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Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol III:
Tertullian: Part I: Wrong Derivation of the Word Qeός. The Name Indicative of the True Deity. God Without Shape and Immaterial. Anecdote of Thales.

Early Church Fathers  Index     

Chapter IV.—Wrong Derivation of the Word Θεός. The Name Indicative of the True Deity. God Without Shape and Immaterial. Anecdote of Thales.

Some affirm that the gods (i.e. θεοί) were so called because the verbs θέειν and σείσθαι signify to run and to be moved835 This term, then, is not indicative of any majesty, for it is derived from running and motion, not from any dominion 836 of godhead. But inasmuch as the Supreme God whom we worship is also designated Θεός, without however the appearance of any course or motion in Him, because He is not visible to any one, it is clear that that word must have had some other derivation, and that the property of divinity, innate in Himself, must have been discovered. Dismissing, then, that ingenious interpretation, it is more likely that the gods were not called θεοί from running and motion, but that the term was borrowed from the designation of the true God; so that you gave the name θεοί to the gods, whom you had in like manner forged for yourselves.  Now, that this is the case, a plain proof is afforded in the fact that you actually give the common appellation θεοί to all those gods of yours, in whom there is no attribute of course or motion indicated. When, therefore, you call them both θεοί and immoveable with equal readiness, there is a deviation as well from the meaning of the word as from the idea 837 of godhead, which is set aside 838 if measured by the notion of course and motion. But if that sacred name be peculiarly significant of deity, and be simply true and not of a forced interpretation 839 in the case of the true God, but transferred in a borrowed sense 840 to those other objects which you choose to call gods, then you ought to show to us 841 that there is also a community of character between them, so that their common designation may rightly depend on their union of essence. But the true God, on the sole ground that He is not an object of sense, is incapable of being compared with those false deities which are cognizable to sight and sense (to sense indeed is sufficient); for this amounts to a clear statement of the difference between an obscure proof and a manifest one. Now, since the elements are obvious to all, (and) since God, on the contrary, is visible to none, how will it be in your power from that part p. 133 which you have not seen to pass to a decision on the objects which you see? Since, therefore, you have not to combine them in your perception or your reason, why do you combine them in name with the purpose of combining them also in power?  For see how even Zeno separates the matter of the world from God: he says that the latter has percolated through the former, like honey through the comb. God, therefore, and Matter are two words (and) two things. Proportioned to the difference of the words is the diversity of the things; the condition also of matter follows its designation. Now if matter is not God, because its very appellation teaches us so, how can those things which are inherent in matter—that is, the elements—be regarded as gods, since the component members cannot possibly be heterogeneous from the body? But what concern have I with physiological conceits? It were better for one’s mind to ascend above the state of the world, not to stoop down to uncertain speculations. Plato’s form for the world was round. Its square, angular shape, such as others had conceived it to be, he rounded off, I suppose, with compasses, from his labouring to have it believed to be simply without a beginning. 842 Epicurus, however, who had said, “What is above us is nothing to us,” wished notwithstanding to have a peep at the sky, and found the sun to be a foot in diameter.  Thus far you must confess 843 men were niggardly in even celestial objects.  In process of time their ambitious conceptions advanced, and so the sun too enlarged its disk. 844 Accordingly, the Peripatetics marked it out as a larger world. 845 Now, pray tell me, what wisdom is there in this hankering after conjectural speculations?  What proof is afforded to us, notwithstanding the strong confidence of its assertions, by the useless affectation of a scrupulous curiosity, 846 which is tricked out with an artful show of language? It therefore served Thales of Miletus quite right, when, star-gazing as he walked with all the eyes he had, he had the mortification of falling 847 into a well, and was unmercifully twitted by an Egyptian, who said to him, “Is it because you found nothing on earth to look at, that you think you ought to confine your gaze to the sky?” His fall, therefore, is a figurative picture of the philosophers; of those, I mean, 848 who persist in applying 849 their studies to a vain purpose, since they indulge a stupid curiosity on natural objects, which they ought rather (intelligently to direct) to their Creator and Governor.



This seems to mean: “because θέειν has also the sense of σείεσθαι (motion as well as progression).”


“Dominatione” is Oehler’s reading, but he approves of “denominatione” (Rigault’s reading); this would signify “designation of godhead.”












Sine capite.






Majorem orbem. Another reading has “majorem orbe,” q.d. “as larger than the world.”




Cecidit turpiter.





Next: The Physical Theory Continued. Further Reasons Advanced Against the Divinity of the Elements.

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