Archive for the ‘Cyprian’ Category

John Calvin and the Fathers on Baptism

December 3, 2009

I’ve been told that John Calvin invented a justification for infant baptism that was new. I’m not fully persuaded that, in its essence, Calvin’s justification was new. My impression is that the main argument is that Calvin was departing from medieval Western tradition that viewed baptism essentially as regenerative by virtue of its operation. However, of course, I want to acknowledge up front that I haven’t seen a precisely worded expression of the claim that Calvin’s view of baptism was a theological novum. Perhaps, in the precisely worded expression of the claim, the point is that some of the details of Calvin’s justification for infant baptism were new. In any event, I hope the following post will help at least to demonstrate what wasn’t new to Calvin.

For example, Calvin writes:

Scripture gives us a still clearer knowledge of the truth. For it is most evident that the covenant, which the Lord once made with Abraham (cf. Gen. 17:14), is not less applicable to Christians now than it was anciently to the Jewish people, and, therefore, that word has no less reference to Christians than to Jews. Unless, indeed, we imagine that Christ, by his advent, diminished or curtailed the grace of the Father – an idea not free from execrable blasphemy. Wherefore, both the children of the Jews, because, when made heirs of that covenant, they were separated from the heathen, were called a holy seed (Ezra 9:2; Isaiah 6:13), and for the same reason the children of Christians, or those who have only one believing parent, are called holy, and, by the testimony of the apostle, differ from the impure seed of idolaters (I Cor. 7:14). Then, since the Lord, immediately after the covenant was made with Abraham ordered it to be sealed, infants by an outward sacrament (Gen. 17:12), how can it be said that Christians are not to attest it in the present day, and seal it in their children?

– John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 4, Chapter 16, Section 6

Yet we see similar comments in the church fathers:

This sacrament the Lord Himself received in infancy, although He abrogated it when He was crucified. For these signs of spiritual blessings were not condemned, but gave place to others which were more suitable to the later dispensation. For as circumcision was abolished by the first coming of the Lord, so baptism shall be abolished by His second coming. For as now, since the liberty of faith has come, and the yoke of bondage has been removed, no Christian receives circumcision in the flesh; so then, when the just are reigning with the Lord, and the wicked have been condemned, no one shall be baptized, but the reality which both ordinances prefigure— namely, circumcision of the heart and cleansing of the conscience— shall be eternally abiding. If, therefore, I had been a Jew in the time of the former dispensation, and there had come to me a Samaritan who was willing to become a Jew, abandoning the error which the Lord Himself condemned when He said, “You worship ye know not what; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews;” [John 4:22] — if, I say, a Samaritan whom Samaritans had circumcised had expressed his willingness to become a Jew, there would have been no scope for the boldness which would have insisted on the repetition of the rite; and instead of this, we would have been compelled to approve of that which God had commanded, although it had been done by heretics. But if, in the flesh of a circumcised man, I could not find place for the repetition of the circumcision, because there is but one member which is circumcised, much less is place found in the one heart of man for the repetition of the baptism of Christ. You, therefore, who wish to baptize twice, must seek as subjects of such double baptism men who have double hearts.

– Augustine, Letter 23, Section 4

If the only meaning of baptism were the remission of sins, why would we baptize the newborn children who have not yet tasted of sin? But the mystery [of baptism] is not limited to this; it is a promise of greater and more perfect gifts. In it are the promises of future delights; it is a type of the future resurrection, a communion with the master’s passion, a participation in His resurrection, a mantle of salvation, a tunic of gladness, a garment of light, or, rather it is light itself.

– Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Compendium of Heretical Fables, Book 5, §18, Preface (courtesy of David King)

