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Home > Fathers of the Church > The Soul's Testimony (Tertullian)

The Soul's Testimony

Chapter 1

If, with the object of convicting the rivals and persecutors of Christian truth, from their own authorities, of the crime of at once being untrue to themselves and doing injustice to us, one is bent on gathering testimonies in its favour from the writings of the philosophers, or the poets, or other masters of this world's learning and wisdom, he has need of a most inquisitive spirit, and a still greater memory to carry out the research. Indeed, some of our people, who still continued their inquisitive labours in ancient literature, and still occupied memory with it, have published works we have in our hands of this very sort; works in which they relate and attest the nature and origin of their traditions, and the grounds on which opinions rest, and from which it may be seen at once that we have embraced nothing new or monstrous— nothing for which we cannot claim the support of ordinary and well-known writings, whether in ejecting error from our creed, or admitting truth into it. But the unbelieving hardness of the human heart leads them to slight even their own teachers, otherwise approved and in high renown, whenever they touch upon arguments which are used in defence of Christianity. Then the poets are fools, when they describe the gods with human passions and stories; then the philosophers are without reason, when they knock at the gates of truth. He will thus far be reckoned a wise and sagacious man who has gone the length of uttering sentiments that are almost Christian; while if, in a mere affectation of judgment and wisdom, he sets himself to reject their ceremonies, or to convicting the world of its sin, he is sure to be branded as a Christian. We will have nothing, then, to do with the literature and the teaching, perverted in its best results, which is believed in its errors rather than its truth. We shall lay no stress on it, if some of their authors have declared that there is one God, and one God only. Nay, let it be granted that there is nothing in heathen writers which a Christian approves, that it may be put out of his power to utter a single word of reproach. For all are not familiar with their teachings; and those who are, have no assurance in regard to their truth. Far less do men assent to our writings, to which no one comes for guidance unless he is already a Christian. I call in a new testimony, yea, one which is better known than all literature, more discussed than all doctrine, more public than all publications, greater than the whole man— I mean all which is man's. Stand forth, O soul, whether you are a divine and eternal substance, as most philosophers believe if it be so, you will be the less likely to lie,— or whether you are the very opposite of divine, because indeed a mortal thing, as Epicurus alone thinks— in that case there will be the less temptation for you to speak falsely in this case: whether you are received from heaven, or sprung from earth; whether you are formed of numbers, or of atoms; whether your existence begins with that of the body, or you are put into it at a later stage; from whatever source, and in whatever way, you make man a rational being, in the highest degree capable of thought and knowledge—stand forth and give your witness. But I call you not as when, fashioned in schools, trained in libraries, fed in Attic academies and porticoes, you belch wisdom. I address you simple, rude, uncultured and untaught, such as they have you who have you only; that very thing of the road, the street, the work-shop, wholly. I want your inexperience, since in your small experience no one feels any confidence. I demand of you the things you bring with you into man, which you know either from yourself, or from your author, whoever he may be. You are not, as I well know, Christian; for a man becomes a Christian, he is not born one. Yet Christians earnestly press you for a testimony; they press you, though an alien, to bear witness against your friends, that they may be put to shame before you, for hating and mocking us on account of things which convict you as an accessory.

