Tertullian on the true humanity of Jesus

Detail from Gerard van Honthorst’s ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’ (1622). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Detail from Gerard van Honthorst’s ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’ (1622). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In his treatise On the Flesh of Christ, the North African Christian theologian Tertullian (c. 145-220 A.D.) argues that in Jesus, the Son of God truly became a human being, truly taking on our human nature in the womb of the virgin Mary. He argues this against numerous heretics who taught that the Son of God didn’t become truly human, or that in coming to earth he took on a nature that wasn’t the same as our own human nature.

I would like to share here a wonderful passage from On the Flesh of Christ, in which he shows that the Son of God had to become human in the womb of a virgin, precisely to undo the effects of the Fall, in which another virgin’s disobedience (Eve’s) had brought human nature into corruption.

 

Tertullian, ‘On the Flesh of Christ’, chapter 17[1]

But, leaving aside Alexander[2] with his syllogisms, which he so perversely applies in his discussions, as well as with the hymns of Valentinus,[3] which, with consummate assurance, he interpolates as [if it were] the production of some respectable author, let us confine our enquiry to a single point — Whether Christ received flesh from the virgin? — so that we may thus arrive at a certain proof that his flesh was human, if he derived its substance from his mother’s womb; although we are at once furnished with clear evidences of the human character of his flesh, from its name and description as that of a man, and from the nature of its constitution, and from the system of its sensations, and from its suffering of death.[4]

“Isaiah foretold how the Lord himself would give the sign. What, then, is the sign? ‘Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son’ (Isaiah 7:14). Accordingly, a virgin did conceive and bear ‘Emmanuel, God with us’ (Matthew 1:23). This is the new nativity: a man is born in God.”

Tertullian, ‘On the Flesh of Christ’, chapter 17

Now, it will first be necessary to show what previous reason there was for the Son of God’s being born of a virgin. He who was going to consecrate a new order of birth, must himself be born after a novel fashion — concerning which Isaiah foretold how the Lord himself would give the sign. What, then, is the sign? “Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son.”[5] Accordingly, a virgin did conceive and bear “Emmanuel, God with us.”[6] This is the new nativity: a man is born in God.

And in this man God was born, taking the flesh of an ancient race — without the help, however, of the ancient seed[7] — in order that he might re-form it with a new seed (that is, in a spiritual manner), and cleanse it by the removal of all its ancient stains.[8]

But the whole of this new birth was prefigured (as was the case in all other instances), in ancient type,[9] the Lord being born as man by a dispensation in which a virgin was the medium. The earth was still in a virgin state, reduced as yet by no human labour, with no seed as yet cast into its furrows, when — as we are told — God made man out of it into a living soul.[10]

As, then, the first Adam is thus introduced to us, it is a just inference that the second Adam likewise — as the apostle has told us[11] — was formed by God into a life-giving spirit out of the ground; in other words, out of a flesh which was as yet unstained by any human begetting.

But that I may lose no opportunity of supporting my argument from the name of Adam, why is Christ called ‘Adam’ by the apostle, unless it be that, as man, he was of that [same] earthly origin? And even reason here maintains the same conclusion: because it was by just the contrary operation that God recovered his own image and likeness,[12] of which [image and likeness] he had been robbed by the devil.

“For it was while Eve was yet a virgin, that the ensnaring word had crept into her ear which was to build the edifice of death. So in like manner, into a virgin’s soul must be introduced that Word of God which was to raise the fabric of life; so that what had been reduced to ruin by this sex, might by the selfsame sex be recovered to salvation. As Eve had believed the serpent, so Mary believed the angel Gabriel.”

Tertullian, ‘On the Flesh of Christ’, chapter 17

For it was while Eve was yet a virgin, that the ensnaring word had crept into her ear which was to build the edifice of death. [So] in like manner, into a virgin’s soul must be introduced that Word of God[13] which was to raise the fabric of life; so that what had been reduced to ruin by this sex,[14] might by the selfsame sex[15] be recovered to salvation. As Eve had believed the serpent, so Mary believed [the angel] Gabriel.[16] The delinquency which the one occasioned by believing,[17] the other[18] by believing effaced.

