Tuesday, March 31, 2015

ANF V: Cyprian? Repentance

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Cyprian? Exhortation to Repentance

This short piece is composed entirely of quotations from Scripture, and so can be read or skipped as desired. Of course, they're quotations on repentance and so worthy of being reminded of, so why skip it?

Monday, March 30, 2015

ANF V: Cyprian? On Chastity

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Cyprian? Of the Discipline and Advantage of Chastity

Another treatise possibly written by Cyprian, this one on sex. Or at least, not having sex. Before getting to that, the author reminds the reader that it is his job as a preacher to preach the Word of God and encourage his congregation to live in a way that reflects that Word well. "For the danger is all the greater if we know the Lord's will, and loiter in the work of the will of God." Part of this life is chastity. This does not mean absolute abstinence, but rather putting sex in the place God wants it. That is, for singles and for the married it means being content with the sex God has called you to have, whether that means none or just with your spouse. We see this mandate laid down both in the creation order of Genesis and the recreation of God's people in the church through the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The author then gives us several examples of chastity, both from Scripture (Joseph) and from the Apocrypha (Susanna). The author likewise notes the connection of chastity to modesty and caution in how we use our eyes and thoughts. These are only accomplished with the help of God working through His Word.

Overall, this is a fine little treatise. And while like many ancient Christian thoughts on sex it sometimes goes to unfortunate rhetorical extremes, by and large it is worth reading and benefiting from.

Friday, March 27, 2015

ANF V: Cyprian? On the Glory of Martyrdom

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Cyprian? On the Glory of Martyrdom

Another in the "did Cyprian write this?" series, On the Glory of Martyrdom is a medium-length treatise explaining exactly what the title suggests--that martyrdom is a victory rather than a defeat that Christians ought to celebrate, if not so much actively embrace. While bits of this essay might get a bit rhetorically and theologically extravagant, by and large it is excellent and worth reading. It is especially convicting to those of us who live in the relative safety and affluence of the modern West, and who heretofore have not really had to suffer for the faith. The devotion herein is challenging, and worthy of much prayer and reflection.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

ANF V: Cyprian? On Public Shows

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Cyprian? On the Public Shows

Beginning the set of treatises that may or may not have been by Cyprian (according to the best historiography of the 19th century, at any rate), this short essay discusses whether Christians can in good conscience attend the public games. These could be anything from races to gladiatorial combats to plays, and often involved an element of worshiping the pagan gods at the beginning or during the course of the performance. We certainly should not justify our attendance at these kind of events using Scripture--that ends up justifying idolatry using God's Word, which is of course wrong.

Moreover, the fact that the shows are not prohibited is not the same as saying that we have liberty or permission to attend. Rather, we must pursue virtue in all things, even where Scripture does not give us specific instruction: "Let every man only take counsel with himself, and let him speak consistently with the character of his profession, and then he will never do any of these things."

The author then goes on to make the claim that all of these shows both involve and are based on idolatry in the first place, and so ought to be avoided anyway. Which at least might give us moderns a bit of wiggle room, now that the specific open idolatry is no longer commonly practiced. Still, these types of entertainment are aimed at our sins--our lusts, our laziness, our gluttony, and so on, and so ought to be avoided by Christians. Which is not to say there is no spectacle for believers! We have the whole theater of the world an the whole drama of the Scriptures which we may look at and rejoice in. We have the anticipation of the coming judgment of the Lord to see and delight in, which should be spectacle enough for us.

This isn't necessarily the best reading in the volume, but it's short enough that there's really no excuse not to read it...

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

ANF V: Seventh Council of Carthage

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Seventh Council of Carthage under Cyprian 

Concerning the Baptism of Heretics

This is the record of the speeches at the Council of Carthage. There are any number of interesting things about this council, including the subject matter. Just to hit a few of them:

  • The attendees: "a great many bishops... together with the presbyters and deacons, and a considerable part of the congregation." That is, pastors, elders, deacons, and the laity were apparently all involved. 
  • The process: no one could be condemned for speaking his mind or rejected from communion "if he should think differently of us," nor was anyone allowed to claim supremacy "for neither does any of us set himself up as a bishop of bishops, nor by tyrannical terror does any compel his colleague to the necessity of obedience." If only John Huss had such a promise at Constance! 
  • The humility: At the end of the day, they are quite clear that only Christ can resolve this conflict once and for all. Whatever decisions are made there are non-ultimately binding. "Let us all wait for the judgment of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the only one that has the power both of preferring us in the government of His Church, and of judging us in our conduct there."
  • Unity: if there's a part of this that's a little bit questionable, it's that there are no dissenting voices recorded. That may very well be because there were no dissenters there, but more likely this is a selection reflecting the position that carried the day. Which doesn't negate its value, since it did carry the day. But it does mean that we don't have much of a picture of the other side. 
  • Doctrine: what's in question is whether someone needs to be baptized after coming to the faith from a heresy. (Again, this need not necessarily mean a theological heresy, sometimes this just means a different church.) The council is quite adamant that the answer is "yes," since only the true church can baptize. Interestingly, they are quite clear that this is a Biblical truth which needs to trump whatever customs and traditions may be in place in various congregations. I don't know that we have a one-to-one equivalent of this question today, since the believers baptism/infant baptism divide is slightly different, and we use "heresy" differently anyway.
Overall, this piece is short and well worth the time it takes to read, even if it only raises more questions than it answers. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

