Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Early Church Fathers Nota Bene

Instrumentum Litteraturae

Yesterday we saw that Tertullian was willing to go so far as to call the soul “naturally Christian,” just as, in a sense, one might say the universe–the cosmos that bears witness to divine order–is.

And yet we do not apprehend God as we ought from nature. The impossibility of our absolute ignorance of him leads to our condemnation, but, on our own, we do not see or understand him aright sola natura. Thus God has revealed himself to us specially in Scripture. Immediately after the passage quoted yesterday, Tertullian goes on to say:

But that more fully and more firmly we might approach God Himself and His thoughts and His will, He has given us the help of books [instrumentum litteraturae], that who will, may inquire regarding God, on inquiring may find Him, on finding Him may believe, on believing may serve Him. Men worthy in their stainless righteousness to know God and to show God, from the very beginning He sent into the world, steeped in the Holy Spirit, to proclaim that He alone is God, Who made the universe, Who fashioned man of mud–(for He is your true Prometheus!)–Who ordained the course of the world, appointing the seasons, the one to follow the other; to tell us, moreover, what proofs in flood and in fire He has displayed of His avenging Majesty; what laws of life He has appointed whereby we may please him; what requital He has determined for ignorance of those laws, for breaking or keeping them; seeing that, when this age reaches its full end, He will sit as Judge, and His worshippers He will repay with life eternal, and the profane He will condemn to fire as perpetual and unceasing….These messengers of God, whom we mentioned, are called prophets from the function of prediction. Their voices, their virtues–all directed to promote faith in the Godhead–are still in the treasure-house of letters, which are no secret. (Apologeticus 18)

God, by inspiring Scripture, clarifies, corrects, purifies, and illuminates our conceptions of him and gives us sure knowledge of his will.

Incidentally, do you think that Calvin spent some significant time with Tertullian? Yes, me too.

Compare, for instance, the famous passage from Institutes 1.6.1, where special revelation again clarifies and corrects our faulty “sight,” more clearly revealing God as Creator and also manifesting God as Redeemer:

Therefore, though the effulgence which is presented to every eye, both in the heavens and on the earth, leaves the ingratitude of man without excuse, since God, in order to bring the whole human race under the same condemnation, holds forth to all, without exception, a mirror of his Deity in his works, another and better help must be given to guide us properly to God as a Creator. Not in vain, therefore, has he added the light of his Word in order that he might make himself known unto salvation, and bestowed the privilege on those whom he was pleased to bring into nearer and more familiar relation to himself. For, seeing how the minds of men were carried to and fro, and found no certain resting-place, he chose the Jews for a peculiar people, and then hedged them in that they might not, like others, go astray. And not in vain does he, by the same means, retain us in his knowledge, since but for this, even those who, in comparison of others, seem to stand strong, would quickly fall away. For as the aged, or those whose sight is defective, when any book however fair, is set before them, though they perceive that there is something written are scarcely able to make out two consecutive words, but, when aided by glasses, begin to read distinctly, so Scripture, gathering together the impressions of Deity, which, till then, lay confused in our minds, dissipates the darkness, and shows us the true God clearly. God therefore bestows a gift of singular value, when, for the instruction of the Church, he employs not dumb teachers merely, but opens his own sacred mouth; when he not only proclaims that some God must be worshipped, but at the same time declares that He is the God to whom worship is due; when he not only teaches his elect to have respect to God, but manifests himself as the God to whom this respect should be paid.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.