In ch. 17 of the Apologeticus, Tertullian surprisingly exclaims: “O the witness of the soul, in its very nature Christian!” (O testimonium animae naturaliter Christianae!). Is Tertullian to be numbered among the universalists? As an advocate of the idea of “anonymous Christians,” a Karl Rahner avant la lettre?
As it turns out, not quite. His statement is actually a forceful assertion of the natural knowledge of God–a natural knowledge that leads to condemnation for those who do not repent of their refusal to recognize him. In other words, he is running a variation, as it were, on a theme from Romans 1.
If we back up and look at the context more broadly, this is what Tertullian has to say:
What we worship is the One God; who fashioned this whole fabric with all its equipment of elements, bodies, spirits; who by the word wherewith He commanded, by the reason wherewith He ordered it, by the might wherewith He could do it, fashioned it out of nothing, to the glory of His majesty. Hence the Greeks also have given to the universe the name cosmos, “order.” 1
He begins with a statement of God’s creation of the world ex nihilo as an ordered whole, one which gives manifest indications of the order that has been bestowed on it. These indications are so manifest, in fact, that they account for the name of the universe, “cosmos,” in the Greek language. While God is in one sense hidden, then, in another sense he is revealed. Thus Tertullian goes on:
He is invisible, though He is seen; incomprehensible, though by grace revealed; beyond our conceiving, though conceived by human senses. So true is He and so great. But what in the ordinary sense can be seen, comprehended, conceived, is less than the eyes that grasp it, the hands that soil it, the senses that discover it. The infinite is known only to itself. Because this is so, it allows us to conceive of God 2–though He is beyond our conceiving. The power of His greatness makes Him known to men, and unknown.
God, while infinitely beyond our comprehension, graciously discloses himself to us–and that “us” includes all people. Man’s refusal to recognize God for what he is, therefore, is sin:
And here is the sum total of their sin who will not recognize Him whom they cannot fail to know.
The impossibility of being ignorant of God is what sets the stage for the remark quoted in this post’s opening.
Would you have us prove him to you from His own works, in their multitude and character, those works that contain us, that sustain us, that delight us; yes! and affright us? Would you have us prove Him to you from the witness of the human soul itself? Yes! the soul, be it cabined and cribbed by the body, be it confined by evil nurture, be it robbed of its strength by lusts and desires, be it enslaved to false gods,–none the less, when it recovers its senses, as after surfeit, as after sleep, as after some illness, when it recaptures its proper health, the soul names God, and for this reason and no other, because, if language be used aright, He is the one true God. “Great God!” “Good God!” “Which may God give!” is the utterance of all men. That He is also Judge, is shown by such utterance as: “God sees;” “I leave it to God;” “God will repay me.” O the witness of the soul, in its very nature Christian! And then, as it says these words, it turns its gaze not to the Capitol, but to heaven. For it knows the abode of the living God; from Him and from heaven it came.
In moments of clarity, every person despite himself knows of the existence of the true God. This feature of human life cannot be gotten rid of, for it is a fundamental component of human nature. To put it another way, it is part of reality. And if reality is Christian reality, as Tertullian, together with the Apostle Paul, believes it is, then in that respect every soul is “Christian” by nature because it cannot help but have knowledge of that Christian reality and bear witness to it. For Tertullian, there is not a kind of cleavage between the “natural” or “common” and the “Christian”: because the “natural” is the real, it is for that very reason “Christian.”
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