ANF V: Cyprian Eludications

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Cyprian: Treatises Elucidations

As with other elucidations in this volume, these are primarily concerned with demonstrating how at odds Cyprian is with his later Roman Catholic apologists. And while I think the editors have a good point, I also think at times they push it too far. It is true that Cyprian would have had no patience with the Roman Catholic church structure, but it's also true that he would have had even less patience with most Protestant ones. As with most of the church fathers, it's really best just to thank God for His faithfulness to them, try to emulate their patient endurance under persecution, take what is good and true from their writings, and remember when we encounter the bad that they are sinners just as we are and that someday people will read our writings and have the same sorts of mixed reactions.

Monday, March 23, 2015

ANF V: Cyprian Treatise XII Against the Jews

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Cyprian: Treatise XII Three Books of Testimonies Against the Jews

Much like the previous "treatise", this isn't so much an extended argument as it is a number of propositions followed by Biblical citations. In this case, the citations are largely Old Testament citations since they are intended, as Cyprian says in his opening, to provide source material for more in-depth reflection by later writers. In these, Cyprian argues that 1) the Jews have abandoned God, so now the Christians are God's people; 2) what we believe as Christians about Christ; and 3) how we are to live as believers ("six-score"--120-- instructions in number, for whatever that's worth). As with the previous treatise, you can probably get away with just reading the heads, which I won't provide this time because there are so many of them. This treatise can be skimmed or skipped as per the reader's preference.

Friday, March 20, 2015

ANF V: Cypriant Treatise XI Exhortation to Martyrdom

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Cyprian: Treatise XI: Exhortation to Martyrdom, Addressed to Fortunatus

This longish treatise is broken into a preface and twelve arguments, each of which Cyprian spends a bit of time justifying. I won't go into detail in each section, rather I'll post the heads and note that they're all worth reading, especially the Preface where we are encouraged as Christians to prepare ourselves for suffering, even in times of peace and prosperity Cyprian's goal here is not so much to do all of the work for us, but to point the way. He has a wonderful way of putting this:
For if I were to give a man a garment finished and ready, it would be my garment that another was making use of, and probably the thing made for another would be found little fitting for his figure of stature and body. But now I have sent you the very wool and the purple from the Lamb, by whom we were redeemed and quickened; which, when you have received, you will make into a coat for yourself...
The sections he covers are as follows:
1. Therefore, in exhorting and preparing our brethren, and in arming them with firmness of virtue and faith for the heralding forth of the confession of the Lord, and for the battle of persecution and suffering, we must declare, in the first place, that the idols which man makes for himself are not gods. For things which are made are not greater than their maker and fashioner; nor can these things protect and preserve anybody, which themselves perish out of their temples, unless they are preserved by man. But neither are those elements to be worshipped which serve man according to the disposition and ordinance of God.
2. The idols being destroyed, and the truth concerning the elements being manifested, we must show that God only is to be worshipped.
3. Then we must add, what is God’s threatening against those who sacrifice to idols.
4. Besides, we must teach that God does not easily pardon idolaters.
5. And that God is so angry with idolatry, that He has even commanded those to be slain who persuade others to sacrifice and serve idols.
6. After this we must subjoin, that being redeemed and quickened by the blood of Christ, we ought to prefer nothing to Christ, because He preferred nothing to us, and on our account preferred evil things to good, poverty to riches, servitude to rule, death to immortality; that we, on the contrary, in our sufferings are preferring the riches and delights of paradise to the poverty of the world, eternal dominion and kingdom to the slavery of time, immortality to death, God and Christ to the devil and Antichrist.
7. We must urge also, that when snatched from the jaws of the devil, and freed from the snares of this world, if they begin to be in difficulty and trouble, they must not desire to return again to the world, and so lose the advantage of their withdrawal therefrom.
8. That we must rather urge on and persevere in faith and virtue, and in completion of heavenly and spiritual grace, that we may attain to the palm and to the crown.
9. For that afflictions and persecutions are brought about for this purpose, that we may be proved.
10. Neither must we fear the injuries and penalties of persecutions, because greater is the Lord to protect than the devil to assault.
11. And lest any one should be frightened and troubled at the afflictions and persecutions which we suffer in this world, we must prove that it was before foretold that the world would hold us in hatred, and that it would arouse persecutions against us; that from this very thing, that these things come to pass, is manifest the truth of the divine promise, in recompenses and rewards which shall afterwards follow; that it is no new thing which happens to Christians, since from the beginning of the world the good have suffered, and have been oppressed and slain by the unrighteous.
12. In the last place, it must be laid down what hope and what reward await the righteous and martyrs after the struggles and the sufferings of this time, and                                 13. that we shall receive more in the reward of our suffering than what we suffer here in the passion itself.
You need not necessarily read the whole treatise, the text defending each heading is largely Scriptural quotation. Which of course won't hurt you any and may do you no small amount of good...

