St. Cyprian, a Bishop and Martyr
Listers, our Lord Jesus Christ is not returning to our world for a harem of “churches.”There is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church and it was founded by Christ and charged by him to St. Peter and the Apostles. However, there are now and always have been those groups that attempt to rend Christ from his Church – to recreate that which God gave us, the Church. In AD 250, St. Cyprian wrote an outstanding work entitled On the Unity of the Church. The epistle focuses especially on the topic of schism and those who would set themselves up as Church leaders and/or start their own “churches.” Without question, these groups are proto-protestant groups and the saint’s arguments apply just as much to our modern schismatic and heretical groups as they did to his ancient schismatic groups.1
Dear Protestant Readers
I ask you to consider the following a call to dialogue. St. Cyprian’s text is not a Catholic apologetic tract or a work from the Counter-Reformation, but an epistle from the Early Church. Growing up protestant there are simply certain questions that are never asked concerning the Christian faith, because those questions are outside the deeply rooted assumptions that support protestantism. Amongst those questions are ones concerning Christ and his Church. Protestants wonder how does one discern whether they are called to start a church? but rarely ask by what biblical authority does one start a church? Again, a distinction can be seen in asking what kind of church should we start? and the Catholic question of what type of Church did Christ intend to start? Asking biblical questions regarding Christ and his intention for his Spouse, the Church is the beginning of wisdom in discerning how God intended his charity and his salvation to be communicated to the world.
1. The New Voice of Satan
Pulling from Chapter III of St. Cyprian’s text, the saint teaches that those who call themselves “Christians” but leave the Catholic Church for a Christian sect are following the voice of Satan. Paganism was crumbling under the growth of the Church; thus, Satan started a “new way” to deceive.
The New Way of Satan
“He [Satan] has invented heresies and schisms, whereby he might subvert the faith, might corrupt the truth, might divide the unity. Those whom he cannot keep in the darkness of the old way2, he circumvents and deceives by the error of a new way3. He snatches men from the Church itself; and while they seem to themselves to have already approached to the light, and to have escaped the night of the world, he pours over them again, in their unconsciousness, new darkness.”
Still Call Themselves Christian
“So that, although they do not stand firm with the Gospel of Christ, and with the observation and law of Christ, they still call themselves Christians, and, walking in darkness, they think that they have the light, while the adversary is flattering and deceiving, who, according to the apostle’s word, transforms himself into an angel of light, and equips his ministers as if they were the ministers of righteousness, who maintain night instead of day, death for salvation, despair under the offer of hope, perfidy under the pretext of faith, antichrist under the name of Christ; so that, while they feign things like the truth, they make void the truth by their subtlety. This happens, beloved brethren, so long as we do not return to the source of truth, as we do not seek the head nor keep the teaching of the heavenly Master.”
This “new way” of Satan is the modus operandi that extends back to the garden. Satan does not tempt Adam and Eve with rebellion, but with being “like God.” Satan’s “new way” is to sell an incomplete and heretical faith to those seeking God.
2. Founded upon the Apostles
In Chapter IV the saint moves to speaking of the “easy proof for faith in a short summary of the truth.” He rests this proof upon Christ’s charge to St. Peter and the Apostles. Here a watershed issue enters between Catholic and Protestant thought. For protestantism to consider itself legitimate – not a schismatic heresy – it must interpret all these apostolic charges as general proclamations from to Christ to any believer at any time; therefore, any person who so deems could start a new “church” just as the Apostles founded the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.
It should be sufficient to point out that Christianity believed in no such thing until the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s; thus, the concept is and was little more than rewriting biblical doctrine to serve and legitimate rebellious actions. Along with the biblical evidence and historical confirmation of Christ founding a structured apostolic Church, the protestant view hinges upon the idea that perfect faith and love can exist in disunity and dissent. Again, trying to navigate the incompatibility of love and faith with disunity, protestantism has – through centuries of in-fighting, splintering groups and cultural conformity – both boiled down the Christian faith to a fraction of apostolic and biblical existence and adopted the quasi-platonic stance that although all physical “ecclesiastical groups”4 exist in both hierarchical and doctrinal chaos they are unified by “Christ” in a mystical manner. In this scenario, Christ stops being a historical and divine person and become a malleable concept and/or term.
Upon This Rock
“There is easy proof for faith in a short summary of the truth. The Lord speaks to Peter, saying, “I say unto thee, that thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” And again to the same He says, after His resurrection, “Feed my sheep.”
“And although to all the apostles, after His resurrection, He gives an equal power, and says, “As the Father hath sent me, even so send I you: Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins ye remit, they shall be remitted unto him; and whose soever sins ye retain, they shall be retained;” yet, that He might set forth unity, He arranged by His authority the origin of that unity, as beginning from one. Assuredly the rest of the apostles were also the same as was Peter, endowed with a like partnership both of honour and power; but the beginning proceeds from unity.”
