Tertullian on the Duty of Praying for the Emperor


The following chapters from the Apology of the early Church Father Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 240) defends Christians against the charge that their refusing to offer pagan sacrifices for the well-being of the emperor is treasonous. They are a testimony to the continuity of Christian teaching on politics. Tertullian recognizes the legitimacy of the Roman emperor— the kingdom of God does not at once replace the rulers of the world. The political goods that such rulers can achieve are really good, and therefore the Christians pray for them: “We pray for life prolonged; for security to the empire; for protection to the imperial house; for brave armies, a faithful senate, a virtuous people, the world at rest, whatever, as man or Cæsar, an emperor would wish.” The authority of the emperor is in fact derived from God: “I might say Cæsar is more ours than yours, for our God has appointed him.” And yet, “my relation to him is one of freedom,” for there is a higher authority than the emperor.

Sources: Latin: Intratext. English: New Advent.


XXX.

[1] Nos enim pro salute imperatorum deum invocamus aeternum, deum verum, deum vivum, quem et ipsi imperatores propitium sibi praeter ceteros malunt. Sciunt quis illis dederit imperium, sciunt, qua homines, quis et animam, sentiunt eum esse deum solum in cuius solius potestate sunt, a quo sint secundi, post quem primi, ante omnes et super omnes deos. Quidni? cum super omnes homines, qui utique vivunt et mortuis antistant. [2] Recogitant quousque vires imperii sui valent, et ita deum intellegunt; adversus quem valere non possunt, per eum valere se cognoscunt. Caelum denique debellet imperator, caelum captivum triumpho suo invehat, caelo mittat excubias, caelo vectigalia imponat. Non potest. [3] Ideo magnus est quia caelo minor est. Illius enim est ipse cuius et caelum est et omnis creatura. Inde est imperator unde et homo antequam imperator, inde potestas illi unde et spiritus. [4] Illuc suspicientes Christiani manibus expansis, quia innocuis, capite nudo, quia non erubescimus, denique sine monitore, quia de pectore oramus, precantes sumus semper pro omnibus imperatoribus. Vitam illis prolixam, imperium securum, domum tutam, exercitus fortes, senatum fidelem, populum probum, orbem quietum, quaecunque hominis et Caesaris vota sunt, [5] haec ab alio orare non possum quam a quo me scio consecuturum, quoniam et ipse est qui solus praestat, et ego sum cui impetrare debetur, famulus eius, qui eum solus observo, qui propter disciplinam eius occidor, qui ei offero opimam et maiorem hostiam quam ipse mandavit, orationem de carne pudica, de anima innocenti, de spiritu sancto profectam, [6] non grana thuris unius assis, Arabicae arboris lacrimas, nec duas meri guttas, nec sanguinem reprobi bovis mori optantis, et post omnia inquinamenta etiam conscientiam spurcam: ut mirer, cum hostiae probantur penes vos a vitiosissimis sacerdotibus, cur praecordia potius victimarum quam ipsorum sacrificantium examinentur. [7] Sic itaque nos ad deum expansos ungulae fodiant, cruces suspendant, ignes lambant, gladii guttura detruncent, bestiae insiliant: paratus est ad omne supplicium ipse habitus orantis Christiani. Hoc agite, boni praesides, extorquete animam deo supplicantem pro imperatore. Hoc erit crimen, ubi veritas dei et devotio est.

Chapter 30

For we offer prayer for the safety of our princes to the eternal, the true, the living God, whose favour, beyond all others, they must themselves desire. They know from whom they have obtained their power; they know, as they are men, from whom they have received life itself; they are convinced that He is God alone, on whose power alone they are entirely dependent, to whom they are second, after whom they occupy the highest places, before and above all the gods. Why not, since they are above all living men, and the living, as living, are superior to the dead? They reflect upon the extent of their power, and so they come to understand the highest; they acknowledge that they have all their might from Him against whom their might is nought. Let the emperor make war on heaven; let him lead heaven captive in his triumph; let him put guards on heaven; let him impose taxes on heaven! He cannot. Just because he is less than heaven, he is great. For he himself is His to whom heaven and every creature appertains. He gets his sceptre where he first got his humanity; his power where he got the breath of life. Thither we lift our eyes, with hands outstretched, because free from sin; with head uncovered, for we have nothing whereof to be ashamed; finally, without a monitor, because it is from the heart we supplicate. Without ceasing, for all our emperors we offer prayer. We pray for life prolonged; for security to the empire; for protection to the imperial house; for brave armies, a faithful senate, a virtuous people, the world at rest, whatever, as man or Cæsar, an emperor would wish. These things I cannot ask from any but the God from whom I know I shall obtain them, both because He alone bestows them and because I have claims upon Him for their gift, as being a servant of His, rendering homage to Him alone,persecuted for His doctrine, offering to Him, at His own requirement, that costly and noble sacrifice of prayer dispatched from the chaste body, an unstained soul, a sanctified spirit, not the few grains of incense a farthing buys— tears of an Arabian tree—not a few drops of wine,— not the blood of some worthless ox to which death is a relief, and, in addition to other offensive things, a polluted conscience, so that one wonders, when your victims are examined by these vile priests, why the examination is not rather of the sacrificers than the sacrifices. With our hands thus stretched out and up to God, rend us with your iron claws, hang us up on crosses, wrap us in flames, take our heads from us with the sword, let loose the wild beasts on us—the very attitude of a Christian praying is one of preparation for all punishment. Let this, good rulers, be your work: wring from us the soul, beseeching Godon the emperor’s behalf. Upon the truth of God, and devotion to His name, put the brand of crime.

