De pudicitia
(On modesty)

[CPL 30]


Latin: Munier, 1993 --- English: Thelwall, 1870; Claesson, c.1950 --- French: Genoude, 1852; De Labriolle, 1906 --- German: Kellner, 1915

Summary Content Other points of interest Manuscripts Title variations Bibliography


A bishop has issued an edict detailing regulations for how fornication and adultery by Christians can be forgiven.  Tertullian is appalled.


In 22 chapters.

This rare work deals with a question that any group of Christians must face sooner or later; how does the church deal with blatant sins committed by its members?  At what point should they be expelled from the group?  A change in practise by the church in Carthage called forth these comments.

Tertullian has become disgusted with the complacent willingness to forgive almost anything, evinced especially by an edict of a bishop, perhaps Agrippinus of Carthage, allowing adultery and fornication, and takes a tough line on sin and repentance. (A similar edict in Rome around the same time by Pope Callistus led to a schism and the election of Hippolytus as the first anti-pope).

The edict in question is quoted in ch 1:

I hear that there has even been an edict set forth, and a peremptory one too. The Pontifex Maximus -that is, the bishop of bishops -issues an edict: "I remit, to such as have discharged (the requirements of) repentance, the sins both of adultery and of fornication."

A general comment from Barnes, ch 7, p83:

"Tertullian's later writings receive abuse and condemnation in subsequent ages. Many of the charges are unmerited. Tertullian did not leave the church wholly or mainly of his own accord. In the age of the Severi, the church was changing. It was becoming an established institution in which enthusiasm or direct communion with God presented a threat to the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Tertullian is the first great teacher of unimpeachable doctrinal orthodoxy who dared to enunciate an unpalatable truth: the church is not a conclave of bishops, but the manifestation of the Holy Spirit: (ch 21, 17): ecclesia spiritus per spiritalem hominem, non ecclesia numerus episcoporum."


How does a church deal with the sins committed by its members? As 1 John makes a statement about there being "sin that leads to death", the church at this time classified these sins as either forgiveable by the church, and not involving exclusion once repentance was made, or else fatal.

There are some sins of daily committal, to which we all are liable: for who will be free from the accident of either being angry unjustly, and retaining his anger beyond sunset; or else even using manual violence or else carelessly speaking evil; or else rashly swearing; or else forfeiting his plighted word or else lying, from bashfulness or "necessity"? In businesses, in official duties, in trade, in food, in sight, in hearing, by how great temptations are we plied! So that, if there were no pardon for such sins as these, salvation would be unattainable to any. Of these, then, there will be pardon, through the successful Suppliant of the Father, Christ.

But there are, too, the contraries of these; as the graver and destructive ones, such as are incapable of pardon-murder, idolatry, fraud, apostasy, blasphemy; (and), of course, too, adultery and fornication; and if there be any other "violation of the temple of God." For these Christ will no more be the successful Head: these will not at all be incurred by one who has been born of God, who will cease to be the son of God if he do incur them. (Ch. 19)

Unforgiveable sins meant exclusion from the church, although not necessarily damnation: the repentance of the excommunicate,

…if it reaps not the harvest of peace here, yet it sows the seed of it with the Lord; nor does it lose, but prepares, its fruit. It will not fail of emolument if it does not fail in duty. (Ch. 3)

However a bishop had issued an edict transferring adultery and fornication from the second category to the first, and evidently reflecting the general view among believers at the time. This which was defended from various scriptures such as the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, the prodigal, and that God desires no man to perish. However the more serious felt that this was all an innovation and that much of this exegesis involved deliberate quibbling, and avoiding the obvious teaching of scripture that adultery is just as serious as murder. Nor were they happy at the idea of mankind making decisions of this sort, which would be inevitably corrupted by our own tendencies to convenience.

This book addresses a dispute between believers which turns in part on the interpretation of scripture. Tertullian points out many standard misuses of scripture, and calls for the highest standards of intellectual and personal integrity. He also derides interpretations that would make our Lord a quibbler.

