Post-Tridentine Scholasticism and Tertullian

by Matthew Gaetano

Tertullian is famous for asking: “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?”

He then declares: “Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief!”

When Tertullian mentions dialectic alongside Stoicism and Platonism, he is mainly referring to Aristotelianism. Earlier in Chapter 7 of the Prescription against Heretics, he says, “Unhappy Aristotle! Who invented for these men [Valentinus and other Gnostics] dialectics, the art of building up and pulling down; an art so evasive in its propositions, so far-fetched in its conjectures, so harsh in its arguments, so productive of contentions–embarrassing even to itself, retracing everything, and really treating of nothing!” He associates Aristotelian dialectic with the “unprofitable questions” of Titus 3:9 and the “words which spread like a cancer” of 2 Tim. 2:17.

As someone who admires Aristotle and particularly the effort of Thomas Aquinas to address questions about Christian revelation while drawing upon the resources of Aristotelian philosophy, I have found these famous passages somewhat troubling. Putting aside Thomism in particular, I might worry about Tertullian’s pressing questions as a teacher at a liberal arts college, especially one which cherishes the philosophical inheritance rooted in ancient Athens. One can address these worries in a number of ways:

  1. Tertullian’s career as a Christian writer did not end well.
  2. His main concern was Gnosticism and other heresies (as the title of the work indicates), not the Greek philosophers themselves.
  3. Tertullian was arguably not as opposed to reason as much as to the corruption of the truth by Greek pagans. As he says in the Apology, chap. 47:

Nor need we wonder if the speculations of philosophers [he just referred to Pythagoras, the Platonists, the Stoics, and the Epicureans] have perverted the older Scriptures. Some of their brood, with their opinions, have even adulterated our new-given Christian revelation, and corrupted it into a system of philosophic doctrines, and from the one path have struck off many and inexplicable by-roads. And I have alluded to this, lest any one becoming acquainted with the variety of parties among us, this might seem to him to put us on a level with the philosophers, and he might condemn the truth from the different ways in which it is defended. But we at once put in a plea in bar against these tainters of our purity, asserting that this is the rule of truth which comes down from Christ by transmission through His companions, to whom we shall prove that those devisers of different doctrines are all posterior. Everything opposed to the truth has been got up from the truth itself, the spirits of error carrying on this system of opposition. By them all corruptions of wholesome discipline have been secretly instigated; by them, too, certain fables have been introduced, that, by their resemblance to the truth, they might impair its credibility, or vindicate their own higher claims to faith (emphasis added).

There are, of course, other (perhaps better) strategies for contextualizing Tertullian’s remarks.

But I stumbled upon Robert Bellarmine’s first disputation in his Controversies on original sin (bk. 5), which suggests that another approach might be possible. In chap. 11, “On the Origin of the Soul,” he points out the very serious controversies of the philosophers on this topic and the influence of those controversies on Christian theologians. He links the error of the Stoics to Manicheaism and Priscillianism, the error of Plato to Origen, and the error of Aristotle (or at least a particular understanding of Aristotle’s view) to Apollinaris. After making these associations, he invokes Tertullian’s statement from Against Hermogenes that “philosophers should be named the patriarchs of heretics.” Bellarmine, a Jesuit who taught the Summa theologiae at Leuven, endorses Tertullian’s perspective on this point, arguing that Tertullian “judged rightly” when he connected the philosophers and the heretics.

Francisco Suarez also uses Tertullian to associate heretics and the philosophers on the issue of the co-eternality of God and matter here.

The Franciscan theologian, Claude Frassen (d. 1711), while discussing the Trinity, also endorses Tertullian’s assertion about philosophers as the “patriarchs of heretics.” His opponents were arguing that the philosophers grasped this mystery through natural reason. In reply, Frassen argued that these philosophers may have had some sort of access to the sources of revelation. Or perhaps they may have received information about sacred mysteries through demons. But any hint of the Trinity in ancient philosophical writings, Frassen says, was generally “admixed with infinite errors.” This Franciscan calls Plato the “forerunner of the Arians” with his “supreme God, Demiurge, and soul of the world”–that is, with divinities that were created and far inferior to the supreme God. So, Frassen is using Tertullian’s famous statement to take a jab at Platonism, but he has no problem embracing the ancient Latin writer’s way of associating Greek philosophy and heresy. And Frassen did this even though he was among the most famous French Scotists of his day. And he didn’t only write about the theology of John Duns Scotus but also prepared a course of philosophy.

I mention all this to make a (very) modest point that early-modern scholastics both engaged in rigorous philosophical inquiry, drawing extensively upon the Aristotelian tradition (and, to some extent, the Platonic and Stoic traditions as well), and often saw themselves as heeding Tertullian’s warnings about the dangers of Greek philosophy. They didn’t think that they had to work hard to contextualize him or explain away his sharp criticisms of pre-Christian thought.

2 thoughts on “Post-Tridentine Scholasticism and Tertullian

  1. Etienne Gilson seems to make a similar (but less modest) point in The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, where he argues that figures like Aquinas represent a distinctly “Christian philosophy” with an understanding of Being that profoundly differs from Greek thought. I often read that this view of philosophy is something that sets Gilson apart from those who sympathize with or defend early-modern scholasticism, which allegedly draws a sharper distinction between philosophy and theology, but what you present here seems to suggest a more complicated picture.

  2. That’s a fascinating point, Spencer. John Inglis’ Spheres of Philosophical Inquiry and the Historiography of Philosophy talks about why scholars of medieval thought in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries wanted a well-defined boundary between theology and philosophy. And, if I recall, he sees this as a substantial departure from Aquinas’ own “model” of the proper way for Christians to make use of philosophy. He sees this tendency even in Gilson. But he indicates that this shift began in the early-modern period. I wonder what difference this sort of evidence might make.

    I’ve often seen references in the early-modern period to the Christian philosopher. But the Jesuit, Gabriel de Henao, also used the expression Christian philosophy in the title of his book on heaven. He explained the title on the first page:

    “I call it Christian Philosophy on the Empyrean Heaven through imitation to the natural or to the science which deals with natural being and which is called by the more contracted name, Physics of Physiology. For natural philosophy comprehends within its whole latitude Dialectic, Physics, and Metaphysics. I add the adjective Christian, so that I might distinguish it from the philosophy that is, as it were, profane, seeing that the being that I undertake to elucidate in the present treatise was either entirely unknown to the ancient pagan philosophers or can be recognized completely only from sacred and Christian scriptures.”

    So, Scripture made it possible to know about this object or place that exists in reality–the empyrean–but it seems that he wanted to deal with this reality like someone who is investigating being as a natural philosopher. (I haven’t read the book in its entirety, so I’m not sure exactly what this looks like for him and how it would be different than what a theologian would do.) Nonetheless, I’m sure that Gabriel de Henao would distinguish the natural light of reason from the supernatural light of faith. So, all in all, he language of Christian philosophy poses an interesting set of issues, and I’m not really sure about the shape of the discussion that took place before 1800.

    Great stuff.

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