Chapter 2

We give offense by proclaiming that there is one God, to whom the name of God alone belongs, from whom all things come, and who is Lord of the whole universe. Bear you testimony, if you know this to be the truth; for openly and with a perfect liberty, such as we do not possess, we hear you both in private and in public exclaim, Which may God grant, and, If God so will. By expressions such as these you declare that there is one who is distinctively God, and you confess that all power belongs to him to whose will, as Sovereign, you look. At the same time, too, you deny any others to be truly gods, in calling them by their own names of Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Minerva; for you affirm Him to be God alone to whom you give no other name than God; and though you sometimes call these others gods, you plainly use the designation as one which does not really belong to them, but is, so to speak, a borrowed one. Nor is the nature of the God we declare unknown to you: God is good, God does good, you are wont to say; plainly suggesting further, But man is evil. In asserting an antithetic proposition, you, in a sort of indirect and figurative way, reproachest man with his wickedness in departing from a God so good. So, again, as among us, as belonging to the God of benignity and goodness, Blessing is a most sacred act in our religion and our life, you too sayest as readily as a Christian needs, God bless you; and when you turn the blessing of God into a curse, in like manner your very words confess with us that His power over us is absolute and entire. There are some who, though they do not deny the existence of God, hold withal that He is neither Searcher, nor Ruler, nor Judge; treating with special disdain those of us who go over to Christ out of fear of a coming judgment, as they think, honouring God in freeing Him from the cares of keeping watch, and the trouble of taking note—not even regarding Him as capable of anger. For if God, they say, gets angry, then He is susceptible of corruption and passion; but that of which passion and corruption can be affirmed may also perish, which God cannot do. But these very persons elsewhere, confessing that the soul is divine, and bestowed on us by God, stumble against a testimony of the soul itself, which affords an answer to these views. For if either divine or God-given, it doubtless knows its giver; and if it knows Him, it undoubtedly fears Him too, and especially as having been by Him endowed so amply. Has it no fear of Him whose favour it is so desirous to possess, and whose anger it is so anxious to avoid? Whence, then, the soul's natural fear of God, if God cannot be angry? How is there any dread of Him whom nothing offends? What is feared but anger? Whence comes anger, but from observing what is done? What leads to watchful oversight, but judgment in prospect? Whence is judgment, but from power? To whom does supreme authority and power belong, but to God alone? So you are always ready, O soul, from your own knowledge, nobody casting scorn upon you, and no one preventing, to exclaim, God sees all, and I commend you to God, and May God repay, and God shall judge between us. How happens this, since you are not Christian? How is it that, even with the garland of Ceres on the brow, wrapped in the purple cloak of Saturn, wearing the white robe of the goddess Isis, you invoke God as judge? Standing under the statue of Æsculapius, adorning the brazen image of Juno, arraying the helmet of Minerva with dusky figures, you never think of appealing to any of these deities. In your own forum you appeal to a God who is elsewhere; you permit honour to be rendered in your temples to a foreign god. Oh, striking testimony to truth, which in the very midst of demons obtains a witness for us Christians!

Chapter 3

But when we say that there are demons— as though, in the simple fact that we alone expel them from the men's bodies, we did not also prove their existence— some disciple of Chrysippus begins to curl the lip. Yet your curses sufficiently attest that there are such beings, and that they are objects of your strong dislike. As what comes to you as a fit expression of your strong hatred of him, you call the man a dæmon who annoys you with his filthiness, or malice, or insolence, or any other vice which we ascribe to evil spirits. In expressing vexation, contempt, or abhorrence, you have Satan constantly upon your lips; the very same we hold to be the angel of evil, the source of error, the corrupter of the whole world, by whom in the beginning man was entrapped into breaking the commandment of God. And (the man) being given over to death on account of his sin, the entire human race, tainted in their descent from him, were made a channel for transmitting his condemnation. You see, then, your destroyer; and though he is fully known only to Christians, or to whatever sect confesses the Lord, yet, even you have some acquaintance with him while yet you abhor him!

