Tertullian on the Relation of Philosophy and Heresy

It was Tertullian who said:
“For philosophy provides the material of worldly wisdom, in boldly asserting itself to be the interpreter of the divine nature and dispensation. The heresies themselves receive their weapons from philosophy.” – de praescriptione haereticorum
This is a sharp contrast to what both Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria said on the matter! Justin viewed philosophy as “borrowed truth”. Clement saw philosophy as a vehicle of salvation for the Greeks. Tertullian claims it as flat out heresy!  Hold up guys, why such a difference of opinion?

Well, I think part of it is culture. Tertullian is from a Latin-speaking culture, somewhere in the western Mediterranean region. Justin and Clement were both from Greek-speaking cultures in the eastern Mediterranean region.  Tertullian was battling a growing epidemic of Gnosticism in the 4th Century; where as the other two philosophical homies were from the late 2nd and early 3rd Century.  Times had changed and the Church found it was battling several fronts in the world of heresy.

Reader, the theological landscape is not that much different today. If you look around my hometown,  you will see Catholics, Baptists, Pentecostals, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, and a Greek Orthodox with a long beard. All of these difference in opinions floating around, but all bound to the same central figure, Christ himself.  I am learning that while there are some theological beliefs that are fact and cannot be compromised on.  At the same time, there are other genuine Christians who may have diversely different perspectives on the same theological matter. And that’s ok.

What do you think the purpose of philosophy is?


  1. Well, first, Tertullian is a second and third century Christian ;).

    Outside of being anal about facts, there is another element that is important to consider: What was philosophy then?

    Here are the things to consider: Philosophers always walked around in special garb. Philosophy purported to give knowledge about God. It purported to give an experience of God. It was a religion in every sense that we consider Buddhism a religion (albeit, Buddhism is rather agnostic). In fact, it wasn't just a "religion" but several religions.

    It was also monopolistic. Aristotle had a knock-down argument that "Nobody can oppose philosophy without using the tools of philosophy" (this includes Tertullian). If you are ever to communicate something to another person and not simply proclaim it, you need reason, and the philosophers considered it the tools of philosophy.

    So, in essence, what Tertullian is responding to is a rival religion. He is not opposing reason per se but the religious expression of it in philosophy (Lord knows, he talks a lot about being "rational").

    St. Justin Martyr, on the other hand, embraced the idea put forward by Philo, Josephus, and other Hellenized Greek authors: Plato borrowed everything he got from Socrates who got it from the Pythagoreans, who got it from ancient Israel. Thus, Plato was expressing a watered down version of the Jewish vision of God. The same thought was current in Clement of Alexandria. They sought to take what was good out of Plato and port it into Christianity. The truth or falsity of this belief is quite complicated and cannot be discerned properly.

    So, that leaves my response at a conundrum: How would I respond? Philosophy must know its role. Reason can help me learn about history. I need to use it to defend and communicate revelation from God. I cannot use it to establish much about the nature of God, though. I cannot, for instance, address free will vs. predestination, or address the inner life of the Godhead, or the sort. If we use it there, it ceases to be profitable and becomes detrimental. Theology should be rooted in revelation, history, Liturgy, experience, and perception. This comes first. Speculating about various issues we imagine leads, almost without fail, into heresy.

    So, to recap, I think philosophy used to communicate the knowledge of God, and, when necessary, to defend it, is healthy. It can also be used to understand what has been revealed. It's a tool, and used in its proper place, it is good. Philosophy used to establish the knowledge of God is skating on thin ice (especially when we are addressing "new" issues or trying to settle what has not been settled before). It's just wrong-headed and misusing a tool.

    Sorry for the verbosity, but an adequate response takes some time :).

  2. Reread your quote. Tertullian did not say that philosophy is heresy. He said that heresy gets it's weapons from philosophy. There is a huge difference between saying that philosophy is heresy, and saying that heresy is devised by philosophy. All heresy comes from philosophy, but not all philosophy is heresy! I think Tertullian's point is that it is always a dangerous thing for a sin-infected, mortal mind to try to explain a perfect, immortal, amazing God. Tertullian's warning is that we should be careful when it comes interpreting who God is. It is probably best to let the Scriptures speak to who God is, and simply affirm the truths we find in Scripture instead of philosophizing and explaining away God in human terms.

  3. @Kenneth - For the first time in a long time, I have read your comment, full understood it, and actually agreed with it. I appreciate your "verbose" response and the thought put into it.

    @Trevor - Thanks for visiting and commenting. Granted, I don't know Tertullian very well (or most of the Church fathers for that matter). I think it was Tertullian who also questioned "What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem? The Academy with the Church?". These are only excerpts, but I get the general idea that he detested philosophy as he saw it, because of its general association with Gnosticism at the time. However, I agree with the general gist of your statement "All heresy comes from philosophy, but not all philosophy is heresy." I certainly don't take Tertullian's side (or at least how I interpreted his work).

  4. Well, in that case, I'll have to work harder next time. It was obviously neither sufficiently obfuscated nor controversial. :)

  5. Well, I might disagree with "All heresy comes from philosophy..." Technically, heresy comes from theology improperly done. Philosophy can definitely contribute, but theology is the discipline which studies what God has revealed about himself (or what people say about God, gods, or whatever they consider to be ultimate reality).

    To expand a bit from what Kenneth mentioned, philosophy in our culture, aside from being just about dead, is really used as a synonym for critical thinking (Now, "philosophies" are a different matter...). So, in the general sense, philosophy is a very important tool for the theological process; although, it is by no means the only one.

  6. @Dann - thanks for responding. Not as heated as I hoped (yes, I was mischievous), but all around excellent point.