Tertullian on Dreams – John Boruff

497px-TertullianTertullian (d. 225) was a Spirit-filled charismatic church father. Below is an extract from his A Treatise on the Soul, chs. 44-49, which deals with the important spiritual subject of dreams:

Chapter 44. The Story of Hermotimus, and the Sleeplessness of the Emperor Nero. No Separation of the Soul from the Body Until Death.

With regard to the case of Hermotimus, they say that he used to be deprived of his soul in his sleep, as if it wandered away from his body like a person on a holiday trip. His wife betrayed the strange peculiarity. His enemies, finding him asleep, burnt his body, as if it were a corpse: when his soul returned too late, it appropriated (I suppose) to itself the guilt of the murder. However the good citizens of Clazomenæ; consoled poor Hermotimus with a temple, into which no woman ever enters, because of the infamy of this wife. Now why this story? In order that, since the vulgar belief so readily holds sleep to be the separation of the soul from the body, credulity should not be encouraged by this case of Hermotimus. It must certainly have been a much heavier sort of slumber: one would presume it was the nightmare, or perhaps that diseased languor which Soranus suggests in opposition to the nightmare, or else some such malady as that which the fable has fastened upon Epimenides, who slept on some fifty years or so. Suetonius, however, informs us that NERO NEVER DREAMT (not receiving dreams from God is a judgment upon this pagan unbeliever, 1 Sam. 28:15–John Boruff), and Theopompus says the same thing about Thrasymedes; but Nero at the close of his life did with some difficulty dream after some excessive alarm. What indeed would be said, if the case of Hermotimus were believed to be such that the repose of his soul was a state of actual idleness during sleep, and a positive separation from his body? You may conjecture it to be anything but such a licence of the soul as admits of flights away from the body without death, and that by continual recurrence, as if habitual to its state and constitution. If indeed such a thing were told me to have happened at any time to the soul—resembling a total eclipse of the sun or the moon—I should verily suppose that the occurrence had been caused by God’s own interposition, for it would not be unreasonable for a man to RECEIVE ADMONITION FROM THE DIVINE BEING either in the way of WARNING or of ALARM, as by a flash of lightning, or by a sudden stroke of death; only it would be much the more natural conclusion to believe that THIS PROCESS SHOULD BE BY A DREAM (this agrees with Job 33:14-18: For God may speak in one way, or in another, yet man does not perceive it.  In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falls upon men, while slumbering on their beds,then He opens the ears of men, and seals their instruction.In order to turn man from his deed, and conceal pride from man,He keeps back his soul from the Pit, and his life from perishing by the sword”–John Boruff), because if it must be supposed to be, (as the hypothesis we are resisting assumes it to be,) not a dream, the occurrence ought rather to happen to a man while he is wide awake.

Chapter 45. Dreams, an Incidental Effect of the Soul’s Activity. Ecstasy.

