Friday, March 6, 2015

ANF V: Cyprian Treatise I On the Unity of the Church

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Cyprian: Treatise I. On the Unity of the Church

This is of course the big one--if you're only going to read one thing of Cyprian's, it should be his treatise On the Unity of the Church. Not so much because it's solid theology/polity, but because of how it has been used historically. This treatise basically lays out much of the groundwork of what would eventually become the Roman Catholic view of the church. Which is not to say this treatise is worthless to us now that we've cast off the fetters of that particular false Gospel--just that it needs to be read with through the filter of Scripture.

As I've commented through his Epistles, Cyprian is addressing a number of issues that needed to be address then and still need to be addressed now. He is also trying his very hardest to be faithful to Scripture and live an obedient Christian life with a high view of the church. All of this we ought to join him in and rejoice that so faithful a servant has given his time, attention, and ability to these difficult topics. Yet, he makes a few categorical and hermeneutical errors that ultimately skew his responses to the issues he raises and suggest that we need not always embrace his suggestions for living faithfully in the world.

Just to briefly touch on each of these again (see my survey of his epistles for more), first Cyprian is exactly right that 1) division is a serious problem facing the church and 2) we need to try our best to be faithful to God's Word both individually and as a corporate body:
"For it is not persecution alone that is to be feared; nor those things which advance by open attack to overwhelm and cast down the servants of God. Caution is more easy where danger is manifest, and the mind is prepared beforehand... The enemy is more to be feared and guarded against when he creeps up on us secretly." 
This is schism, rather than open heresy. In place of separating the church we ought to work to preserve unity and love each other with all our might: "... in us unanimity is diminished in proportion as liberality of working is decayed." In the past Christians even sold their houses to care for each other, as that original verve has declined so schism and division has grown.

So far I think we can be on board with Cyprian, even up to the point where he describe how the church ought to be:
"As there are many rays of the sun, but one light; and many branches of a tree, but one strength based in its tenacious root; and since from one spring flow many streams, although the multiplicity seems diffused in the liberality of an overflowing abundance, yet the unity is still preserved in the source. Separate a ray of the sun from its body of light, its unity does not allow a division of light... Thus also the Church, shone over with the light of the Lord, sheds forth her rays over the whole world, yet it is one light which is everywhere diffused, nor is the unity of the body separated. her fruitful abundance spreads her branches over the whole world. She broadly expands her rivers, liberally flowing, yet her head is one, her source one; and she is one mother, plentiful in the results of fruitfulness: from her womb we are born, by her milk we are nourished, by her spirit we are animated." 
While that end bit might be a bit much (we are saved into the church, not by it), there's obviously something good and true here. The body of Christ should not be divided, and is instead united by the Transcendent truth of the Gospel--the light that shines over the whole world and the only hope for mankind. And yet, Cyprian has made a few mistakes that lead him into some pretty serious errors. For one, he confuses the invisible and heavenly eschatological church with the visible, earthly, and present one. That is, he mixes up the already with the not-yet. In heaven, the Bride of Christ will be truly one, apostolic, universal, and holy. Until then, the visible church here on earth is divided, local, finite, and sinful--and in this I am talking about a faithful, Gospel-preaching church, not an institution which claims to be a "church" and yet preaches a false gospel. We do not have to be able to trace the descent of any given local church through its hierarchy into the past to the person of Peter (more on that in a second) in order to figure out if it is a real church. It is a real church if it preaches the Gospel, properly administers the sacraments, and exercises appropriate church discipline. Now, that doesn't mean that a church can or should just unhinge itself from history--if a church is teaching something that has never been taught before, it needs to do some serious self-examination.

What's more, contrary to what Cyprian says, there is salvation outside the church. All salvation is by definition outside the church, for salvation is what happens when God's grace is poured out by the Holy Spirit on the individual who, at the moment of receiving said grace, is by definition outside the church. Upon this moment (the theological term here being "regeneration"), the individual is made a member of the invisible church, and has the responsibility of finding and joining a faithful visible church. This is not to say there's no relationship between salvation and the visible church--a person who steadfastly claims to be a Christian and steadfastly refuses to fellowship with other believers should have no assurance as to his own salvation either from his own conscience or from other believers. Part of being born again is being drawn into the fellowship of others who have likewise been adopted into God's family. So Cyprian is right to draw our attention to this connection, but wrong in the way he goes about it (this is ultimately tied to his view of how God's grace gets dispensed--i.e. through baptism in his mind, which is another error but not one he brings up in this treatise). And a good warning sign should come when he notes that even martyrs who die outside the church cannot be said to be believers. While it's true that martyrdom saves no one--all of us have to die, after all--it's not true that membership in any one visible church is what makes martyrdom a holy or hypocritical action. Again, it is the state of the soul before the Lord, not the nature of the institution which one is a member of.

