Cyprian of Carthage Slightly Confuses Me
The latest Father I read was St. Cyprian of Carthage. I enjoyed reading his works. As always, here are my thoughts:
Once again, a central theme of Cyprian’s writings, as it has been with every previous author, is that of unity within the Church. So much does he focus on unity that one of his entire treatises is specifically addressing the issue:
Does he who does not hold this unity of the Church think that he holds the faith? Does he who strives against and resists the Church trust that he is in the Church, when moreover the blessed Apostle Paul teaches the same thing, and sets forth the sacrament of unity, saying, There is one body and one spirit, one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God?–Treatise On the Unity of the Church
Echoing St. Ignatius’ sentiment regarding the Church, Cyprian doesn’t hold back in what he believes is the unifying factor of the faith: the Church. He cites Paul’s words in Ephesians 4 to support his point, and is clear that the hope of our calling is in being "one body" together by "one spirit". This may seem harsh for some modern readers, but Cyprian continues:
Whoever is separated from the Church and is joined to an adulteress, is separated from the promises of the Church; nor can he who forsakes the Church of Christ attain to the rewards of Christ. He is a stranger; he is profane; he is an enemy. He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother. If any one could escape who was outside the ark of Noah, then he also may escape who shall be outside of the Church. The Lord warns, saying, He who is not with me is against me, and he who gathers not with me scatters.–Treatise On the Unity of the Church
If his previous statement seemed harsh, this one is positively damning! I’ve actually heard this section cited, specifically by Catholics, before: "He can longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother." To be fair, that is a quotation that is begging for a poster. It’s a good cutting phrase that drives home Cyprian’s point: the Church is vital. He likens the Church to Noah’s ark. As we know, no one outside the ark survived, so the same spiritual reality — according to Cyprian — is true of the Church.
One question does remain: how do we identify the Church? This is indeed a pressing matter, as modern Christendom is an extremely fragmented mosaic of fine, well-meaning people who all affirm Jesus Christ as Lord, all who proclaim the core tenets of the Nicene Creed, and who wish to see the Gospel spread throughout the world. There is, at least seemingly, no substantial unity to speak of in the modern world among those who call themselves Christians. This is the main pressing question on my mind as a Protestant reading through the Church Fathers: who is the Church?
Cyprian seems to argue that the unity of the faith is centered around the Apostles, of whom he says:
And although to all the apostles, after His resurrection, He gives an equal power, and says, As the Father has sent me, even so send I you: Receive the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins you remit, they shall be remitted unto him; and whose soever sins you retain, they shall be retained; yet, that He might set forth unity, He arranged by His authority the origin of that unity, as beginning from one.–Treatise On the Unity of the Church
My Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican brothers will be quick to say that this is proof of Apostolic Succession, or at least that Cyprian affirmed it. This may be the case, but it seems more like he is explicitly saying that the authority of Jesus is given to His body through the Apostles. Unfortunately, there’s no follow-up regarding how this was specifically given to the Apostles, and how they would give it to others. I’m still looking for the smoking gun that explains this process, but thus far I haven’t seen it. Nonetheless, I shall keep digging, for as I’ve stated before, if Apostolic Succession is the true means of identifying the Church, I would make it my life’s mission to discover where that succession has continued to this day (how could I not?).
One final nugget to glean from Cyprian’s Treatise on the Unity of the Church is a short statement that quickly sums up what he says elsewhere:
He who does not hold this unity does not hold God's law, does not hold the faith of the Father and the Son, does not hold life and salvation.–Treatise On the Unity of the Church
An interesting connection is made here between God’s Law and Christian unity. If one is not in union, then they are in violation of God’s Law. Further, division among Christians leads Cyprian to declare that they do not hold to the faith, and forfeit their salvation. These are strong words, and they don’t belong to just Cyprian. Other Fathers who preceded him speak in similar terms. The Early Church was explicit in this regard: we as the body of Christ must not be divided.
While Cyprian is explicit in the necessity of unity and explicit in the linchpin of that unity (the Church), I am frustrated reading through his works as I was with others, particularly Ignatius, at the lack of definition of the Church itself. Mostly biblical language is used: the Bride of Christ, the Body of Christ, etc. These are true statements, obviously, but with so much emphasis on the unity of the Church, on being a part of the Church, not defining the Church seems odd. Perhaps it was so patently obvious at the time who the Church was that it didn’t need to be stated; everyone just knew. It is clear that the Early Church was the Apostles, and while I sympathize with those who affirm Apostolic Succession as the only valid identifier of the Church, I have yet to see it explained by an Early Church Father to the extent it is promoted today.