We are bound to expound at this point what is THE OPINION OF CHRISTIANS RESPECTING DREAMS, as incidents of sleep, and as no slight or trifling excitements of the soul, which we have declared to be always occupied and active owing to its perpetual movement, which again is a proof and evidence of its divine quality and immortality. When, therefore, rest accrues to human bodies, it being their own special comfort, THE SOUL, disdaining a repose which is not natural to it, never rests (that is, the soul is awake, active, and participating in the spirit world through dreams–John Boruff); and since it receives no help from the limbs of the body, it uses its own. Imagine a gladiator without his instruments or arms, and a charioteer without his team, but still gesticulating the entire course and exertion of their respective employments: there is the fight, there is the struggle; but the effort is a vain one. Nevertheless the whole procedure seems to be gone through, although it evidently has not been really effected. There is the act, but not the effect. This power we call ECSTASY, in which the sensuous soul stands out of itself, in a way which even resembles madness. Thus in the very beginning sleep was inaugurated by ecstasy: And God sent an ecstasy upon Adam, and he slept (Genesis 2:21). The sleep came on his body to cause it to rest, but the ecstasy fell on his soul to remove rest: from that very circumstance it still happens ordinarily (and from the order results the nature of the case) that sleep is combined with ECSTASY. In fact, with what REAL FEELING, and anxiety, and suffering do we experience joy, and sorrow, and alarm in our DREAMS! (Tertullian’s point is that the reality of DREAMS, and the five senses being experienced in them, is because in dreams, it is really with our SOULS that we are experiencing things!–John Boruff.) Whereas we should not be moved by any such emotions, by what would be the merest fantasies of course, if when we dream we were masters of ourselves, (unaffected by ecstasy.) In these dreams, indeed, good actions are useless, and crimes harmless; for we shall no more be condemned for visionary acts of sin, than we shall be crowned for imaginary martyrdom. (I personally disagree with Tertullian here; sin is in the heart [Matt. 15:19]; and needs to be repented of, especially if committed in a dream–because it is sin in the core of the soul…St. Teresa of Avila would disagree also, because she believed saints could experience spiritual martyrdom in the heart, without actually being physically martyred.–John Boruff.) But how, you will ask, CAN THE SOUL REMEMBER ITS DREAMS, when it is said to be without any mastery over its own operations? THIS MEMORY MUST BE A SPECIAL GIFT OF THE ECSTATIC CONDITION of which we are treating, since it arises not from any failure of healthy action, but entirely from natural process; nor does it expel mental function—it withdraws it for a time. It is one thing to shake, it is another thing to move; one thing to destroy, another thing to agitate. That, therefore, which memory supplies betokens soundness of mind; and that which a sound mind ecstatically experiences while the memory remains unchecked, is a kind of madness. We are accordingly not said to be mad, but to DREAM, in that state; to be in the full possession also of our mental faculties, if we are at any time. For although the power to exercise these faculties may be dimmed in us, it is still not extinguished; except that it may seem to be itself absent at the very time that the ECSTASY is energizing in us in its special manner, in such wise as to bring before us IMAGES of a sound mind and of wisdom, even as it does those of aberration.

Chapter 46. Diversity of Dreams and Visions. Epicurus Thought Lightly of Them, Though Generally Most Highly Valued. Instances of Dreams.

