Showing posts with label Cyprian. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Cyprian. Show all posts

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Augustine and the Donatists (2): Baptism and the Church in North Africa

Cf. the series introduction, Cyprian and the Novatians (1), Cyprian and the Novatians (2), Augustine and the Donatists (1).

Note on sources: My discussion makes use of the following resources: With reference to the history, I’ll largely be following the first volume of Justo Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity, and for the theology I’ll be following the discussion in Everett Fergusson’s Baptism in the Early Church. Quotes from Augustine are from his 185th epistle, which can be found in St. Augustin the Writings Against the Manicheans and Against the Donatists: Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Part 4.


Augustine and the Donatists (cont.)


Like the Donatists, Augustine claimed to be the true heir of Cyprian. This is both accurate and inaccurate. It is inaccurate insofar as Augustine was not as rigorous as Cyprian, both in terms of enforcing general morality and in terms of sacramental recognition. For instance, while Cyprian was willing to grant weakness in the congregation but not the clergy, Augustine was prepared to recognize weakness in the clergy as well.

On Augustine’s view, such weakness did not undermine the sacraments precisely because the sacrament’s power comes from Christ, with whom the church is united through the bond of love established by the Holy Spirit. It is Christ and the church as a whole, in that order of importance, who are the true ministers of the sacraments, not the individual celebrants. The union of love established by the Holy Spirit between the church and Christ is the mechanism from which the sacraments receive their saving power. What matters is not the purity of the clergy, but their establishment in this loving union.

The concrete way of enacting this unity is, for Augustine, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. He writes that “The supper of the Lord is the unity of the body of Christ, not only in the sacrament of the altar, but also in the bond of peace” (§24). The Donatists, by setting up rival bishops and communities, excluded themselves from this sacrament of the altar wherein the unity of Christ’s body is enacted – union between the church and Christ, and union within the church. They are therefore outside the Holy Spirit’s bond of love, since “he is not a partaker of the divine love who is the enemy of unity” (§50).

Being thus cut off from the bond of love, the Donatists are not able to administer effective sacraments: being within the bond of love, clergy tainted by weakness are able to administer effective sacraments. This emphasis on the church’s bond of love with Christ as the basis of the sacraments’ saving ministry is where Augustine is indeed Cyprian’s heir, although creatively so. But, Augustine goes on to disagree with Cyprian on another point. Cyprian would not recognize that the schismatics had baptism, re-baptizing them – or baptizing them in truth for the first time, as he claimed – on their return to the church. Instead, Augustine made a distinction between a valid sacrament and an effective one, arguing that the Donatists had the former but not the later.

In other words, the Donatists did the ceremony correctly, thus removing the need for re-baptism, but this ceremony was unable to communicate saving grace because the Donatists were outside the church’s bond of love. Consequently, schismatics returning to the church did not need to receive baptism again; rather, the bond of love into which they entered through union with the church activates or makes retrospectively effective their valid schismatic baptism. Here is Augustine again, speaking in the voice of a schismatic pondering reconciliation with the church: “What, then, he says, do we receive with you, when we come to your side? I answer, You do not indeed receive baptism, which was able to exist in you outside the framework of the body of Christ, although it could not profit you; but you receive the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, without which no one can see God” (§43).

In the course of his discussion of these matters, Augustine establishes that a sacrament’s validity consists of the proper word joined to the proper material sign. So, for baptism to be valid, one needs the triune name and some water. Effectiveness, on the other hand, required communion with the church. Some treat this as an unfortunate descent into a minimalist sacramentalism insofar as liturgics are concerned. But Augustine’s treatment of baptism is far from minimalist, theologically speaking. While he establishes a rather low bar for what counts as the valid performance of a sacrament, he establishes a rather full-bodied account of what makes a sacrament an effective and saving event. He tackles in a rather compelling way the complex interaction of christology, pneumatology, ecclesiology, and – of course – sacramentology, uniting them within a coherent big-picture.