And if any one seek for divine authority in this matter, though what is held by the whole Church, and that not as instituted by Councils, but as a matter of invariable custom, is rightly held to have been handed down by authority, still we can form a true conjecture of the value of the sacrament of baptism in the case of infants, from the parallel of circumcision, which was received by God’s earlier people, and before receiving which Abraham was justified, as Cornelius also was enriched with the gift of the Holy Spirit before he was baptized. Yet the apostle says of Abraham himself, that “he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith,” having already believed in his heart, so that “it was counted unto him for righteousness.” Why, therefore, was it commanded him that he should circumcise every male child in order on the eighth day, [Genesis 17:9-14] though it could not yet believe with the heart, that it should be counted unto it for righteousness, because the sacrament in itself was of great avail? And this was made manifest by the message of an angel in the case of Moses’ son; for when he was carried by his mother, being yet uncircumcised, it was required, by manifest present peril, that he should be circumcised, [Exodus 4:24-26] and when this was done, the danger of death was removed. As therefore in Abraham the justification of faith came first, and circumcision was added afterwards as the seal of faith; so in Cornelius the spiritual sanctification came first in the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the sacrament of regeneration was added afterwards in the laver of baptism. And as in Isaac, who was circumcised on the eighth day after his birth, the seal of this righteousness of faith was given first, and afterwards, as he imitated the faith of his father, the righteousness itself followed as he grew up, of which the seal had been given before when he was an infant; so in infants, who are baptized, the sacrament of regeneration is given first, and if they maintain a Christian piety, conversion also in the heart will follow, of which the mysterious sign had gone before in the outward body. And as in the thief the gracious goodness of the Almighty supplied what had been wanting in the sacrament of baptism, because it had been missing not from pride or contempt, but from want of opportunity; so in infants who die baptized, we must believe that the same grace of the Almighty supplies the want, that, not from perversity of will, but from insufficiency of age, they can neither believe with the heart unto righteousness, nor make confession with the mouth unto salvation. Therefore, when others take the vows for them, that the celebration of the sacrament may be complete in their behalf, it is unquestionably of avail for their dedication to God, because they cannot answer for themselves. But if another were to answer for one who could answer for himself, it would not be of the same avail. In accordance with which rule, we find in the gospel what strikes every one as natural when he reads it, “He is of age, he shall speak for himself.” John 9:21

– Augustine, On Baptism, Against the Donatists, Book 4, Chapter, Chapter 24 (Section 32)

But in respect of the case of the infants, which you say ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, and that the law of ancient circumcision should be regarded, so that you think that one who is just born should not be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day, we all thought very differently in our council. For in this course which you thought was to be taken, no one agreed; but we all rather judge that the mercy and grace of God is not to be refused to any one born of man. For as the Lord says in His Gospel, “The Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them,” [Luke 4:56] as far as we Can, We must strive that, if possible, no soul be lost. For what is wanting to him who has once been formed in the womb by the hand of God? To us, indeed, and to our eyes, according to the worldly course of days, they who are born appear to receive an increase. But whatever things are made by God, are completed by the majesty and work of God their Maker.

– Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle 58, Section 2

Response to Steve Ray on Petrine Primacy

July 10, 2008

I’ve provided a response to one of Steve Ray’s blog posts in which he suggests that there are some verses related to Peter and the Papacy that are frequently overlooked by Protestants. My response can be found here (link) at the Team Apologian blog.

Another time that the Team Apologian blog has addressed Steve Ray’s teachings on the supposed primacy of Peter can be found here (link).

May God edify the readers!


Did Cyprian Teach the Doctrine of Indulgences?

May 12, 2008

The answer is, of course not. There was no doctrine of Purgatory in Cyprian’s day, and consequently no doctrine of indulgences either. But occasionally Cyprian’s Epistle XIII is trotted out as evidence of indulgences in the 3rd century (example).

A typical presentation of Cyprian’s words is presented thus:

“Those who have received a libellus from the martyrs and with their help can, before the Lord, get relief in their sins, let such, if they be ill and in danger, after confession and the imposition of your hands, depart unto the Lord with the peace promised them by the martyrs ” (Ep. xiii, P.L., IV, 261).

What’s usually not mentioned is that this “libellus” is a certifiate: a piece of paper filled out by the martyr. In Epistle XII, Cyprian refers to these certificates as “by their letters to us.” It’s not 100% clear which martyrs Cyprian has in mind (at least not from this particular epistle). In Epistle VIII, Cyprian writes to certain martyrs, to wit men about to die for their faith.

In Epistle IX, Cyprian conveys the fact that apparently the martyrs had written to him requesting that those who had lapsed during the time of persecution be restored to communion when the time of persecution was over. He explains that some were willing to accept people back on the bare word of the martyrs, before the persecution was past, before there was repentance, and even before the martyrs themselves had been martyred! Cyprian explains that this is not proper. Furthermore, Cyprian explains that “even if the martyrs, in the heat of their glory, were to consider less carefully the Scriptures, and to desire anything more, they should be admonished by the presbyters’ and deacons’ suggestions, as was always done in time past.”

From Epistle X, we gather that the martyrs had identified “certain of the lapsed” for this benefit. In Epistle X, though, Cyprian has to politely decline their request in part, for he insists that there must be repentance of sin before their can be a granting again of communion. Furthermore, toward the end of the epistle (part 4), Cyprian urges the martyrs to be specific in their commendations. Cyprian explains that they should name names, and only designate those “whose penitence [repentance] you see to be very near to full satisfaction.”