Finally, Cyprian's view of the foundation of the church is what I suspect throws his whole polity askew. Namely, he misinterprets Matthew 16:18 ("on this rock") when he applies it to the person of Peter rather than to the confession Peter had just made about Christ being the Messiah. While there isn't time here to develop a full exegesis of this passage, we should note the very serious problem that arises if we base this on the person of Peter rather than his statement: namely, within a few verses (Matthew 17:23) apparently in the same conversation, Jesus calls Peter "Satan." (More on this here, and this argues that Cyprian is not even the only way the church fathers read this passage.)

All of this to say, read and benefit from the Treatise, but do so while taking Cyprian's own advice:
"Since the Lord warns us, saying, 'ye are the salt of the earth,' and since He bids us to be simple to harmlessness, and yet with our simplicity to be prudent, what else, beloved brethren, befits us, than to use foresight and watching with an anxious heart, both to perceive and to beware of the wiles of the crafty foe, that we, who have put on Christ the wisdom of God the Father, may not seem to be wanting wisdom in the matter of providing for our salvation?"

Thursday, March 5, 2015

ANF V: Cyprian Epistles Elucidations

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Cyprian: Epistles Elucidations

Well, finally at the end of it all! All the letters, at any rate. Cyprian's treatises are still to come... [sigh]

I don't have much to say about the Elucidations, they're worth skimming when the notes direct you to do so, but they're also pretty uneven. Overall they're trying to take what's good from Cyprian, note what's less good, and encourage us not to buy into the Catholic interpretation of his words. And that's actually a pretty fair summary of Cyprian's letters: when he's writing on persecution and martyrdom, he's excellent. When he's writing on baptism and church polity, he's much less excellent--but he's also not quite the champion of Papism that later interpreters would have him be or that a surface skimming would have a reader think. There is a vigorous independence here that can easily be missed in all the focus on the hierarchy of the (local) church and the centrality of the pastor in church life.

Here is my own "elucidation", these are the must-read epistles of Cyprian--both good theology and poor exegesis mixed together:


Wednesday, March 4, 2015

ANF V: Cyprian Epistles LXXX-LXXXII

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Cyprian: Epistles LXXX-LXXXII

Epistle LXXX is yet another wonderful encouragement from Cyprian to the imprisoned brothers calling on them to remain faithful and remember that their suffering will be transformed into joy: "O blessed prison, which your presence has enlightened! O blessed prison, which sends the men of God to heaven!" We should remember that the world hates us because we know longer love it--this is what is taught in Scripture and what we see happen to believers there. Just as the faithful martyrs have gone before us, so we should be willing to endure for the glory prepared in heaven.

Epistle LXXXI warns that a new persecution is being undertaken, apparently because Roman nobility is beginning to convert in large numbers. Cyprian is looking into the matter, but the church needs to be ready.

Finally, in Epistle LXXXII, we get Cyprian's announcement of his coming retirement and his willingness to suffer martyrdom in the city where he for so long has served as pastor.

These letters are short and worth reading, so don't skip them!

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

ANF V: Cyprian Epistles LXXVII-LXXIX

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Cyprian: Epistles LXXVII-LXXIX

These Epistles are replies from the persecuted Christians ("confessors") to Cyprian in response to his praise in Epistle LXXVI. They thank Cyprian for his care, his thoughtful leadership, and his faithful example. While these letter may not need to be read, they're short and sweet in their Christian love. So don't skip them.

