Wisdom from Tertullian et al.

Among the blogs I follow is one called Resurrection Orthodoxy, written by Joel Edmund Anderson.


He recently had a post that I thought was a good accompaniment to my own last blog post on probability and theology. The post describes the philosophy of two early Christians, Tertullian and Irenaeus. I am reposting (with Joel’s permission, part of the post related to Tertullian. After a brief introduction we are told that Tertullian is often quoted as saying  “I believe because it is absurd.”

The post continues:

Ever since the time of Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682), this quote has been held up as an example how Christianity is, at its very foundations, irrational, and how, in their stupidity, Christians actually hold up such irrational faith as a virtue. The fact, though, is that Tertullian never said such a thing. What he said was part of a larger argument regarding the truthfulness of Christianity. He said:

“The Son of God was crucified: I am not ashamed – because it is shameful.
The Son of God died: it is immediately credible – because it is silly.
He was buried, and rose again: it is certain – because it is impossible.”

What Tertullian said was not “I believe because it is absurd,” but rather, “It is certain, because it is impossible.” But what does that mean? Well, Tertullian was actually using an argument that he borrowed from, of all people, Aristotle. In Rhetoric 2.23.21, Aristotle says this:

“Another line of argument refers to things which are supposed to happen and yet seem incredible. We may argue that people could not have believed them, if they had not been true or nearly true: even that they are the more likely to be true because they are incredible. For the things which men believe are either facts or probabilities: if, therefore, a thing that is believed is improbable and even incredible, it must be true, since it is certainly not believed because it is at all probable or credible.”

Simply put, the argument is that if something according to convention is considered impossible or ridiculous, but people claim that they actually experienced that supposedly impossible thing occur, one must strongly consider the fact that what they’re claiming really is true, despite what convention accepts.

Convention says, for example, that dead people do not resurrect. If one person came out of Judea, claiming to have spoken to a resurrected Jesus, it would be reasonable to assume that person was insane. But if 5, 10, even 500 people claim to have witnessed the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Christ, then it would be reasonable to pause and consider the fact that perhaps such an “impossible” thing really, in fact, happened. That was what Tertullian was saying….

That ends the fragment I wanted to repost here. (Please take a look at the rest of the post for more insights).

In my previous post I said that believing in something that is impossible (with a probability = 0) is a sign of insanity. But Joel, (and Tertullian and Aristotle) make a very good point here. If many people witness something that was deemed impossible (or, if scientists do controlled, well-conducted experiments repeatedly showing the same thing) there is another alternative to insanity:  what was previously deemed impossible, is  actually possible. This has happened in science numerous times.

I will follow up on this theme in the future.

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1 Response to Wisdom from Tertullian et al.

  1. SheilaDeeth says:

    Oh, that is cool! Thank you!

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