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Cyprian, Mortality, and Future Hope

By Chad Thornhill

Cyprian of Carthage was a third century bishop in North Africa. He is most famous for his pastoral interactions during the Novatianist schism. His writings evidence his pastoral concerns not entering into theological reflection for the sake of doctrinal elegance, but rather focused upon the needs of those connected with his ministry. He influenced later thinkers, including Augustine, and was himself influenced by Tertullian’s writings. His most famous work is On the Unity of the Church, in which he wrote what is perhaps his most well-known statement: “He can no longer have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother.” In his On the Mortality, Cyprian also addressed how the Christian ought to respond to suffering and the imminence of death in this life.

On the Mortality no doubt reflects Cyprian’s concern, as do many of his works, for the threat of recantation which faced many of his flock. Cyprian ministered in an age where persecution was an ever-present threat for the Christian community. Much of Cyprian’s theological reputation comes from his opposition to Novatian, who had set himself up as an anti-pope and was opposed to reinstating the “lapsed” (i.e., those who had denied their faith when faced with persecution) to good standing in the Church. Cyprian, though he advocated for re-instating the penitent, nevertheless did not encourage laxity among believers. In On the Mortality, Cyprian encouraged Christ-followers to remain faithfully obedient to God, even when faced with death. Part of Cyprian’s plea is for the believer to keep the reality of the in-breaking of the kingdom of God ever present before them. He wrote:

The kingdom of God, beloved brethren, is beginning to be at hand; the reward of life, and the rejoicing of eternal salvation, and the perpetual gladness and possession lately lost of paradise, are now coming, with the passing away of the world; already heavenly things are taking the place of earthly, and great things of small, and eternal things of things that fade away. What room is there here for anxiety and solicitude? Who, in the midst of these things, is trembling and sad, except he who is without hope and faith? For it is for him to fear death who is not willing to go to Christ. It is for him to be unwilling to go to Christ who does not believe that he is about to reign with Christ (Cyprian of Carthage, On the Mortality, II, translation by Robert Ernest Wallis).

Cyprian, assured by the words of Jesus that the kingdom of God is both here and near, maintained that confidence in the face of death is available to the Christian. This, though, does not mean—because of the “not yetness” of the kingdom—that Christians can expect a life free of suffering in the “now.” As Cyprian continues:

Thus, when the earth is barren with an unproductive harvest, famine makes no distinction; thus, when with the invasion of an enemy any city is taken, captivity at once desolates all; and when the serene clouds withhold the rain, the drought is alike to all; and when the jagged rocks rend the ship, the shipwreck is common without exception to all that sail in her; and the disease of the eyes, and the attack of fevers, and the feebleness of all the limbs is common to us with others, so long as this common flesh of ours is borne by us in the world (Cyprian of Carthage, On the Mortality, VIII).

According to Cyprian, not only should believers expect to experience the same pain and suffering as the unbeliever, they should in reality expect more, since the spiritual powers will battle all the more fiercely against them (Cyprian of Carthage, On the Mortality, IX). They are ultimately, however, assured that they will overcome death even if they must traverse through it in order to do so. Cyprian wrote:

What a grandeur of spirit it is to struggle with all the powers of an unshaken mind against so many onsets of devastation and death! (Cyprian of Carthage, On the Mortality, XIV).

In On the Mortality, Cyprian referenced Philippians 3:21 in his word of assurances. Because of the power of the risen Jesus, who has been given authority over all things, those in Christ will be transformed into the state of his glorious body. As Paul writes elsewhere (1 Thessalonians 1:12), Christ’s glory will be shared with those united with him. Ultimately the assurance of believers’ resurrection can be held firmly because Jesus himself is the firstfruit of that resurrection (1 Cor. 15:20). The greatest threat which the cosmic powers can wield against God’s people (O, Death) must ultimately be viewed as no threat at all. Death’s sting departs. Death’s failure arrives. And in the face of the suffering inevitable in this world, that truly is Good News.

 

Image: “Resurrection 60″ by Waiting for the Word. CC License. 

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