Why The Church Fathers Were Comfortable With Caesar

Tertullian famously among the Church fathers argued against what he viewed as early syncretism in his On the Prescription of Heretics. His credentials as a thinker pursuing a pure Christianity shorn of anything unbiblical were secured the moment he issued his throaty caution against wedding Greek philosophy with the Scriptures. Tertullian always studied at what he called “the porch of Solomon,” meaning the Hebrew scriptures and the letters of the Apostles.

Tertullian’s intellectual and political dispositions, however, are not the quietist and otherworldly socio-political commitments espoused by Hauerwas and Yoder. They are not the politically mobilized folk religion of Robert Jeffress or John Hagee. They are not even the Christianized neoliberal politics of centrist Evangelicals. They are the writings of a man comfortable with the importance of the Roman Empire and its Caesars in the divine economy.

In the late Second Century AD Tertullian’s Apologeticum answered criticisms of offering prayer for the emperor.

“Now (ye will say) we have been flattering the Emperor, and have feigned these prayers, of which we have spoken, that we may escape forsooth your violence.” Christians interests in the Roman caesars was not passing, or indifferent.

Much profit clearly doth the deceit bring us! for ye allow us to prove whatsoever we maintain. Thou therefore, that thinkest that we care nothing for the health of Caesar, look into the oracles of God, our writings, which we do not ourselves suppress, and which very many accidents transfer to the hands of strangers. Learn from them, that it is commanded us, in the overflowing of kindness, to entreat God even for our enemies, and to pray for blessings on our persecutors. And who more the enemies and persecutors of us Christians, than those, concerning whose majesty we are charged with guilt? But even by name, and in plain words: Pray, saith the Scripture, for kings, and for princes, and for powers, that ye may have all things in quietness. For when the kingdom is shaken, all its other members being shaken with it, surely we also, although we stand aloof from tumults, are found to have some place in the misfortune.

Far from being a passing nuisance to Christianity that God would eventually sweep away, the emperors served the vital function of keeping stability in the social order, and they deserved the prayers of Christian peoples, because in some ways the caesar was, if not a Christian emperor, certainly an emperor of Christians. “I might even say with good cause,” wrote Tertullian, “Caesar is rather ours, being appointed by our God.”

The Roman Empire itself, according to Tertullian, was not merely a kingdom that happened to rule, but a good that Tertullian hoped would endure and believed would endure until the end of time. Christians had a great “need to pray for the Emperors, and moreover for the whole estate of the Empire, and the fortunes of Rome” because the Church knew that the “mighty shock which hangeth over the whole world, and the end of time itself, threatening terrible and grievous things, is delayed because of the time allowed to the Roman Empire.” Tertullian, unlike American fundamentalists who spent the last quarter of the Twentieth Century engaging in a twisted voyeurism regarding the apocalypse, almost casually remarked that he would rather not endure an apocalypse. “We would not therefore experience these things, and while we pray that they may be put off, we favour the long continuance of Rome.”

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"We fully recognize now, the unity and brotherhood of all believers in Christ Jesus—a unity and brotherhood which is not affected by distinctions of race, nationality, sex, culture, or civil status."

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