages which they have fraudulently rearranged or received because of their obscurity.

What wilt thou effect, though thou art most skilled in the Scriptures, if what thou maintainest is rejected by the other side and what thou rejectest is maintained? Thou wilt indeed lose nothing—save thy voice in the dispute; and gain nothing—save indignation at the blasphemy. (On the Prescription of Heretics, 16-17)

If you would like to read a fascinating scholarly article on this passage you can download one here. In “Accusing Philosophy of Causing Headaches: Tertullian’s Use of a Comedic Topos,” J. Albert Harrill writes:

Among the most famous passages in Tertullian’s De praescriptione haereticorum (ca. 203) is what appears to be nothing more than a throwaway line. After declaring that ‘heretics’ have no right to use Christian Scripture, he writes, ‘Besides, arguments over Scripture achieve nothing but a stomachache or a headache.’

Previous scholarship has assumed the protest to epitomize Tertullian’s fideism and general anti-intellectualism. However, I argue that the line evokes a comedic stereotype within a medical topos about ‘excessive’ mental activity causing disease in the body, going back to Plato and Aristophanes.

The passage is, therefore, not a throwaway line but an important part of Tertullian’s attempt to caricature his opponents with diseased superstitio (excessive care and ‘curiosity’).

More Recent Variations of this Theme

Those who have attempted serious, rational argument with someone who is unserious or irrational know very well what Tertullian was describing. If you are earnest and calm in your advocacy, only to have your counterpart act flippant or ignorantly obstinate, it really can make one feel nauseous.

G.K. Chesterton, who was an articulate defender of Christianity during the beginning of the twentieth century, described the frustration in a predictably entertaining manner.

If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by things that go with good judgment.

He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by clarity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections.

Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.” (Orthodoxy)

As Chesterton suggests, the madman has retained his ability to reason, but is no longer inhibited by reason itself. I would liken it to retaining the appearance of reasoning, bereft of its essence. It parallels what we read in 2 Timothy 3.

In the last days . . . people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy,  heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good,  treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. (Italics added.)

C.S. Lewis also addresses the inability of many who are wrong to conduct rational conversations. Whenever they meet a reasoned argument, they are disarmed.

Unfortunately, their lack of logic does not prevent them from charging into the disputation. They assume their passion or their appeal to subjectivity (i.e. that “everyone” is right) will win the day.

Lewis grew so frustrated by the phenomenon that he coined a new word to identify it. He regrets the passing of the day when you persuade someone of their error before you could legitimately explain why your own position is correct on a given issue.

The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly.

In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it Bulverism.

Some day I am going to write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father – who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third – `Oh you say that because you are a man.’

“At that moment,” E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet.

“Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.

I find the fruits of his discovery almost everywhere. Thus I see my religion dismissed on the grounds that “the comfortable able parson had every reason for assuring the nineteenth century worker that poverty would be rewarded in another world.” Well, no doubt he had. On the assumption that Christianity is an error, I can see early enough that some people would still have a motive for inculcating it.

I see it so easily that I can, of course, play the game the other way round, by saying that “the modern man has every reason for trying to convince himself that there are no eternal sanctions behind the morality he is rejecting.”

For Bulverism is a truly democratic game in the sense that all can play it all day long, and that it gives no unfair privilege to the small and offensive minority who reason. But of course it gets us not one inch nearer to deciding whether, as a matter of fact, the Christian religion is true or false. . . . I see Bulverism at work in every political argument.

Until Bulverism is crushed, reason can play no effective part in human affairs. Each side snatches it early as a weapon against the other; but between the two reason itself is discredited. (“‘Bulverism:’ Or the Foundation of Twentieth Century Thought”)

So, there we have it. We may derive some comfort from the fact that irrational arguing has frequently displaced civil discourse since the dawn of human communication.

As for me, I intend to avoid the Bulverites as much as possible. The last thing I need is a migraine or a serious case of indigestion.

I haven’t forgotten. Well, I have forgotten far too many things in recent years, but I didn’t forget my recent “promise” to address the challenging subject of the distinction between agnosticism and atheism. Last week I wrote: “I suspect that the intimately personal nature of God’s love for us is one of the things that moves some people from agnosticism to atheism.”

It’s not my desire to offend anyone with the discussion which follows. After all, God loves the “lost” just as much as he loves those who have surrendered their lives to him. In fact, there’s an amazing passage that hints at how the rescue of one of those who has “strayed” is even more exciting to the hosts of heaven than the faithfulness of his dedicated disciples. (Check out verses 12-14 in chapter 18 of the Gospel according to Matthew . . . and remember what I have said in the past about how eager any of your Christian acquaintances will be to provide you with a copy of the Bible if you don’t already have one.)

Every soul is precious to God. And yet, many don’t recognize that fact. Many worship false gods (religious and secular). Among those who deny the existence of supernatural deities, there are essentially two camps. Agnostics who (technically) do not deny God’s existence, but merely profess that it is unknowable. Thus they personally remain unpersuaded. Atheists, on the alternative hand, are more adamant about denying God’s existence. Some, in fact, make a living by stridently refuting God himself and all things holy.