In Epistle XI, Cyprian explains that “no one can come to communion unless the hands of the bishop and clergy be first imposed upon him” and therefore urges “how much more ought caution and moderation, according to the discipline of the Lord, in these gravest and extremest sins!”

For you see, the problem is this: in the time of persecution, many abandoned the faith. It was an enormous task for the elders (even assisted by the deacons) to examine those who wished to return to communion. The testimony of the martyrs was viewed as compelling – partly because the martyrs could themselves be trusted (for they were willing to die for their faith) and also an honor for the martyrs as indicated in part 3 of Cyprian’s Epistle XIV.

In short, in the historical context, when Cyprian writes: “Those who have received a libellus from the martyrs and with their help can, before the Lord, get relief in their sins, let such, if they be ill and in danger, after confession and the imposition of your hands, depart unto the Lord with the peace promised them by the martyrs,” we understand that Cyprian is referring to restoration into the visible church of Christ: a restoration of fellowship and communion, and of peace with the church.

Even so, Cyprian immediately goes on to contrast them with the “others who, without having received any certificate from the martyrs, are envious …, must wait, in dependence on the protection of the Lord, for the public peace of the Church itself.”

What is Cyprian trying to convey? He’s explaining that even though it is not technically proper to begin restoring the lapsed while the church is being persecuted, those who appear to be at death’s door may be received back, assuming the other conditions for re-acceptance are met.

In Epistle XIV, Cyprian explains that he “wrote twice” and indicated that those qualifying in dire straits should be “remitted to the Lord.” In the same epistle he goes on to explain how he came to provide epistles XII and XIII, namely because there way too many, and way too many spurious, certificates being written – and lapsed were being welcomed back in, who should have been excluded. But after this had been stopped, those who had certificates started to stir up trouble, basically demanding that the churches honor their certificates. So, the purpose of XII and XIII were to limit the acceptance of the certificates to those at death’s door, at least until the persecution was over.

In short, even with the certificates of the martyrs, Cyprian goes in Epistle XXVI to state that “although they [i.e. certain lapsed folk] had received certificates from the martyrs, nevertheless, that their satisfaction might be admitted by the Lord, these persons beseeching have written to me that they acknowledge their sin, and are truly repentant, and do not hurry rashly or importunately to obtain peace ….”

From all this context, we see that these certificates of the Martyrs were, in essence, personal commendations to the effect, “I know this person – he is truly sorry for his sins, please accept him back into the church of God.” This was taken by some of the certificate recipients to their spiritual benefit – but by others to a demanding and insistency, as though the certificates were “Get out of Excommunication Free” cards.

So we even read a response from the presbyters and deacons of Rome to Cyprian, in which they explain “Let them, then, see what they are trying to do in this matter. For if they say that the Gospel has established one decree, but the martyrs have established another; then they, setting the martyrs at variance with the Gospel, will be in danger on both sides. For, on the one hand, the majesty of the Gospel will already appear shattered and cast down, if can be overcome by the novelty of another decree; and, on the other, the glorious crown of confession will be taken from the heads of the martyrs, if they be not found to have attained it by observation of that Gospel whence they should become martrys; so that, reasonably, no one should be more careful to determine nothing contrary to the Gospel, than he who strives to receive the name of martyr from the Gospel.” (Ep. XXIX, pt. 2)

Notice how both Cyprian and the Roman presbyters agreed that even if the martyrs thought otherwise, it was their loss: not the Gospel (word from the Romans) /Scriptures (word from Cyprian). But finally, one could turn to the end of the second epistle from the roman presbyters to Cyprian, in which they assent to his thought of making an exception for those on death’s door. For they essentially repeat his ideas and expound and (most notably, slightly expand):

“but of such as impending death does not suffer to bear the delay, having repented and professed a detestation of their deeds with frequency ; if with tears, if with groans, if with weeping they have betrayed the signs of a grieving and truly penitent spirit, when there remains, as far as man can tell, no hope of living; to them, finally, such cautious and careful help should be ministered, God Himself knowing what He will do with such, and in what way He will examine the balance of His judgment; while we, however, take anxious care that neither ungodly men should praise our smooth facility, nor truly penitent men accuse our severity as cruel.”

After such an investigation, I think we can conclude that neither Cyprian or his colleagues in Rome had any concept of Indulgences in mind in the various letters they exchanged. They were concerned, very concerned, about proper church discipline, and had very serious reservations about those who had lapsed during time of persecution.


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