Last Updated September 5, 2023.
In his Apology (Latin for Apologeticus, thought to have been written in 197 CE), Tertullian (ca. 155–240 CE) first proves that the pagans' hatred of Christians has no grounds and that the Roman judicial system is unjust towards then. Next, he defends Christians from popular and public accusations. Finally, he concludes that Christianity is superior to paganism and that the persecution of Christians needs to be stopped.
The very name of "Christian" is made criminal. The reason for this, Tertullian posits, is ignorance:
This, then, is the first point we bring before you,—the injustice of your hatred of the Christian name. And the very pretext which seems to excuse this injustice, namely ignorance, both aggravates and clenches it. For what can be more unjust than for men to hate that of which they are ignorant, even supposing it to deserve their hatred? For then only does it deserve hatred when it is ascertained whether it deserve it. But if a knowledge of the deserts be wanting, how is the justice of the hatred defended, which ought to be proved not from the mere existence of the hatred but from cognizance of the case? When, however, men hate because they are ignorant of the nature of the object of their hatred, what is there to prevent it really being of a nature such as they ought not to hate?
Not only that, but Christians are denied the right to refute these accusations—the very right that other defendants are granted by the Roman laws. In order to justify their hatred, the pagans point out that the Christian religion is not allowed by the law. To counter this, Tertullian discusses the issue of what the law is and how all religious laws are to be applied to Christians. Contrary to the Roman predilection for ancient laws and their view of the law as something unchangeable, he stresses that the law as a product of human mind needs to be perfected, referring to cases from the history of the Greeks and the Romans themselves:
Were not the laws of Lycurgus himself revised by the Spartans, and did not this revision inflict such grief upon their author that he starved himself to death in retirement? Do not you yourselves, too, day by day, in your attempts to illumine the darkness of past ages, cut down and fell with the new axes of imperial rescripts and edicts the whole of that old and tangled forest of laws? Did not Severus, that steadiest of princes, only the other day repeal those ridiculous Papian laws which bade children be brought up before the Julian law enforced marriage,—laws whose antiquity gave them such high authority?
Another reason for the pagans' hatred of Christians is Christians' supposed immorality. Christians are accused of secretly committing such crimes as infanticide, feasting on blood, and incest. Tertullian points out the ridiculousness of such claims in reference to Christians while emphasizing that the pagans commit them openly in worshiping their deities.
From the accusations concerning the supposed immorality of Christians, Tertullian proceeds to the public charges that cast Christians as godless—professing a strange and illicit religion chosen by people who show contempt to Caesar, lack patriotism, and are a cause of public ills and calamities that befall the world.
The apologist enlarges on the nature of the pagan gods, referring again to Roman history and mythology:
We cease to worship your gods from that moment when we recognize that they do not exist. This, therefore, you ought to demand,—that we prove these gods to have no existence, and on that ground that they...
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ought not to be worshipped, since worship would only be due to them in the event of their being really gods. Then, too, it will of course follow that the Christians must be punished, if it remains an established fact that those gods do exist, whom they refused to worship because they believed them to have no such existence.
As for the "strange" character of Christian religion, Tertullian explains that the worship of an ass's head ascribed to Christians was actually Tacitus's fable—one originally applied to the Jews but later transferred to Christians because of similarities between the two religions. In a like manner, he dispels other, similar charges.
Next, Tertullian deals at length with the character of the Christian worship:
The object of our worship is One God, who, through the Word by which He commanded, through the Reason by which He ordered, through the Power by which He was able, framed out of nothing the whole mass of this universe with all its equipment of elements, bodies, and spirits, for the enhancing of His own majesty . . . He is invisible, although He may be seen: He is incomprehensible to touch, yet may be made present through grace: He is inestimable, yet may be estimated by the human senses: He is therefore the True and the Great God.
In explaining the nature of this God, Tertullian refers to the great age of the Jewish religion and sacred books being comparable to the antiquity of the Greeks and the Romans themselves.
Countering the accusations of Christians' supposed animosity to the society and of their rumored conspiracy against the state, Tertullian tells of the character of Christian prayer meetings and love feasts—during which, among other things, they pray for the emperor and other authorities, which clears them of these absurd accusations.
As for the ills that befall the world, the apologist stresses that even greater calamities happened before Christianity came on stage. Moreover, now the world has intercessors in Christians before the One and Only God. Besides, Christians are normal people just as the rest in the Roman world:
We remember the gratitude that we owe to God our Lord and Creator; we reject no enjoyment of His works; true, we are moderate in our enjoyment of them, lest we should use them intemperately or wrongfully. Consequently we cannot live with you in the world without a market-place, or shambles, nor without baths, shops, workshops, inns, fairs, and other places of resort. We sail and fight with you; we till the ground and engage in trade just as you do; similarly we join crafts, and throw our workmanship open to the public to your profit. How then we can seem to be unprofitable to your trades, when we live with you and by you, I am at a loss to understand. Moreover if I do not frequent your religious rites, yet all the same on that day I am still a man.
The Apology ends where it began. The persecutions of Christians are unjust and counterproductive, Tertullian argues:
Yet no cruelty of yours . . . profits you in the least; but forms rather an attraction to our sect. We spring up in greater numbers as often as we are mown down by you: the blood of the Christians is a source of new life.