Tertullian, On Modesty Chapter IV and V – Adultery Prohibitions

Continuing our reading of Tertullian‘s ‘On Modesty’:

It would be difficult for me to see that adultery, and fornication, committed by a Saint would be unforgivable; therefore, as I read Tertullian, I understand adultery in light of Hosea, the prophet who speaks of Israel’s spiritual adultery against God. There are times, however, that this connection is close to being severed. Tertullian does make a seemingly sound connection between literal adultery and idolatry as well as murder. This connection is easily seen in that when you turn your eyes from God, you are liable to make your desires your idol. Then your Lust is satisfied with adultery, and then that adultery is forced to be kept silent by murder.

Chap. IV. – Adultery and Fornication Synonymous.

Having defined the distinction (between the kinds) of repentance, we are by this time, then, able to return to the assessment of the sins – whether they be such as can obtain pardon at the hand of men. In the first place, (as for the fact) that we call adultery likewise fornication, usage requires (us so to do). “Faith,” withal, has a familiar acquaintance with sundry appellations. So, in every one of our little works, we carefully guard usage. Besides, if I shall say “adulterium,” and if “stuprum,” the indictment of contamination of the flesh will be one and the same. For it makes no difference whether a man assault another’s bride or widow, provided it be not his own “female;” just as there is no difference made by places – whether it be in chambers or in towers that modesty is massacred. Every homicide, even outside a wood, is banditry. So, too, whoever enjoys any other than nuptial intercourse, in whatever place, and in the person of whatever woman, makes himself guilty of adultery and fornication. Accordingly, among us, secret connections as well – connections, that is, not first professed in presence of the Church – run risk of being judged akin to adultery and fornication; nor must we let them, if thereafter woven together by the covering of marriage, elude the charge. But all the other frenzies of passions – impious both toward the bodies and toward the sexes – beyond the laws of nature, we banish not only from the threshold, but from all shelter of the Church, because they are not sins, but monstrosities.

Chap. V. – Of the Prohibition of Adultery in the Decalogue.

Of how deep guilt, then, adultery – which is likewise a matter of fornication, in accordance with its criminal function – is to be accounted, the Law of God first comes to hand to show us; if it is true, (as it is), that after interdicting the superstitious service of alien gods, and the making of idols themselves, after commending (to religious observance) the veneration of the Sabbath, after commanding a religious regard toward parents second (only to that) toward God, (that Law) laid, as the next substratum in strengthening and fortifying such counts, no other precept than “Thou shall not commit adultery.” For after spiritual chastity and sanctity followed corporeal integrity. And this (the Law) accordingly fortified, by immediately prohibiting its foe, adultery. Understand, consequently, what kind of sin (that must be), the repression of which (the Law) ordained next to (that of) idolatry. Nothing that is a second is remote from the first; nothing is so close to the first as 78 the second. That which results from the first is (in a sense) another first. And so adultery is bordering on idolatry. For idolatry withal, often cast as a reproach upon the People under the name of adultery and fornication, will be alike conjoined therewith in fate as in following – will be alike co-heir therewith in condemnation as in co-ordination. Yet further: premising “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” (the Law) adjoins, “Thou shalt not kill.” It honoured adultery, of course, to which it gives the precedence over murder, in the very fore-front of the most holy law, among the primary counts of the celestial edict, marking it with the inscription of the very principal sins. From its place you may discern the measure, from its rank the station, from its neighbourhood the merit, of each thing. Even evil has a dignity, consisting in being stationed at the summit, or else in the centre, of the superlatively bad. I behold a certain pomp and circumstance of adultery: on the one side, Idolatry goes before and leads the way; on the other, Murder follows in company. Worthily, without doubt, has she taken her seat between the two most conspicuous eminences of misdeeds, and has completely filled the vacant space, as it were, in their midst, with an equal majesty of crime. Enclosed by such flanks, encircled and supported by such ribs, who shall dislocate her from the corporate mass of coherencies, from the bond of neighbour crimes, from the embrace of kindred wickednesses, so as to set apart her alone for the enjoyment of repentance? Will not on one side Idolatry, on the other Murder, detain her, and (if they have any voice) reclaim: “This is our wedge, this our compacting power? By (the standard of) Idolatry we are measured; by her disjunctive intervention we are conjoined; to her, outjutting from our midst, we are united; the Divine Scripture has made us concorporate; the very letters are our glue; herself can no longer exist without us. ‘Many and many a time do I, Idolatry, subminister occasion to Adultery; witness my groves and my mounts, and the living waters, and the very temples in cities, what mighty agents we are for overthrowing modesty.’ ‘I also, Murder, sometimes exert myself on behalf of Adultery. To omit tragedies, witness nowadays the poisoners, witness the magicians, how many seductions I avenge, how many rivalries I revenge; how many guards, how many informers, how many accomplices, I make away with. Witness the midwives likewise, how many adulterous conceptions are slaughtered.’ Even among Christians there is no adultery without us. Wherever the business of the unclean spirit is, there are idolatries; wherever a man, by being polluted, is slain, there too is murder. Therefore the remedial aids of repentance will not be suitable to them, or else they will likewise be to us. We either detain Adultery, or else follow her.” These words the sins themselves do speak. If the sins are deficient in speech, hard by (the door of the church) stands an idolater, hard by stands a murderer; in their midst stands, too, an adulterer. Alike, as the duty of repentance bids, they sit in sackcloth and bristle in ashes; with the self-same weeping they groan; with the selfsame prayers they make their circuits; with the self-same knees they supplicate; the self-same mother they invoke. What doest thou, gentlest and humanest Discipline? Either to all these will it be thy duty so to be, for “blessed are the peacemakers;” or else, if not to all, it will be thy duty to range thyself on our side. Dost thou once for all condemn the idolater and the murderer, but take the adulterer out from their midst? – (the adulterer), the successor of the idolater, the predecessor of the murderer, the colleague of each? It is “an accepting of person:” the more pitiable repentances thou hast left (unpitied) behind!


With pardon and without pardon – from God and before Man.

Tertullian is forceful in his thought that repentance can only be gained from God, which seems opposed to the understanding of Roman methods of pardoning.

Tertullian would find it difficult then, in this modern world, where usage is based on the need, as opposed to traditional understanding.

I would find it difficult to disagree with the separation of sins based on the place (literal or figuratively) where they occur. Tertullian’s opponents perhaps fought to separate the sins based on the place of their execution. The only difference in the New Testament is the sin of death. If rejection of God occurs outside the Church, then it may be forgiven, but apostasy by a Christian is not.

Marriage between a man and a woman is a true symbol of the relationship between Christ and His Church – one of the many allusions in the physical of the spiritual.

Tertullian makes a valid point – God’s ordering of the Commandments was not by chance, but choice.

Idolatry in worshipping oneself or another, adultery in fulfilling that idolatrous desire, and murder that is required to keep it hid.

This is well remembered when we look at human institutions as tools of God or as ‘Christian’.

I assume that Tertullian is speaking about those in the Church who would commit such sins, and in seen in the light of Hosea, then spiritual adulterers.

Hardly Mary here, but the Church.

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