Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
July 11, 1968
NUMBER 10, PAGE 11-12a

Tertullian's Apology

William M. Green

The ancient Greeks were distinguished for their achievements in philosophy, the Romans for their achievements in law. Hence it is not surprising to find that two outstanding defenders of the Christian faith in the second century are Justin, the student of Greek philosophy, and Tertullian, the Roman lawyer. It was still true, as in Paul's day, that "not many wise after the flesh" were ready to accept Christ's call. But it is a notable mark of progress that even a few of the cultured class were converted, and have left us writings which are a testimony to the power and truth of the gospel.

Tertullian was a native of Carthage, the metropolis of Roman Africa, whose ruins lie near the modern city of Tunis. He was already distinguished as a lawyer before his conversion to Christ about 195. It was a time of bitter persecution, and he had seen Christians willing to die at the stake, or be torn in pieces by lions, rather than surrender their faith. Thus he was provoked to look into the matter, and as a lawyer to study the evidence for the Christian case. When converted, he at once became a brilliant defender of the truth he discovered. His apology is a lawyer's brief and still deserves attention by all who would properly judge the case for or against Christianity.

The legal ground for the persecution of Christians by Roman rulers is still obscure. The first persecution under Nero in 64 seems inspired by the emperor's desire to find some one to blame for the great fire of that year in Rome, for rumor had accused Nero of starting it. The Christians were unpopular enough that it seemed plausible to accuse them of the crime. Tertullian says that from that time on, it was unlawful to be a Christian — the name alone was the crime. To be sure, there was no continuous effort to suppress the Church, but rather sporadic action by governors. These men had authority to forbid and punish any movements they believed dangerous or subversive. Persistent rumor held that the Christians were dangerous, "haters of the human race," and guilty of secret crimes. In any case it was notorious that they refused to worship the Emperor as divine, or make sacrifices to the gods on his behalf. This was interpreted as disloyalty, if not treason.

Tertullian refutes three charges: of sacrilege in refusing to worship the gods, of disloyalty in refusing to join in the rites of Emperor-worship, and of hostility to Roman society. The first charge opens up the issue which Tertullian regards as basic: "Your gods we cease to worship from the moment when we recognize that they are not gods. So that is what you ought to require us to prove -that those gods are not gods, and are therefore not to be worshipped." Tertullian then proceeds to examine at length the gods and religious practices of paganism. He agreed with those who teach that the gods were once mortals, distinguished by merits supposed to deserve divine honors. But, Tertullian remarks, the stories told about them show them to be scandalous in their vices. Of the hundreds of gods, many had duties which were absurdly trivial, or perhaps unmentionable in decent conversation. The poets relate the wars between gods, and their failure to protect the cities which worshipped them. The temples, moreover, were houses of prostitution, and the whole system pandered to immorality. In contrast with all this is the pure worship of the one true God, which Tertullian goes on to describe.

The second charge really grows out of the first: the Christians refused to sacrifice to the deified emperors, or to other gods for the health and prosperity of the emperor. It was a sensitive point: no one could understand why the Christians should be so obstinate in refusing to do what all good citizens did as a mark of loyalty to the state. What was the harm in dropping a few grains of incense on the altar, and saluting Caesar as "Lord?" The reply was that the Christians did pray for the Emperor and his subordinates, addressing their prayers to the one true God, who alone could hear and answer prayer. Moreover, their lives were free from all disloyalty — never were the Christians involved in treasonable plots. They obeyed the laws for conscience's sake, and paid taxes cheerfully. They really deserved recognition as the best subjects the emperors had!

The third charge was vaguest of all, but doubtless the most important motive for the recurring persecutions. The Christians were said to be marked by odium humani generis, "hatred of the human race." It was easy for Tertullian to reply that Christians hated no one, and that it was a rule of their religion to love even their enemies. Doubtless that love was evident to many, and was a power in drawing men to the new religion. But pagans generally only saw that they were different. A peculiar people who had separated themselves from the religious customs of public and private life, including the chief forms of public amusement. For these in their origin were festivals of the gods, and were filled with the cruel, licentious, carnal spirit of paganism, Tertullian says: "Your public games, too, we renounce, as heartily as we do their origins; we know these or gins lie in superstition. We have nothing to do in speech, sight, or hearing, which the madness of the circus, the shamelessness of the theater, the savagery of the arena, the vanity of the gymnasium. Why should we offend you, if we assume the existence of other pleasures? If we do not wish to know the delight, it is our loss, in any case, not yours. But we reject what pleases you; what pleases us gives you no delight."

The Roman world was growing old, in wealth and luxury, in cruelty and debachery. The upper classes too often lived lives of open profligacy, and the mobs of the city were no less demoralized, being chiefly concerned with the free distribution of food and the amusements of the stage and the arena. Christianity appeared as a movement of protest against a corrupt society, and it was easy to call such people "haters of the human race."

The positive "evidences of Christianity" occupy only a small part of Tertullian's little book. He mentions the "ancient books of the Jews," with their prophecies of Christ, and of his two comings, which the Jews misunderstood. He affirms that Christ is the Son of God, the Logos (or "Word") by which He devised all things; this idea was already taught by Greek philosophers. But his miraculous incarnation and deeds and resurrection were revealed only to His disciples, and to them he gave the duty of preaching the good news to all the nations. In its moral teaching this doctrine is similar to that of the philosophers, but is united with a power by which it is spreading throughout the world. And the most convincing feature of the movement is the witness of the martyrs. The Romans had their heroes — men who sacrificed their lives for their country, and sometimes endured torture. These men were honored with public statues, and inscriptions to give them immortality. But what of the Christians? "Torture us." Tertullian exclaims, "Rack us, condemn us — your cruelty only proves our innocence. That is why God suffers us to suffer all this. Yes, but lately when you condemned a Christian girl to the pander rather than the panther, you admitted that we count an injury to our chastity more awful than any penalty, than any death. But nothing whatever is accomplished by your cruelties, each more exquisite than the last. It is the bait that wins men for our school. We multiply whenever we are mown down by you; the blood of the Christians is seed."

Despite the changes of eighteen centuries, the issues raised by the gospel of Christ remain basically the same. The facts of the gospel were first attested by eye-witnesses who were willing to give their lives as proof of their sincerity. The gospel set forth a way of life which was pure, inspired with the love of God and of one's neighbor. It called for a renunciation of the ways of the world -- a world then given over to superstition, idolatry, and pleasure. Those who could see the vanity of the world and the beauty of holiness could easily believe in Christ, while others could not. And if persecution came then, or comes today, it comes to test and purity the faith of believers. And even in their death, their blood is a seed, which can bring forth a new and larger crop in the harvest-field of the world.

— From Evidence Quarterly