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Tertullian's Polemic Against Social Co-optation

  • Dennis E. Groh (a1)


One of the major strengths of a political and technological system is its ability to absorb into itself and to direct toward social purposes the aspirations and abilities of diverse groups and peoples. Empire, as opposed to despotism, traffics in the relentless proclivity of societal man to find contentment in the culture's values and personal advancement within the society's political, social, and economic structures. To paraphrase an old political maxim, a man who can be rewarded by the social system can be ruled by it. In this proclivity of societal man to make a place for himself in the social structures lay one of the major dangers to the church of Tertullian's day. Tertullian's attempt to lay the foundations for a divine community which could withstand the “pull” of society's “success” or “status” ethic on Christians is the focus of this article. It goes without saying that Tertullian's understanding of the essentially unique and separate character of the Christian community was also formulated against the heretics' theological “push,” but I would like to concentrate on the social problem in keeping with the theme of the meeting.



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1. Tertulian knew well the weight of rewards and punishments as determiners of action and invoked their theological necessity against Marcion (i.e., Marc. 4. 16.6). All Tertullian references are from the Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina, I-II, Tertulliani Opera, I et II (Turnholti, 1954). Material for this article has been adapted from my dissertation, “Christian Community in the Writings of Tertullian. An Inquiry into the Nature and Problems of Community in North African Christianity,” Northwestern University, 1970. I am deeply indebted to my dissertation director, Dr. Frederick A. Norwood. I would also like to thank Dr. Wolfgang M. W. Roth for his advice on Semitic backgrounds of my linguistic studies and Dr. Stuart Small of the Northwestern University Department of Classical Languages for his counsel on the Latin backgrounds. Any errors are my own.

2. Theodore, Roszak, The Making of A Counter Culture (Garden City, New York, 1969), p. XIV, has pointed to modern technocracy's ability to absorb dissent and so render it harmless.

3. Much has been written from a variety of perspectives on Tertullian's conception of the “separated” church. From a legal perspective, Alexander, Beck, Römisches Recht bei Tertullian und Cyprian; eine Studie Zur fruhen Kirchenrechtsgeschichte (Halle, 1930), must be read in the light of the more balanced research of Joseph, Kaspar Stirnimann, Die praeseriptio Tertullians im Lichte des römischen Rechts und der Theologie, Paradosis 3 (Freiburg in der Sehweiz, 1949), From a linguistic perspective, there are excellent studies by Hélène, Pétré, Caritas. Étude sur le vocabulaire de la charité chrétienne, Spicilegium sacrum Lovaniense, études et documents, fasc. 22 (Louvain, 1948), and by Janssen, H., Kultur und Sprache. Zur Geschichte der alten Kirche im Spiegel der Sprachentwicklung von Tertullian bis Cyprian (Nijmegen, 1938). Works of the Sondersprache school, such as Teeuwen, St. W. J., Sprachlicher Bedeutungswandel bei Tertullian (Paderborn, 1926), must be read in the light of the criticisms of this school's axioms by Carl, Becker, Tertullians Apologeticum: Werden und Leistung (Munchen, 1954), pp. 335345. The Sondersprache school sought to identify what Ehrhardt, Arnold A. T., “Soziale Fragen in der alten Kirche,” in Existenz und Ordnung, Festschrift für Erik Wolf (Frankfurt am Main, 1962), 167, dubbed “Quaker-Latin.” For the Gemeinde dimension throughout Tertullian's writings, see Erich, Altendorf, Einheit und Heiligkeit der Kirche. Untersuehungen zur Entwieklung des altchristlichen Kirohenbegriffs im Abendland von Tertullian bis zu antidonatistischen Schriften Augustins (Berlin und Leipzig, 1932), pp. 1143.

