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?"

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