Church History Teasers (Part 1): Tertullian’s Apology

October 3, 2008 at 8:26 pm 1 comment

A Brief Outline of the ‘Apology’ by Tertullian

Part 1: Chapters 1-9

In these chapters Tertullian argues that the experienced hatred of Christians is unjust, moreover that the judicial procedures involving persecution of Christians is unjust, seeing that the first accusation is simply bearing the Christian name. Tertullian then argues on account of Christian blamelessness and raises questions regarding the origin of laws that permit Christian persecution (An argument from Antiquity, “consider your roots, rulers”). He states that Christians are persecuted on ungrounded charges, and to search for the truth among rumors. Lastly, he gives an eternal perspective, ‘we are all men’.

Part 2: Chapters 10-16

These chapters are dedicated to refuting the accusation of sacrilege and treason, why worship pagan gods who are made from the dead? The insufficiency of such a religion is evident. This is why pagans must ‘prostitute their gods!’ Even when one reviews the ‘sacred rites’, the author argues, “Your gods have more to complain of you than of Christians.” There are no grounds for comparison when one looks at the offense of the cross, and the worship of other shapes.

Part 3: Chapters 17-23

Tertullian argues that there is only one true God; the Christian object of worship. This God reveals himself in the scriptures. The antiquity and majesty of the scriptures point to his Glory. But His glory is revealed even more fully in Christ: where God (divinity) and man (humanity) unite. Tertullian ends this section speaking of angels and demons, the proof of facts in spiritual matters, and the truth of Christ

Part 4: Chapters 18-35

Tertullian’s writing shouts, ‘your gods do not exist, your gods are unworthy!’ The Christian God is the dispenser of kingdoms! While Christians refuse to give in, the pagans fear amounts to hatred. It is in this section that Tertullian expounds upon the second ground of accusation; ‘treason against Caesar’. Claiming to the pagans, ‘you search for safety in Caesar’. A Christians safety is found in the one true God. In fact Christians even pray for Caesar and a delayed ending for Rome, because it is their God who appoints all things! While Caesar might be lord, he is not Lord. This is why Christians will pay no vain homage to Caesar.

Part 5: Chapters 36-50

In the last section Tertullian paints a picture of true Christianity, ‘we treat all men the same’, he argues, ‘we even love our enemies!’ He argues that there is nothing wrong with Christians rejecting what pleases pagans, and pagans rejecting Christian delights. He asks, what wrong have Christians done, ‘See how we love one another?’ He then explains that the sources of trouble are to be found in pagan human affairs. Christians are being charged on grounds of the name not wrong deed, Christians are without crime! Tertullian then issues a challenge to review the charges against Christianity based on reality, not on the speculations of poets and philosophers. But, what ever the end may be, Christians would rather be condemned that apostatize from God. In fact, he argues that in continuing to persecute Christians, the pagans must understand that ‘the blood of Christians is seed!’

Tertullian’s Argument

Tertullian’s Apology is formally addressed to the ‘rulers of the roman empire’. The Apology is primarily an account of the Christian experience of hatred and injustice at the hands of the Romans. Tertullian strives in his argumentation to demonstrate the absurdity of pagan religions in comparison to the truths of Christianity.

The Apology is well argued at most points. One of the purposes of Apology seems to be exposing the absurdity of pagan religions. Tertullian does this well. But his argumentation is not well balanced with a call to action in refuting the Roman governments cause for persecuting the Christians. While aggressively attacking the logic behind persecuting Christians, Tertullian takes a passive stance when it comes to action in ending this injustice. He basically ends the Apology like this, go ahead “kill us, torture us, condemn us, grind us to dust; your injustice is the proof that we are innocent.” Tertullian leans so hard on the divine providence of God in these situations of persecution that he presents the Romans as playing their ordained role in the drama of the early church. While this may be true from a ‘divine’ perspective it places Christians as passive targets of injustice from a human perspective, and empowers the Romans to continue justified in their hatred towards the church. Tertullian calls the pagan poets and philosophers ‘sublime speculators’, no doubt the Roman officials saw the Christians in the same light (this is also true of Tertullian in the section on spirit’s having wings). While is it true for Christians that “The oftener we (Christians) are mown down by you (pagans), the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.” (53) The implementation for action on the part of Christians seems lacking. This is illuminated by the escapism further heightened in the statement, “only one thing in this life greatly concerns us, and that is, to get quickly out of it.” (45)

Now, Tertullian’s Apology does have strengths, especially in regards to a model for Christians in civil affairs. While Tertullian argues in the same vain of ‘Jerusalem having nothing to do with Rome’, he well establishes that the essence of religion is voluntary worship not government alliance. In fact, it is mentioned that Christians render to Caesar what is his without paying vain homage like the pagans. Tertullian’s case is built upon the experiential evidence of ‘how the Christians love one another.’(42) This provides an excellent model of civil engagement, Christians “do not hesitate to share…earthly goods with one another.”(42) Tertullian then adds to his argument with a question grounded in experience, “who has ever suffered harm from our (Christian) assemblies?”(43).

It is important to note, Tertullian highlights that the unjust persecution of Christians is more explicit in a society that champions ‘freedom in religion’. He makes it quite clear that it is Christians, and Christian’s alone who are “forbidden to say anything in exculpation of themselves.”(2) Tertullian eloquently paints a picture of Roman officials fearing that the truth of Christianity (9), and the absurdity of their charges against Christians will somehow work against their own power in society. This is one of the strongest points of the Apology, Tertullian probes the minds of the Roman rulers exposing the logic behind their thoughts. In the end I feel that Tertullian had made a full exhibition of the Christian’s case for innocence and being mistreated on wrong grounds. He then asked the most poignant of questions, “Why, then, are, we not permitted an equal liberty.”(48) The answer could be found, I believe, in the profound statement, “truth and hatred come into our world together. As soon as truth appears, it is regarded as an enemy.” (9) This might be the only explanation that fits.

Entry filed under: Philosophy, Religion, Thoughts.

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