Tertullian’s final treatise on marriage, De monogamia, has long perplexed his modern readers, for in it he turns out not to applaud marital monogamy at all, but to suggest that sexual intercourse and childbearing are ungodly, potentially damning enterprises, permitted by God only as an “indulgence.” This conclusion is striking given his earlier pronouncement in his Ad uxorem that the marital bond of two Christian believers is to be cherished. Scholars have developed various explanations to address this seeming shift in perspectives on marriage often reading it as evidence of decline or “Montanist” heresy. As a result De monogamia has received little attention from scholars, who have not reflected upon the novelty of Tertullian’s argument in that work, which disparages carnal marriage, but upholds monogamy (and not, as we might expect, virginity).
This paper examines Tertullian’s views on sexuality particularly as they are registered in De monogamia. I show how over his writings he repeatedly frames widowhood and chastity as corporal pedagogies that prepare and discipline the fleshly body for its salvation. More particularly, I suggest that rather indicating dramatic shifts in Tertullian’s sexual ethic, instead De monogamia reveals deep inconsistencies and tensions about sexuality and sexual difference that are by-products of his discourse on the resurrection of the flesh. Tertullian holds that sexual difference will obtain in the afterlife, but sexual desire will not, a view that emerges in order to ensure individual judgment and reflects Tertullian’s materialist convictions. This same negotiation around difference and desire, I will argue, emerges in and informs his construction of “monogamy.” Drawing out this point offers a richer understanding of his sexual ethics, and the gendered character of his soteriology.