Ante-Nicene Fathers/Volume III/Anti-Marcion/On the Flesh of Christ/VI

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Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. III, Anti-Marcion, On the Flesh of Christ
by Tertullian, translated by Peter Holmes
155464Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. III, Anti-Marcion, On the Flesh of Christ — VIPeter HolmesTertullian

Chapter VI.—The Doctrine of Apelles Refuted, that Christ’s Body Was of Sidereal Substance, Not Born. Nativity and Mortality are Correlative Circumstances, and in Christ’s Case His Death Proves His Birth.

But certain disciples[1] of the heretic of Pontus, compelled to be wiser than their teacher, concede to Christ real flesh, without effect, however, on[2] their denial of His nativity. He might have had, they say, a flesh which was not at all born. So we have found our way “out of a frying-pan,” as the proverb runs, “into the fire,”[3]—from Marcion to Apelles. This man having first fallen from the principles of Marcion into (intercourse with) a woman, in the flesh, and afterwards shipwrecked himself, in the spirit, on the virgin Philumene,[4] proceeded from that time[5] to preach that the body of Christ was of solid flesh, but without having been born. To this angel, indeed, of Philumene, the apostle will reply in tones like those in which he even then predicted him, saying, “Although an angel from heaven preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.”[6] To the arguments, however, which have been indicated just above, we have now to show our resistance. They allow that Christ really had a body. Whence was the material of it, if not from the same sort of thing as[7] that in which He appeared? Whence came His body, if His body were not flesh?  Whence came His flesh, if it were not born? Inasmuch as that which is born must undergo this nativity in order to become flesh.  He borrowed, they say, His flesh from the stars, and from the substances of the higher world. And they assert it for a certain principle, that a body without nativity is nothing to be astonished at, because it has been submitted to angels to appear even amongst ourselves in the flesh without the intervention of the womb.  We admit, of course, that such facts have been related. But then, how comes it to pass that a faith which holds to a different rule borrows materials for its own arguments from the faith which it impugns? What has it to do with Moses, who has rejected the God of Moses? Since the God is a different one, everything belonging to him must be different also.  But let the heretics always use the Scriptures of that God whose world they also enjoy. The fact will certainly recoil on them as a witness to judge them, that they maintain their own blasphemies from examples derived from Him.[8] But it is an easy task for the truth to prevail without raising any such demurrer against them. When, therefore, they set forth the flesh of Christ after the pattern of the angels, declaring it to be not born, and yet flesh for all that, I should wish them to compare the causes, both in Christ’s case and that of the angels, wherefore they came in the flesh. Never did any angel descend for the purpose of being crucified, of tasting death, and of rising again from the dead. Now, since there never was such a reason for angels becoming embodied, you have the cause why they assumed flesh without undergoing birth. They had not come to die, therefore they also (came not) to be born. Christ, however, having been sent to die, had necessarily to be also born, that He might be capable of death; for nothing is in the habit of dying but that which is born. Between nativity and mortality there is a mutual contrast. The law[9] which makes us die is the cause of our being born. Now, since Christ died owing to the condition which undergoes death, but that undergoes death which is also born, the consequence was—nay, it was an antecedent necessity—that He must have been born also,[10] by reason of the condition which undergoes birth; because He had to die in obedience to that very condition which, because it begins with birth, ends in death.[11] It was not fitting for Him not to be born under the pretence[12] that it was fitting for Him to die. But the Lord Himself at that very time appeared to Abraham amongst those angels without being born, and yet in the flesh without doubt, in virtue of the before-mentioned diversity of cause.  You, however, cannot admit this, since you do not receive that Christ, who was even then rehearsing[13] how to converse with, and liberate, and judge the human race, in the habit of a flesh which as yet was not born, because it did not yet mean to die until both its nativity and mortality were previously (by prophecy) announced. Let them, then, prove to us that those angels derived their flesh from the stars. If they do not prove it because it is not written, neither will the flesh of Christ get its origin therefrom, for which they borrowed the precedent of the angels. It is plain that the angels bore a flesh which was not naturally their own; their nature being of a spiritual substance, although in some sense peculiar to themselves, corporeal; and yet they could be transfigured into human shape, and for the time be able to appear and have intercourse with men. Since, therefore, it has not been told us whence they obtained their flesh, it remains for us not to doubt in our minds that a property of angelic power is this, to assume to themselves bodily shape out of no material substance. How much more, you say, is it (within their competence to take a body) out of some material substance? That is true enough. But there is no evidence of this, because Scripture says nothing. Then, again,[14] how should they who are able to form themselves into that which by nature they are not, be unable to do this out of no material substance? If they become that which they are not, why cannot they so become out of that which is not? But that which has not existence when it comes into existence, is made out of nothing. This is why it is unnecessary either to inquire or to demonstrate what has subsequently become of their[15] bodies. What came out of nothing, came to nothing. They, who were able to convert themselves into flesh have it in their power to convert nothing itself into flesh. It is a greater thing to change a nature than to make matter. But even if it were necessary to suppose that angels derived their flesh from some material substance, it is surely more credible that it was from some earthly matter than from any kind of celestial substances, since it was composed of so palpably terrene a quality that it fed on earthly ailments. Suppose that even now a celestial flesh[16] had fed on earthly aliments, although it was not itself earthly, in the same way that earthly flesh actually fed on celestial aliments, although it had nothing of the celestial nature (for we read of manna having been food for the people: “Man,” says the Psalmist, “did eat angels’ bread,”[17]) yet this does not once infringe the separate condition of the Lord’s flesh, because of His different destination.  For One who was to be truly a man, even unto death, it was necessary that He should be clothed with that flesh to which death belongs. Now that flesh to which death belongs is preceded by birth.


  1. He has Appelles mainly in view.
  2. Sine præjudicio tamen. “Without prejudice to their denial, etc.”
  3. The Roman version of the proverb is “out of the lime-kiln into the coal-furnace.”
  4. See Tertullian, de Præscr. Hæret. c. xxx.
  5. Ab eo: or, “from that event of the carnal contact.”  A good reading, found in most of the old books, is ab ea, that is, Philumene.
  6. Gal. i. 8.
  7. Ex ea qualitate in qua.
  8. Ipsius: the Creator.
  9. Forma.
  10. Æque.
  11. Quod, quia nascitur, moritur.
  12. Pro.
  13. Ediscebat. Compare a fine passage of Tertullian on this subject in our Anti-Marcion, note 10, p. 112, Edin.
  14. Ceterum.
  15. The angels’.
  16. Sidera. Drawn, as they thought, from the stars.
  17. Ps. lxxviii. 24.