The Crime of Idolatry


Tertullian was the son of an official in the Roman army and grew up as a pagan in North Africa. He was converted in about 197-198 A.D. in middle age and swiftly turned his considerable skills as a lawyer and a scholar to the defense of Christianity against paganism. In this extract he sets out his case that idolatry is the root of all sins in that it displaces God and His purposes from their rightful position.

The principal crime of the human race, the highest guilt charged upon the world, the whole procuring cause of judgment, is idolatry. For, although each single fault retains its own proper feature, although it is destined to judgment under its own proper name also, yet it is marked off under the general account of idolatry. Set aside names, examine works, the idolater is likewise a murderer. Do you inquire whom he has slain? If it contributes ought to the aggravation of the indictment, no stranger nor personal enemy, but his own self . . . Further, you may recognize in the same crime adultery and fornication; for he who serves false gods is doubtless an adulterer of truth, because all falsehood is adultery. So, too, he is sunk in fornication. For who that is a fellow-worker with unclean spirits, does not stalk in general pollution and fornication? And thus it is that the Holy Scriptures use the designation of fornication in their upbraiding of idolatry.

The essence of fraud, I take it, is that any should seize what is another’s, or refuse to another his due; and, of course, fraud done toward man is a name of greatest crime. Well, but idolatry does fraud to God, by refusing to Him, and conferring on others, His honours. . .1


1 Tertullian, On Idolatry, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3, ed. Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 61.

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