Tertullian, On Modesty X – Repentance More Competent to Heathens than to Christians.

Continuing our reading of Tertullian, we find the author once again circumnavigating his opponents.

When, therefore, the yoke which forbade the discussion of these parables with a view to the heathens has been shaken off, and the necessity once for all discerned or admitted of not interpreting otherwise than is (suitable to) the subject-matter of the proposition; they contend in the next place, that the official proclamation of repentance is not even applicable to heathens, since their sins are not amenable to it, imputable as they are to ignorance, which nature alone renders culpable before God. Hence the remedies are unintelligible to such to whom the perils themselves are unintelligible: whereas the principle of repentance finds there its corresponding place where sin is committed with conscience and will, where both the fault and the favour are intelligible; that he who mourns, he who prostrates himself, is he who knows both what he has lost and what he will recover if he makes to God the offering of his repentance – to God who, of course, offers that repentance rather to sons than to strangers.

Was that, then, the reason why Jonah thought not repentance necessary to the heathen Ninevites, when he tergiversated in the duty of preaching? Or did he rather, foreseeing the mercy of God poured forth even upon strangers, fear that that mercy would, as it were, destroy (the credit of) his proclamation? And accordingly, for the sake of a profane city, not yet possessed of a knowledge of God, still sinning in ignorance, did the prophet well-nigh perish? Except that he suffered a typical example of the Lord’s passion, which was to redeem heathens as well (as others) on their repentance. It is enough for me that even John, when “strewing the Lord’s ways,” was the herald of repentance no less to such as were on military service and to publicans, than to the sons of Abraham. The Lord Himself presumed repentance on the part of the Sidonians and Tyrians if they had seen the evidences of His “miracles.”

Nay, but I will even contend that repentance is more competent to natural sinners than to voluntary. For he will merit its fruit who has not yet used more than he who has already withal abused it; and remedies will be more effective on their first application than when outworn. No doubt the Lord is “kind” to “the unthankful,” rather than to the ignorant! And “merciful” to the “reprobates” sooner than to such as have yet had no probation! So that insults offered to His clemency do not rather incur His anger than His caresses! And He does not more willingly impart to strangers that (clemency) which, in the case of His own sons, He has lost, seeing that He has thus adopted the Gentiles while the Jews make sport of His patience! But what the Psychics mean is this – that God, the Judge of righteousness, prefers the repentance to the death of that sinner who has preferred death to repentance! If this is so, it is by sinning that we merit favour.

Come, you rope-walker upon modesty, and chastity, and every kind of sexual sanctity, who, by the instrumentality of a discipline of this nature remote from the path of truth, mount with uncertain footstep upon a most slender thread, balancing flesh with spirit, moderating your animal principle by faith, tempering your eye by fear; why are you thus wholly engaged in a single step? Go on, if you succeed in finding power and will, while you are so secure, and 85 as it were upon solid ground. For if any wavering of the flesh, any distraction of the mind, any wandering of the eye, shall chance to shake you down from your equipoise, “God is good.” To His own (children), not to heathens, He opens His bosom: a second repentance will await you; you will again, from being an adulterer, be a Christian! These (pleas) you (will urge) to me, most benignant interpreter of God. But I would yield my ground to you, if the scripture of “the Shepherd,” which is the only one which favours adulterers, had deserved to find a place in the Divine canon; if it had not been habitually judged by every council of Churches (even of your own) among apocryphal and false (writings); itself adulterous, and hence a patroness of its comrades; from which in other respects, too, you derive initiation; to which, perchance, that “Shepherd” will play the patron whom you depict upon your (sacramental) chalice, (depict, I say, as) himself withal a prostitutor of the Christian sacrament, (and hence) worthily both the idol of drunkenness, and the brize of adultery by which the chalice will quickly be followed, (a chalice) from which you sip nothing more readily than (the flavour of) the “ewe” of (your) second repentance! I, however, imbibe the Scriptures of that Shepherd who cannot be broken. Him John forthwith offers me, together with the laver and duty of repentance; (and offers Him as) saying, “Bear worthy fruits of repentance: and say not, We have Abraham (as our) father” – for fear, to wit, lest they should again take flattering unctions for delinquency from the grace shown to the fathers – “for God is able from these stones to raise sons to Abraham.” Thus it follows that we too (must judge) such as “sin no more” (as) “bearing worthy fruits of repentance.” For what more ripens as the fruit of repentance than the achievement of emendation? But even if pardon is rather the “fruit of repentance,” even pardon cannot co-exist without the cessation from sin. So is the cessation from sin the root of pardon, that pardon may be the fruit of repentance.


See previous chapters. Tertullian means the false application for the Older and the Younger to the Jew and the Christian.

Jonah as the older brother – a new stance indeed.

1700 years removed, Tertullian’s sarcasm is still understood. It is difficult to believe that his opponents would have actually believed that God is more merciful to the Christian who rebels than to the ignorant sinner.

Tertullian must be calling the reader to mind that no man can serve two masters, no man can actually walk so tight a rope.

To note, Tertullian once used the Shepherd of Hermes as Scripture, but had since left it has he delved more into the rigoritst viewpoint. Hermes, in his fifth vision, which is represented as taking place twenty days after the fourth, introduces “the Angel of repentance” in the guise of a shepherd, from whom the whole work takes its name. He delivers to Hermas a series of precepts (mandata, entolai), which form an interesting development of early Christian ethics. One point which deserves special mention is the assertion of a husband’s obligation to take back an adulterous wife on her repentance (wiki).

It is assumed that Tertullian had written this sometime in the 220’s, meaning that the theories that Constantine had in some way written the Christian Bible in 325 must be laid to rest. This is only 120 years after the last writing of John, Revelation, only 4 or 5 generations from those that had seen the Apostles.

Tertullian has harsh words for Hermes, but the Shepherd was held in a measured respect by those around Rome for a generation or two, having the rumor attached to it that it was written by a brother to a bishop of the Roman Church.

Tertullian hears appeals to the Scriptures without doubt or contest, excluding Shepherd.

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