Christian Views of the Soul

Note 2: Tertullian (160?-230? A. D.) 1/21/99

Traditionally speaking, there are two concepts that tend to go fist-in-glove in Christian exegesis: on the one hand, and in the first place, the world, the universe, is perceived as having been created by the word of God. The very meaning of Logos is derived from the idea that God needed only to speak in order to cause the material world to come into existence. The words, "Let there be light," in and of themselves, when spoken by God, caused light to come into existence. Nothing else was needed, no other thing, no force, motion, power, thought, essence, or what have you, was necessary to cause light to form beyond or outside of the words that were spoken by God in the beginning. The idea that language is creative, that words have the power to create material reality, while something that properly belongs only to God, is a thought, an idea, a belief, an expectation, that rests at the very center of logocentric consciousness, at the center of the monologic model of the speech act.

True though it may be that only God has the power to speak reality into existence, a recent trend in critical theory has appropriated this concept, toned it down a bit in the process perhaps, wherein the argument is put that language, and language-use, constitutes reality, a reality, however, that has always already experienced its initial creation through the language or word of God. The sense of this perception, I suppose, is that language-use among human beings creates in them the ability to know and understand, if not to see and accept, to recognize and apprehend the material and objective, as well as the immaterial and subjective, if not abstract, substance of the real world in which they live and work and play and die. Without language, there is no world, no material reality that a subject can comprehend or even perceive.

The line from Logos to logocentrism is straight and unbroken. It can, and probably should, be referred to as the radius of the monologic circle. If you will, there are two circles in the figure which are concentric and share, in part, the same radius; one, of course, is longer than the other, and it radiates out from the center to describe a circle that represents God's absolute ability to create by speaking existence into presence, into being. The lesser radius is the one that describes the circle of logocentric discourse, man-speak, as it were, that constitutes anyone's ability to apprehend what God has created, to see and therefore to comprehend the world of created reality. Since the outer circle of God-speak contains the inner circle of human language, it is right and proper to recognize the fact that human language is subordinate to divine discourse, that it is inferior to the master-language spoken by God and, as such, constitutes the first and primary condition of an all-inclusive hierarchy that reaches out and down to all created reality.

In Christianity, of course, the concept of the created world is non-negotiable. It is absolute truth and denying the validity of the idea that God created the world, in six days as it were, is the same as committing the worst sin possible. If anyone in the Middle Ages had managed to think an alternative to God's creation and had been foolish enough to articulate the notion that the world came into existence in some way not dependent upon God's direction, he/she would have been branded a heretic and would have been burned at the stake--literally.

Tertullian, in his Treatise on the Soul, a second or third century Christian discourse, engages the notion of a created reality in the course of his lengthy and vehement and unrelenting objection to Greek Philosophy. He, like most medieval church fathers, always perceived Philosophy as a woman. She, being one, naturally starts out at a considerable disadvantage to the man who is intent on unraveling her because the very term, "church father," generates the hierarchical dynamic that always already disadvantages the inferior voice of the other in the dialogue which seeks to sniff out, if not snuff out, the error that is being called to the rack for the sake of exposure as a false doctrine. Tertullian's method is perhaps typical of such impulses:

"she [Philosophy] attributes nothing to the divine permission, but assumes as her principles the laws of nature. I could bear with her pretensions, if only she were herself true to nature, and would prove to me that she had a mastery over nature as being associated with its creation. She thought, no doubt, that she was deriving her mysteries from sacred sources, as men deem them, because in ancient times most authors were supposed to be (I will not say godlike, but) actually gods."

