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APPENDIX II

TERTULLIAN AS APOLOGIST

 

(a)       HIS FORENSIC PLEA FOR CHRISTIANITY

THREE persecutions of the Christians, with intervening periods of comparative calm, are reflected in the writing of Tertullian. The first called forth the Ad N ationes and the Apologeticus, the second is reflected in De Patientia and Ad Uxorem, while the third induced him to write Ad Scapulam, De Corona Militis, De Fuga in Persecutione, and Scorpiace. In Apologeticus and Ad Scapulam the case of Christianity is pleaded in definite form. Ad Nationes is in substance similar to Apologelicus, but while the former was addressed to the pagan populace, the latter was directed to the ‘Rulers of the Roman Empire.’ Ad Martyras, De Spectaculis, De Idololatria, De Patientia, Ad Uxorem, I. and II., De Corona Militis, De Fuga in Persecutione, and Scorpiace, while they do not provide a set defence of the Christian religion, add to our general apprehension of the attitude adopted by Tertullian.

We may first note the obvious links of connexion with the earlier apologists. The folly and injustice of the hatred of the Christian name, the confusion of ‘Christian’ with ‘Chrestian,’ the fact that the poets ridicule the gods, the absurdity of idol-worship, the claim to freedom of worship, the refutation of the charge of atheism, of impious feasts, and lasciviousness, the assertion of the priority of the Scriptures to heathen literature, are repeated by Tertullian.

In the Apologeticus we find the Christian advocate pleading the cause of oppressed truth. It is an eloquent protest against injustice; it is also a clear demonstration of the Christian case, set forth with great dialectical ability. Tertullian first deals with the question of justice. The Christians suffer from the prejudices of men. The whole case against them arises from ignorance—an ignorance that is culpable. ‘Because they already dislike, they want to know no more.’1 The truth in regard to the Christians ought to be inquired into and sifted, but, if the rulers of the Roman Empire are afraid to make such an open inquiry, they ought at least not to ‘forbid the truth to reach their ears by the secret pathway of a noiseless book.’2 If the Christians are criminals, they ought to be tried by the same methods as other criminals; but they are not allowed to speak in their own defence. The whole judicial procedure in dealing with the Christians is a travesty of justice.

Turning to the substance of the charges made against the Christians, Tertullian reduces them to five main points:

(1)       They are accused of committing unspeakable atrocities. The |p267 answer of Tertullian is that this accusation is based on false rumours, which ought to be recognized as such by reasonable men. Simple humanity is sufficient to expose their absurdity. ‘Tell me, I pray you, is eternity worth it? If it is not, then these things are not to be credited. . . . Why then can others do it if you cannot? Why cannot you, if others can? I suppose we are of a different nature—are we Cynopae or Sciapodes? You are a man yourself, as well as the Christian; if you cannot do it you ought not to believe it of others. For a Christian is a man as well as you.’1

(2)       They are accused of worshipping a strange god instead of the gods of the empire. This leads Tertullian to trace the origin of the pagan gods, to show that they were in reality merely men, or less than men—demons. Even their own worshippers ridicule and despise them. But the Christians worship one God reasonably and with loyalty of heart.

(3)       They are accused of treason. But the Christians offer prayer for the safety of the Emperor without ceasing and in sincerity of mind. It is the command of God’s revelation that men should pray for their enemies and persecutors; ‘Nay, even in terms, and most clearly, the Scripture says, “Pray for kings, and rulers, and powers, that all may be peace with you.” ’4 They look up to the Emperor as called to his office by God, so that Caesar is really more theirs than their enemies. The attitude of Tertullian is here dignified and sincere. He shows what are the rights of Caesar and what are those of God. The Christian can scrupulously obey the Emperor, taking no part in sedition, and yet be loyal to his Lord. The Christians, who are no longer a mere sect but a vast multitude scattered throughout the Empire, could be a menace to the Empire by the simple reason of their numbers, but they respect it as a divine institution.

(4)       The calamities—war, pestilence, and fire—that have befallen the Empire are attributed to the Christians. To this Tertullian retorts that the like calamities befell the human race before the existence of the Christians, and the fact is that men have always deserved ill of God. The calamities could not be visitations of the pagan gods for the impiety of the Christians, because the evils befell the temples of those very gods. If anything, the Christians are rather to be credited with warding off evils by their prayers. To the question that then arises: How comes it that the Christians share in the common sufferings if they are the favourites of God? Tertullian answers that they are indifferent to these matters. Their sole concern with the world is to be delivered from it.