4. Cult. 2.11.3.

5. C.I.L. viii, 11824 (1. 23): “Et de rusticulo censor et ipse fui.” For the decurional rank of censor, see Jean, Gagé, Les classes socialies dans l'Empire romain (Paris, 1964), p. 189, n. 54. That the harvester's case was not unique can be seen by the inscription of Pinarins Mustulns (Mactar): Gilbert, Charles-Picard, La civilisation de l'Afrique romaine (Paris, 1959), p. 122.

6. Ibid., 253–254. Of. Tertnllian's scorching indictment of the Carthaginians for their pride in social rank (Pal. 4.8; 6.2).

7. Wealth was related to, but not identical with, social standing in the Roman world. A man could not achieve membership in the ordines without possessing (either through his own means or by gift) the appropriate property qualification (census). But to possess this was not a guarantee of membership in one of the orders. Men in Africa and Italy made public gifts in excess of the necessary equestrian census and were not themselves equestrians: Duncan-Jones, Richard P., “Equestrian Rank in the Cities of the African Provinces under the Principate: An Epigraphie Survey,” Papers of the British School at Rome (=PBSR), 35 (n.s. 22) (1967), 150. For the relationship between the ordines and the quasi-official and very fluid legal categories of “honestiores” and “humiliores”: Cardascia, G., “L'apparition dans le droit des classes d' ‘Honestiores’ et d' ‘Humiliores’,” Revue historique de droit francais et étranger, 28 (1950), 305337 and 461485.

8. See the conjectures made by Duncan-Jones, Richard P., “Wealth and Munificence in Roman Africa,” PBSR, 31 (n.s. 18) (1963), 159177. The fairly large number of gifts promised to municipalities by African donors which remained unfulfilled in the lifetime of the donors, suggested to Duncan-Jones a competitive atmosphere in which men were over-estimating their resources (ibid., 160, 161 and n. 8). The amount given seems to be highest in the reigns of the Severi, but the evidence is so limited that conjecture and theory bear only remote relationship to the munificence of the period (ibid., 173).

9. Idol. 18.8: “Vel hoc te commonefaciat omnes huins saeculi potestates et dignitates non solum alienas, verum et inimicas dei esse, quod per illas aduersus dei seruos supplicia consulta sunt, per illas et poenae ad impios paratae ignorantur.” Cp. Pat. 2.

10. Idol. 18.7.

11. Idol. 18. 9: “Sed et natiuitas et substantia tua molestae tibi sunt aduersus idololatrian.” For the emergence of a wealthy group of Carthaginian Christians during Tertullian's lifetime who were faced by a new civic and social responsibilties, see my dissertation (supra, n. 1), pp. 46–64.

12. Idol. 18.7.

13. ibid.: “… alterius autem esse non possunt, nisi diaboli, quae dei non sunt.” See Ehrhardt, Arnold A. T., Politische Metaphysik von Solon bis Augustin, Bd. 2, Die christliche Revolution (Tübingen, 1959), p. 155, for Tertullian's classification of problems into the camps of church and state.

14. Ambitio can connote a wide diffusion of something (as of fama at Ap. 7.11) or excess of something (as hair at Virg. 8.1) or physical exertion (as in childbirth at An. 25.3, or by boxers and gladiators at Iei. 17.7).

15. Ambitio appears in the inscriptions in a “depreciatory sense”: Olcott, George N., Thesaurus linguae latinae epigraphicae, 1 (Rome, 1907), 276. The yoking of ambitio and dives appears at C.I.L. XII, 5272 (Narbo): “hic nulla est divitis ambitio.” (Cited, Olcott, op. cit., 276) Cf. Fronto, Ad Antonium Pium 3, who, desiring to obtain an equestrian procurator's post for his friend, Appian of Alexandria, assures the emperor that Appian “… non ambitione aut proeuratoris stipendi cupiditate optat adipisci hunc honorem.” (Cited in Pflaum, H. G., Les proeurateurs équestres sous le Haut-Empire romain [Paris, 1950], p. 200.)Ambitio has this negative sense in the classical literature as well: Ernout, A. et Meillet, A., Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue latine (Paris, 1960), vol. 1, 26.