Chapter 4

Even now, as the matter refers to your opinion on a point the more closely belonging to you, in so far as it bears on your personal well-being, we maintain that after life has passed away you still remain in existence, and look forward to a day of judgment, and according to your deserts art assigned to misery or bliss, in either way of it for ever; that, to be capable of this, your former substance must needs return to you, the matter and the memory of the very same human being: for neither good nor evil could you feel if you were not endowed again with that sensitive bodily organization, and there would be no grounds for judgment without the presentation of the very person to whom the sufferings of judgment were due. That Christian view, though much nobler than the Pythagorean, as it does not transfer you into beasts; though more complete than the Platonic, since it endows you again with a body; though more worthy of honour than the Epicurean, as it preserves you from annihilation—yet, because of the name connected with it, it is held to be nothing but vanity and folly, and, as it is called, a mere presumption. But we are not ashamed of ourselves if our presumption is found to have your support. Well, in the first place, when you speak of one who is dead, you say of him, Poor manpoor, surely, not because he has been taken from the good of life, but because he has been given over to punishment and condemnation. But at another time you speak of the dead as free from trouble; you profess to think life a burden, and death a blessing. You are wont, too, to speak of the dead as in repose, when, returning to their graves beyond the city gates with food and dainties, you are wont to present offerings to yourself rather than to them; or when, coming from the graves again, you are staggering under the effects of wine. But I want your sober opinion. You call the dead poor when you speak your own thoughts, when you are at a distance from them. For at their feast, where in a sense they are present and recline along with you, it would never do to cast reproach upon their lot. You can not but adulate those for whose sake you are feasting it so sumptuously. Do you then speak of him as poor who feels not? How happens it that you curse as one capable of suffering from your curse, the man whose memory comes back on you with the sting in it of some old injury? It is your imprecation that the earth may lie heavy on him, and that there may be trouble to his ashes in the realm of the dead. In like manner, in your kindly feeling to him to whom you are indebted for favours, you entreat repose to his bones and ashes, and your desire is that among the dead he may have pleasant rest. If you have no power of suffering after death, if no feeling remains—if, in a word, severance from the body is the annihilation of you, what makes you lie against yourself, as if you could suffer in another state? Nay, why do you fear death at all? There is nothing after death to be feared, if there is nothing to be felt. For though it may be said that death is dreadful not for anything it threatens afterwards, but because it deprives us of the good of life; yet, on the other hand, as it puts an end to life's discomforts, which are far more numerous, death's terrors are mitigated by a gain that more than outweighs the loss. And there is no occasion to be troubled about a loss of good things, which is amply made up for by so great a blessing as relief from every trouble. There is nothing dreadful in that which delivers from all that is to be dreaded. If you shrink from giving up life because your experience of it has been sweet, at any rate there is no need to be in any alarm about death if you have no knowledge that it is evil. Your dread of it is the proof that you are aware of its evil. You would never think it evil— you would have no fear of it at all— if you were not sure that after it there is something to make it evil, and so a thing of terror. Let us leave unnoted at this time that natural way of fearing death. It is a poor thing for any one to fear what is inevitable. I take up the other side, and argue on the ground of a joyful hope beyond our term of earthly life; for desire of posthumous fame is with almost every class an inborn thing. I have not time to speak of the Curtii, and the Reguli, or the brave men of Greece, who afford us innumerable cases of death despised for after renown. Who at this day is without the desire that he may be often remembered when he is dead? Who does not give all endeavour to preserve his name by works of literature, or by the simple glory of his virtues, or by the splendour even of his tomb? How is it the nature of the soul to have these posthumous ambitions and with such amazing effort to prepare the things it can only use after decease? It would care nothing about the future, if the future were quite unknown to it. But perhaps you think yourself surer, after your exit from the body, of continuing still to feel, than of any future resurrection, which is a doctrine laid at our door as one of our presumptuous suppositions. But it is also the doctrine of the soul; for if any one inquires about a person lately dead as though he were alive, it occurs at once to say, He has gone. He is expected to return, then.

