Tertullian – On Modesty, Chapter 1

This week, we will begin our examination on Tertullian‘s rigorist view of Modesty. Taken from a translation by the Rev. S. Thelwall, we will see if there is at some point a connection between Tertullian and the modern holiness movement. Let me assure certain of my readers that while I am not nominating Tertullian as a Saint, we may safely see a post-apostolic tradition for certain of our beliefs.

Tertullian presents us with a picture of Christian modesty, vanishing away due to a belief around him that indulgences instead of repentance should be granted.

Modesty, the flower of manners, the honour of our bodies, the grace of the sexes, the integrity of the blood, the guarantee of our race, the basis of sanctity, the pre-indication of every good disposition; rare though it is, and not easily perfected, and scarce ever retained in perpetuity, will yet up to a certain point linger in the world, if nature shall have laid the preliminary groundwork of it, discipline persuaded to it, censorial rigour curbed its excesses – on the hypothesis, that is, that every mental good quality is the result either of birth, or else of training, or else of external compulsion.

But as the conquering power of things evil is on the increase – which is the characteristic of the last times – things good are now not allowed either to be born, so corrupted are the seminal principles; or to be trained, so deserted are studies; nor to be enforced, so dined are the laws. In fact, (the modesty) of which we are now beginning (to treat) is by this time grown so obsolete, that it is not the abjuration but the moderation of the ‘appetites which modesty is believed to be; and he is held to be chaste enough who has not been too chaste. But let the world’s modesty see to itself, together with the world itself: together with its inherent nature, if it was wont to originate in birth; its study, if in training; its servitude, if in compulsion: except that it had been even more unhappy if it had remained only to prove fruitless, in that it had not been in God’s household that its activities had been exercised. I should prefer no good to a vain good: what profits it that that should exist whose existence profits not? It is our own good things whose position is now sinking; it is the system of Christian modesty which is being shaken to its foundation – (Christian modesty), which derives its all from heaven; its nature, “through the laver of regeneration;” its discipline, through the instrumentality of preaching; its censorial rigour, through the judgments which each Testament exhibits; and is subject to a more constant external compulsion, arising from the apprehension or the desire of the eternal fire or kingdom.

In opposition to this (modesty), could I not have acted the dissembler? 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!” And where shall this liberality be posted up? On the very spot, I suppose, on the very gates of the sensual appetites, beneath the very titles of the sensual appetites. There is the place for promulgating such repentance, where the delinquency itself shall haunt. There is the place to read the pardon, where entrance shall be made under the hope thereof. But it is in the church that this (edict) is read, and in the church that it is pronounced; and (the church) is a virgin! Far, far from Christ’s betrothed be such a proclamation! She, the true, the modest, the saintly, shall be free from stain even of her ears. She has none to whom to make such a promise; and if she have had, she does not make it; since 75 even the earthly temple of God can sooner have been called by the Lord a “den of robbers,” than of adulterers and fornicators.

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 recognize myself to be better and more modest. No one blushes at his own improvement. Even in Christ, knowledge had its stages of growth; through which stages the apostle, too, passed. “When I was a child,” he says, “as a child I spake, as a child I understood; but when I became a man, those (things) which had been the child’s I abandoned:” so truly did he turn away from his early opinions: nor did he sin by becoming an emulator not of ancestral but of Christian traditions, wishing even the precision of them who advised the retention of circumcision. And would that the same fate might befall those, too, who obtruncate the pure and true integrity of the flesh; amputating not the extremest superficies, but the inmost image of modesty itself, while they promise pardon to adulterers and fornicators, in the teeth of the primary discipline of the Christian Name; a discipline to which heathendom itself bears such emphatic witness, that it strives to punish that discipline in the persons of Our females rather by defilements of the flesh than tortures; wishing to wrest from them that which they hold dearer than life! But now this glory is being extinguished, and that by means of those who ought with all the more constancy to refuse concession of any pardon to defilements of this kind, that they make the fear of succumbing to adultery and fornication their reason for marrying as often as they please – since “better it is to marry than to burn.” No doubt it is for continence sake that incontinence is necessary – the “burning” will be extinguished by “fires!” Why, then, do they withal grant indulgence, under the name of repentance, to crimes for which they furnish remedies by their law of multinuptialism? For remedies will be idle while crimes are indulged, and crimes will remain if remedies are idle. And so, either way, they trifle with solicitude and negligence; by taking emptiest precaution against (crimes) to which they grant quarter, and granting absurdest quarter to (crimes) against which they take precaution: whereas either precaution is not to be taken where quarter is given, or quarter not given where precaution is taken; for they take precaution, as if they were unwilling that something should be committed; but grant indulgence, as if they were willing it should be committed: whereas, if they be unwilling it should be committed, they ought not to grant indulgence; if they be willing to grant indulgence, they ought not to take precaution. For, again, adultery and fornication will not be ranked at the same time among the moderate and among the greatest sins, so that each course may be equally open with regard to them – the solicitude which takes precaution, and the security which grants indulgence. But since they 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.


We must feel with Tertullian, and even place our own views with his that any measure of modesty seems to have grown obsolete even in this present world where our culture has been shocked into depravity.

Timeless is this thought of Tertullian’s, that quality is to be cherished more than quantity. Cyprian said that eh would rather a few than the many when it came to the Church. Here again we find a pattern of words maintained.

‘its all from heaven’, not archaic men with archaic letters. Too many times, holiness is seen as a choice, or legalism, or man-made, but even the most outwardly self-sacrificing person without God is merely miserable. It is only with God that modesty has any affect.

Titus 3.5

The sum total of modesty is given: discipline, self-censure, and either a fear of hell or a love of heaven.

The translator notes, “This is irony; a heathen epithet applied to Victor (or his successor), ironically, because he seemed ambitious of superiority over other bishops.” How odd that Rome would later take up the title as an honor. Tertullian’s words have bite even today.

Matthew 21:13; Mark 11:17; Luke19:46; Jeremiah 7:11; Tertullian has a high view of the Church itself, being that it must be kept pure from those that would use it as a cloak of sin. We can find the Apostle Paul with much the same thought – to mark those who would dispute the Church and who would bring reproach upon the Church. There must, however, always be a place for repentance for those that have sinned, but sinner and saint. I do not believe that Tertullian would disallow that, merely that he would disallow those who would so readily partake of sin to take up residence in the House of God.

I would not take this as a starting point for doctrinal development, but for the mature growth of the Christian.

Tertullian is describing his continued growth, as he saw it, and aligning himself with the Apostle Paul, who grew from Judaism into Christianity, although it may be right said that Paul did not grow from Judaism, but left his ancestral tradition for the Church of Christ.

These words still ring true today – the enticement of females into all manners of perdition. We look at the childhood toys, the icons, and the cultural pressure to be more of a man than a woman. It is not done by torture, but by promise of acceptance by a world that first created the division.

It is clear why Christian modesty was being shaken to the very foundation – there was no penalty for sins within the Church, only indulgences, only acceptance, only excuses.

Even I would not be this rigorous on a sinner, at least not one that has not committed apostasy.

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