Today I’m starting a new series on famous quotes from church history. Most of the quotes will be familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention — but who knows? Perhaps you’ll learn something new. We’ll look at who said it, in what context, and whether it’s biblical.
You may have heard it said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” It’s often said to point out that persecution, rather than diminishing the church, often has the opposite effect. It’s counter-intuitive. Where do we get this saying from?
The original source is the early church father Tertullian (~155-~240 AD). He was an African church father based out of Carthage. He lived in the days of the Roman Empire and so was familiar with persecution and martyrdom. Tertullian’s most important writing is entitled The Apology, a work in which he provided a defense of the Christian faith to the provincial governors of the Roman Empire. Towards the end of the document, Tertullian makes the memorable statement: “The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed” (Apol. 50.13, original Latin: “Plures efficimur quotiens metimur a vobis; semen est sanguis Christianorum.”).
There is some variation in how these words are translated in various English editions. Many translators have felt compelled to add some words to explain what the seed is going to produce: faith, a greater harvest, the church, or a new life. However, the context is clear enough. Tertullian believed that God uses martyrdom and persecution in some mysterious way to cause the Christian faith to grow in strength and numbers.
Now one might say that this was simply an observation. Certainly it seems to be often the case, especially if we consider the global picture. Considered universally, persecution has been helpless to undo the advance of the gospel. Even if the faith declines in one part of the world, it moves forward in another part. Christ continues to preserve and increase his church.
Is there any biblical support for what Tertullian says? Not directly. What I mean is that there is no single Bible passage that speaks in exactly those terms. However, Scripture does speak of how God continues to work in us and through us even when we’re suffering. In Acts 14:22, after being stoned at Lystra, Paul and Barnabas encouraged their fellow disciples by telling them that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” Or you could think of what Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:7, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” Or later in the same epistle: “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). Most of all, we think of Christ and the path he travelled: from suffering to glory. The cross appeared to be his undoing, but it was anything but! His blood was seed from which grows our life in him.
Still today Tertullian’s words ring true. Persecution and martyrdom are horrible phenomena. Yet God continues to work not only despite suffering, but even through it. Nothing will stop him from accomplishing his purposes for the gospel.