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Cyprian Bishop of CarthageRemaining with the Latin Fathers we come now to Cyprian (200-258 A.D.) ~ spiritual son and pupil of Tertullian, Bishop of Carthage, subject of the first Christian biography, and martyr under the persecution of Roman Emperor Decius.

Cyprian’s biographer, Pontius the Deacon, surmised in the aftermath of Cyprian’s execution that “he will probably never cease to speak even to the end of the world” (The Life and Passion of Cyprian, Bishop and Martyr). Cyprian’s translators have claimed in turn that “nobody can understand the history of Latin Christianity without mastering  [his] system” (Ante-Nicene Fathers 5:264). Yet, in popular circles today, most likely know of Cyprian through his saying, “He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the church for his mother” (On the Unity of the ChurchAnte-Nicene Fathers 5:423). While this maternal understanding of the church was not new to Cyprian (cf. Tertullian), his use of it is better known because of Calvin (Inst. 4:1:1).

Three factors raise our hopes of finding a healthy doctrine of adoption in Cyprian: the nature and consistency of Cyprian’s maternal description of the church, Tertullian’s (and Calvin’s) references to adoption, and the particular Pauline feel of Cyprian’s familial perspective on the faith. Certainly, Cyprian’s writings are rich in expression of God’s Fatherhood; the exchange of the Son for the sons (anticipating if not influencing Luthers’ and Calvin’s emphasis on “the wonderful exchange”); brotherhood and joint-heirship with Christ; and the church’s motherhood. These recurring themes are set in the context of Cyprian’s apologetic and pastoral emphasis on the oneness of God, the unity of the catholic church, and the manner in which returning heretics and the lapsed should be treated. Repentance, Cyprian urged, must be genuine. It is encouraged by the shepherds of Christ whose pastoring reflects God’s “medicine of paternal affection.”

How, then, does a person become a son of God? By adoption we would assume. But here’s the surprise: Cyprian says nothing of it! Consistently he depicts sonship as entered into by regeneration or the new birth (the former is the concept or doctrine, the latter its metaphorical clothing). Despite the somewhat Pauline feel of his familial references, Cyprian chose the more Johannine language of the new birth to describe how a person may obtain a filial relationship to God (John 1:12-13; John 3:1-21; 1 John 2:29-3:3). Regeneration and/or the new birth is mentioned in Cyprian’s testimony (Epistle to Donatus), biography (both in Pontius’ narrative and in the citing of Cyprian), and other epistles and treatises. For example, in his treatise On the Lord’s Prayer ~ a prayer expressive of the state of sonship (sons of the kingdom) ~ Cyprian injects the language of the new birth: “The new man, born again and restored to his God by his grace, says ‘The Father,’ in the first place because he has now begun to be a son” (Ante-Nicene Fathers 5:449).

Cyprian nowhere explains either his preference for the new birth or his omission of adoption. Clearly his choice comported with the strength of his doctrine of the church. In Cyprian’s logic, God fathers his sons but the church gives them birth.We could say much of this logic, especially as it relates to the omission of adoption, but we close by lauding him for his capturing the relational (explicitly familial) atmosphere of the New Testament. Specifically, we thank God that in a day of skepticism about the church Cyprian reminds us of her maternal privileges and responsibilities. Advocates of missional adoption have found a fresh and needed way to express the church’s motherhood, but in a way which accents the very doctrine Cyprian omitted!

If you’ve found this beneficial, there’s more spiritual encouragement to be found at the on-line homes of Tim J R Trumper:

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