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.

Friday, February 13, 2015

ANF V: Cyprian Epistle LVIII

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Cyprian: Epistle LVIII

I'm covering this Epistle as a stand-alone because of how critical it is. Basically, assuming that what I've read so far in the 19th century ANF series is fairly representative of what we actually have from the ancient church, this is the first time we have a clear articulation concerning infant baptism. That said, this letter clearly suggests an early form of baptismal regeneration--something which is only rarely separated from the practice of baptizing infants. (If you want my own thoughts on the issue, see here.) Cyprian argues that the church need not wait until the eighth day to baptize just because that was the practice with regard to circumcision (and so removing one support of contemporary infant baptism--the connection with circumcision). Indeed, we really shouldn't withhold "grace" from anyone! Which again is a perfectly logical conclusion from the practice...

This epistle should be read, but not embraced.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

ANF V: Cyprian Epistles LVI-LVII

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Cyprian: Epistles LVI-LVII

In Epistle LVI, Cyprian writes again to Cornelius, the pastor of the Roman congregation and praises God for his [Cornelius'] faithfulness to the Gospel through persecution. In doing so, Cyprian thanks God that Cornelius has upheld the unity of the church--unlike the schismatic Novatian. Cyprian ends with the encouragement to continue in mutual fellowship and prayer, each pastor and each congregation supporting the other in faithfulness.

Epistle LVII is Cyprian's letter to Lucius, who had been exiled but not martyred. Cyprian tells Lucius that he is no less a Christian because he hasn't been executed for the faith. While this letter is fine enough, the big interesting point comes in paragraph 3, where in addition to learning that Cornelius has been martyred, we see a compressed picture of Cyprian's view of the church as a unified organic whole composed of a pastor ("bishop"), elders ("presbyters,") and congregation.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

ANF V: Cyprian Epistle LV

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Cyprian: Epistle LV

In this Epistle, Cyprian apologizes for not being able to come in person, and encourages the Thibarians to prepare to endure the coming persecution. "Which things must all now be considered by us, that no one may desire anything from the world that is now dying, but may follow Christ, who both lives forever and quickens his servants, who are established in the faith of his name." To that end, we ought to hold to the "glory of life eternal and the crown of the confession of the Lord," and this through faith, courage, and the gathering of the church around the Lord's Table daily. We ought not fear death in any form, but especially death by the unbelieving government. "He is not alone whose companion in flight Christ is; he is not alone who, keeping God's temple wheresoever he is, is not without God." And again "for this is the strength of courage and of faith, to believe and to know that God can deliver from present death, and yet not to fear death nor to give way, that faith may be the more mightily proved."
Such persecution should not surprise us, for Christ too was persecuted even more than we are. But just as "for the secular contest men are trained and prepared," so we ought to put on the armor of God and stand firm in the faith for the inevitable triumph of Christ over the world, even to the point of death. Our weapons and armor, while very real ones, are weapons of holiness built upon faith in what Christ has done and with hope for the coming heavenly city where all things will be set right.

Frankly, this epistle is excellent and should certainly be read.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

ANF V: Cyprian Epistle LIV

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Cyprian: Epistle LIV

Apparently, some of the heretics who had been excommunicated for various immoralities and for schism had been threatening the church in Rome. In the lengthy Epistle LIV, Cyprian encourages Cornelius to stand firm in the faith and continue to do his duty. This not because we are awesome, but because of the Scriptural promises God has made to His church concerning its authority and ultimate triumph. And while not every example Cyprian uses is necessarily an appropriate application of Scripture, his overall point remains a good one. There is no heresy or assault on the church that God has not provided for, and we need never fail to do our duty because of the sin of unbelievers. Paragraph 5 especially gives us Cyprian's view of the unity of the local church, "For neither have heresies arisen, nor have schisms originated, from any other source than from this, that God's priest is not obeyed."
This is true, so long as we add the caveat "God's priest is not obeyed when he is preaching the true Gospel." Fortunately, this is in fact Cyprian's concern. We do not want to let unbelievers (even if they are claiming to be Christians) dictate the life and teachings of the church: "Is the dignity of the catholic church,dearest brother, to be laid aside... for this, that those who are set without the church may say that they wish to judge concerning a prelate in the church? heretics concerning a Christian? wounded men about a whole man? maimed concerning a sound man?" And so on. While his view of the church can at times be skewed, Cyprian's goals are exactly what they should be.

