QUINTUS SEPTIMIUM FLORENS TERTULLIANUS, mercifully shortened as Tertullian (ca. 160-ca. 220 A.D.), is perhaps the first of the Latin Christian sources on the natural moral law. Though Catholic for part of his life, in 201 or 202 A.D. Tertullian unfortunately lapsed into a form of Montanism, or Cataphrygianism, a charismatic, enthusiastic, chiliastic, and rigoristic sect founded by Montanus, who claimed to be the incarnation of the Holy Spirit., or, perhaps more properly, the "paraclete" or helper that Christ had told his apostles to anticipate and which would lead them unto all truth It was ecstatic and charismatics movements such as the Montanists that forced the Church to look at the issue of public revelations seriously, eventually deciding that public revelation ceased at the death of the last apostle, foreclosing the ideal of a continuing revelation. In his History of Christianity, Phillip Schaff calls the Montanist heresy "an earnest and well-meaning, but gloomy and fanatical hyper-Christianity, which, like all hyper-spiritualism, is apt to end in the flesh."
Tertullian was the son of a Roman centurion, a "centurio proconsularis" or a Roman aide-de-camp, perhaps stationed in Africa. Tertullian was likely born in Carthage, studied law, but later was ordained a priest after his conversion to Christianity in 197-98 A.D. Tertullian's output was vast, and, though much of it has been lost, there are thirty-one works that are extant. Though the works cover many areas and genres--there are apologetic, polemical, dogmatic, and moral works--some of them expressly refer to the natural moral law. In this posting we will review the mention of the natural moral law in a variety of Tertullian's works. We will begin this series by looking at Tertullian's notion of natural law in his De testimonio animae (On the Testimony of the Soul). In this short work written after his Apology, and intended to be a defense of Christianity against the Pagans, Tertullian addresses the nature of the human soul, and the witness it gives to the existence of a God which created the world and the soul, and which in nature affords the soul the content of his plan. He seeks to find common ground betwen the Christians and the Pagan in the area of a natural theology and a natural moral law. It is the burden of Tertullian's argument to show, as he put in in the remarkable words of his Apology, that the soul is naturally Christian, anima naturaliter Christiana. The truths that natural theology and the natural moral law convey to the soul without revelation find their perfect fulfillment, their satisfaction, their home in the Christian revelation, in Christ's law and in his Church.
Mosaic of Tertullian
In the opening chapter of his De testimonio animae, Tertullian reflects that the Pagan writings give witness to the Christian God. Thus we may see in poets, philosophers, and in the writings of sages, mention of one God, the creator of heaven and earth. And yet error has crept into these sources, as they endow the gods with human passion, and place them in the most compromising situations. The pagan writings are therefore ambivalent, and may be construed in both a Christian sense as well as a non-Christian sense. Tertullian accordingly posits that his audience go beyond the Pagan writings, and look at the soul unencumbered by these. In the manner of a lawyer, he calls as his first witness, the human soul:
Now I invoke a new witness better known than any literature, more compelling than any theory, more widely circulated than any publication, greater than the fullness of man – which is to say the very sum of man [id est totum quod est hominis]. O soul, step forth into our midst [Consiste in medio, anima] whether you are divine and eternal as many philosophers attest. All the more would you not lie! Or whether you are not divine, since you are material as only Epicurus suggests. All the more you ought not to lie. Whether you are received from heaven or conceived from the earth; whether you are assembled from numbers or atoms; whether you originate with the body; whether you are introduced into the body after birth. However you originate, you make of mankind a rational animal, supremely receptive to awareness and knowledge.De test. anim., I. (Q. Howe, trans.) Tertullian thus calls the soul as his first witness--it matters not presently whether the soul is considered material, or whether the soul is considered spiritual. The philosophy or theology of the soul matters not, as its true testimony is unaffected the philosophical theories or theological truths in which it is draped. The soul Tertullian invokes is not to come dressed with Pagan or even Christian inheritances, with the biases and prejudices it has gained through inculturation or belief. It is to appear bereft of such clothing, a naked witness of its fundamental nature. It is to come without prejudice against the Christian.