The End. Remember to cf. the series introduction for the polemical horizon of this study. But if you enjoyed it simply as a foray into the history of doctrine, I won't complain. ;-)

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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Augustine and the Donatists (1): Baptism and the Church in North Africa

Cf. the series introduction, Cyprian and the Novatians (1), Cyprian and the Novatians (2).

Note on sources: My discussion makes use of the following resources: With reference to the history, I’ll largely be following the first volume of Justo Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity, and for the theology I’ll be following the discussion in Everett Fergusson’s Baptism in the Early Church. Quotes from Augustine are from his 185th epistle, which can be found in St. Augustin the Writings Against the Manicheans and Against the Donatists: Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Part 4.


Augustine and the Donatists

Augustine’s debate with the Donatists was in many ways simply the continuation of Cyprian’s battle concerning rebaptism and the Novatians. Once more, North Africa was faced with a schismatic crisis. This one, however, would – despite imperial attempts to suppress the schismatics – persist until the Muslim conquest of North Africa.

Once again, there was a period of persecution. The particulars of this case are less interesting. However, whereas Decius’ persecution created a new category of faithful Christian, the confessor, this persecution created a new category of lapsed Christian, the “traditor” – one who had surrendered the church’s sacred books to the authorities. Again there were disputes about how rigorous the church should be with reference to accepting the lapsed back into communion. The trouble really began, however, when Carthage needed a new bishop. Caecelian was elected, but the rigorists didn’t think him stringent enough, and they elected a rival bishop, Majorinus. Majorinus died shortly thereafter, and the rigorists elevated Donatus to replace him. The consequence of all this was, of course, schism.

Theologically, the Donatists claimed to be Cyprian’s heirs. One of the three bishops involved in consecrating Caecelian as bishop of Carthage, they argued, was a traditor. Because this bishop was lapsed, the Donatists rejected the validity of Caecelian’s consecration. On Cyprian’s principles, the purity of the clergy had been compromised, and thus the power of the sacraments administered by the compromised clergy was also compromised. What was needed, said the Donatists, was a pure bishop of Carthage. Also like Cyprian, the Donatists re-baptized anyone baptized by those whose ordination they questioned, maintaining that their first baptism was no baptism at all.

The Donatists appealed to the emperor over Caecelian’s consecration, thus involving the secular authorities. They were unable to prove their charges, however, and the emperor declared against them. Thus, they invited upon themselves the secular measures used against them. A fanatic fringe group made things worse by attacking secular authorities and knifing bishops in an attempt to earn what they thought of as “martyrdom.” However, their opponents claimed that even if their charges against this particular bishop had stuck, this would not render Caecelian’s consecration invalid. It is here that Augustine made his contribution.

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Monday, May 23, 2011

Cyprian and the Novatians (2): Baptism and the Church in North Africa

Cf. the series introduction, Cyprian and the Novatians (1).

Note on sources: My discussion makes use of the following resources: With reference to the history, I’ll largely be following the first volume of Justo Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity, and for the theology I’ll be following the discussion in Everett Fergusson’s Baptism in the Early Church.


Cyprian and the Novatians (cont.)


If you remember from the previous installment, the problem that arose from Decius’ persecution was that it created the “confessors,” whose moral authority began to conflict with that of the church’s duly appointed hierarchy. This was especially a problem in North Africa. Cyprian became bishop of Carthage shortly before the persecution began. When it did, he decided to take the church’s administration into hiding to keep it intact and provide remote guidance – sort of like the emergency plans that attempt to keep the president and other key figures safe and, consequently, the government still functioning.

