Tertullian: On the resurrection of the flesh

I’ve been too busy as a result of our recent (short-distance) move to write, but now that we’re settled in our new home, I should be able to resume blogging.  Since we knew several months prior to our move that we’d be moving, but weren’t sure exactly when, I’d packed most of my books months ago.  It’s nice to have them back on bookshelves again.  Years ago, when our kids were young, I recall that some of their toys had been packed away for awhile prior to one of our moves.  I remember how excited my son Scott was when he unpacked those toys at the new house.  They were the same old toys that he knew, but their “recovery” after an absence was thrilling to him: “It’s almost like opening presents on Christmas,” he said.  Books, toys – pretty much the same thing.

One such “recovered” book that seemed to magnetically attract my hand was Ernest Evans translation and commentary of Tertullian’s De Resurrectione Carnis, titled Tertullian’s Treatise on the Resurrection (London: S. P. C. K., 1960).  So I’m rereading this book, and once again marveling at Tertullian’s vigorous tone and felicity of expression, which are evident from the very first sentences:

The resurrection of the dead is Christian men’s confidence.  By believing it we are what we claim to be.  This belief the truth exacts: the truth is what God reveals.

Students of early Christianity will be familiar with the heresy known as docetism which denied the reality of Christ’s body.  Christ, adherents of docetism proclaimed, only seemed to have a human body; in reality, they said, He was a pure spirit.  Of course, this heresy undercuts belief in the resurrection, at least as regards the body.  De Resurrectione Carnis is a full-throated defense of the resurrection of the flesh that will amply repay any attention the modern-day Christian might choose to give it.

In his commentary, Evans provides the following workmanlike summary of section 12 of the work:

Nature, which is God’s handiwork, presents on all sides examples of life after death.  These examples God has provided, with the express intention that we, having seen resurrection in act, should the more readily believe when we are told of it in words.  Moreover, if all things rise again for man’s sake, and man’s flesh has the enjoyment of them, how can it be that flesh itself should utterly perish?

Evans then offers the following interesting comment:

This theme would probably now be regarded as at best a not very apposite illustration: the ancients apparently thought it had some value as an argument, for it continually recurs.

One can guess – since Evans does not elaborate as to his reasoning – that this comment reflects the modern Christian viewpoint that sees nature as (essentially) a charnel house.  Any number of thinkers could be adduced to illustrate the point.  Reflecting my Russophile tendencies, I’ll choose Vladimir Solovyov, who wrote:

Evil is a world-wide fact; all natural life begins in violence and wickedness, goes on in suffering and servitude, and ends in death and putrid dissolution.  (God, Man and the Church : The Spiritual Foundations of Life, p. 92)

And:

It is unworthy of man to be merely a means or an instrument of the natural process by which the blind life-force perpetuates itself at the expense of separate entities that are born and perish and replace one another in turn.  Man as a moral being does not want to obey this natural law of replacement of generations, the law of eternal death.  He does not want to be that which replaces and is replaced.  . . .  The power of eternal life exists as a fact; nature lives eternally and is resplendent with eternal beauty; but it is ‘an indifferent nature’ – indifferent to the individual entities which by their change preserve its eternity.  (The Justification of the Good, p. 122)

So while Tertullian saw presentiments of man’s resurrection everywhere in the created world, Solovyov saw only indifference and hopelessness for man in creation.  Solovyov wrote (emphasis mine):

We have one victory of the good power of life already recorded in the past – one personal resurrection.  We can thus look forward to future victories involving the collective resurrection of all.  (War, Progress, and the End of History : Three Conversations Including a Short Story of the Anti-Christ, p. 148)

Tertullian would certainly have agreed with Solovyov about the singularity of Christ’s resurrection: there is no fundamental contradiction.  But there is an important difference of perspective that can probably be explained by the historical process of “objectifying” nature that shaped the thinking of Solovyov and, indeed, of most of us, ever since Descartes effected his neat separation of the thinking subject from everything else.  Of course, there are some modern Christian thinkers – such as Joseph Sittler and Gustaf Wingren – who do not devalue creation, and I will write about this countervailing trend in future posts.

But, for now, let’s go back in time to the early third century of the Christian era to hear what Tertullian had to say.  Evans’ opinion of it notwithstanding, I find this passage to be stirring, beautiful, and persuasive – Tertullian at his best!

From Tertullian’s Treatise on the Resurrection, section 12:

Look next at actual instances of divine power.  Day dies into night and is on every side buried in darkness.  The beauty of the world puts on mourning, its every substance is blackened.  All things are squalid, silent, numb: everywhere there is vacation, cessation of business: such lamentation is there for the light that is lost.  And yet again the same light, entire and whole, together with its adornment and endowment, together with the sun, revives for the whole world, slaying its own death, the night, stripping off its funeral-trappings, the darkness, becoming heir to its own self, until night also revive, herself also with her own appurtenance.  For there is also a rekindling of the beams of the stars, which the lighting up of morning had put out; there is a returning home of constellations which have been abroad, which the dividing of seasons had removed; a refurbishing of the mirrors of the moon, which the date of the month had worn away; a revolution of winters and summers, of springs and autumns, with their own functions, fashions, and fruits.  Moreover the earth also learns from heaven: to clothe the trees after their stripping, to colour the flowers anew, to dress itself in grass again, to bring to light the same seeds as have perished, and not to bring them to light until they have perished.  A marvellous exchange: by defrauding she preserves, so as to give back she takes away, so as to guard she wastes, so as to make alive she slays, so as to make whole she corrupts, so that she may even multiply she first goes bankrupt, inasmuch as she restores things more abundant and more elegant than she has abolished, destruction verily being profit, injury
interest, and loss gain.  To put it in one word, the whole creation is recurrent.  Whatsoever you are to meet with has been: whatsoever you are to lose will be.  Nothing exists for the first time.  All things return to their estate after having departed: all things begin when they have ceased.  They come to an end simply that they may come to be: nothing perishes except with a view to salvation.  Therefore this whole revolving scheme of things is an attestation of the resurrection of the dead.  God wrote down resurrection in works before he put it in writing, he preached it by acts of power before he told of it in words.  He first gave you nature for a teacher, intending also to add prophecy, so that as previously a disciple of nature you might the more readily believe prophecy, might at once assent on hearing what you had already everywhere seen, and might not doubt that God is also a raiser up of the flesh when you knew that he is a restorer of all things.  And further, if
all things rise again for man, for whose benefit they are administered, and moreover not for man except as including the flesh, how could that flesh utterly perish, for the sake and for the benefit of which all things are kept from perishing?

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This entry was posted in Solovyov, Vladimir, Tertullian, Theology (uncategorized), Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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