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Armed to the Teeth with Laughter

Wednesday, June 11th, 2008

Tertullian, the great North African theologian writing around 200 AD, was like a cross between Bruce Banner and Oscar Wilde: scary enough that you didn’t want to get on the wrong side of him, and very, very funny.


Tertullian, ready either to explode or write a 'Knock! Knock!' joke.

Tertullian chuckled so much it disturbed people.  First of all, he used to laugh at how simple – in fact, how absurdly simple – truth is, meaning it takes a humble mind to recognise it.  Once, he put it like this:

‘The Son of God was crucified: I am not ashamed, because it is shameful.
The Son of God died: it is immediately credible, because it is silly.
He was buried, and rose again: it is certain,  because it is impossible.’
 
Fighting talk for those who reasoned God couldn’t become man, nor three be one!

But he also used to laugh at the absurdity of false belief.  This was quite appropriate, he reckoned:

‘There are many things which deserve refutation in such a way as to have no gravity expended on them. Vain and silly topics are met with especial fitness by laughter. Even the truth may indulge in ridicule, because it is jubilant; it may play with its enemies, because it is fearless. Only we must take care that its laughter be not unseemly, and so itself be laughed at; but wherever its mirth is decent, there it is a duty to indulge it.’

Marcion was a heretic to be given exactly such treatment.  Marcion, reasoning that Jesus was God, felt he had to deny that Jesus was fully human.  Tertullian reckoned this merely proved that Marcion himself was not fully human, because he must be lacking a brain.  Tertullian thought he probably had a pumpkin instead, meaning Marcion was half-man, half-fruit.

He dished out such lines because he believed they were just the sort of jolt the pompous heretics, puffed up with all their pretentious ‘profundity’, needed.  And, especially for dealing with those who denied Jesus’ humanity (and so were a bit inhuman themselves), it was a very human way of arguing.  

Perhaps PC means we can’t be like Tertullian any more (or like Paul in Galatians 5:12).  Or is it that PC, bone-dry theology is itself a bit half-man, half-fruit?