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!

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