With that said, this letter is long and can be skimmed, other than paragraphs 5,6, and 18.

Monday, February 9, 2015

ANF V: Cyprian Epistles LII-LIII

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Cyprian: Epistles LII-LIII

Returning again to the question of the lapsed in Epistle LII, Cyprian discusses the case of three believers who had given in under torture, but have been repenting for the past three years. Is it now acceptable to receive them back into communion? Cyprian believes that because these individuals had only given in under extreme torture and had held on so faithfully for so long prior to that, three years of repentance should be enough. Now, that should not mean an easy or cheap grace for others--just those who are in unique circumstances (the sick, the dying, and those who held up under most persecution but gave in when face with difficulties they were not truly equipped for).

And yet, Cyprian says that he will take this discussion to a gathering of elders and come with the opinion of the group, which appears to be what is going on in Epistle LIII. Since it appears that another persecution is on the way, and since we as a church are to be merciful when we can, we should bring those who have been consistently repentant back into the fold so that we might be united when the persecution finally comes. We need the church to be at its best, which means gathered together around the Lord's Table in fellowship and full communion: "how do we make them fit for the cup of martyrdom, if we do not first admit them to drink, in the Church, the cup of the Lord by the right of communion?"
This is not to say that those who have returned to their sinful lives, or embraced heresy, should be readmitted. Only the truly penitent.
Some argue that this isn't really necessary, since being martyred will be enough to bring the lapsed back into the church. Yet, this downplays too much the role of the church in the life of a believer. "he cannot be fitted for martyrdom who is not armed for the contest by the Church; and his spirit is deficient which the Eucharist received does not raise and stimulate."
Now, it's true that God will still receive His own,but what will God say to the church on that Last Day if we have refused to allow the repentant sinner to return? It is our responsibility to declare forgiveness and to be unified in the face of the world's assault, and we must not be found lax in that duty.
Again, we see that Cyprian has perhaps too high a view of the church's role in salvation, but also again that may be a needed corrective to today's individualistic Christianity that would ignore the church all together.

Friday, February 6, 2015

ANF V: Cyprian Epistle LI

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Cyprian: Epistle LI

In this long letter, Cyprian gives us the back-story of the Cornelius/Novatian affair and explains why he has sided with Cornelius.
Cyprian also discusses the case of the lapsed, and explains how his position on readmitting them into the church has evolved over time. He recounts the Council that met to decide the question, appealing ultimately to Scripture and desiring to 1) restore the truly repentant; 2) make sure this process was involved enough to protect the integrity of the church; 3) be flexible enough to account for individual circumstances on a person-by-person basis. But, there arose a more difficult question: what do to with people who never technically lapsed, but instead bribed officials to receive certificates saying that they had. Some of these have even done so not so much for themselves as for the protection of their wives and children. We realize that these are all different categories of sins (but still sins!) and so in need of different kinds of responses from the church. So, the new rule is that those who dishonestly received certificates may be restored, while those who actually sacrificed to idols will not be until the end of their lives. Though again, this is a general rule and to be modified on a person-by-person basis as needed according to the rule of mercy.

Whichever approach to the lapsed each individual church takes, we must again remember that unity ought to be our goal. We ought to tolerate brothers and sisters who come to different conclusions or practices in their church, just as different churches have different responses to the sin of adultery. The goal again really is restoration, we just want to be careful in how we go about it. After all, "he who is not in the Church of Christ is not a Christian." (This said about Novatian.)