Thursday, March 19, 2015

ANF V: Cyprian Treatise X On Jealousy and Envy

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Cyprian: Treatise X On Jealousy and Envy

Many people assume that envy and jealousy are only small sins and so not worthy of much attention. And yet, for the Christian every sin is an opportunity for a full-on assault by the devil. We must always be on guard, especially against envy since it very often turns us against each other. It may have even been the first sin, that of the devil when he fell (Cyprian gives an interesting narrative here), and may have been what instigated his temptation of Adam and caused our own fall. It was certainly the cause of much grief after the fall, as Cyprian proves walking through Scripture beginning with Cain. If all this weren't enough, jealousy makes us miserable and takes even the good of others and makes it wretched. In some ways physical damage is easier on us than the hidden wounds of envy. This is why there are so many warnings in the New Testament against it. We must resist envy and pursue instead holiness and the fruit of the Spirit.

This is a truly excellent treatise and ought to be read and profited from!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

ANF V: Cyprian Treatise IX Patience

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Cyprian: Treatise IX On the Advantage of Patience

Like Tertullian, Cyprian doesn't seem to be the type who is terribly patient. And yet, he tells us, few things are more necessary to a godly life. This is not a virtue available to all, despite what pagan philosophers claim-- "For whence can he be either wise or patient, who has neither known the wisdom nor the patience of God?" Patience comes directly from God--
From Him patience begins; from Him its glory and dignity take their rise. The origin and greatness of patience proceed from God as its author. Man ought to love the thiing which is dear to God; the good which the Divine Majesty loves, it commends. If God is our Lord and Father, let us imitate the patience of our Lord as well as our Father; because it behooves servants to be obedient no less than it becomes sons not to be degenerate.
We see God's patience above all in his patience with sin in the world. We see patience in His active goodness to a rebellious world, in His continually calling us to repent, in His love for His enemies, and His command to His friends to do the same. "What a glory it is to become like to God! what and how great a felicity, to possess among our virtues, that which may be placed on the level of divine praises!" Jesus was the fulfillment of this, as He was perfectly patient even to the point of death.
Finally, all His actions, even from His very advent, are characterized by patience as their associate; in that, first of all, coming down from that heavenly sublimity to earthly things, the Son of God did not scorn to put on the flesh of man, and although He Himself was not a sinner, to bear the sins of others.  His immortality being in the meantime laid aside, He suffers Himself to become mortal, so that the guiltless may be put to death for the salvation of the guilty. 
"Even to the end, all things are borne perseveringly and constantly, in order that in Christ a full and perfect patience may be consummated." Having done all this, Jesus is still patient with us, receiving even murderers into salvation.

So we too should be patient, just as the apostles and prophets and patriarchs who came before us were. We should at the same time realize that this patience is contrary to our innate natures--since the fall of man we desire instant gratification and are frustrated by a harsh world. patience alone makes this world bearable since it alone can overcome at least some of the worldly effects of the fall. Patience as Christians is what especially enables us to endure through the additional trials of persecution and the assaults of sin and the devil. It is the doorway through which the other fruits of the Spirit are brought into our lives.

Ultimately, the patience of Christians will be rewarded when God's patience is finally exhausted and Christ returns in judgment. So let us be found patiently waiting until then, when all things will finally be set right and restored.

