Tertullian, Athens, and Jerusalem


Sitting in the commons of the Beeson Divinity School, I first heard Tertullian’s infamous bon mot about Jerusalem and Athens. The speaker was riled up about the ‘damage’ done by my denomination, the Vineyard Community, to modern worship. Ideas about appropriate tunes for Sunday morning aside, that little bon mot presented an interpretative challenge since being included in Tertullian’s defense of the faith entitled Prescription Against Heretics. Though often misused the question which comes towards the beginning of the work sets the tone for the rest, namely a discussion of the choice to be faithful. In his biting apologia Tertullian sought to provide the answer. To understand this concept one must first understand what Tertullian means by the Rule of Faith. It is this Rule which defines the appropriate relationship between Jerusalem and Athens, the Church and the Academy, the Christian and the Heretic.

To be faithful was set in stark contrast with the act of being unfaithful or heretical. To be faithful is to be true to the Faith which was handed down from Apostles by Paul and Timothy’s ‘good and faithful men (and women).’ He wrote that “We Christians are forbidden to introduce anything on our own authority or to choose what someone else introduces on his own authority” (34). This authority can be found in the public proclamation of the Apostles which was based upon the authority of Christ (which one might argue was based upon the authority of the Father).

In the pages that followed Tertullian hammers those who have wandered away from this authority. Mocking the self-importance of the heretics, Tertullian asked if perhaps “Truth was waiting for a Marcionite or Valentinian to set her free. Meanwhile everything was done wrong [by the Church]” (50). One can imagine Tertullian as Elijah on Mount Carmel mocking the priests of Baal for their unburned offerings. Thundering his point home Tertullian demands to know “on what authority they have come forward…. Let them tell us that Christ has come down a second time, taught a second time, was crucified a second time, dead a second time, raised a second time” (52). Let them announce to one and all just what authority their secret confessions hold.

Despite his belittling remarks about those who choose to move on past the authority given them, Tertullian does allow some room for discussion. Tertullian dryly informed his audience that “provided the Rule is not disturbed, you may seek and discuss as much as you like. You may give full rein to your itching curiosity where any point seems unsettled and ambiguous or dark and obscure” (40). Not to be too crass or give weight to Rodney Stark’s idea of religion as a marketplace, one might use as a metaphor the search of a tourist for the best establishments within a city. One consorts guidebooks and authorities for information on the best sites; yet, as one becomes a resident the search becomes less important, and set likes and dislikes in establishments more exact. If one has just arrived from Athens some perusal of all that Jerusalem entails. If one is already a resident of Jerusalem then why be enticed by the bright lights and newness of Athens? Yet just as many a couple has been tempted by the greener grass of a new home or a new place, and just there stood the temptation for many Christians, the wonder if something new and exciting lurked in the hills of Athens.

Audiences around the world have laughed at the comics joke about the wife telling her husband that she found her keys in the last place she looked. “Of course you did,” the wry husband responds, “I would hope you didn’t keep looking for them after that.” Here in his discussion of heresy stood Tertullian in the role of wry husband. Once one has found the Truth why keep looking? When the One with nail-scarred hands answered the door, why ask if anyone else is at home? For these reasons and more Tertullian scolded the heretics for the inane nature of their frightening discussions. In a fascinatingly brilliant response an old joke was made new. The foolishness of the Gospel is illuminated, and the wisdom of the Greeks maligned. What has Jerusalem to do with Athens? For Tertullian it was everything and nothing. If one was traveling from Athens to Jerusalem the answer was everything. However if one happened to find oneself in Jerusalem already, the answer was nothing more and certainly nothing less.

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Historical Papers

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