Demanding that Philosophy prove that she has "mastery over nature as being associated with its creation," before he will be willing even to hear her voice, places Tertullian at the center of a complex of ideas that have always informed Christian theology. The idea of "mastery over nature," for instance, refers directly to the notion that God granted (wo)man the right, the power, and the duty to exercise dominion over every aspect of the created world. Philosophy cannot even claim the "laws of nature" as her discursive "principles" unless she can convince Tertullian that she was directly responsible for the creation of the world. This is a standard, of course, that Tertullian cannot claim for himself, since he was not present at creation either. Tertullian escapes this limitation on his own right to speak by virtue of the fact that he, as opposed to Philosophy, does derive his "mysteries from sacred sources," whereas she only makes false claims based on the erroneous belief among the ancients that all authors were "actually gods." Tertullian's source is actually God, or if not God Himself, then certainly the Logos, the word of God.

The second principle of sacred discourse, and one which is inseparable from the notion of a created world, is divine revelation. This is how Tertullian can know what to say in place of God actually speaking the words of truth Himself. God-speak was always already revealed to good Christians and true through the active movement of the divine Logos made flesh (Christ) in the world. Tertullian puts the issues at stake here this way:

"Whatever noxious vapours, accordingly, exhaled from philosophy, obscure the clear and wholesome atmosphere of truth, it will be for Christians to clear away, both by shattering to pieces the arguments which are drawn from the principles of things--I mean those of the philosophers--and by opposing to them the maxims of heavenly wisdom--that is, such as are revealed by the Lord; in order that both the pitfalls wherewith philosophy captivates the heathen may be removed, and the means employed by heresy to shake the faith of Christians may be repressed."

This is not an easy passage to contemplate. The "maxims of heavenly wisdom," which will clear away the heavy and putrid odors that issue forth from the corrupt flesh of dying Philosophy, the very "noxious vapours," the ones that cloud and pollute the "clear and wholesome atmosphere of truth," will be shattered to pieces by good Christians and true just as soon as they are able to marshal the force and forces necessary to coerce both heathen and heretic to the stake. Prophetic words. Who would have thought that such as Tertullian meant to remove heathens (to reservations and concentration camps) and repress heretics (into the flames, not of hell, but at the stake) when he seems so benignly speaking here not about people but only about the ideas they have? Ideas like Tertullian's have a way of getting out of hand, I suppose. Should one read the word or the acts of the ones who speak them to measure what they mean or envision for the future of the human race? Does History preserve a truth or is every perception of the past flawed? Seems to me that one can read here without too much effort some of the germs and seeds of many of the worst and most horrific moments of human degradation that have (dis)graced our world in the past 1700 years. Too bad, and such is life, I guess, and what a pity that so many of those seeds sown by Tertullian managed, and were allowed, to sprout and grow to such chilling fruition.

It might be useful to put this note into context somewhat, to make the ancient sentiments of a church father more relevant to the modern world. As I have mentioned elsewhere, there was a time in my earlier years when I (mis)took the ever-present voice of the old man, my ancestral spirit-guide, for the voice of God. Talk about a confusion of mixed metaphors. At any rate, in one of those swings between one kind of ideology and another, I convinced myself that I should confess a call to God's service and prepare myself for the ministry. I actually have a "license to preach," a document issued by the Methodist church that gives me the right to enter a church, mount the pulpit, and hold forth on matters pertaining to a Christian's salvation. My "mentor" at the time I undertook this course of study, the man who guided me through the necessary work, was a decent, well-educated, intelligent individual who never did anyone any harm. He was transferred to another church because the congregation didn't like him. His replacement told me, when I went to him for advice about what courses I should take in my undergraduate studies, that I should avoid Philosophy at all costs because IT would destroy my faith in God. He actually said that to me in 1963.

Needless to say, I signed up for every philosophy course I could cram into my schedule. Was he right? Who knows? Was my faith in God destroyed? Yes, but that came about because of things having nothing to do with the philosophy courses I took as an undergraduate. In fact, the teacher who most influenced my developing interest in philosophy was a three-and-a-half foot tall dwarf who later became the Chancellor of one of America's most prestigious theological seminaries. Then again, or maybe in the long term, my exposure to Western metaphysics, in contradiction to the person who taught it to me, is precisely why I no longer have any belief whatsoever in the whiteman's god. The "noxious vapours" of Philosophy it seems have truly claimed yet another victim.

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