Monday, March 2, 2015

ANF V: Cyprian Epistle LXXVI

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Cyprian: Epistle LXXVI

In this Epistle, Cyprian returns to the subject we should most love him for: encouraging those being persecuted. He thanks God for their faithfulness, and encourages them to remain constant in their devotion to the Lord so that they themselves might receive the promised rewards and encourage others to do likewise. He reminds them that their sufferings are temporary and will be turned to joy once passed through:
For a Christian body is not very greatly terrified at clubs, seeing all its hope is in the Wood [of the cross.]... Moreover, they have put fetters on your feet, and have bound your blessed limbs, and the temples of God with disgraceful chains, as if the spirit also could be bound with the body, or your gold could be stained by the contact of iron. To men who are dedicated to God, and attesting their faith with religious courage, such things are ornaments, not chains..."
Cyprian reminds the Christians that though they are separated from the church and its ordinances, they are not separated from Christ so long as they cling to their faith. What God really demands from our faith is obedience, not ritual--and who is more obedient than those who cling to Him despite the worst the world can throw at us?
In which, indeed, is both the great confidence of believers, and the gravest fault of the faithless, that they do not trust Him who promises to give His help to those who confess Him, and do not on the other hand fear Him who threatens eternal punishment to those who deny Him.
Seriously, read this letter!

Friday, February 27, 2015

ANF V: Cyprian Epistle LXXV

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Cyprian: Epistle LXXV

Starting with (again) the question of baptism by heretics, this Epistle returns to the question of Novatian and even touches on the question of the proper method of baptism. Much of this Epistle can be skimmed (especially the beginning), as it simply repeats Cyprian's claim that baptism by heretics doesn't count because they are not a part of the "true" church. Here he ups the claim a bit by saying that merely leaving the church or causing a schism is enough, even if there's not specifically an active heresy. As evidence for this Cyprian points to sayings (yes, slightly out of context) from Jesus (Luke 21:23) and John (1 John 2:18-19). "For the faith of the sacred Scripture sets forth that the church is not without, nor can be separated nor divided against itself, but maintains the unity of an inseparable and undivided house." As we've repeatedly seen, the issue here is one of confusion of the visible church with the invisible church.
That said, when it comes to the method of baptism, Cyprian returns to the position of extreme charity. Those who are sick or weak, for example, may be sprinkled without troubling the conscience of anyone involved. After all, what matters is the "full and entire faith both of the giver and the receiver." What happens with water is merely an external reflection of the internal spiritual reality (which for Cyprian is simultaneous, while in Scripture the latter follows the former). Nor should we get too uptight about the name of it, some have called Christians who are sprinkled "Clinics", since they were baptized irregularly. We, however, shouldn't care so long as they are baptized in faith and properly. We must not think of them as being lesser believers or having less of the Holy Spirit or any such thing. Mercy and generosity in all! Again, there's far too much baptismal regeneration here, but the last few paragraphs are at least worth skimming.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

ANF V: Cyprian Epistle LXXIV

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Cyprian: Epistle LXXIV

As the editor's introduction says, "The argument of this letter is exactly the same as that of the previous one, but written with a little more vehemence and acerbity than becomes a bishop..." We can add "and with a little more length as well," because this epistle is long by ancient standards.
Again, Cyprian is concerned with the unity and purity of the church, and again this involves a questionable view of church polity that lays groundwork for openly bad theology. But, because there's really nothing new in this Epistle, it can be skimmed. Do be sure to read at least the first three paragraphs, though--there's some good stuff on unity in God to be found, and paragraph 10, where we get some persecution narrative and weirdness with demons and women baptizing... Likewise paragraphs 17 and 24 show Cyprian telling us exactly how NOT supreme the pastor of Rome is relative to other churches and pastors.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

ANF V: Cyprian Epistle LXXIII

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Cyprian: Epistle LXXIII

Again, Cyprian tackles the question of "baptism" by heretics. In this epistle, Cyprian walks through and responds to a letter from Stephen, the pastor of the church in Rome. Stephen had apparently been accepting the baptism of heretics, under the claim that such practices had been handed down from the time of the Apostles. Cyprian is having none of that--the only source of authority in the church is Scripture, not tradition! And that means only one orthodox baptism should be recognized. Recognizing the baptism of heretics is recognizing the legitimacy of their church institution and hence recognizing the legitimacy of their heresy.

