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“I Believe Because it is Absurd”: The Enlightenment Invention of Tertullian's Credo

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 August 2017

Abstract

Tertullian is widely regarded as having originated the expression Credo quia absurdum (est) (I believe because it is absurd) and the phrase often appears in contemporary polemics about the rationality of religious belief. Patristic scholars have long pointed out that Tertullian never said this or meant anything like it. However, little scholarly attention has been paid to the circumstances in which this specific phrase came into existence and why, in spite of its dubious provenance, it continues to be regarded by many as a legitimate characterization of religious faith. This paper shows how Tertullian's original expression—“It is certain, because impossible”—was first misrepresented and modified in the early modern period. In seventeenth century England a “credo” version—I believe because it is impossible—became the common form of Tertullian's maxim. A further modification, building on the first, was effected by the Enlightenment philosophe Voltaire, who added the “absurdity condition” and gave us the modern version of the paradox: I believe because it is absurd. These modifications played a significant role in Enlightenment representations of religion as irrational, and signal the beginning of a new understanding of faith as an epistemic vice. This doubtful maxim continues to play a role in debates about the cognitive status of religious faith, and its failure to succumb to the historical evidence against it is owing to its ongoing rhetorical usefulness in such debates.

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Copyright © American Society of Church History 2017 

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References

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38 Ibid. See also A Third Letter for Toleration, in The Works of John Locke, in Nine Volumes, 12th ed. (London: 1823) 6:152Google Scholar, 407; Locke, Of the Conduct of the Understanding, ed. Fowler, Thomas, 5th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1901), 6Google Scholar; Locke: A Second Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity, in Works of John Locke, 7:296. Revealed truths, for Locke, are “above reason” but not “against reason” (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding 4.18.9–10, pp. 695–696).

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41 In 1666, Jesuit author Jacques Noüet, writing in support of transubstantiation, reproduced the paradox in Latin and French, attributing to Marcion the view that doctrine of the Incarnation is “absurde, inconcevable & impossible”: La Presence de Iesus-Christ dans le Tres-Saint Sacrement (Paris 1666), 38Google Scholar. In 1681, Jacques Goussault offered a positive account of the paradox, giving the Latin original and a poetic reflection on it: Poësies et Pensées Chrétiennes (Paris, 1681), 88Google Scholar. Claude Lion, of the French Oratory, also cited the paradox in 1685, explaining its context and stressing that ineptus should be understood in terms of indignitas: Sermons sur les principaux mistères de Nostre Seigneur et de la Sainte Vierge (Lyon, 1685), 215216 Google Scholar.

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43 Ibid.

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46 My emphasis. “Le celebre passage de Tertullien (de carne Christi) mortuus est Dei Filius, credibile est, quia ineptum est; & sepulcus revixit, certum est quia impossible [sic], est une saillie, qui ne peut être entendue que des apparences d'absurdité”: Essais de Théodicée, 2nd ed. (1710; Amsterdam, 1714), 60Google Scholar.

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49 A possible source of confusion is one of Augustine's remarks in a passage discussing Christ's resurrection that bears a superficial resemblance to the paradox ( City of God 22.5, Loeb Classical Library 411, trans. McCracken, George E. [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1957], 7: 188189 Google Scholar): “If it is incredible, it is also certainly incredible that an incredible thing has thus been believed.” (Si autem res incredibilis credita est, etiam hoc utique incredibile est, sic creditum esse quod incredibile est).

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51 Up until this point, the Essay had been known only from a few reviews and Locke's own brief French digest. See Bonno, Gabriel, La culture et la civilisation britanniques devant l'opinion française de la Paix d'Utrecht aux Lettres philosophiques (1713–1734) (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1948), 8096 Google Scholar; Hampton, J., “Les traductions françaises de Locke au XVIIIe siècle,” Revue de littérature compare 29 (1955): 240251 Google Scholar.

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54 Le Grande Dictionaire François-Latin (Rouen, 1609), 6, 491Google Scholar. Consequently, in early modern French, absurde and inepte could be used synonymously. I am grateful to the anonymous reader of Church History for this latter point. For examples, see Le Trésor de la Langue Française informatisé, s.v. “inepte,” accessed January 27, 2017, http://atilf.atilf.fr/.

55 Traité De La Chair De Iésus-Christ, trans. Giry, Louis (Paris, 1661), 24Google Scholar: “Le Fils de Dieu est mort, c'est une chose que je trouve croyable, parce qu'elle résiste au sens humain. Le Fils de Dieu ayant ésté mis dans le tombeau est resuscité! Je croy que cela est vray parce que c'est une chose qui paroist impossible.” The 1844 edition reproduces these words (with some modernized spellings): Traité De La Chair De Jésus-Christ, trans. Charpentier, M., (Paris, 1844), 290Google Scholar. Les Pères de L’Église, trans. de Genoude, Eugène-Antoine (Paris, 1841), 6:399Google Scholar: “Le Fils de Dieu est mort: il faut le croire, parce que cela révolte ma raison: il est ressuscité du tombeau où il avait été enseveli; le fait est certain, parce qu'il est impossible.” In contrast, the twentieth-century French edition in the Sources Chrétiennes series uses “absurde”. Tertullien, La Chair du Christ, trans. Mahé, Jean-Peirre (Paris: Cerf, 1975), 1:229Google Scholar, but also offers explanations of how the passage should be interpreted, 1:183–184.

