Tertullian (c. 150-220). Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus was raised pagan and converted later in life in 193. Before his conversion, it is believed that he practiced law. He was a priest in the Carthaginian Church and was married but with no children. He was a logos school theologian before joining the Montanist sect later in life, a stain to his reputation as a great theologian of the church.

Introduction to the document

The Apology is a polemic piece of literature written in 197AD soon after Tertullian’s conversion. It was an immediate defense against the heavy persecution for crimes that had never been proven. The ignorance of their persecutors, and the populace in general, called for Christian apologists to meet and counter the claims.


Chapters 1-6: Introduction

Chapters 7-9: Secret Crimes – Cannibalism and Incest

Chapters 10-45: Public Crimes – Sacrilege and Treason

Chapters 10-27: Sacrilege

            10-15 – Disrespect for Roman gods

            16-21 – Impiety of Christian God

            22-27 – Demons and Roman gods

Chapters 20-45 Treason

            28-34 – Dishonoring the Emperor

            35-37 – Hatred of Humanity

            38-45 – Prohibited Guild

Chapters 46-50: Conclusion


Tertullian begins by attacking those who have accused Christians. He appeals to the justice system, but not without criticizing their own ignorance. It becomes quite clear later in the apology that Tertullian is well versed in what the receiving end of his polemic believes, and he takes issue with their ignorance of the Christian faith. This theme will be repeated throughout the work: How can they lodge such a hefty penalty onto something that they do not even understand? 

Next, the transition is made to the judicial system itself. They claim to be holding firm to the laws of antiquity. But Tertullian argues that there are laws that have a better history but are left neglected. Why hold to persecuting Christians and not others, especially since persecuting Christians has a legacy of having corrupt men as its most ardent propagators? In addition, penetrating questions are raised, such as: why are Christians not allowed to give a defense? Where is the evidence of crimes they are accused of? Why do you torture other people into confessing to crimes but Christians into denying what is true? 

            This last question is given much consideration because of the departure from the typical procedure. Tertullian argues essentially, “We are ready to admit to being Christians, and yet you want to beat us to lie about it, how does that make sense?” His argument takes on additional power as he recounts how common criminals have the crimes they are punished for listed, but Christians are punished for the name itself. Almost as if the name and the crimes are so associated, there is no need to list them for fear of being needlessly redundant. This sets Tertullian up to plead his case that the assumption is based on ignorance, not truth.

In one way, I would say that Tertullian is attempting to lift the ignorance so that they cannot continue making simplistic arguments against Christianity. In another, that he furthers the condemnation by making sure they understand they are without excuse. 

He turns to the secret crimes they were accused of, cannibalism and incest, and seeks to educate those he is addressing. To the first, he requests proof of the crimes, much like his previous plea asking them to show how Christians are guilty of their opponents’ charges. In this case, he gets specific with cannibalism. “Prove that Christians are guilty of this,” he says. If Christians are being dragged out from their homes and being found, then why haven’t they been brought to the judge with “mouths bloody” (7).

Regarding both the claims, he says both cannibalism and incest are so egregious that no sane person would be able to go through with these things even if eternity were on the line. Tertullian recounts how others are guilty of these crimes and are not under the same scrutiny, including “destroy[ing] the fetus in the womb” (9). He pushes even further by reminding the Romans of those who eat the meat of the animals who have attacked criminals.

Turning to the charge of sacrilege, Tertullian defends by saying Christians cannot be charged with impure devotion to gods if the Roman gods do not truly exist. He begins by relaying their human origin and using it to prove that they must have had a beginning and the beginning must have been human. To turn them into gods would have required an outside greater deity because if they were able to turn themselves, it poses the unanswerable question of “why didn’t that happen when they were living?”. Equally as difficult to answer is what outside deity – who has the power to create gods – would do it out of people who died. And to add to the dilemma, why would this god elevate certain men when more viable candidates were on the horizon?

Having pulled back the curtain on the Roman deities, he proceeds to point out their sacrilegious worship. To elevate one god in worship is to denounce another god. Whenever one is worshipped, one has a right to be offended. To heap on further insult, the way their gods are portrayed in cultural activities of the day is mockery as Tertullian points out, “is not their majesty outraged and their divinity prostrated, whilst you applaud?” (15) 

Since their ignorance looms large in the mind of Tertullian, he gives an overview of the basic teachings of Christianity while also separating it from Jewish belief. One shared belief that Christianity has with their philosophers is an understanding of demons. He expands on this saying their gods are simply demons and will say so in the presence of a Christian who has the power over them. He is giving a defense and reinforcing the preeminence of the Christian God at the same time.