This is a longish epistle and really just restates many of Cyprian's previous arguments, and in that sense it need not be read--skimming is sufficient. And yet, it does raise all those same issues where Cyprian is a mixture of right and wrong. Baptism should be done properly and by the true church; we should not recognize the baptism performed by heretics; baptism should be practiced as laid out in the New Testament, not according to the whims of church leadership or tradition. But then again, Cyprian misses the point when he assumes that water baptism is what saves, and that salvation is through the church rather than into the church. Again, we've hashed this out already and need not hit all of these points again in detail. I can sincerely say that I wish modern Christians had Cyprian's desire for purity in doctrine and practice, his sense of the radical independence of the church from the world and from heretical movements, but without his corrupted views of polity.
"Nor ought custom, which had crept in among some, to prevent the truth from prevailing and conquering; for custom without truth is the antiquity of error. On which account, let us forsake the error and follow the truth.... But there is a brief way for religious and simple minds, both to put away error, and to find and to elicit truth. For if we return to the head and source of divine tradition, human error ceases;"

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

ANF V: Cyprian Epistle LXXII

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Cyprian: Epistle LXXII

Yet another letter on the baptism performed by "heretics" (which, to remind ourselves, can mean either theological heretics or schismatics). In this case Novatian is the "heretic" in question who is baptizing believers his schismatic assembly. Cyprian notes that this is not really a concern of the "true" church, until those baptized by Novatian apply for admission: "it does not in any wise matter to us what the enemies of the church do, so long as we ourselves hold a regard for our power and the steadfastness of reason and truth."

Cyprian then proceeds through several topics and occurrences related to this question, including that of the Marcionites. He notes that in that case, the schismatics themselves were heretics as well, and of course their baptism didn't count because they denied the Trinity.

Again, we see that what is hanging Cyprian up is his doctrine of (almost) baptismal regeneration. (We see that it's not really that awful doctrine which would develop later, since the substance of faith is still critical.) So long as Cyprian believes water baptism is a necessary cause of salvation, he's going to get caught on questions of form and confuse the visible church with the invisible church. Fortunately, Cyprian also believes that Scripture is the final authority here, and that to which we must continually appeal to sort this issue out. ("Hence it is in vain that some who are overcome by reason oppose to us custom, as if custom were greater than truth; or as if that were not to be sought after in spiritual matters which has been revealed as the better by the Holy Spirit." [i.e. Scripture])

Overall, this letter is long. Like, really long. But it's also worth reading because here you get the root arguments for baptismal regeneration and all the errors of polity, practice, and theology that spring from that. And again, we can at least agree with many of Cyprian's concerns: the practice of baptism should be taken seriously and Scripturally; the church should be unified rather than divided; baptism should be done only by believers [i.e. performed by believers], if it is done improperly it should be done correctly.

This is also the letter where we get Cyprian's famous (and true!) maxim: "there is no salvation outside the church." The context is a discussion of the baptism of martyrs. What do we do with someone who is executed for being a Christian but has not been baptized? The answer is that those who are true Christians who are so executed, are to be considered "baptized in his own blood." That is, faithful believers who do not have the chance to be baptized before martyrdom may be counted as having been baptized anyway, while "even this baptism does not benefit a heretic." Those who deny the true faith, even if executed by the government as "Christians" are still outside the church and so not counted as "baptized." (Though if they reject their heresy and embrace the true faith but don't get baptized before martyrdom, they're still in!) In that sense, of course, we can all agree with Cyprian's statement about there being no salvation outside the church. As we've seen repeatedly, Cyprian's goal is maximum generosity when trying to figure this stuff out without sacrificing the holiness or faithful confession of the church. And that too, hopefully we can all be on board with.

There is, however, one open lie at the end of the letter: "these things, dearest brother, I have briefly written to you." No Cyprian, you haven't written briefly at all.

Monday, February 23, 2015

ANF V: Cyprian Epistles LXIX-LXXI

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Cyprian: Epistles LXIX-LXXI

These Epistles begin a series on the nature of baptism, and what to do when heretics attempt it. In Epistle LXIX, Cyprian writes to the pastors he had been in council with and notes that this decision should be made by the group, not by any one church or pastor. Yet, they all agree that there is only one baptism and it can only be performed by the church. Specifically, "It is required, then, that the water should first be cleansed and sanctified by the priest [elder], that it may wash away by its baptism the sins of the man who is baptized..." This practice should be followed by anointing with oil from the Lord's Table. However, each of these, if performed by a heretic, is illegitimate and needs to be repeated when the individual comes into the church proper.
While Cyprian's point about baptism by heretics and his desire to maintain the unity of the church are both well taken, his view of what happens in baptism (namely the washing away of sins and the bestowing of the Holy Spirit) is simply false. It's true that regeneration comes by means of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and it's further true that such baptism means being drawn into the body of believers, the true church. But this must not be confused with the outward symbol we exercise when we declare this truth within the body with physical water. The former is an act of God directly upon the soul, the latter an act of obedience by the individual Christian and the church.

