Ante-Nicene Fathers/Volume IV/Tertullian: Part Fourth/On Modesty/Chapter 1

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Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. IV, Tertullian: Part Fourth, On Modesty
by Tertullian, translated by Sydney Thelwall
Chapter 1
155827Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. IV, Tertullian: Part Fourth, On Modesty — Chapter 1Sydney ThelwallTertullian


On Modesty.[1]

[Translated by the Rev. S. Thelwall.]


Modesty, the flower of manners, the honour of our bodies, the grace of the sexes, the integrity of the blood, the guarantee of our race, the basis of sanctity, the pre-indication of every good disposition; rare though it is, and not easily perfected, and scarce ever retained in perpetuity, will yet up to a certain point linger in the world, if nature shall have laid the preliminary groundwork of it, discipline persuaded to it, censorial rigour curbed its excesses—on the hypothesis, that is, that every mental good quality is the result either of birth, or else of training, or else of external compulsion.

But as the conquering power of things evil is on the increase—which is the characteristic of the last times[2]—things good are now not allowed either to be born, so corrupted are the seminal principles; or to be trained, so deserted are studies; nor to be enforced, so disarmed are the laws.  In fact, (the modesty) of which we are now beginning (to treat) is by this time grown so obsolete, that it is not the abjuration but the moderation of the appetites which modesty is believed to be; and he is held to be chaste enough who has not been too chaste.  But let the world’s[3] modesty see to itself, together with the world[4] itself:  together with its inherent nature, if it was wont to originate in birth; its study, if in training; its servitude, if in compulsion:  except that it had been even more unhappy if it had remained only to prove fruitless, in that it had not been in God’s household that its activities had been exercised.  I should prefer no good to a vain good:  what profits it that that should exist whose existence profits not?  It is our own good things whose position is now sinking; it is the system of Christian modesty which is being shaken to its foundation—(Christian modesty), which derives its all from heaven; its nature, “through the laver of regeneration;”[5] its discipline, through the instrumentality of preaching; its censorial rigour, through the judgments which each Testament exhibits; and is subject to a more constant external compulsion, arising from the apprehension or the desire of the eternal fire or kingdom.[6]

In opposition to this (modesty), could I not have acted the dissembler?  I hear that there has even been an edict set forth, and a peremptory one too.  The Pontifex Maximus[7]—that is, the bishop of bishops[8]—issues an edict:  “I remit, to such as have discharged (the requirements of) repentance, the sins both of adultery and of fornication.”  O edict, on which cannot be inscribed, “Good deed!”  And where shall this liberality be posted up?  On the very spot, I suppose, on the very gates of the sensual appetites, beneath the very titles of the sensual appetites.  There is the place for promulgating such repentance, where the delinquency itself shall haunt.  There is the place to read the pardon, where entrance shall be made under the hope thereof.  But it is in the church that this (edict) is read, and in the church that it is pronounced; and (the church) is a virgin!  Far, far from Christ’s betrothed be such a proclamation!  She, the true, the modest, the saintly, shall be free from stain even of her ears.  She has none to whom to make such a promise; and if she have had, she does not make it; since even the earthly temple of God can sooner have been called by the Lord a “den of robbers,”[9] than of adulterers and fornicators.

This too, therefore, shall be a count in my indictment against the Psychics; against the fellowship of sentiment also which I myself formerly maintained with them; in order that they may the more cast this in my teeth for a mark of fickleness.  Repudiation of fellowship is never a pre-indication of sin.  As if it were not easier to err with the majority, when it is in the company of the few that truth is loved!  But, however, a profitable fickleness shall no more be a disgrace to me, than I should wish a hurtful one to be an ornament.  I blush not at an error which I have ceased to hold, because I am delighted at having ceased to hold it, because I recognise myself to be better and more modest.  No one blushes at his own improvement.  Even in Christ, knowledge had its stages of growth;[10] through which stages the apostle, too, passed.  “When I was a child,” he says, “as a child I spake, as a child I understood; but when I became a man, those (things) which had been the child’s I abandoned:”[11]  so truly did he turn away from his early opinions:  nor did he sin by becoming an emulator not of ancestral but of Christian traditions,[12] wishing even the precision of them who advised the retention of circumcision.[13]  And would that the same fate might befall those, too, who obtruncate the pure and true integrity of the flesh; amputating not the extremest superficies, but the inmost image of modesty itself, while they promise pardon to adulterers and fornicators, in the teeth of the primary discipline of the Christian Name; a discipline to which heathendom itself bears such emphatic witness, that it strives to punish that discipline in the persons of our females rather by defilements of the flesh than tortures; wishing to wrest from them that which they hold dearer than life!  But now this glory is being extinguished, and that by means of those who ought with all the more constancy to refuse concession of any pardon to defilements of this kind, that they make the fear of succumbing to adultery and fornication their reason for marrying as often as they please—since “better it is to marry than to burn.”[14]  No doubt it is for continence sake that incontinence is necessary—the “burning” will be extinguished by “fires!”  Why, then, do they withal grant indulgence, under the name of repentance, to crimes for which they furnish remedies by their law of multinuptialism?  For remedies will be idle while crimes are indulged, and crimes will remain if remedies are idle.  And so, either way, they trifle with solicitude and negligence; by taking emptiest precaution against (crimes) to which they grant quarter, and granting absurdest quarter to (crimes) against which they take precaution:  whereas either precaution is not to be taken where quarter is given, or quarter not given where precaution is taken; for they take precaution, as if they were unwilling that something should be committed; but grant indulgence, as if they were willing it should be committed:  whereas, if they be unwilling it should be committed, they ought not to grant indulgence; if they be willing to grant indulgence, they ought not to take precaution.  For, again, adultery and fornication will not be ranked at the same time among the moderate and among the greatest sins, so that each course may be equally open with regard to them—the solicitude which takes precaution, and the security which grants indulgence.  But since they are such as to hold the culminating place among crimes, there is no room at once for their indulgence as if they were moderate, and for their precaution as if they were greatest.  But by us precaution is thus also taken against the greatest, or, (if you will), highest (crimes, viz.,) in that it is not permitted, after believing, to know even a second marriage, differentiated though it be, to be sure, from the work of adultery and fornication by the nuptial and dotal tablets:  and accordingly, with the utmost strictness, we excommunicate digamists, as bringing infamy upon the Paraclete by the irregularity of their discipline.  The self-same liminal limit we fix for adulterers also and fornicators; dooming them to pour forth tears barren of peace, and to regain from the Church no ampler return than the publication of their disgrace.


  1. [Written not earlier than a.d. 208; probably very much later.  See Bp. Kaye’s very important remarks on this treatise, p. 224.]
  2. Comp. 2 Tim. iii. 1–5; Matt. xxiv. 12.
  3. Sæculi.
  4. Sæculo.
  5. Tit. iii. 5.
  6. Comp. Matt. xxv. 46.
  7. [This is irony; a heathen epithet applied to Victor (or his successor), ironically, because he seemed ambitious of superiority over other bishops.]
  8. Zephyrinus (de Genoude): Zephyrinus or (his predecessor) Victor.  J. B. Lightfoot, Ep. ad Phil., 221, 222, ed. 1, 1868.  [See also Robertson, Ch. Hist., p. 121.  S.]
  9. Matt. xxi. 13; Mark xi. 17; Luke xix. 46; Jer. vii. 11.
  10. See Luke ii. 52.
  11. 1 Cor. xiii. 11, one clause omitted.
  12. Comp. Gal. i. 14 with 2 Thess. ii. 15.
  13. See Gal. v. 12.
  14. 1 Cor. vii. 9, repeatedly quoted.