Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 746
Tertullian’s Apology is composed as a defense speech. After some failed attempts to defend Christians by way of only moral and religious admonition (that is, refuting charges of impiety and immorality), Christian apologists decide to transfer their defense to the realm of jurisprudence and politics in an attempt to prove that those pagans who persecute Christians are in the wrong from political, legal, and public standpoints.
Such an attempt is made by Tertullian in his Apology. Unlike his predecessors, he does not limit himself by focusing on refuting the moral and religious charges leveled against the Christians. He undermines all legal and political foundations of religious intolerance from the Roman government towards the Christian faith. This half-religious and half-secular approach to the defense of Christianity is what makes Tertullian stand out among early apologists.
First of all, Tertullian focuses on the law which has declared the Christian faith illicit and which has been the reference point for all the Roman statesmen who have been behind the persecutions. Tertullian analyzes this law in detail and criticizes it. He is confident that this law is unjust in its substance, regardless of application to any particular religion. According to Tertullian, it is based on the state’s supposed right to interfere with each individual’s life and regulate it the way the state regulates public life. In reality, this right does not and cannot belong to the state, because it contradicts the natural and universal right which entitles every person to govern her own spiritual life.
Following these a priori objections, Tertullian proves the inequity of that law based on facts of life and history. He invites Roman leaders to refer to their legal annals and trace the history of the application of this law to the Christians in order to see which of the rulers have applied it. All the wise, honorable, and good rulers, according to Tertullian, have not applied it to the Christians. Only those rulers have applied it who are considered unjust, dishonorable, and wicked by the pagans themselves. Nero and Domitian are the first persecutors of Christians:
Nero was the first to furiously attack with the imperial sword this sect then rising into notice especially at Rome. But in such an originator of our condemnation we indeed glory. For whoever knows him can understand that nothing but what was sublimely good was condemned by Nero.
None of the good emperors (such as Hadrian and Vespasian), however, have approved of that law as applied to the Christians but rather have tried to mitigate its severity. This alone should persuade the Roman government to abolish this law.
Next, Tertullian refers to the current legal practice in regards to the various pagan religions. He appeals to the common freedoms which all the Roman religions except for Christianity enjoy. He proves that the Roman leaders do an injustice by denying the Christians the freedom of conscience on the basis of the old Roman law prohibiting any new religion. The fact is that this law has long been neglected, yet it is still applied only to the Christians:
Every province also and state has its own god; as Syria has Atargatis, Arabia Dusares, the Norici have Belenus, Africa has Caelestis, Mauritania its own Princes. I have named, I believe, Roman provinces, and yet I have not mentioned Roman gods as being worshipped in them; for at Rome these gods are no more worshipped than those which throughout Italy itself also are created gods by municipal consecration; such as Delventinus, the god of the Casinienses, Visidianus of the Narnienses, Ancharia of the Aesculani, Nortia of...
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the Volsinienses, Valentia of the Ocriculani, Hostia of the Sutrini, Juno of the Falisci, in honour of her father Curis, whence she received her cognomen. It is only we who are excluded from a right of possession in a religion of our own.
Therefore, the state law that has declared Christianity an illicit religion is, first, unjust in general, as the law which violates the natural right of every human being to regulate his or her own spiritual life. Second, it is unjust in particular, as it is applied to Christianity. Third, the very history of its application to the Christians testifies against it. Fourth, and finally, it is unjust from the point of view of the general religious freedoms that all Roman religions enjoy.
Based on all these points, Tertullian demands from the Roman government that this unjust and cruel law be abolished.