This treatise is fantastic--read it and be blessed!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

ANF V: Cyprian Treatise VIII On Works and Alms

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Cyprian: Treatise VIII On Works and Alms

The beginning of this treatise is excellent and worth citing in full:
Many and great, beloved brethren, are the divine benefits wherewith the large and abundant mercy of God the Father and Christ both has laboured and is always labouring for our salvation: that the Father sent the Son to preserve us and give us life, in order that He might restore us; and that the Son was willing to be sent and to become the Son of man, that He might make us sons of God; humbled Himself, that He might raise up the people who before were prostrate; was wounded that He might heal our wounds; served, that He might draw out to liberty those who were in bondage; underwent death, that He might set forth immortality to mortals. These are many and great boons of divine compassion. But, moreover, what is that providence, and how great the clemency, that by a plan of salvation it is provided for us, that more abundant care should be taken for preserving man after he is already redeemed! For when the Lord at His advent had cured those wounds which Adam had borne, and had healed the old poisons of the serpent, He gave a law to the sound man and bade him sin no more, lest a worse thing should befall the sinner. We had been limited and shut up into a narrow space by the commandment of innocence. Nor would the infirmity and weakness of human frailty have any resource, unless the divine mercy, coming once more in aid, should open some way of securing salvation by pointing out works of justice and mercy, so that by almsgiving we may wash away whatever foulness we subsequently contract
Not only is God's faithfulness clearly shown to us in our salvation, but we see it in His continuing care even for our worldly needs! Now, that last bit needs to be properly understood--our virtuous actions do not pay for our sins. Rather, as we reflect the Gospel in our lives by our actions, we become the sorts of people who are less foul than we had been and more like the God who has saved us. Unfortunately, the next few paragraphs suggest that Cyprian did think that your virtuous actions offset your sins, and that was damage that the church is still trying to undo even today.
And yet, we can still agree with Cyprian's main point:
Finally, beloved brethren, the divine admonition in the Scriptures, as well old as new, has never failed, has never been silent in urging God’s people always and everywhere to works of mercy; and in the strain and exhortation of the Holy Spirit, every one who is instructed into the hope of the heavenly kingdom is commanded to give alms.  
Not because, as Cyprian later suggests, this propitiates God, but because Christ has already done so in our place. Which Cyprian well knows, telling us so explicitly in paragraph 7.

Overall, this treatise is clearly of mixed quality, and Cyprian's exegesis could use some serious work. But I think it is still worth at least skimming, if only because of how well he deals with specific objections to charitable giving. Are you worried about putting yourself into the poorhouse? We're rich in Christ. Are we worried about bankrupting our estates? They don't really belong to us anyway. When has God let his people starve? Maybe Cyprian's a bit off there--as in the context of the last treatise God's people do suffer the trials of the world. And I'm going to go ahead and go on record as saying that you should worry about feeding your children, albeit not to the point of idolatry. Cyprian is surely correct that God is a better and more caring Father than I will ever be, and if I'm only holding on to something because I think no one else in the world can do what I can do, well, I've missed a key doctrine of the faith.

So again, a treatise of mixed quality, but one worth at least a glance--if only for this passage:
 What sort of gift is it, beloved brethren, whose setting forth is celebrated in the sight of God? If, in a gift of the Gentiles, it seems a great and glorious thing to have proconsuls or emperors present, and the preparation and display is the greater among the givers, in order that they may please the higher classes; how much more illustrious and greater is the glory to have God and Christ as the spectators of the gift! How much more sumptuous the preparation and more liberal the expense to be set forth in that case, when the powers of heaven assemble to the spectacle, when all the angels come together: where it is not a four-horsed chariot or a consulship that is sought for the giver, but life eternal is bestowed; nor is the empty and fleeting favour of the rabble grasped at, but the perpetual reward of the kingdom of heaven is received!

Monday, March 16, 2015

ANF V: Cyprian Treatise VII On the Mortality

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Cyprian: Treatise VII On the Mortality

Why do bad things happen to God's people? Specifically in this treatise, Cyprian tackles the question of why a particularly nasty plague seems to be killing Christians just as much as pagans. After all, disease and natural disaster are from God, shouldn't God's people be protected?

