IDOLATRY A CHIEF SIN
“Idolatry is “the principal charge against the human race, the world’s deepest guilt, the all-inclusive cause of judgement”. All other sins – murder, fornication and fraud – are included in this chief sin.”
TERTULLIAN WAS BORN AT CARTHAGE in the middle of the second century into a pagan family. He was converted to the Christian Faith as an adult at about AD 190. A trained lawyer who practised in Rome, he retreated to private life in Carthage after his conversion, and devoted himself to studying and writing.
Never ordained, Tertullian, the first of the church fathers who wrote in a distinctively “Western style”, distinguished himself as the founder of the Western theological tradition. His vast literary output deals with a wide range of issues and controversies, including the refutation of the Marcionite heresy (adversus Marcionem), a treatise on baptism (de baptismo), a treatise on idolatry (de idolatria), and many more. He contributed immensely to the development of Christian theology, especially to the doctrine of the Trinity.
As a theologian and philosopher, Tertullian displayed a broad and deep fund of knowledge in his writings. Not only was he an erudite and astute theologian, he was also a keen and critical observer of life in general with a profound interest in social issues. His deep interest in practical matters and his realism are characteristic of the Western frame of mind.
Thus historians like Karl Holl could write: “In him, the Western spirit spoke clearly for the first time.” Although he may be associated with the Alexandrian school of theology, Tertullian’s entire approach was markedly diﬀerent from that of Clement of Alexandria. Unlike Clement, who sought to establish correlations between the revelation of God and human speculations, Tertullian preferred to confine himself to the biblical revelation that God gave to Israel and the apostles.
Tertullian’s aversion to futile philosophical speculations led him to associate philosophers with heretics. “ The philosophers are the fathers of the heretics,” he famously writes. But his most famous statement on the antithesis between philosophy and theology is found in his main essay, The Prescription of Heretics, where he asks rhetorically: “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem? What does the academy have to do with the church? What do heretics have to do with Christians?”
It is important to understand these statements in context. While it is true that Tertullian was less optimistic about the value of philosophy than Clement, he recognised that one could sometimes find faint echoes of the divine truth in the works of the philosophers. erefore, it was not philosophy that he was attacking, but futile speculations that resulted in serious and harmful errors (cf. Colossians 2:8).
In his fascinating work On Idolatry, Tertullian has some interesting things to say about the idolatrous nature of the culture of his day. He begins by showing that idolatry is the principal sin of man. Idolatry, he writes, is “the principal charge against the human race, the world’s deepest guilt, the all-inclusive cause of judgement”. All other sins – murder, fornication and fraud – are included in this chief sin.
While idolatry has many forms – as is made evident by the numerous temples dedicated to the many diﬀerent deities venerated in Tertullian’s day – it is not limited to them. is is because idolatry, like murder and adultery, is a sin that resides in the soul of man. us, even when all the temples and shrines are destroyed, idolatry is not defeated as long as the true God is not worshipped. And because idolatry is a sin that resides in the human soul, certain cultural practices and expressions are “intrinsically idolatrous” even if no physical idols are used.
TERTULLIAN THEREFORE PROHIBITS Christians from engaging in certain activities and taking up certain occupations. Christians should have no truck with astrology or magic, because according to him, it was the angels of Genesis 6 who invented this “curious art”, and those who practise them will come under the divine judgement.
For the same reasons, he insists that Christians should have nothing to do with pagan festivals. He says that just because Christians must live with pagans does not mean that they must “sin with sinners”, and being all things to all men does not mean being “an idolator to idolators”. “We share the world with them,” Tertullian writes, “but not their errors.”
In addition, he insists that Christians should not be involved in idol-related businesses. us, the idol manufacturer or the incense merchant must renounce his trade when he becomes a Christian or suﬀer excommunication.
In AD 207, Tertullian defected from the Catholic Church and joined the schismatic (many would say “heretical”) movement called Montanism because of his dissatisfaction with the church’s moral state. For this reason, he was not elevated to sainthood by the Catholic and Orthodox churches. The Montanist sect, which originated in Asia Minor in the second century, is known for its strong emphasis in prophecy and the gifts of the Spirit. The sect’s preoccupation with the imminent return of Christ and the cataclysmic end of the world led its members to embrace a strict and even punishing form of asceticism.
It is unfortunate that because of his association with the Montanists in the final years of his life, Tertullian is sometimes remembered as a schismatic. We must never forget that he was a Christian theologian and polemicist who fought against heresy with such determination, and who contributed so creatively to the Western theological tradition.