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10 - Tertullian on idolatry and the limits of tolerance

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 March 2010

Graham N. Stanton
Affiliation:
King's College London
Guy G. Stroumsa
Affiliation:
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
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Summary

‘Let one man worship God, another Jove’ ‘Colat alius Deum, alius Iovem’. With this lapidary plea Tertullian establishes himself as one of the earliest advocates of religious tolerance in the Christian tradition. In the Roman Empire of the late second century, the Christians were in great need of some religious toleration. Those Christian writers whom we call the Apologists aimed, precisely, at convincing Roman intellectuals in the corridors of power that toleration of the Christians and of their religious beliefs would in no way harm the state, and that such a toleration was, moreover, congruent with principles of reason shared, at least in theory, by all people.

One of the major historical paradoxes reflected by the development of early Christianity is its transformation, during the course of the fourth century, from a religio illicita seeking recognition and tolerance into an established religion refusing to grant others (and its own dissenters from within, the ‘heretics’) what it had sought for itself until the recent past. The traditional answer to our paradox is that, as long as the Christians were in need of religious toleration for themselves, they knew how to make a case for its necessity. As soon as they came to power, however, they forgot their early virtues and learned how to deprive others of what they had just acquired. Christian intolerance, in such a view of things, would be rooted in human nature, rather than in some implicit aspects of Christian theology.

This explanation no doubt suffers from an oversimplification of complex phenomena.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 1998

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