16. Marc. 1.29.6: “Quae ambitionis repudiatio in egestatet?” The incidental remark is made to convince Marcion that true opportunity for virtue exists only when its opposite is a genuine possibility.

17. Pal. 5.5. At Nat. 2.4.15–16, ambitio of thought is contrasted with frugalitas, for frugalitas is the opposite of ambitio (Spect. 7.5). See the Thesaurus linguae latinae (Lipsiae, 1900- ) ( = TLL), 1.2, 1854, 1. 39.

18. An. 2.6 (philosophers’ contentions); Pal. 4.10 (ambitio for wearing the purple cloak draws some to Saturn worship); Pal. 3.7 (ambitio in matters of tailoring follows upon ornamenting and inflating of the self).

19. Note the association in Tertullian's mind of wealth and superbia. Or. 20.2: “superbiam auri.” Marc. 4. 34.17: “superbia diuitiarum.”

20. Cult. 1.9.2: “… haec erit ambitio. Vnde et nomen eius interpretandum est, quod concupiscentia apud animum ambiente nascatur ad ** [sic] gloriae uotum. …” See Ernout, A. et Meillet, A., op. cit., 26, for the derivation of ambitio. The term thus approaches the idea of an emotion (TLL, 1.2, 1854. 11. 13–14).

21. The entire passage deserves to be quoted. Cult. 1.9.1–2: “Sed enim ex possessionum distributione, quam deus ut uoluit ordinauit, raritas et peregrinitas, apud extraneos semper gratiam inueniens de simplici causa non habendi quae deus alibi collocauit, concupiscentiam concitat habendi. 2. Ex hac nitium aliud extenditur, immoderate habendi, quod, etsi forte habendum sit, modus tamen debetur: haec erit ambitio. Vnde et nomen eius interpretandum est, quod concupiscentia apud animum ambiente nascatur ad ** [sic] gloriae uotum—grande scilicet uotum, quod, ut diximus, non natura nec ueritas, sed uitiosa animi passio commendauit—et alia uitia ambitionis et gloria.” Cf. Cult. 1.6.2, where it is ambitio that fishes the ocean for pearls. Michel, Spanneut, Tertullien et les premiers moralistes Africains, Recherches et synthèses (Paris, 1969), p. 41, also noted that ambitio was possessing “without bounds.”

22. Ux. 1.4.2. (ambitio); Ux. 1.4.6 (concupiscentia saecularis). Cf. Idol. 18.7.

23. Donald, Earl, The Moral and Political Tradition of Rome (Ithaca, New York, 1967), p. 30. Fama, at Test. 4.9, has a positive sense of “remembrance after death.”

24. Earl, , op. cit., 90. Livy differed from Horace and Virgil in his continued use of gloria in accordance with the Republican aristocratic meanings (ibid., 74ff.).

25. No attempt will be made in this article to describe the church's appropriation and reinterpretation of gloria in a positive sense to translate the Biblical doxa, to describe the martyrs' accomplishments, etc. For these meanings, see Vermeulen, A. J., The semantic development of Gloria in early-Christian Latin (Nijmegen, 1956). Some of Vermeulen's statements need reevaluation (i. e., n. 35, infra).

26. Ernout, A. et Meillet, A., op. cit., 277.

27. Vermeulen, , op. cit., 1827.

28. TLL, 6.2, 2084, 11. 59–62. In these senses gloria is associated with terms like studium, uanitas, ostentatio, superbia, etc. (ibid.).

29. Or. 22.9, quoting I Cor. 4:7; cf. Marc. 5.6.13, translating I Cor. 3: 21—TLL, 6.2, 2093, 1. 29.

30. Cult. 2.9.5: “Gloria autem exaltare, non humiliare consueuit.” Cult. 2.3.2: “In nobis autem primo qnidem nullum gloriae studium, quia gloria exaltationis ingenium est, porro exaltatio non congruit professoribus humilitatis ex praescriptis dei.” Cf. Virg. 13.2.

