Ante-Nicene Fathers/Volume V/Cyprian/The Epistles of Cyprian/Part 9
To the Clergy, Concerning Certain Presbyters Who Had Rashly Granted Peace to the Lapsed Before the Persecution Had Been Appeased, and Without the Privity of the Bishops.
Argument.—The Argument of This Epistle is Contained in the Following Words of the XIVth Epistle:—“To the Presbyters and Deacons,” He Says, “Was Not Wanting the Vigour of the Priesthood, So that Some, Too Little Mindful of Discipline, and Hasty with a Rash Precipitation, Who Had Already Begun to Communicate with the Lapsed, Were Checked.”
1. Cyprian to the presbyters and deacons, his brethren, greeting. I have long been patient, beloved brethren, hoping that my forbearing silence would avail to quietness. But since the unreasonable and reckless presumption of some is seeking by its boldness to disturb both the honour of the martyrs, and the modesty of the confessors, and the tranquility of the whole people, it behoves me no longer to keep silence, lest too much reticence should issue in danger both to the people and to ourselves. For what danger ought we not to fear from the Lord’s displeasure, when some of the presbyters, remembering neither the Gospel nor their own place, and, moreover, considering neither the Lord’s future judgment nor the bishop now placed over them, claim to themselves entire authority,—a thing which was never in any wise done under our predecessors,—with discredit and contempt of the bishop?
2. And I wish, if it could be so without the sacrifice of our brethren’s safety, that they could make good their claim to all things; I could dissemble and bear the discredit of my episcopal authority, as I always have dissembled and borne it. But it is not now the occasion for dissimulating when our brotherhood is deceived by some of you, who, while without the means of restoring salvation they desire to please, become a still greater stumbling-block to the lapsed. For that it is a very great crime which persecution has compelled to be committed, they themselves know who have committed it; since our Lord and Judge has said, “Whosoever shall confess me before men, him will I also confess before my Father which is in heaven; but whosoever shall deny me, him will I also deny.” And again He has said, “All sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men, and blasphemies; but he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost shall not have forgiveness, but is guilty of eternal sin.” Also the blessed apostle has said, “Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of devils; ye cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table and of the table of devils.” He who withholds these words from our brethren deceives them, wretched that they are; so that they who truly repenting might satisfy God, both as the Father and as merciful, with their prayers and works, are seduced more deeply to perish; and they who might raise themselves up fall the more deeply. For although in smaller sins sinners may do penance for a set time, and according to the rules of discipline come to public confession, and by imposition of the hand of the bishop and clergy receive the right of communion: now with their time still unfulfilled, while persecution is still raging, while the peace of the Church itself is not yet restored, they are admitted to communion, and their name is presented; and while the penitence is not yet performed, confession is not yet made, the hands of the bishop and clergy are not yet laid upon them, the eucharist is given to them; although it is written, “Whosoever shall eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.”
3. But now they are not guilty who so little observe the law of Scripture; but they will be guilty who are in office and do not suggest these things to brethren, so that, being instructed by those placed above them, they may do all things with the fear of God, and with the observance given and prescribed by Him. Then, moreover, they lay the blessed martyrs open to ill-will, and involve the glorious servants of God with the priest of God; so that although they, mindful of my place, have directed letters to me, and have asked that their wishes should then be examined, and peace granted them,—when our Mother, the Church herself, should first have received peace for the Lord’s mercy, and the divine protection, have brought me back to His Church,—yet these, disregarding the honour which the blessed martyrs with the confessors maintain for me, despising the Lord’s law and that observance, which the same martyrs and confessors bid to be maintained, before the fear of persecution is quenched, before my return, almost even before the departure of the martyrs, communicate with the lapsed, and offer and give them the eucharist: when 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.
4. For this reason the divine rebuke does not cease to chastise us night nor day. For besides the visions of the night, by day also, the innocent age of boys is among us filled with the Holy Spirit, seeing in an ecstasy with their eyes, and hearing and speaking those things whereby the Lord condescends to warn and instruct us. And you shall hear all things when the Lord, who bade me withdraw, shall bring me back again to you. In the meanwhile, let those certain ones among you who are rash and incautious and boastful, and who do not regard man, at least fear God, knowing that, if they shall persevere still in the same course, I shall use that power of admonition which the Lord bids me use; so that they may meanwhile be withheld from offering, and have to plead their cause both before me and before the confessors themselves and before the whole people, when, with God’s permission, we begin to be gathered together once more into the bosom of the Church, our Mother. Concerning this matter, I have written to the martyrs and confessors, and to the people, letters; both of which I have bidden to be read to you. I wish you, dearly beloved brethren and earnestly longed-for, ever heartily farewell in the Lord; and have me in remembrance. Fare ye well.
- Oxford ed.: Ep. xvi. a.d. 250.
- In letter ii. we have noted a limited exercise of jurisdiction: the canons seem not to have allowed them the full powers these presbyters had used.]
- Matt. x. 32, 33.
- Mark iii. 28, 29.
- 1 Cor. x. 21.
- 1 Cor. xi. 27.
- [Compare Tertullian, Ad Martyras, vol. iii. p. 693.]
- [Note this persuasion of Cyprian, and compare St. Matt. xxi. 15, 16; Luke xix. 40.]
- [Celebrating the Lord’s Supper; Rom. xv. 16 (Greek) compared with Mal. i. 11, texts which seem greatly to have influenced the language of the early Church.]