Chapter 5

These testimonies of the soul are simple as true, commonplace as simple, universal as commonplace, natural as universal, divine as natural. I don't think they can appear frivolous or feeble to any one, if he reflect on the majesty of nature, from which the soul derives its authority. If you acknowledge the authority of the mistress, you will own it also in the disciple. Well, nature is the mistress here, and her disciple is the soul. But everything the one has taught or the other learned, has come from God— the Teacher of the teacher. And what the soul may know from the teachings of its chief instructor, you can judge from that which is within you. Think of that which enables you to think; reflect on that which in forebodings is the prophet, the augur in omens, the foreseer of coming events. Is it a wonderful thing, if, being the gift of God to man, it knows how to divine? Is it anything very strange, if it knows the God by whom it was bestowed? Even fallen as it is, the victim of the great adversary's machinations, it does not forget its Creator, His goodness and law, and the final end both of itself and of its foe. Is it singular then, if, divine in its origin, its revelations agree with the knowledge God has given to His own people? But he who does not regard those outbursts of the soul as the teaching of a congenital nature and the secret deposit of an inborn knowledge, will say that the habit and, so to say, the vice of speaking in this way has been acquired and confirmed from the opinions of published books widely spread among men. Unquestionably the soul existed before letters, and speech before books, and ideas before the writing of them, and man himself before the poet and philosopher. Is it then to be believed, that before literature and its publication no utterances of the sort we have pointed out came from the lips of men? Did nobody speak of God and His goodness, nobody of death, nobody of the dead? Speech went a-begging, I suppose; nay, (the subjects being still awanting, without which it cannot even exist at this day, when it is so much more copious, and rich, and wise), it could not exist at all if the things which are now so easily suggested, that cling to us so constantly, that are so very near to us, that are somehow born on our very lips, had no existence in ancient times, before letters had any existence in the world— before there was a Mercury, I think, at all. And whence was it, I pray, that letters themselves came to know, and to disseminate for the use of speech, what no mind had ever conceived, or tongue put forth, or ear taken in? But, clearly, since the Scriptures of God, whether belonging to Christians or to Jews, into whose olive tree we have been grafted— are much more ancient than any secular literature, (or, let us only say, are of a somewhat earlier date, as we have shown in its proper place when proving their trustworthiness); if the soul have taken these utterances from writings at all, we must believe it has taken them from ours, and not from yours, its instruction coming more naturally from the earlier than the later works. Which latter indeed waited for their own instruction from the former, and though we grant that light has come from you, still it has flowed from the first fountainhead originally; and we claim as entirely ours, all you may have taken from us and handed down. Since it is thus, it matters little whether the soul's knowledge was put into it by God or by His book. Why, then, O man, will you maintain a view so groundless, as that those testimonies of the soul have gone forth from the mere human speculations of your literature, and got hardening of common use?

Chapter 6

Believe, then, your own books, and as to our Scriptures so much the more believe writings which are divine, but in the witness of the soul itself give like confidence to Nature. Choose the one of these you observe to be the most faithful friend of truth. If your own writings are distrusted, neither God nor Nature lie. And if you would have faith in God and Nature, have faith in the soul; thus you will believe yourself. Certainly you value the soul as giving you your true greatness—that to which you belong; which is all things to you; without which you can neither live nor die; on whose account you even put God away from you. Since, then, you fear to become a Christian, call the soul before you, and put her to the question. Why does she worship another? Why name the name of God? Why does she speak of demons, when she means to denote spirits to be held accursed? Why does she make her protestations towards the heavens, and pronounce her ordinary execrations earthwards? Why does she render service in one place, in another invoke the Avenger? Why does she pass judgments on the dead? What Christian phrases are those she has got, though Christians she neither desires to see nor hear? Why has she either bestowed them on us, or received them from us? Why has she either taught us them, or learned them as our scholar? Regard with suspicion this accordance in words, while there is such difference in practice. It is utter folly— denying a universal nature— to ascribe this exclusively to our language and the Greek, which are regarded among us as so near akin. The soul is not a boon from heaven to Latins and Greeks alone. Man is the one name belonging to every nation upon earth: there is one soul and many tongues, one spirit and various sounds; every country has its own speech, but the subjects of speech are common to all. God is everywhere, and the goodness of God is everywhere; demons are everywhere, and the cursing of them is everywhere; the invocation of divine judgment is everywhere, death is everywhere, and the sense of death is everywhere, and all the world over is found the witness of the soul. There is not a soul of man that does not, from the light that is in itself, proclaim the very things we are not permitted to speak above our breath. Most justly, then, every soul is a culprit as well as a witness: in the measure that it testifies for truth, the guilt of error lies on it; and on the day of judgment it will stand before the courts of God, without a word to say. You proclaimed God, O soul, but you did not seek to know Him: evil spirits were detested by you, and yet they were the objects of your adoration; the punishments of hell were foreseen by you, but no care was taken to avoid them; you had a savour of Christianity, and withal were the persecutor of Christians.

About this page

Source. Translated by S. Thelwall. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0309.htm>.

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