I do not summon you as one formed by schooling, instructed by libraries, nurtured by Platonic and Stoic academies that you may trumpet your wisdom. I invoked you in your simple [simplicem], unfinished [rudem], untutored [impolitam], unformed [idioticam] nature -- such as you are for those who have only you alone. Such as you are at the crossroads, on the street, in the workshop. I need you in your innocence since no one trusts even the smallest measure of your experience. I demand of you those primal sparks you confer on man, those insights that you have learned from your own depths or from your creator, whoever he may be [ex quocumque acutore tuo sentire didicisti]. As far as I know, you are not inherently Christian [No es, quod sciam, Christiana]. The soul can become Christian, but it is not born Christian. [Fieri enim, non nasci solet Christiana.] But Christians are now demanding evidence from you to be presented to your adversaries from without so that those may blush before you who have hated and mocked us for the very beliefs which they now discover you have always known.De test. anim., I. (Q. Howe, trans.) After calling the soul as his witness, Tertullian engages it, as if he were accusing it or addressing it in open court. The soul is engaged in second person. The first area of question involves natural theology, and Tertullian seeks to prove that the soul is naturally aware of God's existence, that it is created, and that it seeks to worship him. The soul seeks to worship the Christian God, the one True God, even while unfortunately worshiping in Pagan forms:
Hence, O soul, it is accorded to you to proclaim from your own awareness, at home and abroad, no one mocking, no one objecting, "God sees all." "I trust in God." "God will make it good." "God will judge between us." How does this come to you, O soul, if you are not Christian?
When bound in the ribbon of Ceres, when clad in the scarlet pallium of Saturn, when robed in the linen gown of Isis, when in the very temples of the gods, O soul, you often call upon God as your judge. You stand at the feet of Asclepius, you adorn the brazen image of Juno, you decorate the helmet of Minerva with dark omens. And yet while doing this, you do not invoke the god you are addressing. In your own forum you summon a judge from beyond. In your temples you experience an alien divinity. O testimony of truth which conjures up a Christian witness in the midst of these pagan demons!De test. anim., II. (Q. Howe, trans.) The soul is also aware of evil, even of a personal expression of that evil, that is, Satan. De test. anim., III.
In his fourth chapter, Tertullian seeks to show that the soul is immortal, that it anticipates judgment, and that this implies the preservation of personality, and even preservation of the body:
We are affirming that you survive beyond the final reckoning and that you can expect a day of judgment when you are eternally consigned to torment or delight according to your merits [adfirmamus te manere post uitae dispunctionem et expectare diem iudicii proque meritis aut cruciatui destinari aut refrigerio, utroque sempiterno]. In order to undergo this, you must recover your original essence by reviving the substance and memory of the person you once were. Without the awareness of sentient flesh, you can perceive neither good nor evil; there is no basis for judgment without the living presence of the one who actually earned the inflicted punishment. This Christian concept of the soul is more high-minded than Pythagorean, for it does not relocate you into animal bodies. It is more bountiful than Platonism, for it restores to you the gift of the body. It is more majestic than Epicureanism, for it delivers us from death. And yet solely because of the Christian name, this belief is rejected as a delusion or a misconception – or as some say, an act of arrogant presumption.De test. anim., IV. (Q. Howe, trans.) In Chapter 5 of his short work, what may be called the kernel or climax of Tertullian's argument, we find Tertullian going beyond all convention, beyond all revelation, pagan, Jewish, or Christian.
These testimonies of the soul are as true as they are straightforward, [simplicia] as straightforward as they are widespread [vulgaria] as widespread as they are universal [communia] as universal as they are natural [naturalia], and as natural as they are divine [divina]. I do not believe anyone would find it frivolous or laughable, if he reflects on the majesty of nature [naturae maiestatem], which is regarded as the wellspring of the soul [ex qua censetur acutoritas animae]. As much as you attribute to the teacher, so much you will concede to the pupil. The teacher is nature and the pupil is the soul [Magistra natura, anima discipula] Whatever the teacher has conveyed or the pupil has learned has been communicated by God, who is the teacher of nature [a deo traditum est, magistro scilicet ipsius magistrae]. Whatever the soul can surmise about its original teacher, this power resides in you that you may reflect upon that which is in you. Be aware of that which has given you awareness. Recognize her who is the seer of your forebodings, who is the prophet of your inklings, who is the oracle of your outcomes. Is it any wonder if, having been bestowed by God, she holds powers vision. Is it any wonder if she knows God, by whom she was bestowed?De test. anim., V. (Q. Howe, trans.) Tertullian then closes his argument to the Pagan jury to whom he writes his treatise on the soul. The witness of the soul is to be believed as a testimony of the divine. Revelation is but "the faithful sister of the truth," that has its source in God, the creature of the soul and its nature. Indeed, "neither God nor Nature lie," neque deus neque natura mentitur.
