Tertullian was a Church Father of the late second century. He’s sometimes called the father of Latin Christianity. He is also frequently quoted as a person who thought that reason and faith have little if anything to do with each other. The quote is “I believe because it is absurd.” The suggestion that usually accompanies the quote is that to believe against all reason, to believe things that rational thought tells us are just unreasonable, and to thereby have faith in God, is some sort of virtue that Christianity promotes.
If you do a bit of searching around the internet you’ll see this portrayal of Tertullian’s views presented by believers and unbelievers alike. The view that faith is independent of or perhaps hostile to reason is a kind of fideism. Some take this quote as evidence that Tertullian was a fideist. Some use the quote to bolster the claim that Christianity is irrational because it encourages us to believe things that are absurd. Sometimes you’ll even see people using a Latin phrase, credo quia absurdum, giving the impression that they’ve checked out the quote, and discovered that this is exactly what Tertullian said in Latin.
The next time you see somebody do this, challenge them. Ask them to state which part of Tertullian’s writings the phrase credo quia absurdum appears. The fact is, yes, credo quia absurdum does mean “I believe because it is absurd.” But Tertullian never said that. What floats around in this Latin quote is actually a kind of Chinese whisper. Here’s what Tertullian actually said, first in Latin, then in English, from his work De Carne Christi, a work on the Incarnation of Christ:
Natus est Dei Filius, non pudet, quia pudendum est;
et mortuus est Dei Filius, prorsus credibile est, quia ineptum est;
et sepultus resurrexit, certum est, quia impossibile.
“The Son of God was born: there is no shame, because it is shameful.
And the Son of God died: it is wholly credible, because it is unsound.
And, buried, He rose again: it is certain, because impossible.”
The part being frequently (mis)quoted is “It is certain, because it is impossible.” Even the Latin being quoted is wrong. As for the meaning, in the context where this saying appears, Tertullian is responding to the Marcionite view, an early heresy that downplayed, even removed, the suffering and death of the Son of God from the Gospels. Tertullian is explaining that Christ did all the things that he lists, and that they are all beneath Christ, but done nonetheless for our benefit (saying only a few lines earlier of the things that Jesus underwent, “Whatever is beneath God’s dignity is for my advantage”). He is also offering a general apologetic for the facts proclaimed in the Gospel, that Jesus was born into the world, died for our sin, and rose again. In the last line, quoted above, he is actually making a similar point to the one made by some Christian apologists today: The theory of the Son of God dying and then rising again seems so impossible that nobody would have initially believed it – unless of course it were true, and people had witnessed it.
As for whether or not Tertullian really thought that the incarnation and life of Christ was impossible, here’s what he had to say about that, at the outset of chapter three:
Inasmuch as you suppose this was within your competence to decide, it can only have been that your idea was that to God nativity is either impossible or unseemly. I answer, that to God nothing is impossible except what is against his will. So then we have to consider whether it was his will to be born: because, if it was, he both could be and was born.
It just goes to show: Whatever is said in Latin might sound profound (quid quid Latine dictum sit, altum viditar, as the saying goes), but don’t be impressed by the quote. Check the source.