Credo quia absurdum
Credo quia absurdum is a Latin phrase that means "I believe because it is absurd", originally misattributed to Tertullian in his De Carne Christi. The original phrase was "It is certain because it is unfitting" in an anti-Marcionite context, however, through early modern, Protestant and Enlightenment rhetoric against Catholicism and religion more broadly, was changed to "I believe because it is absurd" for a personally religious context.
History of the Phrase
The original phrase, before being transmuted through Enlightenment rhetoric to its modern form "I believe because it is absurd", appeared in Tertullian's work De Carne Christi (ca. 203-206), read by scholars as "I believe because it is unfitting". The context is a defense of the tenets of orthodox Christianity against docetism:
et mortuus est dei filius: [prorsus] credibile est, quia ineptum est.
et sepultus resurrexit: certum est, quia impossibile.
and the Son of God died, it is [utterly] credible, because it is unfitting;
and he was buried and rose again; it is certain, because it is impossible.
The consensus of Tertullian scholars is that the reading "I believe because it is absurd" sharply diverges from Tertullian's own thoughts, given his placed priority on reasoned argument and rationality in his writings. In the same work, Tertullian later writes "But here again, I must have some reasons." Elsewhere, he writes that the new Christian “should believe nothing but that nothing should be rashly believed.” Scholars note further examples of where Tertullian acts by following a method of reasoned argument. The meaning of the phrase may relate to 1 Corinthians 1:17-31, where something foolish to a human may be a member of God's wisdom, or Tertullian may be repeating an idea rehearsed in Aristotle's Rhetoric, where Aristotle argues that something is more credibly true if it is an incredible claim, on the reason that it would have not been made up if it were truly so incredible to the human mind. Eric Osborn concludes that “the classic formula credo quia absurdum (even when corrected to quia ineptum) does not represent the thought of Tertullian."
Transmission into the Early Modern Era and Modern Use
No notice was given to this maxim throughout the classical and medieval periods, however, the maxim first began to receive attention and then undergo change during the early modern era. In 1521, the humanist scholar Beatus Rhenanus produced an edition of Tertullian's De carne Christi. The only French translation of this work to appear in the 17th century was Louis Giry's 1661 edition. According to Peter Harrison, the first time that the maxim was quoted was in Thomas Browne's highly influential religious classic Religio Medici (The Religion of a Doctor), ensuring that the maxim received a wide audience at this time, and Browne also shifted the context of Tertullian's phrase from a discourse against Marcion to personal faith, and also shifted the wording of the phrase from its original "It is certain, because it is impossible" to "I believe, because it is impossible." Many of Browne's contemporaries criticized him and Tertullian for this maxim, including Henry More, Edward Stillingfleet, Robert Boyle, and John Locke. As Protestant anti-Catholic polemic and rhetoric grew, many writers began associating certain Catholic doctrines (and later broadly to Christianity itself by some other writers), especially Transubstantiation, with this maxim. The maxim was then brought to a French audience through Pierre Bayle's highly influential 1697 Dictionnaire Historique et Critique, which catalogued controversies of philosophical and religious nature as well as historical events and persons related to them. Then, Voltaire, in his anonymously published Le Dîner du comte de Boulainvillier (1767), took the maxim to the next step and shifted the phrase from "I believe because it is impossible" to "I believe because it is absurd", and Voltaire also attributed it to Augustine instead of Tertullian, a much more central figure in Christian history. The maxim would continue to be attributed to Augustine until Gaston de Flotte noted the original Latin and misattribution by Voltaire, however, the rhetorical appeal of the maxim was great enough that it continued to be widely used, even into the present day, including being used by figures like Sigmund Freud, Ernst Cassirer, Max Weber, Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne and even Simon Blackburn's Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy.
The phrase does not express the Catholic Faith, as explained by Pope Benedict XVI: "The Catholic Tradition, from the outset, rejected the so-called “fideism”, which is the desire to believe against reason. Credo quia absurdum (I believe because it is absurd) is not a formula that interprets the Catholic faith."
The phrase is thus sometimes associated with the doctrine of fideism, that is, "a system of philosophy or an attitude of mind, which, denying the power of unaided human reason to reach certitude, affirms that the fundamental act of human knowledge consists in an act of faith, and the supreme criterion of certitude is authority."(Catholic Encyclopedia). It has also been used, though often in different interpretations, by some existentialists.