Even when the soul is deceived by the adversary, she recalls her creator, his goodness, his decree, her own fall, and the fall of the adversary. Is it any wonder if, having been bestowed by God, she pronounces those things which God gave his creatures to know? But whoever does not think that these explanations of the soul are the promptings of nature and the silent expressions of our inborn and native awareness, he will attribute them to the vice of citing opinions from the published literature in circulation among the masses.
Certainly the soul predates writing, and speech predates the book, and thought predates the pen, and man himself predates the philosopher and the poet. Is it to believed that before literature and its spread, man lived in silence on such subjects? Did no one ever speak of God and his goodness? Did no one speak of death and the afterlife? Speech, I believe, was impoverished, in fact nonexistent, if it once lacked those elements without which it cannot exist today. And now, of course, speech is richer, fuller, and wiser than ever before. If those things which today are so accessible, so immediate, so near at hand, so springing from the lips – if they did not exist before writing emerged, before, as I believe, Mercury [the reputed author of writing] was born – then indeed speech was a beggar. How was it possible, I ask, that literature could know and launch into spoken usage what no mind had previously conceived, no tongue had uttered, no ear had heard?
But since the divine scriptures belonging to us or to the Jews – onto whose olive branch we had been grafted – are much older or at least somewhat older than pagan literature, then credence must be given to our literature rather than to yours. Our literature is more forceful for instructing the soul than yours, having come into being earlier rather than later. Even if we grant that the soul was educated by your literature, tradition derives from its primal origin. Whatever you have taken or assimilated from our letters is still ours. This being the case, it does not make a great deal of difference whether the awareness of the soul was shaped by God [a deo formata] or by writings about God [an litteras dei]. Why, O humankind [homo], why do you insist that these notions about the soul emerged from opinions about your writings [de humanis sententiis litterarum tuarum], only to ripen then into common usage?
Go ahead and believe in your literary sources; even more believe in our divine sources. But as for the insight of the soul, believe in Nature [sed de animae ipsius arbitrio perinde crede naturae]. Select whichever of these you believe to be the faithful sister of the truth [fidelius sororeme veritatis]. If you have doubts as to your own sources, be assured that neither God nor Nature lie [neque deus neque natura mentitur]. In order that you may believe in both Nature and in God, believe in the soul [Ut et naturae et deo credas, crede animae]. So it shall come to pass that you will believe in yourself [Ita fiet ut et tibe credas]. It is the soul you value as having made you as great as you are.De test. anim., VI. (Q. Howe, trans.)
You belong to her entirely; she is everything to you. Without her you can neither live nor die. For her sake you neglect even God. When you fear to become a Christian, come onto her. Why does the soul invoke the name of God when she is worshiping another? When she enlists spirits for cursing, why does she addressed them as demons? Why does she invoke the heavens and curse the earth? Why does she serve the Lord in one place and summon his vengeance in another place? How does she judge the dead? What words does she take from the Christians, whom she wishes neither to see nor to hear? Why does she either communicate these expressions to us or keep them from us? Why has she either taught us or learned from us?
Be suspicious of such a convergence of words amidst such a divergence of the message. You are deluded if you attribute this to the Latin language alone or to the Greek language, which is closely related, for you are thus denying the universality of nature. The soul has descended from heaven, not just on the Latins and the Greeks. One humanity comprises all races, although the name varies. There is a single soul, but language is various. There is a single spirit, but speech is various. Every race has its own discourse, but the content of this discourse is universal. God is everywhere and the goodness of God is everywhere. [Omnium gentium unus homo, varium nomen est, una anima, varia vox, unus spiritus, varius sonus, propria cuique genti loquella, sed loquellae material communis. Deus ubique et bonitas dei ubique.] The demons are everywhere and the curse of the demons is everywhere. The summons of God’s judgment is everywhere [iudicii divini invocatio ubique]. The awareness of death is everywhere [mors ubique et conscientia mortis ubique] and the testimony of the soul is everywhere [testimonium ubique]. By its own right every soul proclaims those things we Christians are not even allowed to murmur [in public forum?] [Omnis anima suo iure proclamat quae nobis nec mutire conceditur]. Rightly then, every soul is both defendant and witness – as much a defendant against the charge of error as a witness to the truth. And she will stand before the court of God on the day of judgment with nothing to say. You were preaching God, but you were not seeking him. You shuddered before the demons and still you worshipped them. You would invoke the judgment of God and yet you denied it. You believed in eternal punishment and yet you took no steps to avoid it. You were aware of the Christian name and yet you have persecuted it [Christianum nomen sapiebas, et Christianum nomen persquebaris].
16th Century Woodcut Depiction of Tertullian