Intuitively, most people assume agnostics are not quite as distant from faith as are atheists. After all, agnostics are generally more polite and respectful toward those of us who naively cling to such superstitions . . . right? Atheists, by contrast, tend to ridicule those who would worship a God who laid down his very life, and died a human death.

Take, for example, what is arguably the earliest surviving illustration of Christ’s crucifixion. The illustration above was carved on an ancient plaster wall near Palatine Hill.

It’s a bit difficult to discern, but historical consensus sees the graffito as a pagan insult directed towards a Greek Christian. The scribbled inscription reads: “Alexamenos worships [his] god.” The crucified figure on the cross clearly bears the head of a donkey. The Church Father Tertullian wrote in the second century of slanders alleging Christians followed just such a deity.

Would something like this be likelier to come from the mind of an agnostic, or an atheist?

Agnostics would rarely summon the energy to rail against God like this. However, atheists sometimes feel so imposed upon by God’s children that they lash out with invectives.

So, as I noted above, the gut feeling of most observers would be to say vocal atheists are farther from God than their kindred disbelievers. However—I am convinced that is not the case!

Ironically, it is the tepid individual who lacks any serious conviction who is in greater danger of perishing without seeing God. This is due to the fact that agnostics have, as a rule, come to grips with the fact that there may or may not be a God . . . but they are content to proceed through life without caring much either way. To them the issue is rather trivial, in a sense, since they rarely lose sleep over it.

This is not true of the atheist, who recognizes that the matter is of the utmost importance; that’s why he is not content to simply ignore it. If God truly exists—they comprehend in the core of their being—nothing could be of greater significance.

Agnostics typically have an unreasoned impression that if there is a God, he is probably benevolent, and most likely more concerned with other elements of the universe he created than their small life. They echo the thinking of liberal “Deists” who imagined God as a distant “watchmaker” who set creation in motion and then left it forgotten on the shelf. This Great Watchmaker is not threatening. He isn’t angry at us, because he doesn’t even deign to notice us. He remains oblivious to humanity, just as we presumably live out our lives anonymous to him.

Atheists don’t want to believe in God, because of their overwhelming doubt. Simultaneously, they recognize that the stakes of the gamble are enormous. Eternal, in fact. And they resent God for placing them in this difficult predicament. Why can’t he just make his existence undeniably evident? Faith is the leap they are unwilling to take. But, by the same rational premise, the wise among them realize that in opting against theism, they are actually placing their faith in an equally unprovable tenet. And this has a tendency to make some of them mildly cranky.

Which brings us back to my suspicion that “the intimately personal nature of God’s love for us is one of the things that moves some people from agnosticism to atheism.” You see, when someone deeply ponders the mystery of whether there is a Creator, they understand he would never have created a sentient being with this yearning to cleave to him, without possessing a compassion for them in return.

Agnostics walk about like spiritual zombies, pursuing their various interests. Atheists, though, are tormented by the nagging “fear” that a loving God just may exist. Certainly, they do whatever they can to exorcize the notion, and they publicly celebrate their liberation from ancient and medieval superstitions, but unlike their unaffected agnostic relations, they have recognized the enormity of their choice. Oh to be a blissfully ignorant agnostic, the more thoughtful might muse.

Sadly (from their present perspective), the lot of the atheist is to be closer to God than the agnostic. Atheists may rail against their Maker, but the agnostic’s spiritual indifference causes them to drift farther and farther from the Truth.

The Scriptures offer a parallel to this distinction in the description of one of the early Christian churches. Apparently the believer in Laodicea had grown lackadaisical about their faith and lived lives that differed little from their pagan and agnostic neighbors. The Lord’s judgment of them begins: “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.”

Strange, it seems to us, that God might prefer a militant atheistic mindset to an aimless agnostic worldview. But the amazing truth is that, in most cases, atheists are closer to the kingdom of God than their disinterested peers.

In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis describes his own pre-Christian disposition. The grandson of an Anglican priest, he had consciously rejected the faith. Yet, as the possibility of its truth grew more real to him as an adult, he reacted against it. He clearly describes his condition as differing from that of the lukewarm agnostics I’ve described above.

Amiable agnostics will talk cheerfully about “man’s search for God.” To me, as I was then, they might as well have talked about the mouse’s search for the cat.

In the same volume he elaborates on the sentiments I’ve been describing.

I was at this time living, like so many Atheists or Antitheists, in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with Him for creating a world.

So, if you consider yourself “angry with God for not existing,” you may be closer to meeting him than you ever imagined. If you do follow C.S. Lewis’ example, heaven will host a more resounding celebration for you than it does for the ninety-nine who have always remained part of his flock. And, if you’re a dispassionate agnostic who is weakly amused by this thought . . . my sincere prayer is that you, my friend, would become either hot or cold!