 

XXXI.

[1] Adolati nunc sumus imperatori et mentiti vota quae diximus, ad evadendam scilicet vim. Plane proficit ista fallacia. Admittitis nos enim probare quodcunque defendimus. Qui ergo putaveris nihil nos de salute Caesarum curare, inspice dei voces, litteras nostras, quas neque ipsi supprimimus et plerique casus ad extraneos transferunt. [2] Scitote ex illis praeceptum esse nobis ad redundantiam benignitatis etiam pro inimicis deum orare et persecutoribus nostris bona precari. Qui magis inimici et persecutores Christianorum quam de quorum maiestate convenimur in crimen? [3] Sed etiam nominatim atque manifeste, Orate, inquit, pro regibus et pro principibus et potestatibus, ut omnia tranquilla sint vobis. Cum enim concutitur imperium concussis etiam ceteris membris eius utique et nos, licet extranei a turbis aestimemur, in aliquo loco casus invenimur.

Chapter 31

But we merely, you say, flatter the emperor, and feign these prayers of ours to escape persecution. Thank you for your mistake, for you give us the opportunity of proving our allegations. Do you, then, who think that we care nothing for the welfare of Cæsar, look into God’s revelations, examine our sacred books, which we do not keep in hiding, and which many accidents put into the hands of those who are not of us. Learn from them that a large benevolence is enjoined upon us, even so far as to supplicate God for our enemies, and to beseech blessings on our persecutors. Matthew 5:44 Who, then, are greater enemies and persecutors of Christians, than the very parties with treason against whom we are charged? Nay, even in terms, and most clearly, the Scripture says, Pray for kings, and rulers, and powers, that all may be peace with you. 1 Timothy 2:2 For when there is disturbance in the empire, if the commotion is felt by its other members, surely we too, though we are not thought to be given to disorder, are to be found in some place or other which the calamity affects.

 

XXXII.

[1] Est et alia maior necessitas nobis orandi pro imperatoribus, etiam pro omni statu imperii rebusque Romanis, qui vim maximam universo orbi imminentem ipsamque clausulam saeculi acerbitates horrendas comminantem Romani imperii commeatu scimus retardari. Itaque nolumus experiri, et dum precamur differri, Romanae diuturnitati favemus. [2] Sed et iuramus, sicut non per genios Caesarum, ita per salutem eorum, quae est augustior omnibus geniis. Nescitis genios daemonas dici et inde diminutiva voce daemonia? Nos iudicium dei suspicimus in imperatoribus, qui gentibus illos praefecit. [3] Id in eis scimus esse quod deus voluit, ideoque et salvum volumus esse quod deus voluit et pro magno id iuramento habemus. Certerum daemonas, id est genios, adiurare consuevimus, ut illos de hominibus exigamus, non deierare, ut eis honorem divinitatis conferamus.

Chapter 32

There is also another and a greater necessity for our offering prayer in behalf of the emperors, nay, for the complete stability of the empire, and for Roman interests in general. For we know that a mighty shock impending over the whole earth— in fact, the very end of all things threatening dreadful woes— is only retarded by the continued existence of the Roman empire. We have no desire, then, to be overtaken by these dire events; and in praying that their coming may be delayed, we are lending our aid to Rome’s duration. More than this, though we decline to swear by the genii of the Cæsars, we swear by their safety, which is worth far more than all your genii. Are you ignorant that these genii are called Dæmones, and thence the diminutive name Dæmonia is applied to them? We respect in the emperors the ordinance of God, who has set them over the nations. We know that there is that in them whichGod has willed; and to what God has willed we desire all safety, and we count an oath by it a great oath. But as for demons, that is, your genii, we have been in the habit of exorcising them, not of swearing by them, and thereby conferring on them divine honour.

 

XXXIII.