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71 Blackburn, Simon, Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996)Google Scholar, s.v. “credo quia absurdum est,” 88.

72 Freud, Sigmund, The Future of an Illusion (London: Hogarth Press, 1928), 4950 Google Scholar.

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75 Colvin, Stephen S., “The Common-Sense View of Reality,” The Philosophical Review 11, no. 2 (1902): 139151, 143Google Scholar: “In the last period of Greek philosophy the human race sought refuge in divine certainty, typified by Tertullian's credo quia absurdum.” There followed medieval philosophy with its “dogmatism and poor logic.” Cf. Hales, Steven D., This is Philosophy: An Introduction (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2013), 65Google Scholar; Lundskow, George, The Sociology of Religion: A Substantive and Transdisciplinary Approach (London: Sage, 2008), 45 Google Scholar; Wilson, Robert, Astronomy through the Ages (London: Taylor and Francis, 1937), 30Google Scholar: Tertullian represents “the fundamental conflict between the Christian religion and science which was to continue for centuries.” Cf. Barnes, Michael Horace, Understanding Religion and Science: Introducing the Debate (London: Continuum, 2010), 1, 16Google Scholar. For philosophical dictionary references, see n61.

76 Cassirer, Ernst, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968), 180Google Scholar. Cf. An Essay on Man (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1944), 72Google Scholar.

77 See, for example, Brooke, John Hedley, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991)Google Scholar; Numbers, Ronald L., ed., Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009)Google Scholar; Harrison, Territories of Science and Religion.

78 Draper, John William, History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (New York: Appleton, 1898), 45Google Scholar. Draper does not specifically reference the credo.

79 White, A. D., History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (London: Macmillan, 1896), 2:230Google Scholar; Darwin, Charles, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin (London: Collins, 1958), 57Google Scholar; Huxley, Thomas Henry, “Agnosticism,” in The Nineteenth Century 25, no. 144 (February 1889): 169194 Google Scholar, esp. 176; Huxley's article is reproduced in Huxley, Collected Essays (London: Macmillan, 1894), 5:224Google Scholar. See also Seeley, John Robert, Natural Religion (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1882), 77Google Scholar; Religion and Physical Science,” The Nineteenth Century and After 52 (1902): 954Google Scholar; Shoman, Shlomo, Art, Myth and Deviance (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2006), 25Google Scholar, in which Augustine is credited with the credo.

80 Weber, Max, “Science as a Vocation,” in The Vocation Lectures (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2004), 29Google Scholar.

81 Dawkins, Richard, The Devil's Chaplain (New York: Mariner Books, 2004), 139Google Scholar; Hitchens, Christopher, God is not Great (New York: Twelve, 2007), 260Google Scholar; Coyne, Jerry A., Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible (New York: Viking, 2015), 68Google Scholar. Interestingly, Dawkins and Coyne both correctly cite the original. But Dawkins goes on to give the standard “because it is absurd” version, while Coyne also immediately glosses the original thus: “to believe in something because it is absurd.” Cf. Boghossian, Peter, A Manual for Creating Atheists (Durham: Pitchstone, 2013), 3435 Google Scholar.

82 Jung, C. G., Psychological Types, trans. Adler, Gerhard and Hull, R. F. C. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1971), 1216 Google Scholar. Cf. Labhardt, A., “Tertullien et al philosophie ou la recherche d'une ‘position pure,’Museum Helveticum 7, no. 3 (1950): 159180 Google Scholar; Weber, “Science as a Vocation,” 29–30.

83 Gilson, Etienne, Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages (London: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1939), 1015 Google Scholar.

84 Augustine takes nisi credideritus, non intelligetis from Isa. 7:9 (Septuagint). Cited inter alia in De libero arbitrio 1.2; De magistro 1.1; De doctrina christiana 2.12.17.  Fides quaerens intellectum was the original title of Anselm's Proslogion.

85 Kretzmann, Norman, “Reason in Mystery,” Royal Institute of Philosophy Lecture Series 25 (1989): 1539 Google Scholar, esp. 20. For similar divisions which reference Tertullian's credo, see Skirbekk, Gunnar and Gilje, Nils, A History of Western Thought: From Ancient Greece to the Twentieth Century (London: Routledge, 2001), 116Google Scholar; Navia, Luis E., The Adventure of Philosophy (Westport: Praeger, 1999), 137Google Scholar.

86 Plantinga, Alvin, “The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology,” Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 54 (1980): 4963 Google Scholar; Wolterstorff, Nicholas, “The Reformed Tradition,” in A Companion to the Philosophy of Religion, ed. Quinn, Philip and Taliaferro, Charles (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), 165170 Google Scholar. This position should not be confused with fideism.

87 Edelstein, Dan, The Enlightenment: A Genealogy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 1CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

88 See, for example, Smith, Wilfred Cantwell, The Meaning and End of Religion (New York: Macmillan, 1962)Google Scholar; Harrison, Territories of Science and Religion; Harrison, ‘Religion’ and the Religions; Nongbri, Brent, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2013)Google Scholar; Bossy, John, “Some Elementary Forms of Durkheim,” Past and Present 95 (1982): 318 Google Scholar; Lash, Nicholas, The Beginning and End of ‘Religion’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996)Google Scholar.

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