Summary Paper: The Body in Tertullian’s On the Resurrection of the Flesh and Ambrose’s De Bono Mortis

That the resurrection of the body is central to Christian faith is no longer a point of debate; it hasn’t been for a very long time. Besides the seemingly direct words of Scripture, the First Council of Constantinople settled the question by way of the very important Constantinopolitan (“Niceno-Constantinopolitan”) Creed which reads “and I await the resurrection of the dead.”[1] Similarly, the Pseudo-Athanasian (“Athanasian”) Creed more explicitly states “all men are to rise again with [in] their bodies.”[2] From these few and weighty references, easily multipliable, the orthodoxy of the resurrection of the body stands out.

However, the connection between the mortal body, death, the resurrection and glorified body, and man’s being a sojourner on earth was not entirely spelled out in these creeds; before either creed ever came into use, debate over the body and its role in the human person, salvation, resurrection, and glorification were commonplace. Tertullian, an important Church Father (but not a saint), wrote extensively addressing concerns about the bodily resurrection both pertaining to mankind and Jesus Christ. Though St. Ambrose lived shortly after the proclamation of the Nicene Creed (ca. 340-397), he differed dramatically from Tertullian’s thought on bodily resurrection and was in several ways further in consideration from the reasonable dignity accorded the body per the Creed’s inclusion of the formulation.

Both of these Fathers of the Church use dramatic and commanding language when speaking about the body and its role in the Christian faith; however, the two vastly disagree. Ambrose deals with the body in De Bono Mortis (“Death as a Good”) at length and, in a heavily scriptural line of reasoning, judges death as generally a good to man[3] on account of many things, primarily his freeing from “the fetters of this body.”[4] He sees this separation of body and soul[5] in positive light as “the body is clay, it surely soils us and does not wash us, for it contaminates the soul with the contamination of intemperance.”[6] In stark contrast and similarly direct language, Tertullian writes in his On the Resurrection of the Flesh,

there is not a soul that can at all procure salvation, except it believe while it is in the flesh, so true is it that the flesh is the very condition on which salvation hinges. And since the soul is, in consequence of its salvation, chosen to the service of God, it is the flesh which actually renders it capable of such service. The flesh, indeed, is washed, in order that the soul may be cleansed; the flesh is anointed, that the soul may be consecrated; the flesh is signed (with the cross), that the soul too may be fortified; the flesh is shadowed with the imposition of hands, that the soul also maybe illuminated by the Spirit; the flesh feeds on the body and blood of Christ, that the soul likewise may fatten on its God. They cannot then be separated in their recompense, when they are united in their service.[7]

Of course, many specific questions circle around the discussion of the body in Christianity. One of these questions of great importance is the anthropological question of what a human person is: body, soul, or both. Tertullian takes the stance that man is only complete when both body and soul are present[8] and, as a consequence, the union of body and soul will properly be present during the punishment or glory of the afterlife.[9] In fact, he goes as far as to question which of the two holds superiority over the other.[10] Ambrose, contrary to this position, holds that the body is a servant to the soul,[11] that the just “divest themselves of the contagions of the body,”[12] and that the soul enjoys a state of greater freedom and joy after life, being separated from the body, “more of a burden than a benefit.”[13]

One final consideration both Tertullian and Ambrose address is the body’s relation to the Image and Likeness of God within man. In line with the rest of their work, each takes a different approach, Ambrose focusing on spiritual acts and the role of the soul, Tertullian focusing on the body-soul composite as the inheritor. In St. Ambrose’s account, “let us flee these evils and elevate our soul to the image and likeness of God. The flight from evils is the likeness of God, and the image of God is gained through the virtues.”[14] His estimation emphasizes the soul’s role in imitating God, becoming an image of the imitated over the course of time.[15] Differing in opinion, Tertullian employs words favoring the Image’s bond to the body and soul. “The creature which He moulded and fashioned; after the image of God (in other words, of Christ) did He make him… Thus, that clay [the body] which was even then putting on the image of Christ, who was to come in the flesh, was not only the work, but also the pledge and surety, of God.”[16] It appears Tertullian sees the Image of Christ, body and soul, in the Father’s mind as the forerunner of the embodiment of mankind; he even continues to survey the dignity of God’s decision by choosing to give man flesh.[17]

Clearly, the theological opinions of the Church Fathers St. Ambrose and Tertullian differ vastly, especially regarding the body of man and its relation to God, the soul, salvation, and glorification. Although various positions appear throughout history with more or less support at different times, the positions of Ambrose and Tertullian are fairly epitomic of two familiar and very common perspectives. They are, because of this, wonderful for a general survey of these two extremely different positions and a great prelude to understanding the more middle-ground points of view.

[1] Henricus Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum, Definitionum Et Declarationum de Rebus Fidei Et Morum (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012), 66. However, many other shorter and less authoritative creedal statements contain similar phrases; cf. Denzinger, 17ff.

[2] Ibid., 41. Author’s italicization.

[3] Cf. St. Ambrose, De Bono Mortis, 80-81, 93.

[4] Ibid., 75.

[5] Ibid., 71.

[6] St. Ambrose, 78.

[7] Tertullian, On the Resurrection of the Flesh, trans. Peter Holmes, vol. 3, Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885), §8., accessed June 24, 2013, 0316.htm.

[8] Ibid., §14. See also §7, “whatever God has at all purposed or promised to man, is due not to the soul simply, but to the flesh also.”

[9] Ibid., §17. Specifically, “[the soul] will still need the flesh; not as being unable to feel anything without the help of the flesh, but because it is necessary that it should possess such a faculty along with the flesh… for in its own nature it has simply the ability to think, to will, to desire, to dispose: for fully carrying out the purpose, it looks for the assistance of the flesh.”

[10] Ibid., §7. “So intimate is the union, that it may be deemed to be uncertain whether the flesh bears about the soul, or the soul the flesh.”

[11] St. Ambrose, 91. “The soul, then, is the user, the body that which is being used.”

[12] Ibid., 75.

[13] Ibid., 80. He states also “your enemy is your body” on page 90.

[14] St. Ambrose, 83.

[15] Cf. Ibid., 100.

[16] Tertullian, §6.

[17] Cf. Ibid., §6.


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