31. Cult. 2.9.5. The Hebrew word Kabod denotes “that which has weight” and is used of riches at Gen. 31: 1 and Is. 10: 3—Edmond, Jacob, Theology of the Old Testament, translated by Heathcote, Arthur W. and Alleock, Philip J. (London, 1958), p. 79. The LXX translates Kabod by doxa at both places: The Old Testament in Greek according to the Septuagint, ed. by Henry, Barclay Swete, vol. 1 (Cambridge, 1909), vol. 3 (1912).

32. Marc. 4.34.17 (“gloriae delieiarum”).

33. Ap. 38.3; Idol. 18.7. At Cor. 13.7, “laudes nanae, gloriae turpes” refers to military and political honors, according to Jacques, Fontaine, ed., Q. Septimi Florentis Tertulliani De Corona, “Érasme” collection de textes latins commentéd (Paris, 1966), p. 165. See Nat. 2.7.5, for secular honors given to men.

34. Or. 20.2; Virg. 13.2–3; Pol. 4.6.

35. An. 52.3 (gloria and historical writing). For the philosophers and gloria, see An. 1.2, Ap. 47.3, and Vermeulen, , op. cit., 3941. In considering Tertullian's use of human gloria as reserved primarily for philosophers and women and in asserting the latter application to be due to Terullian's misogyny, Vermeulen (ibid., 37 and 41) has not recognized the problem posed by the presence of wealthy women in Carthage; nor has he seen adequately the relationship between the desire for gloria and its outward manifestations. Moreover, Tertullian was influenced by Enoch (cf. Gen. 6:2 also) in ascribing the use of ornaments by women to fallen angels: John, Mee Fuller, “Tertullianus (1),” A Dictionary of Christian Biography, ed. by William, Smith and Henry, Wace, vol. 4 (London, 1887), 832.

36. Cult. 2.11.1. Idol. 9.4 (“gloriae saecularis”). Thus God demands a renunciation of human gloria (Marc. 4.9.9). See TLL, 6.2, 208, 11. 83–84, for gloria used as a general or summary term in a positive sense. Tertullian uses it more narrowly at Spect. 14.2 where gloria is one of a series of the “concupiscentiae saeculi.”

37. Cult. 1.9.1 (“gloriae feruor”).

38. Pal. 4.6: “Calor est omnis affectus; uerum cum in affectationem flabellatnr, iam de incendio gloriae ardor est.” Gloria (as we saw earlier with ambitio) can pertain to an “affectus” connoting amor, cupiditas, spes, etc. (TLL, 6.2, 2085, 11. 15–16).

39. For the rise of African families from local curial status to the ranks of the Senate, see André, Pelletier, “Les senateurs d'Afrique proconsulate d'Auguste à Gallien,” Latromus, 23 (1964), 525, 528, and 530. It was primarily from the equites that Septimius and Caracalla chose men from the Senate: Arthur Stein, , Der römische Ritterstand. Ein Beitrag zur Sozial- und Personengeschichte des römischen Reiches (München, 1927), pp. 266270. Africans received preferment in the equestrian posts (Pflaum, , op. cit., 259260). Under the Severi, important African jurists held positions (Stirnimann, , op. cit., 4). Broughton, T. R. S., The Romanization of Africa Proconsularis (Baltimore, 1929), pp. 154–55, considered the sudden rise in municipal foundations under Septimius Severus to be due to his preferment of the province and not to natural growth of the cities.

40. Ux. 2. For the changed social composition of the church at Carthage between 180 A.D. and the end of Tertullian's literary career, see my dissertation, pp. 4664, and especially n. 87.

41. Mon. 7.5; Ux. 2.3.1.

42. Ux. 2.4.2: “Quis autem sinat coniugem suam usitandorum fratrum gratia uicatim aliena et quidem pauperiora quaeque tuguria circuire.” The urban poor lived in huts in suburbs of Carthage like Mapalia (Charles-Picard, , op. cit., 154; see the plan, p. 173.).