Cyprian repeats this argument in  Epistle LXX, emphasizing that heretic baptism is no true baptism. And for what it's worth, I'm on board with at least that part of his claim. One who comes to the faith after having been baptized in a Mormon or Catholic church does need to be actually baptized by a Christian congregation. Cyprian is also correct that in part we do this so we are not legitimating the heretical church, he's just wrong about the proper mode of baptism. If one is baptized in a faithful church, goes to the heretics, and then comes back, Cyprian thinks they need not be rebaptized. I am undivided on that, but willing to go along for the sake of peace. Fortunately, Cyprian promises flexibility: "Neither must we prescribe this from custom, but overcome opposite custom by reason... we should not obstinately love our own opinions, but should rather adopt as our own those which at any time are usefully and wholesomely suggested by our brethren and colleagues, if they be true and lawful." So there's hope!

Epistle LXXI is from Cyprian to Stephen, pastor of the Roman church, informing him about the decisions of the council in North Africa concerning baptism by heretics. Most of the teachings we've already seen--both true and false, show up again in summary form.

Friday, February 20, 2015

ANF V: Cyprian Epistle LXVIII

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Cyprian: Epistle LXVIII

In this longish Epistle, Cyprian responds to several charges made against him that one of his former congregants has apparently started believing. Again, we see this tied into Cyprian's view of polity. His problem is not so much that bad things are being said about him (though no doubt that is also troubling), as it is that his office is being called into question. And so Cyprian highlights that an unjust accusation against a pastor or elder is functionally an attack on the Divinely established church order. Again, I'm going to agree and disagree with Cyprian at the same time. Cyprian writes:
You ought to know that the bishop [pastor] is in the church, and the church in the bishop; and if anyone be not with the bishop, that he is not in the church, and that those flatter themselves in vain who creep in, not having peace with God's priests, and think that they communicate secretly with some; while the church, which is catholic and one, is not cut nor divided, but is indeed connected and bound together by the cement of priests [pastors/elders] who cohere with one another. 
What's important to remember here is that at this point, Cyprian is geographically separated from his flock. In that sense, his call to unity is an absolutely true one. However much the world persecutes us, they cannot dissolve the unity of the church. What's more, Cyprian is right than an unjustified attack on the leadership of the church is an attack on the organic body of believers established by God.
Here's the thing, so long as he's willing to turn this around and say that an unjustified attack on a member/congregant of the church is also an attack on the organic body of believers, I'm on board with him. But to hold up the leadership as if it were central while the congregation is somehow unnecessary (if nothing else, where does the leadership get drawn from?), well that's just unbiblical. The body of the church is the gather of members and leaders together, not one without the other.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

ANF V: Cyprian Epistles LXVI-LXVII

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Cyprian: Epistles LXVI-LXVII

Both Epistles LXVI and LXVII have to do with the appointment and qualifications of pastors. And while again I may not always agree with Cyprian's views on polity, his desire for a holy and pure church is essential to any body of believers.

Most difficult is Epistle LXVI, which raises the question of what to do with a pastor who supports a pastor from a different congregation who has done some sketchy things. In this case, the pastor being supported is our old friend Novatian, who was elected (falsely?) as pastor of the church in Rome, and may have been involved in some immoral practices. (And I do want to stress the may have been part, since in the ancient challenges to practice also usually included throwing in a "and he kicks puppies too!" line. I'll wait until I've actually read Novatian's writings, at the end of this volume, before making a judgment call on his character.) Cyprian is quite clear as to what should happen to pastors who support these sketchy pastors--they need to be removed from office. While they may be restored to the congregation on their repentance, their days in positions of leadership should be over.

So, I think this is an incredibly difficult question, and I'm sympathetic to Cyprian's argument, but by no means sold on it. Let's take an example from recent Christian history, without giving any names:

  1. Pastor A is a faithful, Gospel-preaching minister who is perhaps not the wisest individual, but has led a ministry under which thousands have been converted and who is somewhat respected in the Christian world.
  2. Pastor B is openly a heretic, denying the Trinity clearly and irrefutably. 
  3. Pastor C is also a faithful, Gospel-preaching minister with good theology and practice, but is functionally unknown.
  4. Pastor A holds a conference to which he invites both Pastors B and C.
So what is Pastor C to do? What should Pastor C think about Pastor A? Should Pastor A be removed from office? Should Pastor C say or do anything? 
(If you care, this has largely worked itself out. Pastor A has imploded, Pastor B continues his heresy and Pastor C continues his faithful ministry.) 