We now find ourselves constrained to express an opinion about the character of the dreams by which the soul is excited. And when shall we arrive at the subject of death? And on such a question I would say, When God shall permit: that admits of no long delay which must needs happen at all events. EPICURUS has given it as his opinion that dreams are altogether vain things; (but he says this) when liberating the Deity from all sort of care, and dissolving the entire order of the world, and giving to all things the aspect of merest chance, casual in their issues, fortuitous in their nature. Well, now, if such be the nature of things, there must be some chance even for truth, because it is impossible for it to be the only thing to be exempted from the fortune which is due to all things. HOMER has assigned two gates to dreams — the horny one of truth, the ivory one of error and delusion. For, they say, it is possible to see through horn, whereas ivory is not transparent. ARISTOTLE, while expressing his opinion that dreams are in most cases untrue, yet acknowledges that there is some truth in them. The people of Telmessus will not admit that dreams are in any case unmeaning, but they blame their own weakness when unable to conjecture their signification. Now, who is such a stranger to human experience as not sometimes to have perceived some truth in dreams? I shall force a blush from Epicurus, if I only glance at some few of the more remarkable instances. HERODOTUS relates how that Astyages, king of the Medes, saw in a dream issuing from the womb of his virgin daughter a flood which inundated Asia; and again, in the year which followed her marriage, he saw a vine growing out from the same part of her person, which overspread the whole of Asia. The same story is told prior to Herodotus by Charon of Lampsacus. Now they who interpreted these visions did not deceive the mother when they destined her son for so great an enterprise, for Cyrus both inundated and overspread Asia. Philip of Macedon, before he became a father, had seen imprinted on the pudenda of his consort Olympias the form of a small ring, with a lion as a seal. He had concluded that an offspring from her was out of the question (I suppose because the lion only becomes once a father), when Aristodemus or Aristophon happened to conjecture that nothing of an unmeaning or empty import lay under that seal, but that a son of very illustrious character was portended. They who know anything of Alexander recognise in him the lion of that small ring. Ephorus writes to this effect. Again, Heraclides has told us, that a certain woman of Himera beheld in a dream Dionysius’ tyranny over Sicily. Euphorion has publicly recorded as a fact, that, previous to giving birth to Seleucus, his mother Laodice foresaw that he was destined for the empire of Asia. I find again from STRABO, that it was owing to a dream that even Mithridates took possession of Pontus; and I further learn from Callisthenes that it was from the indication of a dream that Baraliris the Illyrian stretched his dominion from the Molossi to the frontiers of Macedon. The Romans, too, were acquainted with dreams of this kind. From a dream Marcus Tullius (CICERO) had learned how that one, who was yet only a little boy, and in a private station, who was also plain Julius Octavius, and personally unknown to (Cicero) himself, was the destined Augustus, and the suppressor and destroyer of (Rome’s) civil discords. This is recorded in the Commentaries of Vitellius. But visions of this prophetic kind were not confined to predictions of supreme power; for they indicated perils also, and catastrophes: as, for instance, when Caesar was absent from the battle of Philippi through illness, and thereby escaped the sword of Brutus and Cassius, and then although he expected to encounter greater danger still from the enemy in the field, he quitted his tent for it, in obedience to a vision of Artorius, and so escaped (the capture by the enemy, who shortly after took possession of the tent); as, again, when the daughter of Polycrates of Samos foresaw the crucifixion which awaited him from the anointing of the sun and the bath of Jupiter. So likewise in sleep revelations are made of high honours and eminent talents; remedies are also discovered, thefts brought to light, and treasures indicated. Thus Cicero’s eminence, while he was still a little boy, was foreseen by his nurse. The swan from the breast of Socrates soothing men, is his disciple Plato. The boxer Leonymus is cured by Achilles in his dreams. SOPHOCLES the tragic poet discovers, as he was dreaming, the golden crown, which had been lost from the citadel of Athens. Neoptolemus the tragic actor, through intimations in his sleep from Ajax himself, saves from destruction the hero’s tomb on the Rhoetean shore before Troy; and as he removes the decayed stones, he returns enriched with gold. How many commentators and chroniclers vouch for this phenomenon? There are Artemon, Antiphon, Strato, Philochorus, Epicharmus, Serapion, Cratippus, and Dionysius of Rhodes, and Hermippus — the entire literature of the age. I shall only laugh at all, if indeed I ought to laugh at the man who fancied that he was going to persuade us that Saturn dreamt before anybody else; which we can only believe if Aristotle, (who would fain help us to such an opinion,) lived prior to any other person. Pray forgive me for laughing. Epicharmus, indeed, as well as Philochorus the Athenian, assigned the very highest place among divinations to dreams. The whole world is full of oracles of this description: there are the oracles of Amphiaraus at Oropus, of Amphilochus at Mallus, of Sarpedon in the Troad, of Trophonius in Bœotia, of Mopsus in Cilicia, of Hermione in Macedon, of Pasiphäe in Laconia. Then, again, there are others, which with their original foundations, rites, and historians, together with the entire literature of dreams, Hermippus of Berytus in five portly volumes will give you all the account of, even to satiety. But the STOICS are very fond of saying that God, in His most watchful providence over every institution, gave us dreams among other preservatives of the arts and sciences of divination, as the special support of the natural oracle. So much for the dreams to which credit has to be ascribed even by ourselves, although we must interpret them in another sense. As for all other oracles, at which no one ever dreams, what else must we declare concerning them, than that they are the diabolical contrivance of those spirits who even at that time dwelt in the eminent persons themselves, or aimed at reviving the memory of them as the mere stage of their evil purposes, going so far as to counterfeit a divine power under their shape and form, and, with equal persistence in evil, deceiving men by their very boons of remedies, warnings, and forecasts—the only effect of which was to injure their victims the more they helped them; while the means whereby they rendered the help withdrew them from all search after the true God, by insinuating into their minds ideas of the false one? And of course so pernicious an influence as this is not shut up nor limited within the boundaries of shrines and temples: it roams abroad, it flies through the air, and all the while is free and unchecked. So that nobody can doubt that our very homes lie open to these diabolical spirits, who beset their human prey with their fantasies not only in their chapels but also in their chambers. [Tertullian says that demons are the source of all evil dreams and pagan dreams which inspire worship of Greek gods and goddesses; these demons are not confined to pagan temples, but fly around in the air, and can enter into our bedrooms…all the more reason for us to pray in Jesus’ Name before we sleep!–John Boruff.]