We also see in this letter some of Cyprian's ecclesiology. "There is one church, divided by Christ throughout the whole world into many members, and also one episcopate diffused through a harmonious multitude of many bishops." To attempt to divide this unity is to give evidence that we do not belong to Christ. One sign of this, as with Novatian, is his claim to be able to tell what goes on in the hearts of believers while tolerating sins that the true church would never allow (such as idolatry or adultery). We ought to mourn when heretics so strive to cut off believers from hearing the sweet promises of the Gospel proclaimed by God's true church!

While there are things here that are untrue, (you can be a believer outside of the visible church, for example), Cyprian's high view of the church is a necessary corrective for today's lax approach to the body of Christ!

Thursday, February 5, 2015

ANF 5: Cyprian Epistles XL-L

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Cyprian: Epistles XL-L

This stretch of letters deals with the schism and questions about heresy surrounding Novatian (more on him towards the end of this volume). In Epistle XL, Cyprian rejects an entourage from Novatian asking for support for his claim to the office of pastor/bishop/elder in Rome. Cyprian rejects the claim (the note points out that Cornelius had already been made bishop), pointing out that it would be improper, even wicked or heretical, for him to acknowledge a pastor other than the one "made and approved by the testimony and judgment of his colleagues and the people, another can by no means be appointed." So we should note 1) the autonomy of the local church; 2) the dual role of congregation and elders in choosing new elders/pastors.

Which isn't to say Cyprian had made a snap judgment about Novatian, in Epistle XLI, he writes to Cornelius and explains that he had tried to go slowly and carefully in figuring out what actually went on in Rome. Even when dealing with the internal affairs of other churches, we ought to work for unity and truth:
Let those beware, who, obeying either their own rage or lust, and unmindful of the divine law and holiness, rejoice to throw abroad in the meantime things which they cannot prove; and although they may not be successful in destroying and ruining innocence, are satisfied with scattering stains upon it with lying reports and false rumours.
Cyprian notes in Epistle XLIV that he had confirmed with others in Rome and made sure that Cornelius' version was in fact accurate.

Epistles XLII and XLIII show us that not only does Cyprian communicate with his own church and with Cornelius, but with those who he believes to be in error. He encourages restoration and begs them not to divide the church by working contrary to its established practice.

Epistles XLV and XLVI are a back-and-forth from Cornelius to Cyprian informing the latter that the schismatics have in fact returned, and praising God for the restoration of unity. They admit that they had acted too quickly, and acknowledge the legitimate ordination of Cornelius. Which did not exterminate the "faction of Novation," still to be dealt with. Cornelius in Epistle XLVII notifies Cyprian that the members of the faction who have not returned to communion have been excommunicated. In Epistle XLVIII, Cyprian responds with the record of a similar (the same?) event in Africa lead by one Novatus (who might be Novatian, it might just be that the Roman schism spread to Africa, see Elucidation VIII for the difficulties here). This Novatus has been disciplined for dividing the church--something he did even in the midst of persecution! And yet, Cyprian hopes for restoration, since no one who truly belongs to God can be lost, "He alone who has not been planted in the precepts and warnings of God the Father, can depart from the church."

Epistles XLIX and L are back-and-forth letters from some of the schismatics who had returned, and from Cyprian back to them. Cyprian rejoices over the restoration of unity and the peace among brothers and sisters in Christ. We must remember, that
For although there seem to be tares in the Church, yet neither our faith nor our charity ought to be hindered, so that because we see that there are tares in the Church we ourselves should withdraw from the Church: we ought only to labour that we may be wheat, that when the wheat shall begin to be gathered into the Lord's barns, we may receive fruit for our labour and work.
 Which is a wonderful reminder that we need not--should not--bail on our local church just because there are people in it we disagree with (Cyprian is of course assuming a general agreement on the Gospel and basic salvific doctrine, remember polity is the context here). 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

