By the close of the second century, gnostic teachings that denied central tenets of the Christian faith were in full bloom. During this time, powerful refutations by Irenaeus of Lyons, Hippolytus of Rome, and Tertullian of Carthage aimed to expose these teachings and their teachers as heretical, steward the apostolic rule of faith, defend and advance sound doctrine, and guard the church from defections. This paper will focus on the contributions of Tertullian, specifically in his two connected treatises On the Flesh of Christ and On the Resurrection of the Flesh, that countered gnostic rejections of Christian doctrines on the nature of humanity, the incarnation, and the resurrection.
Three particular gnostic premises captured Tertullian’s attention and stimulated his responses: their theory of the nature of humanity, stressing a necessary dichotomy between the spiritual soul and corrupt material flesh; the denial of God the Son assuming a true human nature; and, stemming from these convictions, the rejection of the Christian belief in a bodily resurrection, including that of the incarnate Son attested in Scriptures. Ensconced among Tertullian’s wide array of apologetics, these teachings were tackled in detailed treatises on the soul, the flesh, and the resurrection. Aware of other views contrarian to Christian beliefs, Tertullian did not overlook the opportunity to address not only gnostic arguments, but also competing anthropological propositions of heathens and other heretics.
The collective thrust in these works is an elaborate exposition of the Christian confession on the nature of humanity and resulting implications for anthropological and soteriological theology in the context of Scripture, including the creation of man, the incarnation and the resurrection. Two connected treatises, On The Flesh of Christ and On the Resurrection of the Flesh, showcase a comprehensive and complex theological case for the distinctions and union of the soul and the flesh in humanity, and the corresponding nature of humanity in the incarnation of the Son and in the resurrection. In On the Flesh of Christ, Tertullian frames his defense of the true humanity of Christ as inextricably consonant with the nature of human flesh, the events of his birth and resurrection, and the narrative of Scripture. In On the Resurrection of the Flesh, Tertullian follows the labors of his earlier work to demonstrate the composition, possibility, validity, and necessity of the resurrection.
Worthy of careful attention is an examination of the methodology applied by Tertullian in these discourses. Each begins with a logically orchestrated elaboration on the distinctions of Christian doctrine juxtaposed against other teachings, moves to a labored exposition through Scripture to demonstrate the interconnected fidelity of texts and the reasonableness of Christian doctrine regarding its confession of the incarnation and the resurrection, takes appropriate pauses to address anticipated questions, and concludes with a triumphal summary. As well, recognition of the advanced doctrinal development in these treatises affords an early historical referent for tracing the trajectory in each doctrinal area, particularly the incarnation, towards consensual orthodox confessions in later centuries.