But these questions, Cyprian tells us, misunderstand the Bible and what Christianity is all about. Christianity is not about living the best life you could ever live in this world and then being gently and painlessly translated into heaven. Christianity is being justified by faith and living in the hope that this life will pass away and the next life will be established. In that sense, we do not fear death whether at the hands of persecutors or disease, but rather understand both in terms of moving from this world of sin to the heaven earned for us by Christ on the cross. Until then, we fight against our own sin and the assaults of the devil in the world. Our faith is constantly and unrelentingly opposed to the temptations of sin and the promise of comfort and ease:
"Our warfare is with avarice, with immodesty, with anger, with ambition; our diligent and toilsome wrestle with carnal vices, with enticements of the world. The mind of man besieged, and in every quarter invested with the onsets of the devil, scarcely in each point meets the attack, scarcely resists it. If avarice is prostrated, lust springs up. if lust is overcome, ambition takes its place. If ambition is despised, anger exasperates, pride puffs up, wine-bibbing entices, envy breaks concord, jealousy cuts friendship..." etc.
Why, then, would we ever cling to the world? Instead, we must see that all trials in the world are there not as a sign that we do not have faith, but as a buttress for it. We suffer so that we might believe more, "struggle in adversity is the trial of the truth."
"This, in short, is the difference between us and others who know not God, that in misfortune they complain and murmur, while adversity does not call us away from the truth of virtue and faith, but strengthens us by its suffering."
We do not mourn death in the same way that pagans do, but rather see that its sting has been removed and that it becomes a door through which we live forever with our Lord. What's more, it's a door that God is completely and totally sovereign over.

This treatise is absolutely fantastic and certainly ought to be read and enjoyed in full.

Friday, March 13, 2015

ANF V: Cyprian Treatise VI On the Vanity of Idols

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Cyprian: Treatise VI On the Vanity of Idols: Showing that idols are not gods, and that God is One, and that through Christ salvation is given to believers

This treatise isn't as long as its ambitious title might make it sound. In fact, the point about idols is pretty simply dealt with: everyone knows those statutes that people worship and the stories that are told are stories about ancient kings and rulers that have been corrupted and twisted over time, not stories about actual gods. This is why each nation has its own gods and its own stories, and why none of those "gods" can actually help when that nation is being invaded by a mightier power.

Nor do these "gods" inspire virtue. If anything, the political history of the world teaches us about sin.
Kingdoms do not rise to supremacy through merit, but are varied by chance. Empire was formerly held by both Assyrians and Medes and Persians; and we know, too, that both Greeks and Egyptians have had dominion. Thus, in the varying vicissitudes of power, the period of empire has also come to the Romans as to the others. But if you recur to its origin, you must needs blush. A people is collected together from profligates and criminals, and by founding an asylum, impunity for crimes makes the number great; and that their king himself may have a superiority in crime, Romulus becomes a fratricide; and in order to promote marriage, he makes a beginning of that affair of concord by discords. They steal, they do violence, they deceive in order to increase the population of the state; their marriage consists of the broken covenants of hospitality and cruel wars with their fathers-in-law. The consulship, moreover, is the highest degree in Roman honours, yet we see that the consulship began even as did the kingdom. Brutus puts his sons to death, that the commendation of his dignity may increase by the approval of his wickedness. The Roman kingdom, therefore, did not grow from the sanctities of religion, nor from auspices and auguries, but it keeps its appointed time within a definite limit. Moreover, Regulus observed the auspices, yet was taken prisoner; and Mancinus observed their religious obligation, yet was sent under the yoke. Paulus had chickens that fed, and yet he was slain at Cannæ. Caius Cæsar despised the auguries and auspices that were opposed to his sending ships before the winter to Africa; yet so much the more easily he both sailed and conquered.
When there do appear to be supernatural forces at work, we can quiet easily see that they are demonic rather than divine. Whatever random or occasional powers seem to possess the pagan oracles or stone statues can be attributed to these, not least in their hostility to the true Gospel.

And what is that true faith and religion? First, that there is only One God, rather than many. The true God is not found in any temple or building, but rather is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient:
 He cannot be seen—He is too bright for vision; nor comprehended—He is too pure for our discernment; nor estimated—He is too great for our perception; and therefore we are only worthily estimating Him when we say that He is inconceivable. But what temple can God have, whose temple is the whole world? And while man dwells far and wide, shall I shut up the power of such great majesty within one small building? He must be dedicated in our mind; in our breast He must be consecrated. Neither must you ask the name of God. God is His name. Among those there is need of names where a multitude is to be distinguished by the appropriate characteristics of appellations. To God who alone is, belongs the whole name of God; therefore He is one, and He in His entirety is everywhere diffused. For even the common people in many things naturally confess God, when their mind and soul are admonished of their author and origin. We frequently hear it said, “O God,” and “God sees,” and “I commend to God,” and “God give you,” and “as God will,” and “if God should grant;” and this is the very height of sinfulness, to refuse to acknowledge Him whom you cannot but know
We can only understand God when He shows Himself to us in language we can understand, yet we also see that on some level all people instinctively understand this point. But the way God has been made clear to us is through Christ. Jesus was first announced to the Jewish people, but they refused to believe God's promises and only increased their rebellion. And so when Christ came the promise was taken from the Jews and given to the whole world--the promise that was fulfilled through His life, death, and resurrection.

