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Tertullian, First Theologian of the West.

`His Heraclitean love of opposites is a complex thing, ranging from a stylistic tic, which may infect those who read him, to his wide, inclusive humanity' (p. 256).

So Osborn on Tertullian; so perhaps more or less accurately Tertullian on Osborn. Here we have a modern Tertullian, at times a Tertullian doing philosophy of religion in the manner of Kretzmann or Plantinga or Geach: showing, that is, that the propositions which flow from the rule of faith -- the existence of the Christian God as the criterion of truth -- are intelligibly defended, indeed must be developed with an inexorable casuistry. Osborn's strength lies in his ability to present Tertullian from the inside, to reproduce his paradoxes while at the same time explicating them, to shadow his style, above all to show him as a man who loved not just controversy but argument. Osborn finally erases -- we may hope for ever -- the picture of Tertullian as the patron saint of fideism. Athens is not opposed to Jerusalem, except in its perverts, nor is it a substitute for Jerusalem, though Jerusalem must subsume its legitimate concerns.

This is Tertullian the theologian as proto-analytic philosopher, philosophy, as Osborn normally sees it, being characterized less as systematizing or visionary metaphysics than as argument; and as he tries to work through Tertullian's arguments generously, we see how radically Tertullian differs, in Osborn's view, from the Gnostics, for `Like all theosophy, Gnosticism presents philosophy without argument, which is like opera without music ...' (p. 23).

Tertullian now appears as a man who -- in the manner of hellenistic and Roman thinkers -- has adopted a criterion of truth -- Christ and him crucified (p. 2) -- and has tried to make sense of the world in the light of that truth (pp. 37-47). Yet the criterion is itself paradoxical: God is humiliated yet glorious, weak vet omnipotent. With his own love of paradox and at times wickedly humorous, even throw-away style -- few one-liners could disperse some of the von Balthasar froth as deftly as Osborn's comment on page 199 (with note) -- it is sometimes difficult to place Osborn in relation both to Tertullian himself and to the dazzling array of contemporary thinkers (Rorty, Davidson, Williams, Wittgenstein, etc.) whom he constantly cites and whose wisdom, if such it be, he tries to enfold into his narrative. An example from the very last sentence of the book: `For we have learned, from the pragmatists, that the one worthwhile intellectual enterprise is to speak as though we are not rehearsing [note the "persuasive" language] a previously written script'. I very much doubt if that is quite what Osborn believes, paradoxical though it sounds: the real pragmatist has no fixed beliefs at all -- except in the desirability of getting apparently appropriate action -- and it would be a rare (and unwise) theologian who was always afraid of repeating past truths out of a mere fear that they have been uttered before. Again, in presenting Tertullian's materialism, Osborn seems too quick to sympathize with recent popular proposals in the philosophy of the mind: so we read (p. 255) that `his [i.e. Tertullian's] Stoic materialism has interest because of the non-reductive physicalism which is so plausible at present ...'. But this non-reductive physicalism has little (at present) to do with the discoveries of physics -- and much to do with a dread of mind-body dualism -- when it posits a new sort of `matter' for which there is little empirical support; some would say that dual-aspect theory is little more than a seductive if desperate sleight of hand.

Meanwhile back at Carthage what sort of Tertullian has Osborn found? He is an arguer, a fierce controversialist, an exposer of Valentinian fantasies, a source -- as is widely recognized -- both for the later doctrine of original sin (pp. 164-67) and most importantly for later trinitarian and christological orthodoxy (pp. 116-43). He probably never broke formally with the `Great Church', ever more critical though he became of its `psychic' or mediocre majority as his Montanist predilections grew stronger. But there is more uncertainty about Osborn's constant identification of Tertullian both as Heraclitean (p. 104 etc.) -- is this a bit of a hangover in Osborn's mind from Justin (cf. p. 3)? -- and as Stoic (pp. 8, 11, 27, 35, etc.) -- (`Stoic' is the largest entry in the subject-index.)

Although in broad terms there should be no quarrel with such characterizations, when it comes to details we may wonder in what precise sense it is right to use them. Tertullian's `Heracliteanism' would seem to be little more than a name, a love of paradox and antinomy and something like the belief that war is the father of all things. Tertullian's Stoicism, however, is real but problematic, and Osborn may have been unwise in relying so heavily on Spanneut. As an example of `Stoic' difficulties I single out his treatment of Tertullian's materialist account of the soul (pp. 214-15). Tertullian regards the soul now as incorporeal, now as `physical'. Osborn thinks this indicates the lack of a `clear, consistent psychology in early Christian thought'. Presumably so, but what about Tertullian in particular? Is he consistently Stoic, and if so of what sort? And if not Stoic, then what? Here and generally, a more exact account of what Tertullian has done with what sort of Stoicism would much increase our understanding.

Osborn tries and eventually fails to empathize with Tertullian's rigorist ethics and (inter alia) his `sectarian' attitude -- in Weber's language -- towards penance and sinning after baptism, though he admits the relentless logic of the analysis. He recognizes too Tertullian's real problem with the Old Testament. Refusing Marcion's wish to junk it, Tertullian is left with defending `Deuteronomic' savagery (p. 101). But what alternative was available to him? Lacking a theory of the development of theistic understanding not only from the Old Testament to the New, but within the Old Testament itself, he could presumably only allegorize (in Stoic mode?) or accept the atrocities of God. But Tertullian -- as Osborn realizes intellectually but not emotionally -- enjoyed those atrocities and waited in joyful hope for them to be justly visited on the persecutors, and not only the persecutors. For all Osborn's admirable attempt to get inside Tertullian's language and concepts, he fails -- not least through humour and good nature -- to empathize with his sheer brutality and scriptural vengefulness.

Osborn occasionally makes rash remarks about Platonism (as on p. 38 -- where we lack a working distinction between faith and belief -- and p. 141, where more needs to be said about the Platonist history of asunchutos henosis), and at times he follows older and erroneous views -- especially those of Dodds -- about the `magic' of the later Neoplatonists. Nor can he always resist an inaccurate jibe at Augustine. But he has written the most interesting book I have read on Tertullian: a very good book which with six months more work -- in a second edition -- could be a great book.
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Author:Rist, J.M.
Publication:The Journal of Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1998
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