On Honoring Caesar (Tertullian)

The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols.   -              Edited By: Alexander Roberts       Tertullian’s (145-220 AD) Apology is an outstanding early defense of Christianity.  I’ve written on Tertullian before, but here and now I want to highlight a section (chap. 31-34) where Tertullian said that Christians neither hated Caesar nor dishonored him.  Rather, they prayed for him and gave him high honor, as the Scriptures commanded.

“[Do you think that we care nothing for the welfare of Caesar?] …Most clearly the Scripture says, ‘Pray for kings, and rulers, and powers, that all may be peace with you.’ …We respect in the emperors the ordinance of God, who has set them over the nations.”

“…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 Caesar is more ours than yours, for  our God 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…but also because, in keeping the majesty of Caesar within due limits, and putting it under the Most High, and making it less than divine, I commend him the more to the favor of Deity, to whom I make him alone inferior.”

“But I place him [Caesar] in subjection to one I regard as more glorious than himself.  Never will I call the emperor God….  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 the 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 could not be.  Even when, amid the honors of 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 thee; remember thou art but a man.'”

“I am willing to give the emperor this designation [lord], and when I am not forced to call him Lord as in God’s place.  …For I have but one true Lord, the God omnipotent and eternal, who is Lord of the emperor as well.”

In other words, though early Christians absolutely refused to call Caesar Lord (as in “Most High God”), they did call him lord (as in “Your Majesty”), they did pray for him, and they did show him honor.  They did not mock him, ridicule him, or make jokes about him – instead they showed him respect.  Therefore, Tertullian argued, rather than be charged with treason, Christians should have been commended for showing such great honor to Caesar.  Indeed, Christians from the past can teach us lessons for today.

(This is a re-post from June 2014)

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

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