The phrase inspired a celebrated bon mot by H.L. Mencken: "Tertullian is credited with the motto Credo quia absurdum—'I believe because it is impossible'. Needless to say, he began life as a lawyer." It has also been adopted as the motto for The Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus in modern times, and was used as an example of zen in D. T. Suzuki's book, Introduction to Zen Buddhism (which was based on essays he wrote in 1914):
"A noted Christian Father of the early Middle Ages once exclaimed: "O poor Aristotle! Thou who has discovered for the heretics the art of dialectics, the art of building up and destroying, the art of discussing all things and accomplishing nothing!" So much ado about nothing, indeed! See how philosophers of all ages contradict one another after spending all their logical acumen and analytical ingenuity on the so-called problems of science and knowledge. No wonder the same old wise man, wanting to put a stop once for all to all such profitless discussions, has boldly thrown the following bomb right into the midst of those sand-builders: "Certum est quia impossible est"; or, more logically, Credo quia absurdum est. I believe because it is irrational; is this not an unqualified confirmation of Zen?"
- Harrison, Peter. "“I Believe Because it is Absurd”: The Enlightenment Invention of Tertullian's Credo." Church History 86.2 (2017): 339-364
- Vianney Décarie, “Le Paradoxe de Tertullien,” Vigiliae Christianae 15, no. 1 (1961): 23–31
- Barnes, Timothy David. Tertullian: A Historical and Literary Study. Oxford University Press, 1985, esp. 210
- Robert D. Sider, “Credo quia absurdum?,” Classical World 73, no. 7 (1980): 417–419
- Justo L. González, “Athens and Jerusalem Revisited: Reason and Authority in Tertullian,” Church History, 43, no. 1 (1974): 17–25
- Anthony Guerra, “Polemical Christianity: Tertullian’s Search for Certitude,” The Second Century 8, no. 2 (1991): 109–124
- Osborn, Eric. Tertullian: First Theologian of the West. Cambridge University Press, 1997, esp. 28, 48–64
- Tertullian, De carne Christi 10, in Evans, Tertullian’s Treatise on the Incarnation, 38: “Et hic itaque causas requiro.”
- Tertullian, Adversus Marcionem 5.1, in Tertullian: Adversus Marcionem, ed. and trans. Ernest Evans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), 509: “Qui nihil interim credam, nisi nihil temere credendum.”
- Osborn, Eric. Tertullian, first theologian of the West. Cambridge University Press, 2003, 34
- Götz, Ignacio L. Faith, humor, and paradox. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002, 25-27
- Aristotle, Rhetoric 2.23, 1400a6–8, in Complete Works of Aristotle, trans. W. Rhys Roberts, ed. Jonathan Barnes (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2), 2:2231; James Moffatt, “Aristotle and Tertullian,” Journal of Theological Studies 17, no. 66 (1916): 170–171.
- Pearse, Roger. Witnesses to the Influence of Tertullian. (or, Who had read what?) Link
- Beatus Rhenanus, ed., Tertullianus Quintus Septiuius Florens Opera (Basel, 1521)
- Louis Giry, trans., De la Chair de Jésus-Christ, et de la Résurrection de la chair, ouvrages de Tertullien (Paris, 1661).
- [Voltaire], Le Dîner du comte de Boulainvilliers par Mr. St. Hyacinte (Amsterdam, 1767), 18: “C’est pourtant ce ridicule que St. Augustin a trouvé divin; il disoit, je le crois parce que cela est absurd, je le crois parce que cela est impossible.” (It is, however, this very ridicule that Augustine thought divine. He said: I believe because it is absurd, I believe because it is impossible).
- Harrison, Peter. 'I believe because it is absurd': Christianity's first meme. 12 April, 2018, Accessed on November 18, 2018.
- Blackburn, Simon. Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Oxford University Press, 1996, 88.
- General Audience of Pope Benedict XVI, November 21, 2012
- Suzuki, D.T. Essays in Zen Buddhism. 1958. Link to book
- Bühler, Pierre (2008). "Tertullian: the Teacher of the credo quia absurdum". In Stewart, Jon. Kierkegaard and the patristic and medieval traditions. Aldershot: Ashgate. pp. 131–42. ISBN 978-0-7546-6391-1.
- Götz, Ignacio L. (2002). "Tertullian's paradox". Faith, humor, and paradox. New York: Praeger. pp. 25–7. ISBN 978-0-275-97895-2.
- Sider, Robert D. (1980). "Credo Quia Absurdum?". The Classical World. 73 (7): 417–9. doi:10.2307/4349233. JSTOR 4349233.
- Garelick, Herbert (1964). "The Irrationality and Supra-rationality of Kierkegaard's Paradox". The Southern Journal of Philosophy. 2 (2): 75–86. doi:10.1111/j.2041-6962.1964.tb01469.x.
- Siemens, David F. (1964). "Conflicts between Christianity and physical science". Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation. 16: 12–5.
- Ferguson, Everett (2009). "Tertullian". The Expository Times. 120 (7): 313–21. doi:10.1177/0014524609103464.
- Bixler, J. S. (1969). "On Being Absurd!". The Massachusetts Review. 10 (2): 407–412. JSTOR 25087871.