Chapter 47. Dreams Variously Classified. Some are God-Sent, as the Dreams of Nebuchadnezzar; Others Simply Products of Nature.

We declare, then, that DREAMS ARE INFLICTED ON US MAINLY BY DEMONS, although they sometimes turn out true and favourable to us. When, however, with the deliberate aim after evil, of which we have just spoken, they assume a flattering and captivating style, they show themselves proportionately vain, and deceitful, and obscure, and wanton, and impure. And no wonder that the images partake of the character of the realities. But from God — who has promised, indeed, to pour out the grace of the Holy Spirit upon all flesh, and has ordained that His servants and His handmaids should see visions as well as utter prophecies (Joel 3:1) — must all those visions be regarded as emanating, which may be compared to the actual grace of God, as being honest, holy, prophetic, inspired, instructive, inviting to virtue, the bountiful nature of which causes them to overflow even to the profane, since God, with grand impartiality, sends His showers and sunshine on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:45). It was, indeed by an inspiration from God that Nebuchadnezzar dreamt his dreams; and almost the greater part of mankind get their knowledge of God from dreams. Thus it is that, as the mercy of God super-abounds to the heathen, so the temptation of the evil one encounters the saints, from whom he never withdraws his malignant efforts to steal over them as best he may in their very sleep, if unable to assault them when they are awake. The third class of dreams will consist of those which THE SOUL itself apparently creates for itself from an intense application to special circumstances. Now, inasmuch as THE SOUL CANNOT DREAM OF ITS OWN ACCORD (for even Epicharmus is of this opinion), how can it become to itself the cause of any vision? Then must this class of dreams be abandoned to the action of nature, reserving for the soul, even when in the ecstatic condition, the power of enduring whatever incidents befall it? Those, moreover, which evidently proceed neither from God, nor from diabolical inspiration, nor from the soul, being beyond the reach as well of ordinary expectation, usual interpretation, or the possibility of being intelligibly related, will have to be ascribed in a separate category to what is purely and simply the ecstatic state and its peculiar conditions.

Chapter 48. Causes and Circumstances of Dreams. What Best Contributes to Efficient Dreaming.