Much of this issue is theoretical for modern Christians, as sadly we have no church that could or would apply excommunication, or require public repentance for the lesser sins. Exclusion from the church is likely to be governed by quite other factors than scriptural ones. However it is permissable to wonder whether 1 John is being correctly interpreted in the first place - creating this disciplinary superstructure upon one verse seems excessive. On the other hand, our age is just as lax as that in which this book was written, and it is perfectly possible that we are not taking the teaching of scripture on this issue as seriously as it deserves, peddling easy 'forgiveness' which God does not recognise, in precisely the way Tertullian describes.

I have written some notes on each chapter.


  1. In ch. 3 Tertullian deals with an objection which reveals how easy it would be to totally misunderstand what is being discussed.  Some people have objected that the rule Tertullian applies means there is no point for anyone to repent of sins which are unforgiveable. But, he says, let's remember that we are talking about forgiving people and readmitting them to the church. God can still forgive these people. Let them remain outside the visible body of the church, and beg God for mercy. Their example will be helpful to others, and will not be without fruit.
  2. Between apostles, there is a common agreement in rules of faith and of discipline. For, "Whether (it be) I," says (Paul), "or they, thus we preach."  (ch.19)
  3. Contains an attribution of the letter to the Hebrews to Barnabas (ch. 20)
  4. Some regarded the Shepherd of Hermas as scripture. Tertullian now rejects this (10:12, 20:2) although earlier in De oratione (ch 16) he had been much more respectful of it.  
  5. He tells us that Hebrews is  by Barnabas (20:2).
  6. Fornication outside of marriage cannot be forgiven on condition of marriage. (4:4).
  7. Homosexuality and other forms of vice other than adultery and fornication are considered, not sins but monstrostities. (4:5)
  8. Pagan religion facilitated adultery. (5:10)
  9. Chapter 8 indicates that the Christian  supercedes the Jew in the promises of God, but then adds that the Christian will rejoice and not grieve at the restoration of Israel, since our hope is united with it.
  10. Tertullian discusses the sort of exegesis of the parables where every little thing has some symbolic meaning: "curious niceties of this kind not only render some things suspected, but, by the subtlety of forced explanations, generally lead away from the truth. There are, moreover, some points which are just simply introduced with a view to the structure and disposition and texture of the parable, in order that they may be worked up throughout to the end for which the typical example is being provided." (9:3)
  11. We are as much bound to keep the sense of what the Lord says, as the literal word. (9:22)
  12. The heretic and psychic use the opportune support of one ambiguous passage, in opposition to the disciplined host of sentences of the entire text. (16:24, 17:18)
  13. In discussing the Shepherd of Hermas he refers to 'the divine canon' (divino instrumento) of scripture, and to decisions at councils of churches as to which books should be considered apocryphal and false.  He seems to indicate that Montanists also held these councils. (10:12)
  14. He uses the term 'novissimum testamentum' (newest testament) for the new covenant. (12:10)
  15. He divides sins after conversion into forgiveable, and unforgiveable -- the penitent for the former obtaining forgiveness from the bishop, for the latter from God alone. (18:18)  He discusses sins of 'daily commital,' and what John means in 1 John by his teaching about sin, sometimes writing as if we all sin, sometimes as if we don't. (19:24)
  16. Revelation is assigned to St. John. (19:1)  He refers to 'the Epistle of John' (19:10), as if he knows no others.
  17. Tertullian rejects the claim that the power of the keys descended from Peter to the 'church'. (21:9 ff)
  18. The trinity is stated at 21:16.
  19. The church is the spiritual assembly of spiritual men, not a conclave of bishops. (21:17)
  20. The conditions in which arrested Christians were held, at the particular time of writing, were 'soft ones' in the 'nominal custody now in vogue.' (22:1)
  21. The incessant objection to Tertullian's argument is that 'the flesh is weak'.  Tertullian retorts that no flesh is so strong, as that which crushes out the spirit. (22:15, ad fine)


The text of this work was transmitted to us in two collections:


The title is given without variants in the editions, and also in the catalogues of Corbie and Cologne which once possessed a copy of this work in the Corbie collection.


Unless otherwise indicated, details are from Quasten's Patrology, 2 (1955). See also Editions page and Critical Editions page for more information.

