Treatise against Intellectual-ism

One of the best ways to learn theology is to read it as it was written – from the top.  So today when I saw a copy of Tertullian’s “Treatise Against Hermogenes” at Half-Price Books for $4.98 I bought it.  Tertullian lived from about 160 to 220 A.D., and was one of the first major defenders of basic Christian beliefs.  Known for his caricatures of his opponents and his acerbic style of argument, the veracity of Tertullian’s depictions of his opponents is always questionable.  His rhetoric is so aggressive that  “Treatise Against Hermogenes” is credible only because other Christians attacked Hermogenes as well, and the various representations of that poor fellow's arguments agree.

This unfortunate Hermogenes argued that God did not create the world ex nihilio.  Hermogenes said that God could not have created the world out of himself either, so God had to create it about something – that something was matter.  God is Lord as well, as Lord needed to reign over something.  So if God is Lord, then at all times he must have something under him.

Right from the beginning of the text Tertullian launched into a vicious personal attack (the mark no doubt of serious theologians) in which he mentioned a chief cause for suspicion – Hermogenes was a painter after all, and therefore completely unreliable.  In all seriousness, though, Tertullian  demonstrated how Hermogenes was wrong in regards to philosophy and Scripture.  If matter existed independently of God’s creation, then it would not necessarily be subject to the will of God.  Furthermore matter would be eternal – a trait belonging to God alone (the Christian may live in eternity, but he certainly had a beginning).     Tertullian looked at Genesis to see that the word “Lord” was only used after God had created Adam and Eve.  So God can adopt different roles as necessary, such as “Lord” and “Father.”

Catch that?  Tertullian implies that there was a time where Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity, did not exist.  This is a heresy that would later be known as “Arianism,” a part of a larger heresy called “subordinationism” which suggests a hierarchy within the Trinity, the father and son being lesser and lower members of the Godhead.  Tertullian was writing before such conflicts, but the error is still there in the text.


The PCA prides itself on its intellectualism – maybe too much for its own good.  Last spring, the young adult Bible study discussed this perception.  The average PCA goer is more likely to value the orthodox Christian faith, is more likely to do his or her own personal exegesis, and is more likely to defend theological positions to non-Christians as well as Christians of differing denominational backgrounds.  There are probably a few people at our church who answered the “What do you want to do when you grow up?” question in the senior yearbook with “Glorify God and enjoy him forever.”  (There are also a few people at our church who would have beaten those people up, and we are equally thankful for that).

At the same time, we’re too easily stuck in a rut.  We value theological truth, but so many of us are unwilling to read people like Tertullian and give them a fair shake.  To us, Tertullian is a too close to being a heretic and we really can’t learn anything from him, because of his handful of faulty beliefs.  We even read our own contemporaries this way, we read non-Christians this way and the result is that we sit in our room and have conversations with the mirror.  We brush aside those who disagree with us, even those like Tertullian who have been so important in shaping the way the western world thinks.  The fact that it was instinctive for many of you to automatically be suspicious of an Arian statement (even before I had mentioned it as such) indicates the extent to which Christian thinkers like Tertullian have shaped our language, even our avenues of thought.

And at the same time, there is a belief lying under the surface of what we’re willing to admit that says “if I can just think right I will be saved.”  Because, for people in more intellectual denominations, “believing” is just “thinking, with religious topics.”  This is not the case.  Our belief always works to encourage others, to build up community, to meet the needs of the poor, and to minister to the sick.  Believe is ultimately inextricable from charity.  Otherwise, as the book of James points out clearly, our claims to faith are suspicious.

Our intellectual dispositions as members of the PCA are good – we should continue to develop them by reading fellows like Tertullian directly and not relying on distant commentaries and histories.  C.S. Lewis recommends that for every modern book you read, read an old or ancient one.  This is a more intellectual endeavor than relying on what someone else says (which is ultimately academic gossip); it’s also humbling to see a figure as bright as Tertullian slipping on an element of Christian orthodoxy that we take for granted.  Tertullian was writing his treatises at a time when Christians were persecuted at the drop of a hat, when our priests and bishops were forced to surrender scrolls of the Gospels or Epistles or face imprisonment or worse, and yet he managed to teach Cyprian, influence Augustine, and oppose major heretics that threatened the Church. 

All churches and all ages are mixtures of truth and error, and our love for God and for each other are just as important as our thirst for right and true thinking – it is a central tenet of Christian orthodoxy that precise and Godly thought cannot be had without a life of virtue, love, and charity.  And so if the PCA is one of the more intellectual denominations, and if the PCA is going to continue to train thoughtful theologians and other important community leaders, the PCA will need to become a denomination that loves hard and works for others without so much as a thought.