On Atheism: Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria

As I briefly discussed in a much earlier blog post, the first Christians were considered atheists. Christianity was radical in the ancient world because it made a claim to the sole Lordship of Christ. The gods and goddesses of the Roman world were falsehoods and deceptions, God alone was the Lord of all creation. In a polytheistic society such as ancient Rome, such claims opened you up to the charge of radical atheism.

Charged with Atheism

The teaching of the Early Church, centred around the one God, sovereign over all creation, was contradictory to everything the ancients believed. The first Christians believed and taught that there was one God supreme in authority, sovereignty, and judgement. And for this they were labelled atheists.

The third century Christian writer Origen records how one anti-Christian thinker of the second century, Celsus, was shocked (Contra Celsum 1.5.1) that “the Christians do not consider those to be gods that are made with hands, on the ground that it is not in conformity with reason to suppose that images, fashioned by the most worthless and depraved of workmen, and in many instances also provided by wicked men, can be regarded as gods!” Behind Celsus’ words lies a charge of atheism, a common one levelled at the first Christian communities. In a similar manner, the early second century martyr, Polycarp, was accused outright of the charge. Standing before the Roman court, Polycarp was asked to recant (Martyrdom of Polycarp 9) “Swear by the fortune of Cæsar; repent, and say, away with the Atheists!” Atheism was one of the most common accusations made against the first Christians. So how did the Early Church reply? Origen offers a written response in his work Contra Celsum – literally Against Celsus – but in the decades before Origen turned to rebutting Celsus’ accusations, two influential Christian thinkers tackled this charge head on.

Tertullian of Carthage

“You say we are atheists, and will not offer sacrifices for the emperors. Well, we do not offer sacrifice for others, for the same reason that we do not for ourselves — namely, that your gods are not at all the objects of our worship.”

Tertullian, Apology, 10.

Tertullian squares up to the charge of atheism by confirming what those who oppose the Christians claim. These Christ-followers are indeed atheistic about the gods of the ancient world, inasmuch as they simply do not believe them to be true divines. There is but one God, so yes, the Christians are simply disbelieving about the false ‘gods’ of the ancient world.

Tertullian makes a mockery of the gods in this short quote. Christians do not worship the gods for the same reason they don’t worship their very selves! They simply are not worth it. God alone is the object of Christian worship, because He alone is the sovereign creator God.

Clement of Alexandria

He, then, who is persuaded that God is omnipotent, and has learned the divine mysteries from His only-begotten Son, how can he be an atheist? For he is an atheist who thinks that God does not exist. And he is superstitious who dreads the demons; who deifies all things, both wood and stone; and reduces to bondage spirit, and man who possesses the life of reason.

Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies 7.1.

Clement responds in a slightly different way, instead turning the charge back upon his pagan opponents. Whereas Tertullian essentially admitted that Christians were atheists – in the sense that they did not believe in these false gods – Clement accuses the pagans of true atheism. How can Christians be called atheist, when they trust in the true God? The truth is in fact the very opposite. Clement confronts his accusers: “he is an atheist who thinks that God does not exist.” Instead of trusting in the true God, these pagans hope in mere superstitions, forsaking reason to hope in falsehoods.

It is the pagan believer who is atheistic about the truth of the one God who could save them. They have lost their minds if they think deifying wood and stone will help them! Clement confronts the charge of atheism head on, and turns it back on his accusers.

Two tactics: one Hope

Both Tertullian and Clement present examples of Christian arguments against this early charge of atheism. Though they take slightly different approaches, the truth behind their tactics remains the same. The world hopes in false gods and superstitions, the Christians trust in God alone. The one true God, worthy of divine worship and sovereign over all creation. Up against this true God, the ‘gods’ of the pagans are nothing more than mere superstitions.

Christians were regularly labelled as ‘atheists’ in those early years. But in these responses from Tertullian and Clement we find a way to counter such a charge. Our own world can accuse us of believing in fairytales and foolishness, but as these men asked some 1800 years ago, is the hope of the world in anything secure? Do our unbelieving friends and family trust in anything more than superstitions and falsehoods? Our God is still the one true Lord of all creation. We are right to worship Him, and we must not stop pointing others to the truth that He alone is worthy of our worship.

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