[Note: I need to add some biblio, from l'Annee Phil. for the years 1954-1974 and from CTC after that].


A. REIFFERSCHEID-G. WISSOWA, CSEL 20 (1890) 219-273.
P. DE LABRIOLLE, De paenitentia, De pudicitìa. Texte et traduct. (Textes et documents, publ, par H. Hemmer et P. Lejay). Paris, 1906. Checked.
E. PREUSCHEN, SQ. 1, 2. Tübingen, 1910, 2nd ed.
G. RAUSCHEN, FP 10. Bonn, 1915. [Tertulliani De paenitentia et De pudicitia recensio nova (adnotavit G. Rauschen). Bonnae 1915. 23cm. Series: Florilegium patristicum 10 (Details from Bodleian online catalogue)]
E. DEKKERS, CCSL 2 (1954) 1279-1330.
G. CLAESSON. Unpublished edition with Swedish introduction and notes and English translation.  Commenced during the 1950's.  Checked. (Personal copy)
Claudio MICAELLI & Charles MUNIER, La pudicité. Sources Chrétiennes 394 & 395 (1993). 2 vols. Introduction, critical text, translation & commentary.  Latin text online.


English: S. THELWALL, ANCL 18 (1870) pp.56-122; reprinted ANF 4 (1885), pp. 74-101.  Online.  Checked.
-- G. CLAESSON, loc. cit., 1950-ish.  Online.
-- W. P. LE SAINT, Tertullian: Treatises on Penance. Ancient Christian Writers 28 (1959) Checked.
French: A. DE GENOUDE, De la Pudicité. Oeuvres de Tertullien2, Paris (1852). t. 3. pp.443-509. Checked. Online.
-- Pierre DE LABRIOLLE, loc. cit., 1906.  Online.
-- Charles MUNIER, loc. cit., 1993.
German: H. KELLNER-G. ESSER, BKV2 24 (1915). Online.
Italian: Claudio MORESCHINI, Tertulliano: Opere scelte, a cura di Claudio MORESCHINI, Seconda edizione interamente rifatta.  Torino: Unione Tipografica Editrice Torinese (1999).  817p. 8 p of plates. Series: Classici delle religione. Sezione quarta: La religione cattolica.  (Details from CTC 99, 5).  Contains 5 works (Cult., Marc., Res., Prax., Pud.).  Cult. and Pud. translated by Maria VINCELLI.  pp.9-65 = introduction; pp.67-75=bibliography.  The 1974 edition also contained Prae. Herm. Iud. Carn. Val. and Mon., tr. by CM.
Dutch: H. U. MEYBOOM, Leiden, 1931.
French: P. DE LABRIOLLE, loc. cit., 1906