Again, there is no clear answer here, and Cyprian's unreserved "Pastor C should denounce Pastor A" is, well, questionable. (And of course, if someone comes along and says "wait a second, Pastor B really isn't what you think he is--here are all the ways he has been misrepresented," as may be the case with Novatian, then the whole thing is even worse.)

Even with these difficulties, we should applaud and embrace Cyprian's concern for the purity of the church and of church leadership. Those pastors who fail to live up to their Scriptural calling need to be removed from leadership by their congregations. On that much, Cyprian and I can agree.

Epistle LXVII is a bit clearer, given that Cyprian is only saying that pastors who commit apostasy and then return (the lapsed again) should not be allowed back into positions of leadership. While we may not always agree on what sins should exclude someone from the ministry, surely apostasy is one of them. 
Again, it is the responsibility of the congregation to enforce this and to appoint pastors--with the cooperation of other pastors and their churches in the area--who are faithful in their leadership roles. 

Above all, it is the responsibility of the church to be faithful to Scripture: 
Since these things are announced [in Scripture, quoted just before this] and are made plain to us, it is necessary that our obedience should wait upon the divine precepts; nor in matters of this kind can human indulgence accept any man's person, or yield anything to any one, when the divine prescription has interfered, and establishes a law. For we ought not to be forgetful what the Lord spoke to the Jews by Isaiah the prophet, rebuking, and indignant that they had despised the divine precepts and followed human doctrines. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

ANF V: Cyprian Epistles LXIII-LXV

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Cyprian: Epistles LXIII-LXV

Epistle LXIII returns to the question of the lapsed, in this case the lapser in question being a pastor who fell away during a time of persecution and now wishes to take back his office. While the congregation seems to be somewhat willing to allow this, Cyprian tells them in no uncertain terms that the lapser in question ought to be content to do nothing but repent for the rest of his life. This is not to say there's no reconciliation for them--all who truly repent ought eventually be brought back into the congregation. But an elder who fell away should be done being an elder.

The main point here, Cyprian reiterates, is the protection of the holiness and unity of the body of believers. We are to be marked by our unity of confession and practice, and to that end we ought to be sure that only those who are true believers and whose lives reflect that are allowed to gather around the table.

In Epistle LXIV, we get a further glimpse of Cyprian's view of the church and the shaky exegesis on which it rests. Apparently, in one church a deacon had been causing problems for the pastor, who then appealed to Cyprian and the other pastors in the area. Cyprian notes that the pastor was correct not to take the punishment of the deacon into his own hands (even though he technically had the power and authority to do so), but rather to appeal it to a group to avoid any chance of accusations of personal pettiness.
The problem comes in when Cyprian argues that 1) elders/pastors are appointed by God himself ("apostles"), while deacons are chosen by elders/pastors; and 2) this because of the way the OT worship and government was set up.
Don't get me wrong, Cyprian is correct that the church should work for unity; that there should be some kind of accountability process; and that deacons ought to submit to elders (and if they have a problem go through the process). The problem again is a problem of exegesis and theological application. Israel in the OT is not a practical model for the NT church--there's something different going on there. What's more, while it is true that pastors and elders do declare the Word of God to their congregations, and in that sense they do have some kind of Divine appointment, even in Cyprian's day they were still chosen the same way that deacons were--by congregational election.

Epistle LXV is an interesting short work arguing that elders and pastors cannot serve as executors of wills--which then meant a much more substantive practice than now. The big point is that their job should be worship and facilitating worship, not caring for worldly matters (which also means that the church needs to care well for them in the process).

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

ANF V: Cyprian Epistle LXII

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Cyprian: Epistle LXII

This Epistle (LXII) seems to be a good compendium of everything right and wrong with Cyprian so far. (The rest of his epistles and his treatises I have yet to read.) On the one hand, there's some excellent foundation for his theology "For because Christ bore us all, in that He also bore our sins, we see that in the water [of baptism] is understood the people, but in the wine is showed the blood of Christ." While this is an unusual way to say it (at least it's not anything I've ever heard a modern Christian say), the point is a good one. The sign of a Christian having become a believer is baptism, while the Lord's Supper is our regular reminder and declaration of the atoning work of Christ. What's more, Cyprian is entirely right that we shouldn't use water for communion, or anything but water for baptism--and this because this is the practice that Christ laid down for us in Scripture, which is our guide and is the practice of the "tradition of the Lord." That is, the faithful church has always been marked by its desire to obey Scripture as the highest authority, and to use the sacraments to declare the Gospel (among other things).