(5)       The last indictment of the Christians is that they are useless in the affairs of life. ‘How can that be the case,’ asks Tertullian, ‘with people who are living among you, eating the same food, wearing the same attire, having the same habits, under the same necessities of existence? We are not Indian Brahmins or Gymnosophists, who dwell in woods, and exile themselves from ordinary human life.’5 There are some, it is true, who may complain that the Christians are a  |p268 sterile race. These are the pimps and bath supplies, assassins and poisoners and sorcerers, soothsayers, diviners, and astrologers. If the Christians do not support the temple revenues, well, they cannot give alms to both the human and the heavenly mendicants of the pagans. ‘Our compassion spends more in the streets than yours does in the temple.’6

By the time that he addresses Scapula, Tertullian has developed a more implacable spirit. He is scarcely now the advocate pleading the cause of the Christians; he is the accuser of Scapula. ‘We are not in any great perturbation or alarm about the persecutions we suffer from the ignorance of men. . . . We shrink not from the grapple with your utmost rage. . . . We have sent, therefore, this tract to you in no alarm about ourselves, but in much concern for you and all our enemies.’7 He repeats, briefly but pointedly, the refutation of the charges he had rebutted at length in the Apologeticus, and then warns Scapula of the wrath of God, which will surely fall upon him, as it had fallen on others, if he continues to persecute the Christians. The premonitory signs of that impending wrath have already appeared; the fulfilment of the divine vengeance is sure to follow if the warnings are unheeded. ‘Spare thyself, if not us poor Christians! Spare Carthage, if not thyself! Spare the province which the indication of your purpose has subjected to the threats and extortions at once of the soldiers and of private enemies.’8

(b)       HIS PHILOSOPHIC DEFENCE OP THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION.

Tertullian’s defence of the Christian religion in the realm of thought takes distinctive ground. We have already dealt with his attitude towards Greek philosophy; our present purpose is to deal in more general fashion with his defence of Christian truth. He does not commence with the Logos as the germinal principle of all good, as Justin Martyr does, but with the testimony of the ‘soul by nature Christian.’ He develops more fully in his treatise De Testimonio Animae the position which he takes in regard to this principle in Apologeticus. The testimony of the natural, untutored soul is in favour of the Christian religion. ‘Would you rather have the proof from the works of His hands, so numerous and so great, which both contain you and sustain you, which minister at once to your enjoyment and strike you with awe; or would you rather have it from the testimony of the soul itself? Though under the oppressive bondage of the body, though led astray by depraving customs, though enervated by lusts and passions, though in slavery to false gods; yet whenever the soul comes to itself, as out of a surfeit, or a sleep, or a sickness, and attains something of its natural soundness, it speaks of God; using no other word, because this is the peculiar name of the true God. “God is great and good,” “Which may God give!” are the words on every lip. It bears witness, too, that God is judge, exclaiming “God sees,” and “I commend myself to God,” and “God will repay me.” O noble testimony of the soul by nature Christian!’9 |p269

Tertullian places this witness of the untutored soul before the testimony to be found in ‘the writings of the philosophers, or the poets, or other masters of the world’s learning and wisdom.’ Only by long and careful search and by the aid of a most retentive memory can the latter be obtained, but the testimony of the soul by nature Christian is simple, commonplace, universal. ‘Stand forth, O soul, whether thou art a divine and eternal substance, as most philosophers believe—if it is so, thou wilt be the less likely to lie—or whether thou art the very opposite of divine, because indeed a mortal thing, as Epicurus alone thinks—in that case there will be the less temptation for thee to speak falsely in this case; whether thou art received from heaven, or sprung from earth; whether thou art formed of numbers, or of atoms; whether thine existence begins with that of the body, or thou art put into it at a later stage—from whatever source, and in whatever way, thou makest man a rational being, in the highest degree capable of thought and knowledge—stand forth and give thy witness. But I call thee not as when, fashioned in schools, trained in libraries, fed up in Attic academies and porticoes, thou belchest forth thy wisdom. I address thee, simple and rude, and uncultured and untaught, such as they have thee who have thee only, that very thing pure and entire, of the road, the street, the workshop. I want thine inexperience, since in thy small experience no one feels any confidence. I demand of thee the things thou bringest with thee into man, which thou knowest either from thyself or from thine author, whoever he may be. Thou art not, as I well know, Christian; for a man becomes a Christian, he is not born one. Yet Christians earnestly press thee for a testimony; they press thee, though an alien, to bear witness against thy friends, that they may be put to shame before thee, for hating and mocking us on account of the things which convict thee as an accessory.’10 When inquiry is made as to what the soul teaches, the reply is that it teaches the existence of the true God, while it denies that of the pagan gods; it teaches the nature of God, that He is good and does good, that He is sovereign and all-powerful, that He sees all and judges all; it teaches, moreover, the existence of demons and of Satan; it teaches the resurrection and the judgement. It is the most faithful friend of truth, taking precedence of pagan literature, and even of the Scriptures themselves. ‘Believe, then, your own books, and as to our Scriptures, so much the more believe writings which are divine, but in the witness of the soul itself give like confidence to nature. Choose the one of these you observe to be the most faithful friend of truth. If your own writings are distrusted, neither God nor Nature lie, and if you would have faith in God and Nature, have faith in the soul; thus you will believe yourself.’11

