Tertullian- Against the Allegorizers

(from On the Resurrection of the Flesh, c. 210 A.D.)

Some, when they have lighted on a very usual form of prophetic statement, generally expressed in figure and allegory, though not always, distort into some imaginary sense even the most clearly described doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, alleging that even death itself must be understood in a spiritual sense. They say that which is commonly supposed to be death is not really so,–namely, the separation of body and soul: it is rather the ignorance of God, by reason of which man is dead to God, and is not less buried in error than he would be in the grave. Wherefore that also must be held to be the resurrection, when a man is reanimated by access to the truth, and having dispersed the death of ignorance, and being endowed with new life by God, has burst forth from the sepulchre of the old man, even as the Lord likened the scribes and Pharisees to “whited sepulchres.” Whence it follows that they who have by faith attained to the resurrection, are with the Lord after they have once put Him on in their baptism.

By such subtlety, then, even in conversation have they often been in the habit of misleading our brethren, as if they held a resurrection of the dead as well as we. Woe, say they, to him who has not risen in the present body; for they fear that they might alarm their hearers if they at once denied the resurrection. Secretly, however, in their minds they think this: Woe betide the simpleton who during his present life fails to discover the mysteries of heresy; since this, in their view, is the resurrection.

There are however, a great many also, who, claiming to hold a resurrection after the soul’s departure, maintain that going out of the sepulchre means escaping out of the world, since in their view the world is the habitation of the dead–that is, of those who know not God; or they will go so far as to say that it actually means escaping out of the body itself, since they imagine that the body detains the soul, when it is shut up in the death of a worldly life, as in a grave.

Now, to upset all conceits of this sort, let me dispel at once the preliminary idea on which they rest–their assertion that the prophets make all their announcements in figures of speech. Now, if this were the case, the figures themselves could not possibly have been distinguished, inasmuch as the verities would not have been declared, out of which the figurative language is stretched. And, indeed, if all are figures, where will be that of which they are the figures? How can you hold up a mirror for your face, if the face nowhere exists? But, in truth, all are not figures, but there are also literal statements; nor are all shadows, but there are bodies too: so that we have prophecies about the Lord Himself even, which are clearer than the day For it was not figuratively that the Virgin conceived in her womb; nor in a trope did she bear Emmanuel, that is, Jesus, God with us.

Even granting that He was figuratively to take the power of Damascus and the spoils of Samaria, still it was literally that He was to “enter into judgment with the elders and princes of the people.” For in the person of Pilate “the heathen raged,” and in the person of Israel “the people imagined vain things;” “the kings of the earth” in Herod, and the rulers in Annas and Caiaphas, were gathered together against the Lord, and against His anointed.” He, again, was “led as a sheep to the slaughter, and as a sheep before the shearer,” that is, Herod, “is dumb, so He opened not His mouth.” “He gave His back to scourges, and His cheeks to blows, not turning His face even from the shame of spitting.” “He was numbered with the transgressors;” “He was pierced in His hands and His feet;” “they cast lots for his raiment” “they gave Him gall, and made Him drink vinegar;” “they shook their heads, and mocked Him;” “He was appraised by the traitor in thirty pieces of silver.” What figures of speech does Isaiah here give us? What tropes does David? What allegories does Jeremiah? Not even of His mighty works have they used parabolic language. Or else, were not the eyes of the blind opened? did not the tongue of the dumb recover speech? did not the relaxed hands and palsied knees become strong, and the lame leap as an hart?

No doubt we are accustomed also to give a spiritual significance to these statements of prophecy, according to the analogy of the physical diseases which were healed by the Lord; but still they were all fulfilled literally: thus showing that the prophets foretold both senses, except that very many of their words can only be taken in a pure and simple signification, and free from all allegorical obscurity; as when we hear of the downfall of nations and cities, of Tyre and Egypt, and Babylon and Edom, and the navy of Carthage; also when they foretell Israel’s own chastisements and pardons, its captivities, restorations, and at last its final dispersion. Who would prefer affixing a metaphorical interpretation to all these events, instead of accepting their literal truth? The realities are involved in the words, just as the words are read in the realities.

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