Of course, this looked like running away to some. Cyprian proved his courage by submitting to martyrdom in a later persecution, but this is still in the future for our purposes. In Decius’ aftermath, many claimed that the confessors in Carthage wielded greater authority than Cyprian, especially on the question of what to do with the lapsed. Cyprian was a moderate. He was more rigorous than many, but he was not as rigorous as some of the confessors and their followers.
This controversy progressed to the point where Cyprian called a synod to settle the matter against the confessors. Despite the synod’s ruling, however, the schism continued. Perhaps the schism was most evident in Rome. The rigorists there appointed their own bishop, Novatian, in competition with Cornelius, the established bishop. Eventually, however, the two parties reunited.

To concretize things theologically, the issue was whether those who had been baptized by the Novatian schismatics had to be re-baptized upon admittance to the church. Nota Bene: For Cyprian, the church is like Noah’s ark – it is a vehicle of salvation, a conduit for God’s sacramentally administered grace. This is why he can say that there is no salvation outside of the church. The corollary of this statement is that there are no sacraments outside of the church. In order to maintain the validity of those sacraments, Cyprian thought that the clergy had to be held to a higher standard than the laity.

Cyprian was willing to accept that the majority of Christians will have failings, such as those encountered in Decius’ persecution. The key point, however, was to maintain the integrity of the clergy, who could then supply the faithful, and those who had lapsed, with access to salvation through the sacraments. The problem with the schismatics is that they had separated themselves from the church’s sacramental system (sacramental-industrial complex?) by breaking fellowship with the church’s duly appointed leadership. As he puts it in one letter, “Only those leaders who are set in authority within the church…have the lawful power to baptize and to grant forgiveness of sins.”

Consequently, Cyprian would not admit that schismatic baptism is baptism, and thus did not see the practice of baptizing schismatics upon admittance to the church as re-baptism: this was the first true baptism that they had received. Cyprian’s position was based on North African precedent, but the non-Novatian bishop in Rome – now Stephen rather than Cornelius – disagreed. He supported receiving such schismatics into the church through the laying on of hands, since they had already been baptized. Cyprian persisted, however, calling a number of councils to support his position. Thus, North Africa maintained its own distinctive ecclesiological and baptismal tradition against Rome.

Finally, and briefly, baptism was central to Cyprian’s vision of the Christian life. Through the ministrations of the Holy Spirit, Cyprian believes that baptism provides forgiveness from sins, regeneration, and new birth. Given this, Cyprian understands the Christian life as the process whereby one’s baptism is fulfilled in one’s life. It is the process whereby you become what baptism already made you. As Cyprian puts it, “We pray that we who were sanctified in baptism may be able to persevere in that which we have begun to be.” Given the trials faced in Decius’ persecution, Cyprian could even reflect on the fact that it is one thing to begin faith in baptism, but an altogether more difficult thing to preserve and perfect that faith.


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Thursday, May 19, 2011

Cyprian and the Novatians (1): Baptism and the Church in North Africa

Cf. the series introduction.

Note on sources: My discussion makes use of the following resources: With reference to the history, I’ll largely be following the first volume of Justo Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity, and for the theology I’ll be following the discussion in Everett Fergusson’s Baptism in the Early Church.


Cyprian and the Novatians


In the late 3rd century CE, Christians were starting to get a bit soft. Christianity was not yet what you would call legal, and it certainly wasn’t yet the official religion of the Roman Empire, but it was generally tolerated. Local persecutions would break out from time to time as mobs got angry about something or another, but there was little systematic, imperial pressure applied. At least, that is, until Decius took the purple in 249.

Decius inherited a bad situation: there was an economic downturn underway, and barbarians threatened the empire’s borders. It wasn’t that Decius was particularly cruel. He just happened to be a traditionalist who concluded that the ills facing the empire were brought on by a lack of consideration for Rome’s ancient traditions, both cultural and religious. One can’t help but make comparisons to some of the less reflective and more vindictive of Christianity’s self-appointed PR representatives in the wake of 9/11.

