Christian Patience (Cyprian)

Cyprian was a major figure in the 3rd century A.D. Christian church. He was a preacher and teacher in Carthage who fled from persecution at least once in his life and also had to hide from some who wanted to kill him. He finally turned himself in and was martyred in 258 AD. Thankfully, quite a few of his writings remain.

I recently ran across Cyprian’s treatise called “On the Advantage of Patience.” I believe this topic is one that Christians should focus on while navigating through our cultural context and situation today. Cyprian noted that patience begins with God. Since our heavenly Father is patient, Cyprian argued, we should seek to be patient as well, “because it behooves servants to be obedient.” Furthermore, if God commands patience, it must be good, and we must seek it. Practicing patience is walking in the way of Jesus. Here’s how highly Cyprian speaks of patience (I’ve updated the language):

“Patience is that which commends us to God, and preserves us. Patience is that which mitigates anger, which bridles the tongue, governs the mind, keeps peace, rules discipline, breaks the assaults of lust, keeps under the force of pride, quenches the fire of hatred, restraines the power of the rich, relieves the need of the poor, maintains in maidens unspotted virginity, in widows chastity, in married people unseparable charity; which makes humble in prosperity, constant in adversity, meek in taking injury; it teaches you to forgive quickly those that offend you, and never ceases to crave pardon when you offend others; it vanquishes temptations, suffers persecutions, and finishes with martyrdom.

Patience is that which grounds surely the foundations of our faith: this is that which augments the increase of our hope: this is that which guides us, so that we may keep the way to Christ, while we do go by the suffering thereof: patience is that which makes us continue as the sons of God, while we imitate the patience of our Father.

 This quote is found in Cyprian’s “On the Advantage of Patience” in Ante-Nicene Fathers volume 5.

(FYI, Henry Bullinger noted this quote by Cyprian in his third volume of sermons (The Decades), sermon three.)

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54002

Cyprian’s Compendium of Religion

S-ANF-Set Among his many epistles and treatises, Cyprian (d. 258 AD) wrote a series of precepts or doctrinal points on various aspects of the Christian faith.  They are one sentence summaries of some basic biblical truths along with proof texts for each truth.  In one of these “books,” Cyprian gives a succinct “summary of heavenly precepts” so one of his students, Quirinus, would have a “wholesome and large compendium for nourishing” his memory.  Here is a sample of some of these precepts, along with several of Cyprian’s proof texts (I’ve kept the original numbering).

3) That charity and brotherly love must be religiously and steadfastly practiced (Mal. 2:10, John 14:27, Matt. 5:9, 1 Cor. 3:1-3, etc.)

4) That we boast in nothing, since nothing is our own (John 3:27, 1 Cor. 4:7, 1 Sam. 2:3, 4, etc.).

5) That humility and quietness are to be maintained in all things (Is. 66:1-2, Matt. 5:5, Luke 4:48, etc).

10) That we must trust in God only, and in Him we must glory (Jer. 9:23-24, Ps. 56:11, Ps. 118:6, etc.).

14) That we must never murmur, but bless God concerning all things that happen (Job 2:9-10, 1:8, Ps 34.1, etc.).

19) That we are not to obey our own will, but the will of God (John 6:38, Matt. 26:39, Matt 6:10, etc.)

24) That it is impossible to attain to the Father but by His Son Jesus Christ (John 14:6, John 10:9).

54) That no one is without filth and without sin (Job 14:4-5, Ps. 51:5, 1 John 1:8).

117) That there is a strong conflict to be waged against the devil, and that therefore we ought to stand bravely, that we may be able to conquer (Eph. 6:12-17).

120) That we are to be urgent in prayers (Col. 4:2).

There are, as you can see, quite a few more that I didn’t list (for a total of 120).  This is a fascinating treatise by Cyprian, since it shows that Christians from early on summarized the main truths of the faith, gave Scripture references (proof-texts are not a product of the Enlightenment or modernity!), and shared or published these documents for teaching purposes (in the above writing, Cyprian was instructing one of his catechumens).  It’s important to know that the Reformers weren’t at all the first ones to write doctrinal summaries of the faith and creeds/confessions to teach God’s people the main truths of the Christian religion.

The above “precepts” of Cyprian (along with others) are found in volume 5 of Ante Nicene Fathers, p. 528-557.

shane lems

The Church is Never Closed

S-ANF-Set In Cyprian’s day (3rd Century AD) the Christian church in the West was grappling with heretics on the one hand and with persecution on the other hand.  Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage (North Africa), typically handled these difficulties with a biblical and pastoral mindset.  Below is one example of Cyprian’s forgiving spirit in light of church discipline and restoration.  It is from a letter he wrote about excommunication, repentance, and re-admission into the fellowship of the saints.

“The Church is neither closed here to any one, nor is the bishop denied to any.  Our patience, and facility, and humanity are ready for those who come.  I entreat all to return into the Church.  I beg all our fellow-soldiers to be included within the camp of Christ, and the dwelling place of God the Father.  I remit everything.  I shut my eyes to many things, with the desire and the wish to gather together the brotherhood.  Even those things which are committed against God I do not investigate with the full judgment of religion.  I almost sin myself, in remitting sins more than I ought.  I embrace with prompt and full love those who return with repentance, confessing their sin with lowly and unaffected atonement [amends].”

And so we say today that Christian discipline is “unto repentance.”  Our goal in loving discipline and church censure is restoration.  The Westminster Confession says that the kingdom of heaven is opened unto penitent sinners, by the ministry of the gospel and by absolution from censures (WCF 30.2).   Where there is true repentance, there is liberal forgiveness (Matt. 18:22).