And now, the whole world can see the truth of these promises and what Christ has done for us in the lives and sufferings of Christians.
 And that the proof might not be the less substantial, and the confession of Christ might not be a matter of pleasure, they are tried by tortures, by crucifixions, by many kinds of punishments. Pain, which is the test of truth, is brought to bear, that Christ the Son of God, who is trusted in as given to men for their life, might not only be announced by the heralding of the voice, but by the testimony of suffering. Therefore we accompany Him, we follow Him, we have Him as the Guide of our way, the Source of light, the Author of salvation, promising as well the Father as heaven to those who seek and believe. What Christ is, we Christians shall be, if we imitate Christ.
We are to be the witnesses of God's love--and God's coming judgment--for the world.

This short treatise is a bit scattered at times, but well worth reading!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

ANF V: Cyprian Treatise V To Demetrianus

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Cyprian: Treatise V An Address to Demetrianus

Technically this is an apologetic work written by Cyprian to the governor of his North African province who had been persecuting Christians. I don't know how much apologetic value it has (that's not really my area of expertise), but I know it has a definite value for Christian encouragement.

Specifically, Cyprian argues apologetically that the disasters Rome is facing are not a result of the abandonment of the pagan gods by the Christians, but rather the failure of the pagans to worship the one true God. What's more, the pagans are inconsistent in their approach to Christianity. If it is immoral, then people convicted of being Christians should be executed outright, rather than tortured until they abandon the faith or die. "To be a Christian is either a crime or it is not. If it be a crime, why do you not put the man that confesses it to death? If it be not a crime, why do you persecute an innocent man?" Even worse than that, the pagans are going after the physical body of Christians rather than trying to intellectually argue against it, which shows the weakness of their own position.

I don't know that those arguments would have convinced anyone now or then, but I do know that this should encourage modern Christians. First, we see that there is a long history of blaming us for the ills of the world. When something goes wrong, it's those hateful Christians who must be to blame. If only they could be made to see the error of their ways, then all would be well with the world! What's more, there is likewise a long tradition of not merely believing Christians are wrong but demanding that they conform to the societal standards of the day. Nothing less than utter spiritual surrender will satisfy those who oppose the faith.

Finally, and above all the reason to read this treatise, Cyprian reminds us that as Christians we can endure whatever the world can throw at us. Even when the same disasters strike us that strike the world (famine hits us too, of course!), we respond differently:
Among you there is always a clamorous and complaining impatience; with us there is a strong and religious patience, always quiet and always grateful to God. Nor does it claim for itself anything joyous or prosperous in this world, but, meek and gentle and stable against all the gusts of this tossing world, it waits for the time of the divine promise....
There flourishes with us the strength of hope and the firmness of faith. Among these very ruins of a decaying world our soul is lifted up and our courage unshaken: our patience is never anything but joyous; and the mind is always secure of its God, even as the Holy Spirit speaks through the prophet, and exhorts us, strengthening with a heavenly word the firmness of our hope and faith.
This, not because of any good in us, but because of the work Christ has done in reconciling us to God. This reconciliation is offered to all who will accept it:
We offer you the wholesome help of our mind and advice. And because we may not hate, and we please God more by rendering no return for wrong, we exhort you while you have the power, while there yet remains to you something of life, to make satisfaction to God, and to emerge from the abyss of darkling superstition into the bright light of true religion. 
We do not envy your comforts, nor do we conceal the divine benefits. We repay kindness for your hatred; and for the torments and penalties which are inflicted on us, we point out to you the ways of salvation. Believe and live, and do ye who persecute us in time rejoice with us for eternity. 
When you have once departed thither, there is no longer any place for repentance, and no possibility of making satisfaction. Here life is either lost or saved; here eternal safety is provided for by the worship of God and the fruits of faith. Nor let any one be restrained either by his sins or by his years from coming to obtain salvation. To him who still remains in this world no repentance is too late. The approach to God’s mercy is open, and the access is easy to those who seek and apprehend the truth. Do you entreat for your sins, although it be in the very end of life, and at the setting of the sun of time; and implore God, who is the one and true God, in confession and faith of acknowledgment of Him, and pardon is granted to the man who confesses, and saving mercy is given from the divine goodness to the believer, and a passage is opened to immortality even in death itself. 
This grace Christ bestows; this gift of His mercy He confers upon us, by overcoming death in the trophy of the cross, by redeeming the believer with the price of His blood, by reconciling man to God the Father, by quickening our mortal nature with a heavenly regeneration. If it be possible, let us all follow Him; let us be registered in His sacrament and sign. He opens to us the way of life; He brings us back to paradise; He leads us on to the kingdom of heaven. Made by Him the children of God, with Him we shall ever live; with Him we shall always rejoice, restored by His own blood. We Christians shall be glorious together with Christ, blessed of God the Father, always rejoicing with perpetual pleasures in the sight of God, and ever giving thanks to God. For none can be other than always glad and grateful, who, having been once subject to death, has been made secure in the possession of immortality.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

