Tertullian on God’s power to raise the dead

Sebastiano Ricci (1659—1734), ‘The Resurrection’ (detail), circa 1715. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Sebastiano Ricci (1659—1734), ‘The Resurrection’ (detail), circa 1715. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

If you’ve read certain bestselling conspiracy novels, you may be forgiven for thinking that the earliest centuries of Christianity are shrouded in mystery, rather like the Dark Ages, and we really can’t know what the earliest Christians believed. “History is always written by the winners,” as the character Sir Leigh Teabing scurrilously claims in one famous novel.[1] But as we see in the passage below by North African theologian Tertullian, writing at the beginning of the third century A.D., many of the basic Christian beliefs which orthodox, Bible-believing Christians accept today were already in place at this early period.

Tertullian (c. 145 — c. 220 A.D.[2]) was one of Christianity’s greatest theologians of his age, and the first major Christian writer to write in Latin rather than Greek.

“In chapter 11 of his treatise ‘On the Resurrection of the Flesh,’ Tertullian defends the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body against certain Christian heresies which denied that the flesh had any part in the resurrection.”

The passage below is taken from chapter 11 of his treatise ‘On the Resurrection of the Flesh,’[3] in which he defends the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body against certain Christian heresies which either denied that the flesh took part in the resurrection at all — he names the heretics Marcion and Basilides[4] in this regard — or, that the ‘body’ which is raised is of a fundamentally different nature to the body we possess in this life (the view of the heretics Valentinus and Apelles[5]).

In it, we see Tertullian both at his finest and at his worst.

His finest, because he robustly argues that it is not only right and proper that the flesh should be raised from the dead along with the soul; but that it is an easy thing for God to do such a thing.

We also see in this chapter Tertullian’s clear statement of the Christian belief that God created everything ex nihilo — out of nothing.

At his worst, because Tertullian also makes a clear reference here to the Montanist sect, to which he adhered towards the end of his life. Montanism was not a full-blown, Christological heresy — and it should not be confused with Marcionism, a genuinely heretical system of doctrine which Tertullian strenuously and vigorously opposed to the end of his life. Rather, the Montanists were a sect, known at the time as the ‘New Prophecy,’ whose founder Montanus and two of his adherents, Priscilla and Maximilla, claimed to be the direct mouthpieces of the Holy Spirit.[6]

“If Tertullian went in for a zealous, ecstatic Christian sect which believed that the apostolic writings could be supplemented and expanded by the ‘New Prophecy,’ we ought not to judge him too harshly.”

Thus, in the chapter quoted below, Tertullian cites a saying of the prophetess Priscilla (or Prisca) as if it were the utterance of the Holy Spirit himself.

If Tertullian went in for a zealous, ecstatic Christian sect which believed that the divine revelation embedded in the apostolic writings could be — indeed was being — supplemented and expanded by its ‘New Prophecy,’ we ought not to judge him too harshly. We do well to remember that barely a hundred years had elapsed since the last of the apostles had died, and the notion that the writings later to become our New Testament were God’s final authoritative revelation to the Church prior to the return of our Lord, was understandably still taking hold. He remains a theological giant of his age.

On the Resurrection of the Flesh is thought to have been written around the year A.D. 208.[7]

 

‘On the Resurrection of the Flesh,’ chapter 11

Thus far concerning my eulogy to the flesh [in the preceding chapters], in opposition to its enemies — who are (notwithstanding) its greatest friends also! For there is nobody who lives so much in accordance with the flesh as they who deny the resurrection of the flesh, inasmuch as they despise all its discipline, while they disbelieve its punishment. It is a shrewd saying which the Paraclete[8] utters concerning these persons by the mouth of the prophetess Prisca: “They are carnal, and yet they hate the flesh.”

“Firmly believe, therefore, that he produced [the world] wholly out of nothing, and then you have found the knowledge of God — by believing that he has such mighty power.”

Tertullian, ‘On the Resurrection of the Flesh,’ chapter 11

Since, then, the flesh has the best guarantee that could possibly accrue to it for its securing the recompense of salvation,[9] ought we not also to consider well the power, and might, and competence of God himself, whether he is so great as to be able to rebuild and restore the edifice of the flesh, which had become dilapidated and blocked up, and in every possible way dislocated? — whether he has promulgated in the public domains of nature any analogies to convince us of his power in this respect, so that no-one should still be left thirsting for the knowledge of God, when faith in him must rest on no other basis than the belief that he is able to do all things?

No doubt you have among your philosophers men who maintain that this world is without a beginning or a maker. It is, however, much more true that nearly all the heresies[10] allow it an origin and a maker, and ascribe its creation to our God. Firmly believe, therefore, that he produced it wholly out of nothing, and then you have found the knowledge of God — by believing that he has such mighty power.

But some persons are too weak to believe all this at first, owing to their views about Matter. They will rather have it, following the philosophers, that in the beginning the universe was made by God out of underlying matter. Now even if this opinion could be held in truth — since he must be acknowledged to have produced in his re-formation of matter far different substances and far different forms from those which Matter itself possessed, I should maintain with no less persistence, that he produced these things out of nothing, since they absolutely had no existence at all previous to his production of them.

“If God produced all things whatsoever out of nothing, he will be able to draw forth from nothing even the flesh which had fallen into nothing; or, if he moulded other things out of matter, he will be able to call forth the flesh also from somewhere else, into whatever abyss it may have been engulfed.”

Tertullian, ‘On the Resurrection of the Flesh,’ chapter 11

Now where is the difference between a thing’s being produced out of nothing or out of something, if it is the case that what did not exist comes into being, when even to have had no existence is tantamount to having been nothing? The contrary is likewise true: for having once existed amounts to having been something. If, however, there is a difference, both alternatives support my position. For if God produced all things whatsoever out of nothing, he will be able to draw forth from nothing even the flesh which had fallen into nothing; or, if he moulded other things out of matter, he will be able to call forth the flesh also from somewhere else, into whatever [abyss] it may have been engulfed.

And surely he who created is most competent to re-create, inasmuch as it is a far greater work to have produced than to have re-produced, to have imparted a beginning than to have maintained a continuation. On this principle, you may be quite sure that the restoration of the flesh is easier than its first formation.

 

 

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[1] Dan Brown, The da Vinci Code. Corgi Books, London, 2004: p.343

[2] The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. III: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian. T&T Clark, Edinburgh; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, reprinted 1997 (henceforth referred to as ANF-03): p.3

[3] ANF-03: Part II (Anti-Marcion): ‘On the Resurrection of the Flesh,’ ch. 11: pp.552-3. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf03.v.viii.xi.html. Note: I have slightly adapted the text into more modern English to make it easier for the reader.

[4] Ibid., ch. 2, p.546. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf03.v.viii.ii.html

[5] Ibid.

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montanism

[7] ANF-03, ‘On the Resurrection of the Flesh,’ ch. 1, n. 1: pp.545. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf03.v.viii.i.html (there as note 7284).

[8] i.e., the Holy Spirit (see John 14:16, where ‘Helper’ = Greek Paraklētos)

[9] That is, that Scripture everywhere exalts and honours the flesh — for example, “All flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Isaiah 40:5). See the preceding chapter in Tertullian.

[10] For example, the Gnostic systems both of Valentinus and of Marcion, and others besides.

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