In another treatise, Cyprian does state one area where we are united:
And according as we say, Our Father, because He is the Father of those who understand and believe; so also we call it our bread, because Christ is the bread of those who are in union with His body.–Treatise On the Lord's Prayer
Cyprian identifies two areas where we are unified: our confession and communion. We confess Christ as our Savior and God as our Father, and we partake of the Lord’s Supper together. Of course, this brings up questions regarding the unity of the Church and what a valid Eucharist is, a question I’ve asked before.
Apart from his emphasis on unity, Cyprian writes a lot about salvation and the forgiveness of sins. He does so in a way that modern readers may find interesting, so I wanted to comment on a few quotes:
But how can we possess immortality, unless we keep those commands of Christ whereby death is driven out and overcome, when He Himself warns us, and says, If you will enter into life, keep the commandments? And again: If you do the things that I command you, henceforth I call you not servants, but friends.–Treatise On the Unity of the Church
Cyprian quite clearly teaches the necessity of works, causing death to be "driven out and overcome", then cites Matthew 19:17 and John 15:15 to support his claim.
If a man make prayer with his whole heart, if he groan with the true lamentations and tears of repentance, if be incline the Lord to pardon of his sin by righteous and continual works, he who expressed His mercy in these words may pity such men: When you turn and lament, then shall you be saved, and shall know where you have been. And again: I have no pleasure in the death of him that dies, says the Lord, hut that he should return and live. And Joel the prophet declares the mercy of the Lord in the Lord's own admonition, when he says: Turn to the Lord your God, for He is merciful and gracious, and patient, and of great mercy, and repents Him with respect to the evil that He has inflicted. He can show mercy; He can turn back His judgment.–Treatise On the Lapsed
An interesting section of this quote is what Cyprian views as the means for God to pardon one’s sins. "…by righteousness and continual works," is said to be the process of "true lamentation and tears of repentance."
Another interesting assertion here is that one who does "turn and lament" will be saved. This does include the previous statements regarding doing continual works, but given Cyprian’s view of the Church as stated above, it does cause one to wonder if this kind of repentance can be practiced outside of the Church. To say so would seem to make Cyprian contradict himself, to say not would lead one to think that he’s being overly simplistic here. To be fair, in context, he is speaking about those who have lapsed under persecution, so he very well could be speaking directly of those who abandoned the Church during persecution and through repentance return to the Church, but it is interesting here that continual works and tears of repentance are mentioned here while he says nothing about restoring one’s relationship with the Church for salvation (this is strange given that in his epistle on unity he emphasized that there was no salvation outside the Church).
Moreover, He says again, As water extinguishes fire, so almsgiving quenches sin. Here also it is shown and proved, that as in the layer of saving water the fire of Gehenna is extinguished, so by almsgiving and works of righteousness the flame of sins is subdued.–Treatise On Works and Alms
Here we are introduced to another means of forgiving sins, according to Cyprian: almsgiving. For this principle, he, like others, cites Sirach (3:30 in this case).
So not only does this quote show that Cyprian believed that almsgiving forgave sins, but also that he viewed — at least part of — the so-called "deuterocanon" as Scripture. This is supported by the fact he cites Tobit 12:8–9 later which states "alms does deliver from death…"
And because in baptism remission of sins is granted once for all, constant and ceaseless labour, following the likeness of baptism, once again bestows the mercy of God.–Treatise On Works and Alms
Oh, look! More means of forgiveness of sins! I speak slightly in jest, but not to be demeaning. Baptism here is presented as a means to remit sins. This was obviously a common belief of the Early Church Fathers and one we’ve encountered already, so it’s not too much of a surprise. We do, however, see in Cyprian a fairly multi-faceted view of the forgiveness of sins:
- It exists only within the Church
- It is given through repentance
- It is given through works
- It is given through almsgiving
- It is given through Baptism
Obviously, as a Protestant, I am quite uneasy with this language being used to describe so many things. Also, as a Protestant, I am quite uneasy with the fact that nearly every Early Church Father I’ve read thus far affirms a number of the above bullet points. There’s uneasiness either way, so I am once more challenged by a great Titan of the Faith, and another Early Father has given me much to chew on.
As always, friends, please pray for me.