43. Note the attention given by modern representatives of counter culture to the internal realm of the self: Roszak, op. cit., 62ft.

44. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. by Roberts, Alexander and Donaldson, James, revised by A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, 1965), 11–2, renders “Adigo cauterem…” thus (Pal. 5.5).

45. Cult. 1.9.1.

46. Ap. 38.3: “At enim nobis ab omni gloriae et dignitatis ardore frigentibus nulla est necessitas coetus, nee ulla magis res aliena quam publica.”

47. Marc. 2.18.2: “Agnosce simul et comitibus gulae, libidini scilicet atque luxuriae, prospectum, quae fere uentris castigatione frigescunt; …” Such a freezing of secular passion is beneficial, but “frigida fides” is not (Fug. 3.2). Tertullian frequently associates virtue with emotional quiescence or serenity (Pat. 15. 4–6). Patientia, which 40. is one of the key virtues for Tertnllian, is therefore related to detachment from the world and philosophical serenity (”aequanimitas” at Pat. 3.10): Spanneut, op. cit., 39.

48. Cult. 2.9.3.

49. Or. 29.2; Pat. 15.3.

50. Pat. 15.3; Cor. 13.5; Marc. 5.4.9.

51. See my dissertation, pp. 32–45 and Carl Becker's brilliant discussion of “nomen” in Tertnllian's thought (op. cit., 193).

52. On the word disciplina, see Valentin, Morel, “Le développement de la ‘disciplina’ sous l'action du Saint-Esprit chez Tertullien,” RHE, 35 (1939) (1), 243265, and Disciplina. Le mot et l'idée représentée par lui dans lea ouvres de Tertullien,” RHE, 40 (1944) (1), 546.

53. Cult. 2.13.3: “Pudicitiae Christianae satis non est esse, uerum et uideri. Tanta enim debet esse plenitudo eius, ut emanet ab animo ad habitum et eructet a conscientia in superficiem, ut et a foris inspiciat quasi supellectilem suam, quae conueniat fidei continendae in perpetuum.”

54. Pal. 6.1: “Sic denique auditor philosophus dum uidetur.”

55. The rhetoric of Pal. has led writers to focus on the strangeness of the treatise—as Pierre de Labriolle, Histoire de la littérature latine chrétienne, 3rd rev. ed (Paris, 1947), pp. 129130 — or its linguistic connections to Tertullian's other writings—as Gösta Säfflund, De Pallio und die stilistische Entwicklung Tertullians (Lund, 1955).

56. Pal. 5.4.

57. The pallium had Punic and Cynic associations (Säfflund, op. cit., 30.). For Pal. as a rejection of pagan Rome, see Denis van, Berchem, “Le ‘De Pallio’ et le conflict du christianisme et de l'Empire,” Museum Helveticum, 1 (1944), 114. Richard, Klein, Tertullian und das römische Reiche (Heidelberg, 1968), p. 90, has distinguished too sharply between a “national” and a “religious” difference with Rome in attributing Tertullian's change to the pallium to religious differences.

58. Pal. 5.4: “… successi de populo. In me unicum negotium mihi est;…”

59. Jerome, , De Viris Illustribus, 53, P.L., 23, 663, 891: “Ferturque vixisse usque ad decrepitam aetatem,…”

60. Men Who Shaped the Western Church, translated by Manfred, Hoffmann (New York and Evanston, 1964), p. 35.

61. Charles, Guignebert, Tertullien. Étude sur ses sentiments a l'égard de l'empire et de la société civile (Paris, 1901), p. 589. Pal. 1.1: “Prineipes semper Africae, uiri Carthaginienses, uetustate nobiles, nouitate felices, gaudeo vos tarn prosperos temporum, cum ita uaeat ae iuuat habitus denotare.” See Säfflund, , op. cit., 29 and n. 10, for the audience of this treatise, the Carthaginian decurions.

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