[1] Sed quid ego amplius de religione atque pietate Christiana in imperatore? quem necesse est suspiciamus ut eum quem dominus noster elegit, ut merito dixerim: Noster est magis Caesar, a nostro deo constitutus. [2] Itaque ut meo plus ego illi operor in salutem, siquidem non solum ab eo postulo eam qui potest praestare, aut quod talis postulo qui merear impetrare, sed etiam quod temperans maiestatem Caesaris infra deum magis illum commendo deo, cui soli subicio. Subicio autem cui non adaequo. [3] Non enim deum imperatorem dicam, vel quia mentiri nescio, vel quia illum deridere non audeo, vel quia nec ipse se deum volet dici. Si homo sit, interest homini deo cedere. Satis habeat appellari imperator. Grande et hoc nomen est, quod a deo traditur. Negat illum imperatorem qui deum dicit; nisi homo sit non est imperator. [4] Hominem se esse etiam triumphans in illo sublimissimo curru admonetur. Suggeritur enim ei a tergo: Respice post te! Hominem te memento! Et utique hoc magis gaudet tanta se gloria coruscare, ut illi admonitio condicionis suae sit necessaria. Minor erat, si tunc deus diceretur quia non vere diceretur. Maior est qui revocatur, ne se deum existimet.

  Chapter 33

But why dwell longer on the reverence and sacred respect of Christians to the emperor, whom we cannot but look up to as called by our Lord to his office? So that on valid grounds I might say Cæsar is more ours than yours, for ourGod has appointed him. Therefore, as having this propriety in him, I do more than you for his welfare, not merely because I ask it of Him who can give it, or because I ask it as one who deserves to get it, but also because, in keeping the majesty of Cæsar within due limits, and putting it under the Most High, and making it less than divine, I commend him the more to the favour of Deity, to whom I make him alone inferior. But I place him in subjection to one I regard as more glorious than himself. Never will I call the emperor God, and that either because it is not in me to be guilty of falsehood; or that I dare not turn him into ridicule; or that not even himself will desire to have that high name applied to him. If he is but a man, it is his interest as man to give God His higher place. Let him think it enough to bear the name of emperor. That, too, is a great name of God’s giving. To call him God, is to rob him of his title. If he is not a man, emperor he cannot be. Even when, amid the honours of a triumph, he sits on that lofty chariot, he is reminded that he is only human. A voice at his back keeps whispering in his ear, Look behind you; remember you are but a man. And it only adds to his exultation, that he shines with a glory so surpassing as to require an admonitory reference to his condition. It adds to his greatness that he needs such a reminiscence, lest he should think himself divine.

 

XXXIV.

[1] Augustus, imperii formator, ne dominum quidem dici se volebat; et hoc enim dei est cognomen. Dicam plane imperatorem dominum, sed more communi, sed quando non cogor, ut dominum dei vice dicam. Ceterum liber sum illi. Dominus enim meus unus est, deus omnipotens aeternus, idem qui et ipsius. [2] Qui pater patriae est, quomodo dominus est? Sed et gratius est nomen pietatis quam potestatis. Etiam familiae magis patres quam domini vocantur. [3] Tanto abest ut imperator deus debeat dici, quod non potest credi non modo turpissima sed et perniciosa adolatione. Tamquam si habens imperatorem alterum appelles, nonne maximam et inexorabilem offensam contrahes eius quem habuisti, etiam ipsi timendam quem appellasti? Esto religiosus in deum, qui vis illum propitium imperatori. Desine alium deum credere atque ita et hunc deum dicere cui deo opus est. [4] Si non de mendacio erubescit adulatio eiusmodi hominem deum appellans, timeat saltim de infausto. Maledictum est ante apotheosin deum Caesarem nuncupari.

  Chapter 34

Augustus, the founder of the empire, would not even have the title Lord; for that, too, is a name of Deity. For my part, I am willing to give the emperor this designation, but in the common acceptation of the word, and when I am not forced to call him Lord as in God’s place. But my relation to him is one of freedom; for I have but one true Lord, the God omnipotent and eternal, who is Lord of the emperor as well. How can he, who is truly father of his country, be its lord? The name of piety is more grateful than the name of power; so the heads of families are called fathers rather than lords. Far less should the emperor have the name of God. We can only profess our belief that he is that by the most unworthy, nay, a fatal flattery; it is just as if, having an emperor, you call another by the name, in which case will you not give great and unappeasable offense to him who actually reigns?— an offense he, too, needs to fear on whom you have bestowed the title. Give all reverence to God, if you wish Him to be propitious to the emperor. Give up all worship of, and belief in, any other being as divine. Cease also to give the sacred name to him who has need of God himself. If such adulation is not ashamed of its lie, in addressing a man as divine, let it have some dread at least of the evil omen which it bears. It is the invocation of a curse, to give Cæsar the name of god before his apotheosis.

 

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