Tertullian, Apology XXXII

It is in Christianity’s interests to pray for the emperor

Name of the author: 
197 CE
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For a general introduction to Tertullian and his Apology, please see the commentary on Apology V.

In chapters XXIX and XXX, Tertullian has critiqued the effectiveness of Roman idol worship, insinuating that it is both empty, and also insulting to Caesar’s power to suggest that his wellbeing can be influenced by a god enshrined in material resources he owns. Tertullian has then asserted that it is the Christian god who is truly powerful enough to provide support to the Roman empire, which he chose to empower of his own divine will, and that far from being treasonous, by refusing the sacrifice to idols the Christians are actually doing the empire a greater favour by addressing their prayers for its security to the one true divinity. In this short passage, Tertullian argues that praying for the longevity of the emperor and the empire is actually in the interests of Christians. He thereby constructs a mutual relationship of dependency and beneficence, whereby Christianity aids Rome through its prayers, and in return sees the benefits of a stable and prosperous empire. Robert Evans has argued that Tertullian saw the Roman emperors as extremely necessary, as the current age was under constant threat from demons and would be eventually brought to judgement in the end times (“On the Problem of Church and Empire,” p. 27, 35). Like many of his contemporaries, Tertullian was firmly convinced that the eschaton was an impending threat, and so by praying for the empire’s continuation, they were staving off the end of the world (see also David Rankin, From Clement to Origen, p. 61). This is precisely what is argued in verse 1 of the present passage.

Verse 2 moves to discuss the practice of swearing by the genius (the essential, guarding spirit of a person) of the emperor, and debases the genii invoked in Roman religion by arguing that they are merely “daemones” (from the Greek δαίμων, daimōn, which amongst other things referred to malevolent, demonic spirits), which Christians are accustomed to exorcising from people, not understanding them to be worthy of divine honour. Significantly, we see the opposition of adiuro (which more generally means “to swear an oath,” but in the Church Fathers becomes a term used in connection with exorcism of daemons) and deiero (“to swear an oath”) in verse 3. As he has done in chapter XXIX, Tertullian ridicules Roman religion and asserts that it is built upon a misunderstanding of where its divine protection and sanction comes from (as far as Tertullian is concerned, this is of course God). One of Tertullian’s main aims in the Apology is to refute the charge that Christians are treasonous for refusing to sacrifice to and swear by Roman divinities, and in this passage he does this by affirming Christian respect for the emperor, who was put in place by God, meaning that it is every Christian’s duty to pray for his safety, and the health of the empire over which he presides (that Roman authorities were sanctioned specifically by God, and therefore commanded the respect of Christians, was a popular argument; see, for example, Theophilus of Antioch, To Autolycus I.11; 1 Clement 60.4 – 61.3; Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:12-17). While the emperor might be a tool of God, however, swearing by his genius instils within him something beyond mere humanity. In Tertullian’s mind the notion of the genius is akin to an inferior demonic being, meaning that it is somewhat strange to a Christian to ascribe to it divine essence. The rejection of the imperial cult, then, is not because the emperor is not viewed as deserving of allegiance, but on the grounds that it sees the emperor as containing within him a daemonic element that is entirely in opposition to God: daemons are by their nature malevolent, not forces of protection. For Tertullian, simply the fact that the emperor has been deemed worthy by God to act as his human representative is enough.

Bibliographical references: 

“Was Tertullian a Jurist?”

Rankin, David Ivanarticle-in-a-bookStudia Patristica 31: Papers presented at the Twelfth International Conference on Patristic Studies held in Oxford 1995Elizabeth A. Livingstone335-342“Was Tertullian a Jurist?” Studia PatristicaLeuvenPeeters1997

“On the Problem of Church and Empire in Tertullian’s Apologeticum”

Evans, Robert F.article-in-a-bookStudia Patristica 14: Papers Presented to the Sixteenth International Conference on Patristic Studies held in Oxford 1971Elizabeth A. Livingstone21-36“On the Problem of Church and Empire in Tertullian’s Apologeticum” Studia PatristicaBerlinAkademie Verlag1976

“Tertullien et les poètes latins,”

Braun, Renéarticle-in-a-bookApproches de Tertullien: vingt-six études sur l’auteur et sur l’oeuvre (1955-1990) René Braun“Tertullien et les poètes latins”ParisInstitut d'Études Augustiniennes1992

“Pagan Perceptions of Christianity”

Barnes, Timothy D.article-in-a-bookEarly Christianity: Origins and Evolution to AD 600Ian Hazlett 231-243“Pagan Perceptions of Christianity” LondonSPCK1991


Dunn, Geoffrey D.bookTertullianLondonRoutledge2004


Ferguson, Everettarticle-in-a-bookEarly Christian Thinkers: The Lives and Legacies of Twelve Key Figures Paul Foster85-99“Tertullian” LondonSPCK2011
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