The charge of treason is not viable for Tertullian. The first aspect of this charge is sacrificing to the gods for the good of the emperor. His first argument is simple: Why would it benefit the emperor to petition gods that are protected, constructed, and paid for by the emperor? Tertullian paints it as an obvious reality that the gods are dependent on the emperor, not the other way around. But, mimicking Paul’s language at the Areopagus, he explains that there is One who every created being is subject to. This is the God that Christians send petitions to on the emperor’s behalf. Kill us, he says, and you are crushing the ones praying for you. He argues both biblical imperatives and eschatological expectations are reasons why Christians pray for emperors.

“Christians hate humanity and the empire.” This is another accusation leveled against the Christians. Not participating in public festivities is a rejection of society at large. Tertullian counters this by saying that Christians are loyal silently even if not participating in each event. Even if they were to participate in these events, that would not mean they are more loyal. After all, many traitors in the past kept up public appearances until the act of betrayal. But Christians are commanded to love all indiscriminately, whether emperor or common man. Besides, if Christians truly wanted to retaliate and become haters of humanity, “even one night with a few torches might amply work [their] revenge” (37). They have grown to a great multitude and could put up a fight, but this is not what Christians are about; they are enemies “of error…not of the human race” (37). 

Christians gather together not to assert themselves or seek public attention but for worship and the good of society. Tertullian describes Christians coming together to pray together, be instructed and challenged in the Word of God, and share things in common. He describes the offerings as voluntary and defends calling each other brother and sister by a common confession of God as Father and being united in the “One Spirit of holiness” (39). The accusation of the love feast being extravagant is a hypocritical claim, and their worship afterward pours cold water on claims of drinking to excess. 

If something goes wrong, it is the Christians to blame. Tertullian brings up past calamities in society. These existed before the uprising of Christians. He argues that they are fewer disasters now than before. What more, in the past, the gods did nothing to stop it, though the people now attribute any relief the true God gives to their gods. Anticipating an objection that Christians have to suffer while God does not stop it, he repeats the theme of their ignorance of Christianity, rebuking them for not knowing the teachings of Christianity while pointing to the future judgment when all will be made right. 

Any financial hit that society is taking is for its own good, Tertullian argues. Since Christians are involved in society, they will continue to make purchases; whatever they refrain from purchases is because of its immoral nature. This will benefit society, not harm it. He uses this to talk about how the morality of the surrounding society is a dim reflection of the true morality found in Christianity.

For Tertullian, it was not merely morality that owed itself to Christianity; it was philosophy as well. Philosophy ran to Christianity when they needed more material, and then they only distorted and robbed it of its true worth. Why speculate on questions already answered in Scripture? Even more, if you want to accuse Christians of simply being like these philosophers who are borrowing from us, why do you treat Christians differently?

Tertullian concludes in a sober reflection on the martyrdom and suffering that is taking place. Continue this and gain fame among the people exhorts Tertullian, but do so knowing “the oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of the Christian is the seed.”(50). 

Significance of the Document

There is much to gain for the contemporary significance of this work. Tertullian argues using a person’s own logic and always ends up bringing them to the point of “now, that doesn’t make sense, does it.” He consistently enters their thinking, granting them certain premises, and then reduces it all to complete absurdity. In much modern polemics, a person may feel confident in one “clencher” argument. Tertullian is happy even after winning an argument to grant that the hearer will not receive it and moves to the next. He gives the impression that he has a bottomless bag to pull his arguments from.

Using own thinking and logic against someone has much contemporary significance. In one application, we can apply it to the intolerance of tolerance. It is with the “tolerant” that Christians are labeled “bigot.” It is the “tolerant” who will not allow Christians even to speak what we believe about marriage. It resembles a modern take on operating in ignorance, attacking Christianity without understanding it.

Pointing out inconsistencies in the justice system is also a significant focus of Tertullian. The unjust treatment of Christians is a significant argument that runs throughout. Many today argue that Christians are not treated like a common religion. I have often been hesitant of the argument “Muslims would never get this kind of treatment.” But I do admit to seeing bits of that in Tertullian. It helps when using this argument to be thoroughly persuasive, giving valid reasons along the way, not simply a politically charged tweet.

Tertullian is content to distance himself from the culture while not completely withdrawing, as evidenced in his discussion of Christians hurting the marketplace. He uses many cultural analogies throughout his work, but there is a distance in Christian participation in culture. There seems to be more Christ against culture than Christ transforming culture (though this is knowingly anachronistic). In our time, there is much talk of cultural transformation and renewal. A church exists “for the city” in a transformative sense. For Tertullian, the church is most powerful in its prayers and its evident morality while doing life. It does pose the question regarding the applicability of the approach to culture being contingent on persecution level.

A final reflection would be the usefulness of Christian satire. There is a resurgence among this today, and it can be a powerful polemic tool. Tertullian makes statements alluding to the foolishness of his opponent’s arguments, one time about feeding a bunch of Christians to a single lion. While he maintains respect for the emperor, he is not afraid to push his opponents’ logic to not only absurdity but also absurdity worth laughing over.