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Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol III:
Tertullian: Part I: Chapter I

Early Church Fathers  Index     

p. 129 Book II. 773

Chapter I.—The Heathen Gods from Heathen Authorities. Varro Has Written a Work on the Subject. His Threefold Classification. The Changeable Character of that Which Ought to Be Fixed and Certain.

Our defence requires that we should at this point discuss with you the character of your gods, O ye heathen, fit objects of our pity, 774 appealing even to your own conscience to determine whether they be truly gods, as you would have it supposed, or falsely, as you are unwilling to have proved. 775 Now this is the material part of human error, owing to the wiles of its author, that it is never free from the ignorance of error, 776 whence your guilt is all the greater.  Your eyes are open, yet they see not; your ears are unstopped, yet they hear not; though your heart beats, it is yet dull, nor does your mind understand 777 that of which it is cognizant. 778 If indeed the enormous perverseness (of your worship) could 779 be broken up 780 by a single demurrer, we should have our objection ready to hand in the declaration 781 that, as we know all those gods of yours to have been instituted by men, all belief in the true Deity is by this very circumstance brought to nought; 782 because, of course, nothing which some time or other had a beginning can rightly seem to be divine. But the fact is, 783 there are many things by which tenderness of conscience is hardened into the callousness of wilful error. Truth is beleaguered with the vast force (of the enemy), and yet how secure she is in her own inherent strength! And naturally enough 784 when from her very adversaries she gains to her side whomsoever she will, as her friends and protectors, and prostrates the entire host of her assailants. It is therefore against these things that our contest lies—against the institutions of our ancestors, against the authority of tradition, 785 the laws of our governors, and the reasonings of the wise; against antiquity, custom, submission; 786 against precedents, prodigies, miracles,—all which things have had their part in consolidating that spurious 787 system of your gods. Wishing, then, to follow step by step your own commentaries which you have drawn out of your theology of every sort (because the authority of learned men goes further with you in matters of this kind than the testimony of facts), I have taken and abridged the works of Varro; 788 for he in his treatise Concerning Divine Things, collected out of ancient digests, has shown himself a serviceable guide 789 for us. Now, if I inquire of him who were the subtle inventors 790 of the gods, he points to either the philosophers, the peoples, or the poets. For he has made a threefold distinction in classifying the gods: one being the physical class, of which the philosophers treat; another the mythic class, which is the constant burden of 791 the poets; the third, the gentile class, which the nations have adopted each one for itself. When, therefore, the philosophers have ingeniously composed their physical (theology) out of their p. 130 own conjectures, when the poets have drawn their mythical from fables, and the (several) nations have forged their gentile (polytheism) according to their own will, where in the world must truth be placed? In the conjectures? Well, but these are only a doubtful conception. In the fables? But they are at best an absurd story. In the popular accounts? 792 This sort of opinion, 793 however, is only promiscuous 794 and municipal. Now all things with the philosophers are uncertain, because of their variation with the poets all is worthless, because immoral; with the nations all is irregular and confused, because dependent on their mere choice.  The nature of God, however, if it be the true one with which you are concerned, is of so definite a character as not to be derived from uncertain speculations, 795 nor contaminated with worthless fables, nor determined by promiscuous conceits. It ought indeed to be regarded, as it really is, as certain, entire, universal, because it is in truth the property of all. Now, what god shall I believe? One that has been gauged by vague suspicion? One that history 796 has divulged? One that a community has invented? It would be a far worthier thing if I believed no god, than one which is open to doubt, or full of shame, or the object of arbitrary selection. 797


Footnotes

129:773

In this part of his work the author reviews the heathen mythology, and exposes the absurdity of the polytheistic worship in the various classes of the gods, according to the distribution of Varro.

129:774

Miserandæ.

129:775

Literally, “unwilling to know.”

129:776

i.e., it does not know that it is error.

129:777

Nescit.

129:778

Agnoscit.

129:779

Liceret.

129:780

Discuti, or, in the logical sense, “be tested.”

129:781

Nunciatio (legally, this is “an information lodged against a wrong.”)

129:782

Excidere, “falls through.”

129:783

Sed enim.

129:784

Quidni?

129:785

Receptorum.

129:786

Necessitatem, answering to the “leges dominantium.”

129:787

Adulterinam.

129:788

St. Augustine, in his de Civit. Dei, makes similar use of Varro’s work on the heathen gods, Liber Divinarum.

129:789

Scopum, perhaps “mark.”

129:790

Insinuatores.

129:791

Volutetur.

130:792

Adoptionibus.

130:793

Adoptatio.

130:794

Passiva, “a jumble.”

130:795

Argumentationibus.

130:796

Historia. This word seems to refer to the class of mythical divinity above mentioned. It therefore means “fable” or “absurd story” (see above).

130:797

Adoptivum.


Next: Philosophers Had Not Succeeded in Discovering God. The Uncertainty and Confusion of Their Speculations.

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