For St. Cyprian, the presence of St. Peter among the twelve provides a mark of ecclesial unity that safeguards the entire unity of the Church – where there is Peter, there is the Church. What schismatic groups fail to comprehend is that Christ founded a living breath physical Church. A study of Christ of the Son of David, the Old Testament motif of awaiting the New Davidic Kingdom, the Vicar role in the Kingdom of David and the Vicar of Christ as seen in St. Peter and other biblical realities help form the very core of understanding the Holy Catholic Church as the fulfillment of the Old Testament and the will of Christ Jesus.
Christ Founded the Church Upon St. Peter
10 Biblical Reasons Christ Founded the Papacy
13 Biblical Reasons St. Peter Was the “Prince of the Apostles”
3. Bishops Protect the Church
Chapter V grants the reader both a practical and an analogous insight. The saint exhorts bishops of the Church to hold together the unity of the Church, and while this may not seem profound, it is a thwart to those who would try and state that the hierarchy of bishops did not exist in this time. The second insight is a well written analogy of the Sun and the Church.
“And this unity we ought firmly to hold and assert, especially those of us that are bishops who preside in the Church, that we may also prove the episcopate itself to be one and undivided. Let no one deceive the brotherhood by a falsehood: let no one corrupt the truth of the faith by perfidious prevarication. The episcopate is one, each part of which is held by each one for the whole.”
The Analogy of the Sun
“The Church also is one, which is spread abroad far and wide into a multitude by an increase of fruitfulness. 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; break a branch from a tree,—when broken, it will not be able to bud; cut off the stream from its fountain, and that which is cut off dries up. 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.”
4. Church as Mother
In Chapter VI, the saint discusses the Church herself and delivers one of his most famous lines:
“He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother.”
Can the Spouse of Christ Be Adulterous?
“The spouse of Christ cannot be adulterous; she is uncorrupted and pure. She knows one home; she guards with chaste modesty the sanctity of one couch. She keeps us for God. She appoints the sons whom she has born for the kingdom. Whoever is separated from the Church and is joined to an adulteress, is separated from the promises of the Church; nor can he who forsakes the Church of Christ attain to the rewards of Christ. He is a stranger; he is profane; he is an enemy. He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother.”
The Holy Catholic Church cannot be reduced to a simple hierarchy that can historically trace its lineage to Christ, but it is centered and held together by a sacramental unity and the Holy Spirit. The Sacraments and the Holy Spirit further the truth that charity and faith cannot exist in disunity.
5. The People of God Always Had Unity
Chapter VII gives us the example of the undivided Church and Christ’s undivided garment. Chapter VIII can be characterized by a movement into Eucharistic Unity. The saint utilizes biblical examples from the New and Old Testament to demonstrate that God has always held his people to unity.
No Eucharist Outside the Church
“Also, the sacrament of the passover contains nothing else in the law of the Exodus than that the lamb which is slain in the figure of Christ should be eaten in one house. God speaks, saying, “In one house shall ye eat it; ye shall not send its flesh abroad from the house.”
St. Cyprian pulls from St. John, St. Paul, Exodus and Joshua to show that never before in the history of the People of God as there ever been a time where God did not hold the people to both a spiritual and physical unity. From Moses to St. Peter, the People of God have never been allowed to separate doctrinal unity from structural unity.
6. Schism Creeps Like Cancer
Chapter X pulls no punches. After laying a foundation for understanding the true hierarchical and sacramental unity of the Church, the saint speaks candidly about those who decide – for any reason, even the infamous “God told me…” – to appoint themselves a pastor and/or start their own church.
Those Who Start Their Own Church Vomit Poison
“These are they who of their own accord, without any divine arrangement, set themselves to preside among the daring strangers assembled, who appoint themselves prelates without any law of ordination, who assume to themselves the name of bishop, although no one gives them the episcopate; whom the Holy Spirit points out in the Psalms as sitting in the seat of pestilence, plagues, and spots of the faith, deceiving with serpent’s tongue, and artful in corrupting the truth, vomiting forth deadly poisons from pestilential tongues; whose speech doth creep like a cancer, whose discourse forms a deadly poison in the heart and breast of every one.”
7. The Person of Christ
Chapter XII address a mainstay argument of both ancient and modern schismatic groups: Isn’t the Church where two or three are gathered together in the name of Christ?
Gathered to One Christ
“For wheresoever two or three are gathered together in my name, I am with them;” showing that most is given, not to the multitude, but to the unanimity of those that pray. “If,” He says, “two of you shall agree on earth:” He placed agreement first; He has made the concord of peace a prerequisite; He taught that we should agree firmly and faithfully. But how can he agree with any one who does not agree with the body of the Church itself, and with the universal brotherhood? How can two or three be assembled together in Christ’s name, who, it is evident, are separated from Christ and from His Gospel? For we have not withdrawn from them, but they from us; and since heresies and schisms have risen subsequently, from their establishment for themselves of diverse places of worship, they have forsaken the Head and Source of the truth.”