With that said, there are the problems of applied theology and exegesis that we also see throughout Cyprian. Connecting the sacraments of the church to Old Testament practices is problematic at the best of times, and never explicitly condoned in Scripture. Likewise, he dances near to baptismal regeneration as a doctrine (though he doesn't quite get there in this epistle), and has some poor exposition of the story of Noah and Melchizedek.

So yeah, this one is definitely one to read--it gives you a good general taste of Cyprian's writing.

Monday, February 16, 2015

ANF V: Cyprian Epistles LIX-LXI

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Cyprian: Epistles LIX-LXI

Epistle LIX is Cyprian's reply to Numidian elders (they would have been in his part of Africa, but farther out in the countryside) concerning Christians in their region who had been kidnapped and held hostages by barbarians. This letter is truly moving, and worth the devotional attention of every Christian. Which makes since, given that Cyprian learned of the situation "with excessive grief of mind, and not without tears." For "it was the temples of God which were taken captive." And yet, we know what we ought to do. Whatever the government's policy, if we can we ought to save the lives of our brothers and sisters:
Christ is to be contemplated in our captive brethren, and he is to be redeemed from the peril of captivity who redeemed us from the peril of death; so that He who took us out of the jaws of the devil, who abides and dwells in us, may now Himself be rescued [in the persons of these Christians] and redeemed from the hands of barbarians by a sum of money--who redeemed us by His cross and blood--who suffers these things to happen for this reason, that our faith may be tried, whether each one of us will do for another what he would wish to be done for himself, if he himself were held captive among barbarians.
Cyprian's church took up a collection of a staggeringly large sum (given that the church at this point was still mostly composed of the poor and slaves) and sent it along to help with the ransom.

Again, just an excellent letter all around.

If we need proof that some things never change, Epistle LX tells us that actors in Cyprian's day were notorious for their immoral lifestyles. To that end, Cyprian writes to a fellow elder his opinion that one of their members should not be allowed to be a member of the church if he persists in associating with the stage. It seems that this individual was both a professional actor and a teacher of acting, and Cyprian argues that both are irreconcilable with the Christian life--the former because it involves deceit and cross-dressing, and the latter because it teaches the other to do the same. If he argues his poverty, then he should live more frugally. If this is impossible, the church should care for him, and if their church can't afford to do so they should send him to Cyprian's church, who will care for his basic needs until he finds work suitable for the faith.
Whatever our opinions on the value of acting (I happen to enjoy both the stage and the screen quite a bit), I think we can learn much from Cyprian's charge to live new and holy lives assisted by the church.

This short epistle is well worth reading!

Epistle LXI deals with an issue that is likewise common today: the question of purity between men and women. What should we do with men and women (in this case, specifically female virgins who have dedicated themselves to celibacy) who are sleeping together? Not, perhaps, having sex, but sleeping in the same bed. Obviously this is going to make people talk, and raises questions about just how "virginal" these women are. (No doubt this raises questions about the men as well, but that is not the subject of this particular letter.) What should the church do? First, it needs to order them to stop the practice immediately. Then it needs to perform a serious investigation--those who are still virgins (confirmed by midwives) must repent, but may return to communion. Those who are not virgins must also repent, but (akin to the lapsed) must spend a time of repentance to prove it's genuine before being readmitted. (Presumably, they also have the option of marriage, but again Cyprian doesn't discuss this possibility.)
I assume that whatever the sexual nature of these relationships may have become, the original purpose of dwelling together in the Ancient world would have been financial. As with acting, we might suggest that today our standard has changed somewhat, though again we want to stress purity both in act and appearance before the world. My advice (based on nearly six years of coed living conditions in college) is 1) of course be involved in a local church; 2) live with a medium sized group of people. That is, large enough that you're never really alone with a member of the opposite sex (sharing rooms is of course not an option for a Christian), but small enough that you can't disappear into the crowd and be overlooked. In this sense, dorms actually work fairly well for these kinds of things (though they obviously don't beat non-coed dorms).
Anyway, that takes us beyond Cyprian.