But (it will be said) Eve did not at the devil’s word conceive in her womb. Well, she at all events conceived; for the devil’s word afterwards became as seed to her — that she should conceive as an outcast, and bring forth in sorrow.[19] Indeed she gave birth to a fratricidal devil;[20] whilst Mary, on the contrary, bore one who was one day to secure salvation to Israel, his own brother after the flesh, and the murderer of him. God therefore sent down into the virgin’s womb his Word, as the good Brother, who would blot out the memory of the evil brother.[21] Hence it was necessary that Christ should come forth for the salvation of man, in that condition of flesh into which man had entered ever since his condemnation.

 

Some observations on the above passage

A few things just to take note of from the above quotation:—

“It is well worth noting that when Tertullian wants to argue his case against the heretics, his argument is an argument from Scripture. A perusal of the footnotes to this page amply demonstrates this. From earliest times the Christian faith was a faith based on Scripture — from the Jewish Old Testament (here Genesis), and from the emerging New Testament (here the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians in particular).”

  1. It is well worth noting that when Tertullian wants to argue his case against the heretics, his argument is an argument from Scripture. A perusal of the footnotes to this page amply demonstrates this. From earliest times the Christian faith was a faith based on Scripture — from the Jewish Old Testament (here Genesis), and from the emerging New Testament (here the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians in particular).
  1. Hence the New Testament canon didn’t just get defined by fiat of the Emperor during the fourth century. When the canon of the New Testament books was eventually formally defined at the end of the fourth century (see here), it was merely ratifying the set of books which all the faithful — or at least a majority of them — had regarded as divinely inspired Scripture in previous centuries. One of these was, of course, Tertullian himself.
  1. The fact that Tertullian here argues the case that the Son of God became human — and not the converse, that Jesus was divine — shows the falsity of a common misconception about the early centuries of Christianity. It is sometimes claimed that everybody believed Jesus to be merely a man until the Emperor Constantine ‘divinized’ him in the fourth century. Although prior to Tertullian’s time there were some groups who believed Jesus to be merely a man — such as the Ebionites — it was at least as common, if not more common a heresy, to believe that Jesus was God but not human. Tertullian’s argument shows this clearly.
  1. Although Tertullian shows great admiration in this passage for the virgin Mary, there is however no hint here of the Mary-exalting dogmas later propounded by the Roman Catholic Church: such as the doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, her bodily assumption into heaven, or her being bequeathed the title ‘Queen of Heaven.’
  1. However, Tertullian does accept the virgin birth of Christ (as related in the Gospels of Matthew and of Luke) as fact. There is therefore no basis for claiming that Christians in the early centuries regarded the virgin birth as a non-historical ‘allegory.’
  1. The way that Tertullian here argues for the fact of the virgin birth, from the Old Testament correspondence with Eve, shows that the early Christians expected the Bible to operate as a coherent whole, so that (in the words of a well-known aphorism) “the New is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed.”

 

 

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[1] Taken from The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. III: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian. Part II (Anti-Marcion): ‘On the Flesh of Christ,’ ch. XVII. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf03.v.vii.xvii.html. Note: I have slightly adapted the chapter into more modern English to make it easier for the reader, as well as adding my own explanatory footnotes.

[2] A heretic.

[3] Another heretic.

[4] That is, as we read of him in the Gospels.

[5] Isaiah 7:14

[6] Matthew 1:23

[7] That is, without the intervention of normal, sexual intercourse.

[8] That is, of sin.

[9] That is, it was foreshadowed and predicted by events recorded in the Old Testament.

[10] Genesis 2:7

[11] The apostle Paul; 1 Corinthians 15:45

[12] Cf. Genesis 1:26

[13] i.e., the Son of God, Jesus

[14] That is, in Eve’s disobedience.

[15] That is, in Mary’s obedience.

[16] Luke 1:38,45

[17] That is, Eve believing the serpent.

[18] That is, Mary.

[19] Cf. Genesis 3:16; 4:1

[20] That is, Cain, who killed his brother. Genesis 4:1-16

[21] That is, Cain.

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