ANF V: Cyprian Treatise IV On the Lord's Prayer

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Cyprian: Treatise IV On the Lord's Prayer

I'll admit that I skimmed this one in large part because I've already read in this volume. Still, it's worth a re-skimming, especially for Cyprian's comments on the nature of prayer itself. Again, we see that as with all of the Christian life, our prayers are to be shaped according to the rule established by Scripture:
Let us, therefore, brethren beloved, pray as God our Teacher has taught us. It is a loving and friendly prayer to beseech God with His own word, to come up to His ears in the prayer of Christ. Let the Father acknowledge the words of His Son when we make our prayer, and let Him also who dwells within our breast Himself dwell in our voice. And since we have Him as an Advocate with the Father for our sins, let us, when as sinners we petition on behalf of our sins, put forward the words of our Advocate.
Cyprian also gives some excellent advice as to what we should actually do when praying, namely we should 1) focus our thoughts and hearts on God rather than being distracted; 2) pray with substance rather than with superficial concerns; 3) remind God of the good works He has done through us, not because we are worthwhile but because God is generous; 4) be bold in reminding God of His promises, just as Daniel and the Three did in their time of need; 5) pray regularly, morning, evening, and night at the very least.

Overall, well worth reading.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

ANF V: Cyprian Treatise III On the Lapsed

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Cyprian: Treatise III On the Lapsed

Having read Cyprian's letters on this question, there really aren't any surprises here. Cyprian thinks that

  1. Persecution is terrible, albeit under God's control and used for the purification of his church. "The Lord has desired His family to be proved; and because a long peace had corrupted the discipline that had been divinely delivered to us, the heavenly rebuke has aroused our faith, which was giving way... and although we deserved more for our sins, yet the most merciful Lord has so moderated all things that all which has happened has rather seemed a trial than a persecution." 
  2. Remaining faithful as a "confessor" to Christ through persecution, even to the point of death and so becoming a martyr, is a glorious thing to praise God for. "We look with glad countenances upon confessors illustrious with the heraldry of a good name, and glorious with the praises of virtue and faith." Even those who withdrew from society into isolation rather than suffer (as Cyprian himself did) have some merit, albeit not as much as the confessors and martyrs. 
  3. Those who neither withdraw nor confess but instead reject the faith, "lapse." These we ought to be mightily grieved over--and Cyprian does have some seriously sad language here. "I need tears rather than words to express the sorrow with which the wound of our body should be bewailed, with which the manifold loss of a people once numerous should be lamented. For whose heart is so hard or cruel, who is so unmindful of brotherly love, as, among the varied ruins of his friends, and the mournful relics disfigured with all degradation, to be able to stand and to keep dry eyes, and not in the breaking out of his grief to express his groanings rather with tears than with words?"
  4. Now that the persecution is over, the lapsed should be allowed back in, but only after a sufficient time that they demonstrate true repentance and we have some kind of evidence that they truly believe, and aren't just back because it's easy once again.
  5. Those who have lapsed who get angry and being told to be patient and penitent may very well be giving evidence that they are not regenerate. 
  6. We should be charitable, especially to those who rejected Christianity but did not actually worship idols, but also cautious, especially with those who rejected Christianity when persecution had been announced, but not actually yet started. 
  7. God will accepted the repentant lapsed back into His church (as should we!), but the rule He has given us is His Word, not our own feelings of pity for those who want to return to the body of believers. "Yet, beloved brethren, the cause of truth is to be had in view; nor ought the gloomy darkness of the terrible persecution so to have blinded the mind and feeling, that there should remain no light and illumination whence the divine precepts may be held."
All of this to say that this treatise is excellent, convicting, and sometimes a bit unfortunate in its language. We should of course be willing to suffer for our faith (but when do we Americans ever really have to do that?). We should weep when people who had claimed to be believers reject the faith and leave the church. This is something which is felt more when churches exercise good membership practices, at least in my own experience. I can't even imagine what it's like to go through that while being persecuted... 
And, we should accept those who repent and wish for readmission not only in the case of having lapsed, but also in the case of any who have been put out of the church. (See Paul in II Corinthians for more on that.) We ought to rejoice and readmit repentant sinners of any stripe when they return to the faith. And yet, Cyprian is also right to say that that readmission needs to be tempered with wisdom. Those who have fallen and wish to return ought to consider Cyprian's advice to the lapsed:
[To those who have lapsed] do you in repentance and grief look into your sins; acknowledge the very grave sin of your conscience; open the eyes of your heart to the understanding of your sin, neither despairing of the Lord's mercy nor yet at once claiming his pardon. God, in proportion as with the affection of a Father he is always indulgent and good, in the same proportion is to be dreaded with the majesty of a judge. Even as we have sinned greatly, so let us greatly lament.To a deep wound let there not be wanting a long and careful treatment; let not the repentance be less than the sin.
Unfortunately, Cyprian is a bit flowery with his words at times. Not that he is wrong, but that if we're not careful this can (and at times in Christian history, did) slip into a works-righteousness. Repentance does not cause forgiveness or readmission, but it must attend forgiveness. So hopefully it's clear why this language can be a bit challenging if we're not cautious with it:
If a man make prayer with his whole heart, if he groan with the true lamentations and tears of repentance, if he incline the Lord to pardon of his sin by righteous and continual works, he who expressed His mercy... may pity such men." 
Repentance is essential, but we do not want it to turn into any form of physical penitence. Rather, it must be a directing of the soul to the cross and the forgiveness that was bought there as all our sins, even the sin of temporarily falling away from the church, were paid for by our Holy Substitute. 