The above quote can be found in “Epistle LIV” from Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 5 (p. 345).

shane lems

Cyprian, Calvin, and Church (S)Hopping

S-ANF-Set  (This is a slightly edited repost from January, 2010)

Around 252 A.D. Cyprian wrote a letter to several Christians (Maximus, Urbanus, Sidonius, and Macharius) who had recently been received back into the church after they had left under persecution.  They repented, professed faith, and after time were allowed full fellowship once again.  Cyprian rejoices in this letter (“Epistle L” [50] in the Ante-Nicene Fathers, V.326-7) that they repented and confessed faith.  Here’s part of his counsel:

“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. [Cyprian then quotes 2 Tim. 2.20]”

In other words, he calls these restored brethren to “stick with” the church even though there may be tares and impurity.  Calvin said it this way: “Add to this, that very many, under the pretense of zeal, are excessively displeased, when every thing is not conducted to their wish, and, because absolute purity is nowhere to be found, withdraw from the Church in a disorderly manner, or subvert and destroy it by unreasonable severity (Commentary on Matthew [13.24-43]).”

Cyprian then goes on to say that it is not the job of humans to make the final separation between the wheat and the tares:

[No one] …may claim to himself what the Father has given to the Son alone, so as to think that he can take the fan for winnowing and purging the threshing floor, or can separate by human judgment all the tares from the wheat.  That is a proud obstinacy and a sacrilegious presumption which a depraved madness assumes to itself.  And while some are always assuming to themselves more dominion than meek justice demands, they perish from the Church; and while they insolently extol themselves, blinded by their own swelling, they lose the light of truth.”

Fascinating.  Cyprian was hinting at the same things that the Reformers faced during the Reformation.  With some historical/contextual clarifications, one could apply Cyprian’s latter quote to the Anabaptists of the 16th and beyond.

Cyprian and Calvin’s comments are relevant today when many people hop from church to church looking for one they like the best.  Ironically even some Reformed Christians are habitual church (s)hoppers.  This is ironic – and quite inconsistent – because in Reformed theology, we have objective marks of a true church (preaching the whole counsel of God and the administration of Christ’s two sacraments).  Finding a biblical church isn’t primarily subjective (what we want), but objective (what God wants).

Reformed Christians who habitually church (s)hop are also inconsistent because Reformed eschatology doesn’t jump the eschatological gun by aiming for a perfectly pure church on this side of heaven.  A consistent Reformed Christian will understand that there is no perfectly pure or purely perfect church in the world.  He or she will also understand the Reformed truth that Christians are saints and sinners simultaneously.

If you are a habitual (chronic!?) church hopper, or if you’re counseling one, these words are worth studying again.  Sure, we should join the church that is most true to God’s word rather than the one that is most entertaining and fun.  However, we should not hop from church to church with a critical spirit, always finding something to gripe about, only to leave in pride and anger.  Not only is this attitude contra Reformed theology, it is also against the pleasant Christian virtues of humility, patience, and submission.

(Note: if you want to read Cyprian’s treatises and letters, they are available for a decent price on Kindle).

shane lems

sunnyside, wa

Prayer: Not As The Hypocrites…

I’ve been enjoying Christopher Hall’s study of the early church’s worship.  Though I don’t agree with every point, and though I think sometimes Hall’s comments seem to get in the way of his explanations, this book is an insightful glimpse into the early Christian church and her worship of the triune God.  Here’s one section worth noting.

“The church fathers took Jesus’ instructions to retire to one’s room to pray alone very seriously (Mt 6:5-15).  They seem reluctant to have individuals pray publicly, at least in terms of public, spontaneous prayer, because of the danger of using prayer as a method of self-promotion.  The fathers viewed with wariness exaggerated posturing, speaking loudly in prayer as though we needed to catch God’s notice, and any attempt to draw attention to oneself rather than God in prayer.”

“Tertullian, I think with a hint of humor, advises us to use a ‘subdued’ voice in prayer, rather than a loud one.  ‘For, if we are to be heard for our noise, what large windpipes we would need!  But God is the hearer – not of the voice – but of the heart.’  ‘It is characteristic of the shameless man to be noisy with his cries’ (Cyprian).

[Cyprian:] “‘He does not need to be clamorously reminded, for he sees peoples’ thoughts…Hannah prayed to God, not with clamorous petition, but silently and modestly – within the very recesses of her heart.  She spoke with hidden prayer, but with open faith.  She spoke with her heart, not her voice.’”

“We don’t need to shout to wake a sleepy deity.  God is always listening and watching.  To be truthful, it is we who possess the hardened eardrums and have blinders on our eyes.  ‘Be constant in both prayer and reading,’ Cyprian exhorts, ‘First, speak with God; then let God speak with you.  Let him instruct you in his teachings, let him direct you.’”

“The fathers wisely understood that God is the audience of our prayers, not our family, the members of our small group, the larger congregation or TV spectators.  This is not to say that the fathers forbade public prayer – Tertullian acknowledges that Paul and Silas sang in prison, with wonderful results (Acts 16:25-34).  It is to say that the fathers understood that pride often undetectably infects even the most holy actions.  Human beings adore center stage and the spotlight.  We can deceive ourselves too easily, imagining that we are talking to God when we are only talking to ourselves, sometimes about ourselves” (p. 87-8).

Christopher A. Hall, Worshiping with The Church Fathers (Downers Grove: IVP, 2009).

shane lems