Tertullian IX: Sex

20 Jan

This post is more about Adultery and Fornication than sex but I thought I’d do something to raise site traffic (grin). Besides, as obsessed as he is with the topic, I thought I should have a Tertullian sex post. Brace yourselves folks, this will be hot! (OK, I just lied)

If you’ve managed to read through my previous Tertullian posts it won’t surprise you to see that he considers sex outside of marriage to be a Very Bad Thing. Heck, he’s on the verge of calling marriage a Bad Thing. In fact I’m going to have a later post explaining how he considers anything which might be pleasurable to be a Bad Thing so evidently sex is only OK if you don’t enjoy it. There are a lot of Bad Things in Tertullian’s world.

Fornication and Adultery hold a special place in Tertullian’s scale of badness. These sins, which as he considers them the same (at least from the perspective of severity), I’ll just call fornication from this point on, are part of his triad of Sins Which Are Truly Abominable. The other two are Idolatry and Murder.

I sort of chuckled when I read my notes and rather than try to explain why, I’ll offer an image which will also serve as a nice example of how I write notes. As a hint, it takes a LOT for me to jot down something like, “T. sort of goes wild in this one.” I don’t remember exactly but I suspect that at the time I was reading this, I had a mental image of him writing furiously with foam dripping from his mouth.

Notes I took while reading Tertullian
I could almost quit writing this post now and save us all some time as the main ideas I’ll be covering are all here.

I’ll be taking all of my quotes from his treatise, On Modesty(de pudicitia). That’s not to say that this is anything close to the only place he writes about this. The man is obsessed with sex (I can apply a personal, judgmental characteristic to someone because I’m not a historian and can get away with it). He writes about it a lot, or at least about “not sex” a lot.

His inspiration for On Modesty comes from the Pope, Callixtus I (probably, Tertullian never provides a name). Callixtus decided to allow fornicators back into the Church. Tertullian, er, disagrees:

“I hear that there has even been an edict set forth, and a peremptory one too. The Pontifex Maximus – that is, the bishop of bishops – issues an edict: “I remit, to such as have discharged (the requirements of) repentance, the sins both of adultery and of fornication.” O edict, on which cannot be inscribed, ‘Good deed!'” On Modesty, I

Tertullian’s argument is anything but subtle. He opens with a vehement condemnation which ends with:

But since they[Adultery and Fornication] are such as to hold the culminating place among crimes, there is no room at once for their indulgence as if they were moderate, and for their precaution as if they were greatest. But by us precaution is thus also taken against the greatest, or, (if you will), highest (crimes, viz.,) in that it is not permitted, after believing, to know even a second marriage, differentiated though it be, to be sure, from the work of adultery and fornication by the nuptial and dotal tablets: and accordingly, with the utmost strictness, we excommunicate digamists, as bringing infamy upon the Paraclete by the irregularity of their discipline. The self-same liminal limit we fix for adulterers also and fornicators; dooming them to pour forth tears barren of peace, and to regain from the Church no ampler return than the publication of their disgrace.On Modesty, I

His discussion continues as he talks about which sins may and may not be remitted by the Church:

“We agree that the causes of repentance are sins. These we divide into two issues: some will be remissible, some irremissible: in accordance wherewith it will be doubtful to no one that some deserve chastisement, some condemnation. Every sin is dischargeable either by pardon or else by penalty: by pardon as the result of chastisement, by penalty as the result of condemnation. … And it remains to examine specially, with regard to the position of adultery and fornication, to which class of sins they ought to be assigned.” On Modesty, II

Tertullian is careful to note that while there are sins which the Church cannot offer remission for, God may choose to pardon them. This next passage is also interesting for the first mention I’ve come across of Mortal Sins. This is a place where the Ante-Nicene Fathers not including the Latin is a negative as it would be interesting to see Tertullian’s precise phrasing and whether this is an interpretation of the translator:

“As regards us, however, who remember that the Lord alone concedes (the pardon of) sins, (and of course of mortal ones,) it will not be practised in vain. For (the repentance) being referred back to the Lord, and thenceforward lying prostrate before Him, will by this very fact the rather avail to win pardon, that it gains it by entreaty from God alone, that it believes not that man’s peace is adequate to its guilt, that as far as regards the Church it prefers the blush of shame to the privilege of communion.” On Modesty, III

His main argument in support of his position is that Adultery is placed following Idolatry and before Murder in the Decalogue (Ten Commandments). This placement indicates that these three sins are those which the Church does not have the authority to remit. (On Modesty, III)

Tertullian writes as if Callixtus is overturning accepted practice where these sinners are dead to the Church, “But for the adulterer and fornicator, who is there who has not pronounced him to be dead immediately upon commission of the crime?” They are to be immediately expelled from fellowship and denied Communion, “No sooner has (such a) man made his appearance than he is expelled from the Church …” (On Modesty, VII)

He uses Acts, XV.28-30 as scriptural evidence for his assertion. Here the Apostles, in writing to Syrian Gentiles tell them:

