The folly of Roman idolatry
For a general introduction to Tertullian and his Apology, please see the commentary on Apology V.
The passage quoted above sees Tertullian criticise the Roman practice of sacrificing to the gods via statues and images. He begins his argument in verse 1 by suggesting that it first needs to be established whether the gods supposedly embodied in idols are actually capable of overseeing the wellbeing of the emperor (or anyone else). Tertullian asks whether the gods are able to judge the Christians of treason themselves, a charge levelled at them by their non-Christian neighbours, and whether these beings (whom he refers to as “in essence deprived”; here we deviate from the translation above, as Tertullian’s point in the passage is more to do with the ineffectiveness of the gods, not their malevolence) can save the lost, or free the condemned. In verse 2, Tertullian proceeds by arguing that if in fact the gods are capable of providing protection such as that listed in verse 1, then surely they would want to guard their statues and temples themselves, something which is actually done by Caesar’s soldiers. The implication is that gods requiring mortal men to protect their shrines are really no gods at all. Moreover, these statues and images are crafted out of natural materials extracted from Caesar’s mines, and it is he who instructs the building of new temples. The gods, therefore, are totally dependent upon human resources and human decision to continue to worship them, particularly the emperor. Roman religion depends on Rome’s military strength, Rome’s economical resources and the will of its main leader, the emperor. Nothing is transcendental in Roman religio.
Verse 3 points out that emperors have become displeased with various gods at certain points in time, while at other times the Caesars have lavished gifts upon them. How is it then, that gods whose worship is so dependent on the favour of the emperor, and whose shrines are only made from materials which he technically owns, can be thought of as necessary or effective in protecting him? For Tertullian, this is irrational, as it is actually the case that the emperor himself provides the gods with protection (i.e. his guards at their shrines) and prosperity, not the other way around. Tertullian next addresses in verse 4 the key issue of Christians being charged with treason for not sacrificing to the gods. Again, he argues that this is entirely illogical when one considers the arguments he has presented earlier in the passage. Christians, by refusing to sacrifice to idols, are actually paying the emperor more respect, as it undermines him to worship something so dependent on his resources. When Christians are charged with treason, then, all they are actually doing is not insulting the emperor by believing his protection is determined by a statue – this is no crime at all. In fact, Tertullian charges those who worship the Roman gods as impious themselves (verse 5), because they seek power and protection from places which do not have it to give, which effectively fails to attribute to Caesar the full respect that his power demands. Christians, however, do the emperor greater honour by refusing idolatry, and also know where to look to for effective protection of the emperor. The implication is of course the Christian god, whom Tertullian suggests is a divine power genuinely deserving of worship, as he is not bound in a statue or image. Of course, the implication is that God remains more powerful than Caesar, but by attributing to the emperor more power than the gods commonly invoked for his protection and longevity, Tertullian is able to tread the fine line between asserting Christianity’s superiority, and presenting his religion as one which respects and has the emperor’s greatest interests in mind.
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