They say that dreams are more sure and clear when they happen towards the end of the night, because then the vigour of the soul emerges, and heavy sleep departs. As to the seasons of the year, dreams are calmer in spring, since summer relaxes, and winter somehow hardens, the soul; while autumn, which in other respects is trying to health, is apt to enervate the soul by the lusciousness of its fruits. Then, again, as regards the position of one’s body during sleep, one ought not to lie on his back, nor on his right side, nor so as to wrench his intestines, as if their cavity were reversely stretched: a palpitation of the heart would ensue, or else a pressure on the liver would produce a painful disturbance of the mind. But however this be, I take it that it all amounts to ingenious conjecture rather than certain proof (although the author of the conjecture be no less a man than Plato); and possibly all may be no other than the result of chance. But, generally speaking, dreams will be under control of a man’s will, if they be capable of direction at all; for we must not examine what opinion on the one hand, and superstition on the other, have to prescribe for the treatment of dreams, in the matter of distinguishing and modifying different sorts of food. As for the superstition, we have an instance when FASTING is prescribed for such persons as mean to submit to the SLEEP which is necessary for RECEIVING THE ORACLE, in order that such abstinence may produce the required purity [Superstition of pagans this may be, it makes good sense to me; and reveals something of a mystery to why fasting and prayer are practiced by Jesus and the prophets for the increase of faith, or prophetic revelation. While the body is weakened through its lack of nourishment, while sleeping, the soul is more “detached” from the flesh, and awakened to the realities of the spirit world. When mixed with prayer in Jesus’ Name, we may assume the Holy Spirit manifests, and welcomes prophetic DREAMING all the more!–John Boruff]; while we find an instance of the opinion when the disciples of Pythagoras, in order to attain the same end, reject the bean as an aliment which would load the stomach, and produce indigestion. But the three brethren, who were the companions of DANIEL, being content with pulse alone [vegetables: Daniel 1:12, 17], to escape the contamination of the royal dishes, received from God, besides other wisdom, the gift especially of penetrating and explaining the sense of dreams. For my own part, I hardly know whether FASTING would not simply make me dream so profoundly, that I should not be aware whether I had in fact dreamt at all. Well, then, you ask, has not sobriety something to do in this matter? Certainly it is as much concerned in this as it is in the entire subject: if it contributes some good service to SUPERSTITION, much more does it to RELIGION. For even DEMONS require such discipline from their DREAMERS as a gratification to their divinity [see Deuteronomy 13:1-3], because they know that it is acceptable to God, since Daniel (to quote him again) ate no pleasant bread for the space of three weeks (Daniel 10:2). This abstinence, however, he used in order to please God by humiliation, and not for the purpose of producing a sensibility [sensitivity] and wisdom for his soul previous to receiving communication by dreams and visions, as if it were not rather to effect such action in an ecstatic state. This sobriety, then, (in which our question arises,) will have nothing to do with exciting ecstasy, but will rather serve to recommend its being wrought by God. [I personally disagree. I think that FASTING and PRAYER does excite ECSTASY; and makes the soul more sensitive to receive dreams and visions from the Holy Spirit and angels! If the dream-seeker is living a holy life…walking in HEARTFELT RIGHTEOUSNESS and obedience to the moral law of God. If this were not so, then what are we to think of the praying fasts of Moses and Jesus?–John Boruff.]

Chapter 49. No Soul Naturally Exempt from Dreams.

As for those persons who suppose that infants do not dream, on the ground that all the functions of the soul throughout life are accomplished according to the capacity of age, they ought to observe attentively their tremors, and nods, and bright smiles as they sleep, and from such facts understand that they are the emotions of their soul as it dreams, which so readily escape to the surface through the delicate tenderness of their infantile body. The fact, however, that the African nation of the Atlantes are said to pass through the night in a deep lethargic sleep, brings down on them the censure that something is wrong in the constitution of their soul. Now either report, which is occasionally calumnious against barbarians, deceived Herodotus, or else a large force of demons of this sort domineers in those barbarous regions. Since, indeed, Aristotle remarks of a certain hero of Sardinia that he used to withhold the power of visions and dreams from such as resorted to his shrine for inspiration, it must lie at the will and caprice of the DEMONS to take away as well as to confer the faculty of DREAMS; and from this circumstance may have arisen the remarkable fact (which we have mentioned ) of Nero and Thrasymedes only dreaming so late in life. WE, HOWEVER, DERIVE DREAMS FROM GOD. Why, then, did not the Atlantes receive the dreaming faculty from God, because there is really no nation which is now a stranger to God, since THE GOSPEL flashes its glorious light through the world to the ends of the earth? Could it then be that rumour deceived Aristotle, or is this caprice still the way of demons? (Let us take any view of the case), only do not let it be imagined that any soul is by its natural constitution exempt from dreams.

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About John Boruff

John Boruff is the founder of WesleyGospel.com, a husband, father, and sometimes an open air preacher. He graduated from UNC Pembroke in 2008 with a B.A. in Philosophy and Religion and views himself as a Wesleyan Pentecostal. As a Christian, he feels connected with all members of the body of Christ, but can identify the most with churches like the Assemblies of God and the Vineyard. In 2015, he released "The Gospel of Jesus Christ," which is meant to be a Bible study for open air preaching. For his other writings, search articles on this site or see the E-Books section.
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