ANF 5: Cyprian Epistles XXXVII-XXXIX

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Cyprian: Epistles XXXVII-XXXIX

These Epistles deal with the problem of the faction created by one Felicissimus. It's a little unclear what the exact nature of the problem is, but it appears that Felicissimus is doing something untoward with church funds, and possibly committing sexual sins ("the crime also of adultery," though this may be a reference to spiritual adultery rather than that of seducing someone's spouse). Cyprian notifies the other elders that Felicissimus has been excommunicated, and that anyone who follows him or continues to associated with him should be excommunicated as well. This apparently includes some confessors and some of Cyprian's fellow exiles and a handful of elders. At least a part of the sin of these elders was the creation of a new way of handling the lapsed, perhaps even by refusing to readmit them to communion at all. The sin of these elders specifically was acting unilaterally when it had already been agreed "that no novelty should be introduced in respect of the case of the lapsed unless we all assembled into one place, and our counsels being compared, should decide upon a moderate sentence, tempered alike with discipline and with mercy."

In a moving passage, Cyprian tells his congregation how much he misses them and hates being away. This in turn highlights the sin of these elders who would tear apart the congregation. The church ought to be unified, since "There is one God, and Christ is one, and there is one church, and one chair founded upon the rock by the word of the Lord." We must not divide Christians from Christ: "let no one snatch you, Christians, from the Gospel of Christ, let no one take sons of the Church away from the Church." We must specifically reject anyone who tries to insert their own traditions into the life of the church, and in doing so make it less merciful (again, this relates to the lapsed--"let one downfall be sufficient for the lapsed; let no one by his fraud hurl down those who wish to rise."). We must all pray together as a church body for the restoration of the lost while avoiding the traps set by sin and the devil for God's people.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

ANF V: Cyprian Epistles XXXV-XXXVI

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Cyprian: Epistles XXXV-XXXVI

These Epistles show us something of Cyprian's view of how the church should be caring for its own. Widows, the poor, the sick, and indigent strangers should be cared for--even from Cyprian's own salary or savings if need be, which he had left with "Rogatianus, our fellow-presbyter." (Which, the note points out, shows that Cyprian does not see himself as any kind of supreme authority in the church.)
But especially the confessors in prison ought to be cared for. The church should see to both their physical needs and, on their martyrdom, remember their sacrifice appropriately with the correct "memorials of the martyrs." A practice that has unfortunately either fallen away or been corrupted into the worship of man since Cyprian's time.

Monday, February 2, 2015

ANF V: Cyprian Epistles XXXII-XXXIV

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Cyprian: Epistles XXXII-XXXIV

In Epistle XXXII, Cyprian informs the elders and the congregation that he has placed one Aurelius in the office of "reader." Normally, it is his practice to consult with the church first, but in this case given Aurelius remarkable faithfulness through persecution (being twice-over a "confessor"), Cyprian felt that he could go ahead and just declare it. And yet, he still doesn't do this alone, Cyprian ordained Aurelius with his "colleagues who were then present." There are no solitary decisions in the visible church--or at least there shouldn't be any...

Epistle XXXIII takes on the same subject with a different person, this time the ordination of Celerinus as a "reader." Once again Cyprian notes his more-than-usual unilateral action, arguing that the offices of the church are best filled (when possible) by those who have made it through persecution since they are some of the best models of faithfulness. Celerinus is such a model, and just as he served the Lord in persecution, now he ought to serve the Lord in ecclesiastical leadership.

The same is said about Numidicus as a presbyter, though in this case we are not told exactly how he is put in office. Whether Cyprian did it himself (with others in his exile) or he was instructing the church to do so is unclear, since all he says is "I have been admonished and instructed by divine condescension, that Numidicus the presbyter should be appointed in the number of Carthaginian presbyters, and should sit with us among the clergy." Does this mean Cyprian has made a unilateral decision? Or is he giving the church his vote, one among the congregation? There's just not enough here for a conclusion about polity either way.