Heretical and schismatic groups – which include protestantism – cannot be gathered together to the true Christ, because their doctrines, beliefs and actions all point to a pantheon of “Christs.” To wit, protestantism is gathered around the term “Jesus Christ,” not the person.5 The same theme can be seen in Chapter XII:
Priests and Sacrifice6
“What sacrifices do those who are rivals of the priests think that they celebrate? Do they deem that they have Christ with them when they are collected together, who are gathered together outside the Church of Christ?”
8. Non-Catholics Are Not Martyrs
Chapter XIV addresses a topic that our “modern sensibilities” find unsettling. The question at hand is whether or not schismatic or heretical individuals who die in the name of Christ are martyrs. Since we’ve seen that Christ is not amongst them because they gather around a term not a person, the answer of martyrdom will inevitably be no. The saint explains:
Blood Does Not Wash the Stain of Schism
“Even if such men were slain in confession of the Name, that stain is not even washed away by blood: the inexpiable and grave fault of discord is not even purged by suffering. He cannot be a martyr who is not in the Church; he cannot attain unto the kingdom who forsakes that which shall reign there.”
They Can Be Killed, Not Crowned
“They cannot dwell with God who would not be of one mind in God’s Church. Although they burn, given up to flames and fires, or lay down their lives, thrown to the wild beasts, that will not be the crown of faith, but the punishment of perfidy; nor will it be the glorious ending of religious valour, but the destruction of despair. Such a one may be slain; crowned he cannot be. He professes himself to be a Christian in such a way as the devil often feigns himself to be Christ, as the Lord Himself forewarns us, and says, “Many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ, and shall deceive many.” As he is not Christ, although he deceives in respect of the name; so neither can he appear as a Christian who does not abide in the truth of His Gospel and of faith.”
9. Rebels Against Christ’s Sacrifice
Chapter XVII makes clear that there is no unity in Christ without unity with the Church. Again, notice that he speaks of priests in this paragraph and spoke of bishops, apostles and St. Peter previously. Any notion that the Catholic Church was a medieval invention or developed later in history is simply historically false.
Enemies of the Altar
“Does he think that he has Christ, who acts in opposition to Christ’s priests, who separates himself from the company of His clergy and people? He bears arms against the Church, he contends against God’s appointment. An enemy of the altar, a rebel against Christ’s sacrifice, for the faith faithless, for religion profane, a disobedient servant, an impious son, a hostile brother, despising the bishops, and forsaking God’s priests, he dares to set up another altar, to make another prayer with unauthorized words, to profane the truth of the Lord’s offering by false sacrifices, and not to know that he who strives against the appointment of God, is punished on account of the daring of his temerity by divine visitation.”
10. The Spouse of Christ Cannot be Torn
Chapter XXIII returns to the reality of the Church as Body of Christ, the Spouse of Christ and the Mother of All Who Live in Christ; therefore, how could this Sacred Body be torn apart via schism and heresy?
The Church is One
“God is one, and Christ is one, and His Church is one, and the faith is one, and the people is joined into a substantial unity of body by the cement of concord. Unity cannot be severed; nor can one body be separated by a division of its structure, nor torn into pieces, with its entrails wrenched asunder by laceration. Whatever has proceeded from the womb cannot live and breathe in its detached condition, but loses the substance of health.”
11. Christ Comes Back for the Church
Chapter XXVII concludes the saints work On the Unity of the Church by asking: How will Christ know who to come back for? St. Cyprian’s answer is that He will come for his Bride, the Church.
Let Our Faith Be on Watch
“Let our light shine in good works, and glow in such wise as to lead us from the night of this world to the daylight of eternal brightness. Let us always with solicitude and caution wait for the sudden coming of the Lord, that when He shall knock, our faith may be on the watch, and receive from the Lord the reward of our vigilance. If these commands be observed, if these warnings and precepts be kept, we cannot be overtaken in slumber by the deceit of the devil; but we shall reign with Christ in His kingdom as servants that watch.”
- Novatian: Another impetus of the epistle was the first “anti-pope” who attempted to claim he was holier than the rest of the Church and claimed moral superiority, especially in not wanting to ever extend forgiveness to sins post-baptism. [↩]
- Paganism [↩]
- Christian Heresy and Schism [↩]
- Are Protestant groups churches? As taught by tradition and Vatican II, protestant groups are not referred to as “churches” but “ecclesial communities.” [↩]
- When Cyprian Was Wrong: Chapter XI – St. Cyprian’s faltered on the issue of whether or not people should be “re-baptized,” e.g., if a heretic baptized someone in the name of the Trinity, he advocated re-baptism. This was later seen as wrong – but was a legitimate point in the argument since doctrine had not been clarified yet – and the Pope issued that all Trinitarian baptisms are valid, but if done is schismatic groups, etc. then they must later reclaim their baptism via penance. [↩]
- Reformation & Priests: The term Priest denotes Sacrifice. It is for this reason Catholic clergy are foremost referred to as priests above other titles, e.g., pastor, reverend, etc. However, since the schismatics and heretics of the Reformation denied the true presence of the Eucharist and as such stopped calling their clergy priests. [↩]