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Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. IV:
Writings in Connection with the Donatist Controversy.: Chapter 12

Early Church Fathers  Index     

Chapter 12.—19.  But he urges that "we find that the apostles, in all their epistles, execrated and abhorred the sacrilegious wickedness of heretics, so as to say that ‘their word does spread as a canker.’" 1404   What then?  Does not Paul also show that those who said, "Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die," were corrupters of good manners by their evil communications, adding immediately afterwards, "Evil communications corrupt good manners;" and yet he intimated that these were within the Church when he says, "How say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead?" 1405   But when does he fail to express his abhorrence of the covetous?  Or could anything be said in stronger terms, than that covetousness should be called idolatry, as the same apostle declared? 1406   Nor did Cyprian understand his language otherwise, inserting it when need required in his letters; though he confesses that in his time there were in the Church not covetous men of an ordinary type, but robbers p. 455 and usurers, and these found not among the masses, but among the bishops.  And yet I should be willing to understand that those of whom the apostle says, "Their word does spread as a canker," were without the Church, but Cyprian himself will not allow me.  For, when showing, in his letter to Antonianus, 1407 that no man ought to sever himself from the unity of the Church before the time of the final separation of the just and unjust, merely because of the admixture of evil men in the Church, when he makes it manifest how holy he was, and deserving of the illustrious martyrdom which he won, he says, "What swelling of arrogance it is, what forgetfulness of humility and gentleness, that any one should dare or believe that he can do what the Lord did not grant even to the apostles,—to think that he can distinguish the tares from the wheat, or, as if it were granted to him to carry the fan and purge the floor, to endeavor to separate the chaff from the grain!  And whereas the apostle says, ‘But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and of silver, but also of wood and of earth,’ 1408 that he should seem to choose those of gold and of silver, and despise and cast away and condemn those of wood and of earth, when really the vessels of wood are only to be burned in the day of the Lord by the burning of the divine conflagration, and those of earth are to be broken by Him to whom the ‘rod of iron 1409 has been given.’" 1410   By this argument, therefore, against those who, under the pretext of avoiding the society of wicked men, had severed themselves from the unity of the Church, Cyprian shows that by the great house of which the apostle spoke, in which there were not only vessels of gold and of silver, but also of wood and of earth, he understood nothing else but the Church, in which there should be good and bad, till at the last day it should be cleansed as a threshing-floor by the winnowing-fan.  And if this be so, in the Church herself, that is, in the great house itself, there were vessels to dishonor, whose word did spread like a canker.  For the apostle, speaking of them, taught as follows:  "And their word," he says, "will spread as doth a canker; of whom is Hymenæus and Philetus; who concerning the truth have erred, saying that the resurrection is past already; and overthrow the faith of some.  Nevertheless the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are His.  And, Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity.  But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and of silver, but also of wood and of earth." 1411   If, therefore, they whose words did spread as doth a canker were as it were vessels to dishonor in the great house, and by that "great house" Cyprian understands the unity of the Church itself, surely it cannot be that their canker polluted the baptism of Christ.  Accordingly, neither without, any more than within, can any one who is of the devil’s party, either in himself or in any other person, stain the sacrament which is of Christ.  It is not, therefore, the case that "the word which spreads as a canker to the ears of those who hear it gives remission of sins;" 1412 but when baptism is given in the words of the gospel, however great be the perverseness of understanding on the part either of him through whom, or of him to whom it is given, the sacrament itself is holy in itself on account of Him whose sacrament it is.  And if any one, receiving it at the hands of a misguided man, yet does not receive the perversity of the minister, but only the holiness of the mystery, being closely bound to the unity of the Church in good faith and hope and charity, he receives remission of his sins,—not by the words which do eat as doth a canker, but by the sacraments of the gospel flowing from a heavenly source.  But if the recipient himself be misguided, on the one hand, what is given is of no avail for the salvation of the misguided man; and yet, on the other hand, that which is received remains holy in the recipient, and is not renewed to him if he be brought to the right way.


Footnotes

454:1404

Cypr. Ep. lxxiii. 15; 2 Tim. ii. 17.

454:1405

1 Cor. 15:32, 33, 12.

454:1406

Eph. v. 5.

455:1407

Antonianus, a bishop of Numidia, wrote 252 A.D., to Cyprian, favoring his milder view in opposition to the purism of Novatian:  subsequently Novatian wrote to him, advocating the purist movement and impugning the laxity of Cornelius, bp. of Rome.  To overthrow the effect upon A. of this letter, Cyprian wrote Epistle LV.  In Ep LXX., A. is of the number of those Numidian bishops whom Cyprian addresses.

455:1408

2 Tim. ii. 20.

455:1409

Ps. ii. 9.

455:1410

Cypr. Ep. lv. 25.

455:1411

2 Tim. ii. 17-20.

455:1412

Cypr. Ep. lxxiii. 15.


Next: Chapter 13

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