As the church of course we can only see the externals, and in that case the best bet may be some level of delay while relationships are rebuilt and the members and elders have a chance to observe the repentant believer and make a judgment call. Again Cyprian is probably technically right here. Time is what helps us tell if the individual is truly penitent, and has been making good-faith efforts to live the lives that we as Christians are called to live.

So, short version: read this treatise!

Monday, March 9, 2015

ANF V: Cyprian Treatise II On the Dress of Virgins

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Cyprian: Treatise II. On the Dress of Virgins

As Christians who have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, we ought to "obey and give furtherance to the empire of our Redeemer by all the obedience of service, that nothing impure or profane may be brought into the temple of God." That is, we ought to live disciplined lives according to what God has revealed in Scripture:
Discipline, the safeguard of hope, the bond of faith, the guide of the way of salvation, the stimulus and nourishment of good dispositions, the teacher of virtue, causes us to abide always in Christ, and to live continually for God, and to attain to the heavenly promises and to the divine rewards. To follow her is wholesome, and to turn away from her and neglect her is deadly.
In this treatise, Cyprian specifically asks what sort of discipline the Bible has to offer to those who dedicate themselves to Christ as virgins--those "whose glory, as it is more eminent, excites the greater interest." These are a special blessing for the church since they represent the best we have to offer--a complete rejection of the sinful pleasure the world has to offer, they "who depart from carnal concupiscence, and have vowed themselves to God as well in the flesh as in the spirit," Specifically, Cyprian discusses how these ought to dress. While some of his advice is no longer useful given the changing times and fashions, his general point that "continence and modesty consist not alone in purity of the flesh, but also in seemliness, as well as in modesty of dress and adornment stands. This rule, Cyprian points out, applies to rich and poor alike, though rich women especially will be tempted to dress in such a way as to draw attention to their physical beauty. Which is not to say that wealth can't be used:
You say that you are wealthy and rich, and you think that you should use those things which God has willed you to possess. Use them, certainly, but for the things of salvation; use them, but for good purposes; use them, but for those things which God has commanded , and which the Lord has set forth. Let the poor feel that you are wealthy; let the needy feel that you are rich.... For in this very matter you are sinning against God, if you think that riches were given you by Him for this purpose, to enjoy them thoroughly, without a view to salvation. For God gave man also a voice; and yet love-songs and indecent things are not on that account to be sung. And God willed iron to be for the culture of the earth, but not on that account must murders be committed. Or because God ordained incense, and wine, and fire, are we thence to sacrifice to idols? 
We must beware using the world's standard of beauty and dress as a model for our own--we are to reflect the heavenly City, not the one destined for destruction. While Cyprian goes a bit far when he forbids dyed cloth, jewelry and wedding attendance (since all everyone thinks about there is getting married and sex, hardly something dedicated virgins should reflect on), his point is not necessarily a bad one overall. The martyrs still have the first place in the eyes of the church, but dedicated virgins come in a close second and should resolve to live up to their high calling.

This treatise is worth skimming, though in our post-Luther era we rightly esteem marriage as a holy institution. For those who are not called to marriage, this is a useful reminder that you don't get off the hook in terms of personal discipline. While Cyprian may call for more than is strictly necessary, he is dead-on that we ought to be defined by Scripture and not by the standard of the world.

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!