The testimony of the soul is supplemented by the evidence of Scripture. This provides a fuller knowledge of God, and of His counsels, and of His will. ‘But that we might attain an ampler and more authoritative knowledge at once of Himself, and of His counsels, and of His will, God has added a written revelation for the behoof of every one whose heart is set on seeking Him, that seeking he may find, and |p270 finding believe, and believing obey.’12 That written revelation has come through men ‘abundantly endowed with the Holy Spirit.’ Tertullian does not define his view of the inspiration of the Scriptures more exactly than that. He appears to recognize the human agency— the writers have left ‘literary treasures’; they are compared with the authors of pagan literature; but they are distinguished by their stainless righteousness, which made them worthy to know and to reveal the Most High. Men of Hebrew origin, who wrote in the Hebrew tongue, they are called prophets because they predict the future. Herein lies the majesty of the Scriptures; they foretold in ancient times the things that were now occurring. ‘All that is taking place around you was foreannounced; all that you now see with the eye was previously heard by the ear. The swallowing up of cities by the earth; the theft of islands by the sea; wars, bringing external and internal convulsions, the collision of kingdoms with kingdoms. . . . All was foreseen and predicted before it came to pass.’13 The dignity of the Scriptures arises from their antiquity; everything in pagan belief is less ancient than they. ‘Well, all the substances, all the materials, the origins, classes, contents of your most ancient writings . . . the very forms of your letters . . . your very gods themselves . . . are less ancient than the work of a single prophet in whom you have the thesaurus of the entire Jewish religion, and therefore, too, of ours.’14

The difficulty that arises out of one aspect of this subject, i.e. the fact that, though the Christians claim the authority of antiquity for their Scriptures, their own religion dates from a comparatively recent time, leads Tertullian on to another main point in his apology for the Christian religion—the divinity of Christ. The Jews had in former times enjoyed the favour of God, but they sinned, turning away from God to sheer impiety; of which their present national ruin is sufficient proof. The result was that God chose for Himself more faithful worshippers, and bestowed His grace upon them in ampler measure, by sending His Son, the Christ. This Christ was the Logos of whom the heathen philosophers spoke. Thus Tertullian presents the Christ to the mind and conscience of men. ‘Search, then, and see if that divinity of Christ be true. If it be of such a nature that the acceptance of it transforms a man, and makes him truly good, there is implied in that the duty of renouncing what is opposed to it as false; especially on every ground that which, hiding itself under the names and images of the dead, labours to convince men of its divinity by certain signs, and miracles, and oracles.’15

One further point Tertullian makes—the superior moral life inculcated by the Christian religion. So far from being productive of immorality, this religion alone preserves men from crime. ‘We, then, alone are without crime.’16 The reason for this is not far to seek. The Christians are taught of God Himself what goodness is. As a result they have perfect knowledge of virtue. Moreover, they regard God as a Judge, whom they dare not despise, hence they faithfully do His will. But  |p271 the pagans derive their notions of virtue from human reason, and the cult of virtue among them depends upon human authority. Hence it is deficient both in fullness of knowledge and in authority. The pagans are deterred from sin only by fear of the Pro-Consul; the Christians make a real effort to obtain a blameless life out of the fear of God, who sees all, and whose punishments are everlasting.

This apology for Christianity has its merits and its defects. Among the former the chief is the consistency of the various points established. Commencing with the testimony of the soul, Tertullian proceeds to strengthen and augment it by adducing the evidence of Scripture. This leads up to the presentation of the person of Christ Himself, while this in turn culminates in the good moral life of those who receive Him. Among the latter the most obvious are the absence of the qualities of love and mercy in the portrayal of Christ and of God, the limitation of the evidence of Scripture to the foretelling of future events, and the failure to perceive that, in the development of the soul from its rude, untutored beginning to the mental and moral stature of the best among the pagans, there was a development of good as well as of evil. In failing to recognize the activity of the Logos in the life of men, prior to the appearance of Christ, Tertullian fell far behind Justin Martyr.

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1. p.266 n.1 Apologeticus, c. 1.

2. p.266 n.2 Ibid.

3. p.267 n.1 Apologeticus, c. 8.

4. p.267 n.2 Ibid., c. 31.

5. p.267 n.3 Ibid., c. 42.

6. p.268 n.1 Apologeticus, c. 42.

7. p.268 n.2 Ad Scapulam, c. 1.

8. p.268 n.3 Ibid., c. 5.

9. p.268 n.4 Apologeticus, c. 17.

10. p.269 n.1 De Testimonio Animae, c. 1.

11. p.269 n.2 Ibid., c. 6.

12. p.270 n.1 Apologeticus, c. 18.

13. p.270 n.2 Ibid., c. 20.

14. p.270 n.3 Ibid., c. 19.

15. p.270 n.4 Ibid., c. 21.

16. p.270 n.5 Ibid., c. 45.

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This document ( last modified 14th July 2001) from the Tertullian Project.
© Epworth Press, Methodist Publishing House.  Reproduced by permission.