Book Reviews

Day Eighteen: St. Cyprian: On the Unity of the Church: 1-9

Who: Third century bishop of Carthage (in modern Tunisia), and martyr from Africa

What: A letter to encourage the unity of the church against schisms and heresy during massive Roman persecution

Why: A disturbance had happened in the church because of a priest called Novatian — a schismatic of the third century, and founder of the sect of the Novatians. Cyprian wrote to counter this and argues that there can only be one united Church, and the Novatian breakaway was a false church and that Novatian was an antipope.
When: Around 249 AD

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You can find today’s reading on page 92 here: lentfatherscomplete.pdf

Bishop Cyprian of Carthage is another one I'm only familiar with by name, but this treatise of his we're beginning to read today is apparently one of his greatest works. Written during a time when the new Roman emperor wanted to restore Rome to its former glory, he decreed that all Christian bishops be killed and any laity to be forced to recant in the face of death.

Many Christians at this time were martyred but there were many who also abandoned their faith and sacrificed to the gods in exchange for their lives, or bought a certificate to say they had when they hadn't. This was all considered sin and blasphemy by the Church, though many felt regret and wanted to be forgiven and restored.

“But how can a man say that he believes in Christ, who does not do what Christ commanded him to do?” Cyprian argues, since the faith of many had become weak.

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It is not “persecution alone that is to be feared”, Cyprian writes, since “caution is more easy where danger is manifest” but to be all the more vigilant in times of peace because the enemy “creeps on us secretly” in sneaky ways, which is why he has earned the name “Serpent”.

Novatian rose up as an “antipope” (someone who rejected the people's choice of pope) and caused a schism saying he wanted to restore the “true Church” and drew some people away. Cyprian is arguing for unity and that there is only one true Church and that is those who are all in unity with one another in the local congregation, and also with their Bishops, who by extension should be united in doctrine across all the churches, thus creating the unified Body of Christ. So with that in mind, much of what he writes here is speaking about how the true followers of Christ should act and what they should be doing if they are working out their salvation.

Avoid slipping back into the ways of the “old man” (our pre-conversion mindset and lifestyle), and instead stand strong “in the footsteps of a conquering Christ” so we can avoid the nets of death and instead “possess the immortality that we have received” – which we do by keeping the commandments of Jesus, “whereby death is driven out and overcome” (Matthew 19:17), and go from slaves to sin to friends of God (John 15:14).

What could me more “crafty”, he goes on to say, than someone, inspired by the enemy, who invents “heresies and schisms” under the very name of “Christian” to deceive those who are weak in their faith. This is why the Church needs to be aware of the enemy and to really persevere in their faith and in keeping the commandments of Christ lest “he might subvert the faith, might corrupt the truth, might divide the unity” and snatch “men from the Church itself”!

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These people whom the enemy deceives, “do not stand firm with the Gospel of Christ, and with the observation and law of Christ, they still call themselves Christians, and, walking in darkness, they think that they have the light”. Cyprian has strong words and feelings about this matter, lives are at stake, and this schism is potentially leading many astray.

...while the adversary is flattering and deceiving, who, according to the apostle's word, transforms himself into an angel of light, and equips his ministers as if they were the ministers of righteousness, who maintain night instead of day, death for salvation, despair under the offer of hope, perfidy under the pretext of faith, antichrist under the name of Christ (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:13-15)

Deception can easily creep in “so long as we do not return to the source of truth, as we do not seek the head nor keep the teaching of the heavenly Master”.

“Does he who does not hold this unity of the Church think that he holds the faith?” Cyprian asks, really hammering home the point of keeping unity within the Church and the faith; as Christ endowed the Twelve with power, but commissioned Peter to feed the sheep, in doing so Jesus arranged the “origin of that unity” for which the partnership of the Apostles began the Church. To strengthen his argument for unity within One Church, he quotes Paul in Ephesians 4:4-6, calling it the “sacrament of unity” by which we know the true Church.

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In speaking of the Bishops, or the “episcopate”, Cyprian says they above all need to uphold this unity of faith, because they are “held by each one for the whole” so that they are undivided as the Church is undivided and one.

I like the analogy Cyprian uses to describe the unity and “oneness” of the Church, in comparing it to things in nature:

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; break a branch from a tree,--when broken, it will not be able to bud; cut off the stream from its fountain, and that which is cut off dries up. 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.

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To further show the Church should be in perfect unity, Cyprian quotes Jesus saying “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30), and also makes what is a potentially early witness to the disputed Comma Johanneum (1 John 5:7-8), when he writes, “again it is written of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, ‘And these three are one’”.

Using these verses, he argues that if this unity is “divine strength and coheres in celestial sacraments” can the Church then be separated by opposition? “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.”

Who, then, is so wicked and faithless, who is so insane with the madness of discord, that either he should believe that the unity of God can be divided, or should dare to rend it--the garment of the Lord-- the Church of Christ?

This argument about the garment comes from the robe which Jesus wore at his crucifixion which the soldiers cast lots for since they didn’t want to rip it. The robe was made of a seamless thread from top to bottom, just as Christ is the head of the Church woven down from heaven to the Body, it too cannot be broken by those who possess it, as it shows the “coherent concord of our people who put on Christ” (cf. Jn 19:24; Rom 13:14; Gal 3:27).

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To close this section, the argument for unity rests in those words of Jesus previously quoted and also in what Paul wrote when he urged the Corinthians to keep in unity and avoid schisms:

1 Corinthians 1:10

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.

As the “Holy Spirit came as a dove, a simple and joyous creature … This is the simplicity that ought to be known in the Church”. Cyprian ends this chapter with this thought, and that is really something that the Church today should do well to remember and hold to so that there may be unity across the world in true brotherly love, as Jesus said in Jn 13:34-35.

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