Tertullian’s Thought on Persecution and Martyrdom

[Imaginary portrait of Tertullian.]

[Adapted from text by Roy Stults from his unpublished Historical Perspectives on a Theology of Suffering, Persecution, and Martyrdom] Tertullian was a prolific Christian writer of the early third century—an apologist (defender of the faith) and theologian. (Among his contributions to theology was the term “Trinity” to explain the Bible’s teaching on Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.) Persecution and martyrdom were often discussed in his apologetic writings. He shared some themes of earlier apologists but expanded the literature by introducing new themes that he wove into a unique argument to meet the situation of his day.

His most prominent theme is a radical view of the Christian faith and life. A Christian was one who had experienced a thorough conversion, which Tertullian saw as a complete break from the previous life, a rejection of the old culture and philosophy that embodied paganism. Anyone who did that was liable to suffer persecution.

Tertullian saw persecution as the will of God, who superintended the martyrdom of his followers. The Christian life, rejecting the world and the enticements of the world, with its submission and obedience to God’s will, was life-long training for martyrdom. Persecution, in short, was a part of the Christian’s total training. Tertullian’s theology in this area was practical and spiritual.

He describes persecution as a pestilence that the church must endure. He uses the analogy of a scorpion to make this point. Although ordained by the Lord, persecution is initiated by Satan and takes many forms. One outcome of Christian martyrdom is the trampling of Satan. Satan is defeated over and over again when Christians remain faithful unto death.

While Satan was the spirit behind persecution, the Roman legal system was the avenue by which persecution was implemented against Christians. Tertullian accused Roman authorities of injustice, negligence, and ignorance. They did not allow Christians to mount a defense, there was no public inquiry into charges against Christians, and the authorities did not seem inclined to investigate whether the charges were right or wrong. Hatred of Christians, Tertullian said, was unjust because it was based on ignorance. There was no legal or practical reason for Christians to be hated except because of the name “Christian.” The battle Christians were waging was about the Name, of which the Romans knew nothing.

Christians did not worship the emperors or swear by their genius because to do so dishonored the emperors, who were not gods, nor wished to be. Christians honored Caesar by praying for him to the real God who, in fact, had given Caesar his position and power and who was capable of protecting him.

Tertullian made an interesting contrast between the attitude and character of Christians and criminals. Christians readily confessed to their faith while criminals sought to hide their crimes. Tertullian called Rome’s so-called justice at this point “perverse justice.” It was contradictory, because authorities used torture to get Christians to deny their “guilt” but tortured criminals to get them to admit their guilt!

In a writing directed toward martyrs (Ad Martyrs), Tertullian sought to encourage imprisoned Christians awaiting execution by comparing their prison experience with living in the world. It was the Holy Spirit who had led them to prison, who was with them in prison, and who would finally lead them to God, presumably at the time of their martyrdom. He asserted that the world was also a prison and, in many respects, because of its sins and temptations, may have been worse than the prison in which Christians were incarcerated. He saw imprisonment as training by discipline and hardship, much as exercises trained soldiers for battle. Christians were put into prison to fight their battles where Satan had made his home.

Thus, in Tertullian’s writings, the theology of persecution and martyrdom was articulated more fully and clearly than in prior apologies. His teaching was a step forward toward a positive understanding of God’s purpose in ordaining persecution.