However, rather than pushing the gospel of return to traditional familial models, as have these contemporary figures, Decius decreed that all Roman subjects had to worship the traditional Roman gods. Those who complied were given a certificate documenting their loyalty, some of which have survived the sands of time, and the incompliant were reduced to outlaw status. Christians were just one group, even if maybe the largest, that had to determine how to respond.

As I said, the church had gotten soft. They were not ready to deal with this systematic imperial program. Making things even trickier for the church was that Decius did not want to kill Christians and make martyrs. He wanted to make apostates. So, when Christians refused to make the required sacrifices, they were arrested and much effort was made through threats, promises, torture, etc., to convince them to make the sacrifices. However, they were only very rarely killed. This created a new category of Christian: the “confessors.” Like martyrs, they had withstood a difficult test of faith; unlike martyrs, they did not die as a result.

Many Christians failed this test to varying degrees. Some of them immediately capitulated to the imperial demands and became apostates, some of them capitulated under duress, some of them acquired forged certificates of compliance with Decius’ decree, some of them capitulated but repented of their capitulation before the persecution had ended and so faced consequences. The persecution only lasted a few years, and when it was over the church was left with a problem: what were they to do with those members who had apostatized when they wanted to return to the church? Given the various ways in which members of the church avoided persecution, there could be no one-size-fits-all answer.

Then the confessors got involved. They began weighing in on who should and should not be allowed back into the church, or on what penance should be required of them. Moreover, in some cases they did so in opposition to decisions made by the church’s duly appointed hierarchy. That was a problem. In the next installment, we’ll see how Cyprian addresses it.

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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Introduction: Baptism and the Church in North Africa

In my continual quest to establish myself as the dry, boring professor-type of the theo-blogosphere, I thought it might be interesting to do some history of doctrine. This series is adapted from a lecture I gave in a class at Princeton Theological Seminary this past January. More currently speaking, I was inspired to post this material by David Congdon’s recent discussion of church unity, entitled: “Christological Unity and Pneumatological Plurality: A Theological Reflection on the Church.” David argues in this post that the sort of visible (organizational / political unity) unity that ecumenical work tends to promote may not be the most desirable sort, if it is desirable at all.

In the comments to his post, David encountered the following critical comment:
I have to utterly disagree. Only when the Church was already shattered in a thousand pieces could one think or say this, that is, in the last two hundred years. That Christological-pneumatic unity is never phenomenologically visible can only appear self-evident to someone living on the far side of schism.
David’s response to this criticism is, in my opinion, sound. Perhaps because he and I discussed it before he wrote his response. In any case, you’ll have to surf over and read the whole thing for yourself. But, this series aims at elucidating and grounding two of the claims that David makes in that response. Here they are:
I think the perception of a schism is a Catholic fiction from the start. The notion that there was ever some kind of pure visible unity is a fairy tale; it never existed.
And:
However, the more important issue is what you think the church "is." If you think the church is an institution that mediates the grace of God to the world, then your position would be understandable.
An excursus in the history of doctrine will bring some thickness to David’s claims. Don’t ever let the Roman Catholics tell you that Protestants destroyed the unity of the church. Long before Martin Luther, well before Rome and Constantinople anathematized each other in the 11th century, and even before the schisms surrounding the Council of Chalcedon, there were the Donatists and the Novatians. And the story of these North African controversies is one of local theological commitments and communities being marginalized through the development of a sacramental-ecclesial soteriology.

This is not to say that the Novatians and the Donatists were ultimately correct. And my discussion is more general, as opposed to a purely polemical undertaking. Hence the dry, boring professor-type bit. But it will show two things relevant to the aforementioned polemical context:
  1. History reveals a relationship between strong support of the church’s visible (organizational / political) unity on the one hand and a sacramental-ecclesial soteriology on the other.
  2. There were indeed serious schisms within the church besides those involving points of what would later be considered dogma – the doctrines of christology and the Trinity. Whatever else is involved, the language of orthodoxy and heterodoxy does not apply to the Novatian and Donatist schisms.
So, stay tuned!

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