E. ROLFFS, Das Indulgenzedikt des römischen Bischofs Callistus (TU 11,3). Leipzig, 1893.
G. ESSER, Tertullian De pudicitia 21 und der Primat des römischen Bischofs: Katholik 92, 2 (1902) 193 ff; 
idem, Die Bußschriften Tertullians De paenitentia und De pudicitia und das Indulgenzedikt des Papstes Kallistus. Progr. Bonn, 1905; 
idem, Nochmals das Indulgenzedikt des Papstes Kallistus und die Bußschriften Tertullians: Katholik 87, 2 (1907) 184 ff, 297 ff; 88, 1 (1908) 12 ff, 93 ff; 
idem, Der Adressat der Schrift Tertullians 'De pudicitia' und der Verfasser des römischen Bußedikts. Bonn, 1914.
F. X. FUNK, Das Indulgenzedikt des Papstes Kallistus: ThQ 88 (1906) 541 ff. 
J. STUFLER, Zur Kontroverse über das Indulgenzedikt des Papstes Kallistus: ZkTh 32 (1908) 1 ff. 
M. HAGUENIN, De pudicitia 6, 15: RSR (1911) 459 f.
A. D'ALÈS, L'Édit de Calliste. Paris, 1914.
K. PREYSING, Existenz und Inhalt des Bußedikts Kallists : ZkTh 43 ( 1919) 358 ff. 
K. ADAM, Das sog. Bußedikt des Papstes Kallistus (Veröffentl. aus dem kirchenhistor. Seminar München 4, 5). Munich, 1917.
H. KOCH, Kallist und Tertullian. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der altchristl. Bußstreitigkeiten und des römischen Primats (SAH 1919, No. 22). Heidelberg, 1920.
A. D'ALÈS, RSR (1920) 254-257.
C. FIGGINI, Agrippino o Callista ?: SC VI, 3 (1924) 204-211.
D. FRANSES, Das 'Edictum Callisti' in der neuern Forschung: StC 1 (1924) 248-259.
G. BARDY, L'édit d'Agrippinus: RSR 4 (1924) 1-25. 
A. DONINI, L'Editto di Agrippino: RR (1925) 56-71. 
K. PREYSING, Römischer Ursprung des 'Edictum peremptorium' : ZkTh 50 (1926) 143-150.
LUKMAN, Bogoslovni Vestnik (1926) 169-196. 
P. BATIFFOL, Les origines de la pénitence (Études d'histoire et de théologie positive, 1e série), 7th éd. Paris, 1926, 78-105.
P. GALTIER, Le véritable édit de Calliste: RHE 23 (1927) 465-488. 
A. HARNACK, Ecclesia Pétri propinqua. Zur Geschichte der Anfänge des Primats des römischen Bischofs: SAB 28 (1927) 139-152.
K. ADAM, Neue Untersuchungen über die Ursprünge der kirchlichen Primatslehre: ThQ 109 (1928) 167-203. 
F. CAVALLERA, La doctrine de la pénitence au IIIe siècle: BLE 30 (1929) 19-36; 31 (1930) 49-63.
H. KOCH, Cathedra Pétri. Giessen, 1930, 5-32.
A. M. VELLICO, 'Episcopus episcoporum' in Tertulliani libro 'De pudicitìa': Antonianum 5 (1930) 25-26.
E. GÖLLER, Papsttum und Bußgewalt in spätrömischer und frühmittelalterlicher Zeit: RQ 39 (1931) 77-85.
H. KOCH, Zu Tertullian De pudicitia 21, 9 ff: ZNW (1932) 68-72. 
A. EHRHARD, Die Kirche der Märtyrer. Munich, 1932, 359-366.
F. J. DÖLGER, Ne quis adulter! Zum Verständnis der scharfen Kritik Tertullians an dem Bußedikt des christlichen 'Pontifex Maximus': Antike und Christentum 3 (1932) 132-148.
W. KÖHLER, Omnis ecclesia Pétri propinqua: ZNW 31 (1932) 60-67.
D. VAN DEN EYNDE, Les normes de l'enseignement chrétien dans la littérature patristique des trois premiers siècles. Paris, 1933, 206.
B. POSCHMANN, Ecclesia principalis. Breslau, 1933, 10 f. 
H. KOCH, Nochmals zu Tertullian De pud. 21, 9 ff: ZNW (1934) 317-318. 
A. D'ALÈS. Tertullianea. De pudicitia XXII, 9-10: RSR 26 (1936) 366-367; 
idem, Tertullianea. De pudicitia VI, 16: RSR 27 (1937) 230-231.
H. STOECKIUS, Ecclesia Petri propria. Eine kirchengeschichtliche Untersuchung der Primatsfrage bei Tertullian: AKK 117 (1937) 24-126.
W. KOEHLER, Omnis ecclesia Petri propinqua (Tert. De pudicitia 21). Versuch einer religionsgeschichtlichen Deutung. Heidelberg, 1938.
A. D. NOCK, A Feature of Roman Religion (De pud. 1): HThR 32 (1939) 83-96.
B. ALTANER, Omnis ecclesia Petri propinqua: ThR 38 (1939) 129-138.
B. POSCHMANN, Paenitentia secunda. Bonn, 1940, 348-367.
P. KESELING, Aristoteles bei Tertullian (De pud. 1, 1): PhJ 57 (1947) 256-257.
A. QUACQUARELLI, Libertà, peccato e penitenza secondo Tertulliano: Rassegna di Scienze filosofiche 2 (1949) 16-37.

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