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Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol III:
Tertullian: Part I: Philosophers Had Not Succeeded in Discovering God. The Uncertainty and Confusion of Their Speculations.

Early Church Fathers  Index     

Chapter II.—Philosophers Had Not Succeeded in Discovering God. The Uncertainty and Confusion of Their Speculations.

But the authority of the physical philosophers is maintained among you 798 as the special property 799 of wisdom. You mean of course, that pure and simple wisdom of the philosophers which attests its own weakness mainly by that variety of opinion which proceeds from an ignorance of the truth. Now what wise man is so devoid of truth, as not to know that God is the Father and Lord of wisdom itself and truth? Besides, there is that divine oracle uttered by Solomon:  “The fear of the Lord,” says he, “is the beginning of wisdom.” 800 But 801 fear has its origin in knowledge; for how will a man fear that of which he knows nothing? Therefore he who shall have the fear of God, even if he be ignorant of all things else, if he has attained to the knowledge and truth of God, 802 will possess full and perfect wisdom.  This, however, is what philosophy has not clearly realized. For although, in their inquisitive disposition to search into all kinds of learning, the philosophers may seem to have investigated the sacred Scriptures themselves for their antiquity, and to have derived thence some of their opinions; yet because they have interpolated these deductions they prove that they have either despised them wholly or have not fully believed them, for in other cases also the simplicity of truth is shaken 803 by the over-scrupulousness of an irregular belief, 804 and that they therefore changed them, as their desire of glory grew, into products of their own mind. The consequence of this is, that even that which they had discovered degenerated into uncertainty, and there arose from one or two drops of truth a perfect flood of argumentation. For after they had simply 805 found God, they did not expound Him as they found Him, but rather disputed about His quality, and His nature, and even about His abode. The Platonists, indeed, (held) Him to care about worldly things, both as the disposer and judge thereof. The Epicureans regarded Him as apathetic 806 and inert, and (so to say) a non-entity. 807 The Stoics believed Him to be outside of the world; the Platonists, within the world.  The God whom they had so imperfectly admitted, they could neither know nor fear; and therefore they could not be wise, since they wandered away indeed from the beginning of wisdom,” that is, “the fear of God.” Proofs are not wanting that among the philosophers there was not only an ignorance, but actual doubt, about the divinity. Diogenes, when asked what was taking place in heaven, answered by saying, “I have never been up there.” Again, whether there were any gods, he replied, “I do not know; only there ought to be gods.” 808 When Crœsus inquired of Thales of Miletus what he thought of the gods, the latter having taken some time 809 to consider, answered by the word “Nothing.”  Even Socrates denied with an air of certainty 810 those gods of yours. 811 Yet he with a like certainty requested that a cock should be sacrificed to Æsculapius.  And therefore when philosophy, in its practice of defining about God, is detected in such uncertainty and inconsistency, p. 131 what “fear” could it possibly have had of Him whom it was not competent 812 clearly to determine? We have been taught to believe of the world that it is god. 813 For such the physical class of theologizers conclude it to be, since they have handed down such views about the gods that Dionysius the Stoic divides them into three kinds. The first, he supposes, includes those gods which are most obvious, as the Sun, Moon, and Stars; the next, those which are not apparent, as Neptune; the remaining one, those which are said to have passed from the human state to the divine, as Hercules and Amphiaraus. In like manner, Arcesilaus makes a threefold form of the divinity—the Olympian, the Astral, the Titanian—sprung from Cœlus and Terra; from which through Saturn and Ops came Neptune, Jupiter, and Orcus, and their entire progeny. Xenocrates, of the Academy, makes a twofold division—the Olympian and the Titanian, which descend from Cœlus and Terra. Most of the Egyptians believe that there are four gods—the Sun and the Moon, the Heaven and the Earth. Along with all the supernal fire Democritus conjectures that the gods arose. Zeno, too, will have it that their nature resembles it. Whence Varro also makes fire to be the soul of the world, that in the world fire governs all things, just as the soul does in ourselves. But all this is most absurd. For he says, Whilst it is in us, we have existence; but as soon as it has left us, we die. Therefore, when fire quits the world in lightning, the world comes to its end.







Prov. 9:10, Ps. 11:10.




Deum omnium notititam et veritatem adsecutus, i.e., “following the God of all as knowledge and truth.”




Passivæ fidei.






“A nobody.”


Nisi ut sint expedire.


Aliquot commeatus.


Quasi certus.


Istos deos.


Non tenebat.


De mundo deo didicimus.

Next: The Physical Philosophers Maintained the Divinity of the Elements; The Absurdity of the Tenet Exposed.

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