Tertullian, On Modesty Chap. VI. – Examples of Such Offences Under the Old

Continuing our reading of Tertullian.

For those that might be new, I have found Tertullian to be the rigorist that I would desire to be. I do not agree with him on every jot of doctrine, but he demanded holiness, and understood no remedy for those that would profane the temple of God after it had been cleansed. This might not be exactly my reading of it, but I do like the exercising of the mind that Tertullian requires. Yes, I could just read this without you, but it is my blog, after all.

Chap. VI. – Examples of Such Offences Under the Old Dispensation No Pattern for the Disciples of the New. But Even the Old Has Examples of Vengeance upon Such Offences.

Plainly, if you show by what patronages of heavenly precedents and precepts it is that you open to adultery alone – and therein to fornication also – the gate of repentance, at this very line our hostile encounter will forthwith cross swords. Yet I must necessarily prescribe you a law, not to stretch out your hand after the old things, not to look backwards: for “the old things are passed away,” according to Isaiah; and “a renewing hath been renewed,” according to Jeremiah (Cf. Jeremiah 4:3, LXX); and “forgetful of former things, we are reaching forward,” according to the apostle; and “the law and the prophets (were) until John,” according to the Lord. For even if we are just now beginning with the Law in demonstrating (the nature of) adultery, it is justly with that phase of the law which Christ has “not dissolved, but fulfilled.” For it is the “burdens” of the law which were “until John,” not the remedial virtues. It is the “yokes” of “works” that have been rejected, not those 79 of disciplines. “Liberty in Christ” has done no injury to innocence. The law of piety, sanctity, humanity, truth, chastity, justice, mercy, benevolence, modesty, remains in its entirety; in which law “blessed (is) the man who shall meditate by day and by night.” About that (law) the same David (says) again: “The law of the Lord (is) unblameable converting souls; the statutes of the Lord (are) direct, delighting hearts; the precept of the Lord far-shining, enlightening eyes.” Thus, too, the apostle: “And so the law indeed is holy, and the precept holy and most good” – “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” of course. But he had withal said above: “Are we, then, making void the law through faith? Far be it; but we are establishing the law “ – forsooth in those (points) which, being even now interdicted by the New Testament, are prohibited by an even more emphatic precept: instead of, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” “Whoever shall have seen with a view to concupiscence, hath already committed adultery in his own heart;” and instead of, “Thou shalt not kill,” “Whoever shall have said to his brother, Racha, shall be in danger of hell.” Ask (yourself) whether the law of not committing adultery be still in force, to which has been added that of not indulging concupiscence. Besides, if any precedents (taken from the Old Dispensation) shall favour you in (the secrecy of) your bosom, they shall not be set in opposition to this discipline which we are maintaining. For it is in vain that an additional law has been reared, condemning the origin even of sins – that is, concupiscences and wills – no less than the actual deeds; if the fact that pardon was of old in some cases conceded to adultery is to be a reason why it shall be conceded at the present day. “What will be the reward attaching to the restrictions imposed upon the more fully developed discipline of the present day, except that the elder (discipline) may be made the agent for granting indulgence to your prostitution?” In that case, you will grant pardon to the idolater too, and to every apostate, because we find the People itself, so often guilty of these crimes, as often reinstated in their former privileges. You will maintain communion, too, with the murderer: because Ahab, by deprecation, washed away (the guilt of) Naboth’s blood; and David, by confession, purged Uriah’s slaughter, together with its cause – adultery. That done, you will condone incests, too, for Lot’s sake; and fornications combined with incest, for Judah’s sake; and base marriages with prostitutes, for Hosea’s sake; and not only the frequent repetition of marriage, but its simultaneous plurality, for our fathers’ sakes: for, of course, it is meet that there should also be a perfect equality of grace in regard of all deeds to which indulgence was in days bygone granted, if on the ground of some pristine precedent pardon is claimed for adultery. We, too, indeed have precedents in the self-same antiquity on the side of our opinion, – (precedents) of judgment not merely not waived, but even summarily executed upon fornication. And of course it is a sufficient one, that so vast a number – (the number) of 24,000 – of the People, when they committed fornication with the daughters of Madian, fell in one plague. But, with an eye to the glory of Christ, I prefer to derive (my) discipline from Christ. Grant that the pristine days may have had – if the Psychics please – even a right of (indulging) every immodesty; grant that, before Christ, the flesh may have disported itself, nay, may have perished before its Lord went to seek and bring it back: not yet was it worthy of the gift of salvation; not yet apt for the office of sanctity. It was still, up to that time, accounted as being in Adam, with its own vicious nature, easily indulging concupiscence after whatever it had seen to be “attractive to the sight,” and looking back at the lower things, and checking its itching with fig-leaves. Universally inherent was the virus of lust – the dregs which are formed out of milk contain it – (dregs) fitted (for so doing), in that even the waters themselves had not yet been bathed. But when the Word of God descended into flesh, – (flesh) not unsealed even by marriage, – and “the Word was made flesh,” – (flesh) never to be unsealed by marriage, – which was to find its way to the tree not of incontinence, but of endurance; which was to taste from that tree not anything sweet, but something bitter; which was to pertain not to the infernal regions, but to heaven; which was to be precinct not with the leaves of lasciviousness, but the flowers of holiness; which was to impart to the waters its own purities – thenceforth, whatever flesh (is) “in Christ” has lost its pristine soils, is now a thing different, emerges in a new state, no longer (generated) of the slime of natural seed, nor of the grime of concupiscence, but of “pure water” and a “clean 80 Spirit.” And, accordingly, why excuse it on the ground of pristine precedent? It did not bear the names of “body of Christ,” of “members of Christ,” of “temple of God,” at the time when it used to obtain pardo

n for adultery. And thus if, from the moment when it changed its condition, and “having been baptized into Christ put on Christ,” and was “redeemed with a great price” – “the blood,” to wit, “of the Lord and Lamb” – you take hold of any one precedent (be it precept, or law, or sentence,) of indulgence granted, or to be granted, to adultery and fornication, – you have likewise at our hands a definition of the time from which the age of the question dates.


Tertullian, always the gentleman, allows for the chance that he may be in error…but only briefly. It is decidedly so that a Christian defender of the Word must be so, in order to show that he has the confidence of his Foundation.

Tertullian, like the other Church Fathers (especially Melito of Sardis, had no confusion concerning Israel and the Church. For him, as it should be for us today, the Law was fulfilled in Christ and Israel and grown to become the Church.

Many even today say that the liberty which we have in Christ present to us a liberty that is unchained to holiness or modesty, calling it legalism and other names, but rejecting those things (as Tertullian points out) which Christ pushed a more restrictive behavior on.

The point is well made – if we are then free to be hedonists, why then the added restrictions – not by Paul, but by Christ.?

Tertullian acknowledges the Patriarchs’ polygamy, more readily than many do even today.

The point is roundly made – if adultery is okay because it was done before and forgiven, then so is a whole host of other sins – yet Grace makes and end of all sins.

Tertullian implies pre-existence of the Word, which is evident by John 1.1, at least pre-existence sometime before the Incarnation, or perhaps from the beginning of the Age (of Sin).

The message, cluttered with Tertullian’s heady language, is clear – if the Body of Christ (the Word Incarnate) was pure, and un-diseased by the virus of lust, an remaining pure with the flowers of chastity, then those of us in that same Body must be a new thing, something pristine and untarnished by such sins.

You Might Also Like

Leave a Reply, Please!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.