“When first the Gospel thundered and shook the old system to its base, when dispute was being held on the question of retaining or not the Law; this is the first rule which the apostles, on the authority of the Holy Spirit, send out to those who were already beginning to be gathered to their side out of the nations: ‘It has seemed (good),’ say they, ‘to the Holy Spirit and to us to cast upon you no ampler weight than (that) of those (things) from which it is necessary that abstinence be observed; from sacrifices, and from fornications, and from blood: by abstaining from which ye act rightly, the Holy Spirit carrying you.'” On Modesty, XII

Then comes the argument where, IMO, Tertullian gets himself in trouble. In 1 Corinthians, V.1-5 Paul argues that those who are sexually immoral are to be handed over to Satan. However in 2 Corinthians, II.5-11, Paul says that the judgment of the Church on Earth is supreme and possesses the power of forgiveness. On Modesty, XIII

Tertullian spends the next five chapters of this treatise arguing that Paul doesn’t mean what the mainstream Church thinks he means. I won’t walk you through the entirety of his argument; I’m not sure I completely follow it myself. However the term “special pleading” is sometimes used to describe when a modern historian goes to extreme lengths to justify a questionable position (be careful to actually read the argument though – sometimes this label is used for a valid, but complex argument). I think this applies to Tertullian here. The reality is that as with so much in the Bible, the argument can be made either way. It was up to the Church to work it out.

As he closes his argument, he lists these “unpardonable” sins:

“But there are, too, the contraries of these[remissible sins]; as the graver and destructive ones, such as are incapable of pardon – murder, idolatry, fraud, apostasy, blasphemy; (and), of course, too, adultery and fornication; and if there be any other ‘violation of the temple of God.'” On Modesty, XIX

Tertullian even seems to wonder if perhaps Apostasy is a lesser sin than fornication, at least when it occurs under torture:

“Which pardon is, in all causes, more justly concessible – that which a voluntary, or that which an involuntary, sinner implores? No one is compelled with his will to apostatize; no one against his will commits fornication. … Which has more truly apostatized – he who has lost Christ amid agonies, or (he who has done so) amid delights? he who when losing Him grieved, or he who when losing Him sported?” On Modesty, XXII

I think this particular topic is important for a couple of reasons. First; it sheds some light on Tertullian’s Montanist conflict with the mainstream Church, “the Psychics” as he calls them. Early in the treatise he offers the clearest explanation I’ve seen in all his writings of why he is separated from the Church (though it’s not clear whether this is an official separation or by choice). He has learned and grown and has become aware that the majority view is in error. As with all of his writings, he discusses this as if it is the absolute truth; another case where I wonder if he actually felt less definitive personally and is writing this way as he has been trained in a Stoic method of argument. But all I can go by is what’s written:

“This too, therefore, shall be a count in my indictment against the Psychics; against the fellowship of sentiment also which I myself formerly maintained with them; in order that they may the more cast this in my teeth for a mark of fickleness. Repudiation of fellowship is never a pre-indication of sin. As if it were not easier to err with the majority, when it is in the company of the few that truth is loved! But, however, a profitable fickleness shall no more be a disgrace to me, than I should wish a hurtful one to be an ornament. I blush not at an error which I have ceased to hold, because I am delighted at having ceased to hold it, because I recognise myself to be better and more modest.” On Modesty, I

There are a couple of additional things he mentions, sort of in passing, which I found interesting. Tertullian is the earliest author I can recall to mention the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome. By using Pontifex Maximus as Callixtus’ title (see above), he has appropriated the Roman title for the Priest of Priests. He discusses the Shepherd of Hermas as being found apocryphal repeatedly by church councils (Chapter X); the first mention of ecumenical gatherings I’ve seen, though there’s nothing to indicate what this meant, how they were gathered, or even if it meant members under the direction of a single Church (Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, etc.) coming together to discuss matters of importance.

Most important for future developments is the concept of mortal sin. Various modern denominations list different items as mortal sins; murder, suicide, abortion, apostasy, etc. And even this designation does not necessarily mean the person may not eventually be accepted back into the Church (or possibly not even excommunicated). As far as I know, this Treatise of Tertullian’s is the first introduction of the concept. This is a pretty big deal.

Coogan, Michael D., ed., The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Edition With the Apocrypha. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2010). ISBN:9-780-195-28955-8.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 1: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-083-1.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 2: Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (entire), Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004). ISBN: 1-56563-084-X.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 3: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian: I. Apologetic; II. Anti-Marcion; III. Ethical. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-086-6.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 4: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, Part Fourth: Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-086-6.

Schaff, Philip and Wace, Henry, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series Volume 3: Theodoret, Jerome, Gennadius, Rufinus: Historical Writings, etc. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2012), ISBN(for series): 978-1-56563-116-8.

Schaff, Philip and Wace, Henry, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series Volume 6: The Principal Works of St. Jerome. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2012), ISBN(for series): 978-1-56563-116-8.

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Posted by on January 20, 2014 in Religion


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