Reading Tertullian’s On Modesty as been beneficial to me – as a mental and a spiritual exercise. I have come to see Tertullian – in this instance – as a man deeply troubled by the lack of morality and holiness inside the church that he dearly loved. His antagonistic words were meant to counter the steep slide into moral depravity which he saw overtaking the church. Perhaps he was offensive and brutish, his rigorism showing, but surely he did it out of love for the Church and out of a plea for holy living.
Accordingly, these who have received “another Paraclete” in and through the apostles, – (a Paraclete) whom, not recognising Him even in His special prophets, they no longer possess in the apostles either; – come, now, let them, even from the apostolic instrument, teach us the possibility that the stains of a flesh which after baptism has been repolluted, can by repentance be washed away. Do we not, in the apostles also, recognise the form of the Old Law with regard to the demonstration of adultery, how great (a crime) it is; lest perchance it be esteemed more trivial in the new stage of disciplines than in the old? When first the Gospel thundered and shook the old system to its base, when dispute was being held on the question of retaining or not the Law; this is the first rule which the apostles, on the authority of the Holy Spirit, send out to those who were already beginning to be gathered to their side out of the nations: “It has seemed (good),” say they, “to the Holy Spirit and to us to cast upon you no ampler weight than (that) of those (things) from which it is necessary that abstinence be observed; from sacrifices, and from fornications, and from blood: by abstaining from which ye act rightly, the Holy Spirit carrying you.” Sufficient it is, that in this place withal there has been preserved to adultery and fornication the post of their own honour between idolatry and murder: for the interdict upon “blood” we shall understand to be (an interdict) much more upon human blood. Well, then, in what light do the apostles will those crimes to appear which alone they select, in the way of careful guarding against, from the pristine Law? which alone they prescribe as necessarily to be abstained from? Not that they permit others; but that these alone they put in the foremost rank, of course as not remissible; (they,) who, for the heathens’ sake, made the other burdens of the law remissible. Why, then, do they release our neck from so heavy a yoke, except to place forever upon those (necks) these compendia of discipline? Why do they indulgently relax so many bonds, except that they may wholly bind us in perpetuity to such as are more necessary? They loosed us from the more numerous, that we might be bound up to abstinence from the more noxious. The matter has been settled by compensation: we have gained much, in order that we may render some-what. But the compensation is not revocable; if, that is, it will be revoked by iteration – (iteration) of adultery, of course, and blood and idolatry: for it will follow that the (burden of) the whole law will be incurred, if the condition of pardon shall be violated. But it is not lightly that the Holy Spirit has come to an agreement with us – coming to this agreement even without our asking; whence He is the more to be honoured. His engagement none but an ungrateful man will dissolve. In that event, He will neither accept back what He has discarded, nor discard what He has retained. Of the latest Testament the condition is ever immutable; and, of course the public recitation of that decree, and the counsel embodied therein, will cease (only) with the word. He has definitely enough refused pardon to those crimes the careful avoidance whereof He selectively enjoined; He has claimed whatever He has not inferentially conceded. Hence it is that there is no restoration of peace granted by the Churches to “idolatry” or to “blood.” From which final decision of theirs that the apostles should have departed, is (I think) not lawful to believe; or else, if some find it possible to believe so, they will be bound to prove it.
Tertullian seems to take a liberty with the meaning of the text, as blood was enjoyed by Gentiles and expressly prohibited as a diet in the Law; however, as Tertullian was apt to do, he applied a strong application to it than might have been called for.