Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Early Church Fathers Nota Bene

The Sacrifice that God Commands

This is the first in a projected series of disconnected posts on Tertullian’s Apologeticus (c. 197).

In ch. 30, Tertullian notes how zealously he prays for the Roman Emperors, seeking their safety from the true God in whose hands are all the empires of the world. This is much more beneficial for them, he believes, than the sacrifices they demand that Christians make to false gods.

What, then, is the sacrifice of the Christians, if not blood and incense? The sacrifice of Christians that God has commanded is prayer.

We pray for them long life, a secure rule, a safe home, brave armies, a faithful senate, an honest people, a quiet world–and everything for which a man and a Caesar can pray. All this I cannot ask of any other but only of Him, from whom I know I shall receive it, since He it is who alone gives and I am one to whom the answer to prayer is due, His servant, who alone worships Him, who for His teaching am slain, who offer to him that rich and better sacrifice which He himself commanded–I mean prayer, proceeding from flesh pure, soul innocent, spirit holy. Not grains of incense worth one halfpenny, tears of an Arabian tree, not two drops of wine, not blood of a worthless ox longing to die, and on top of all sorts of pollution a conscience unclean;–so that I wonder why, when among you victims are being examined by the most vicious of priests, the breasts of the victims rather than of the sacrificers should be inspected. While thus, then, we spread ourselves before God, let the hooks pierce us, the crosses suspend us, the fires play upon us, the swords gash our throats, the beasts leap upon us. The very posture of the Christian at prayer is readiness for any torture.1 Go to it, my good magistrates, rack out the soul that prays to God for the Emperor. Here lies the crime–where God’s truth is, where devotion to God is. (Apologeticus 30)

Tertullian in this passage coopts the language of external sacrifice and applies it self-referentially and (mostly) internally to the sacrifice that God commands of Christians, the sacrifice of prayer.

Prayer is the Christian’s “sacrificial victim”: ei offero opimam et maiorem hostiam. What is brought to God must, it is true, come from pure flesh–but it is the Christian’s flesh (de carne pudica). What is brought to God must come from something innocent–but it is the Christian’s soul from which it comes (de anima innocenti). What is brought to God must come from something “holy,” set apart–but it is the Christian’s spirit from which it comes (de spiritu sancto). There is no material offering the Christian can bring: not incense, not wine, not blood. In sum, there is no object that God accepts from the Christian other than the Christian himself offered through Christ. There is nothing else.

The sacrifice of the Christian, then, is prayer: of praise, of thanksgiving, and–as here–of intercession.

  1. I plan to return to this point in a brief addendum at a later time.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.