Thoughts on a famous quotation from St. Cyprian

St. Cyprian (d. 258) famously said:

Habere iam non potest Deum patrem qui ecclesiam non habet matrem.

He cannot now/any longer have God as Father who does not have the Church as Mother.

Upon reading this you were probably a bit surprised. St. Cyprian did not famously say that, you are thinking. Usually, when we meet this quote amongst the Roman Catholic texts (such as The Catechism of the Catholic Church) or Eastern Orthodox apologists (such as Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Church), it is, ‘You cannot have God for your Father if you do not have the Church for your Mother.’

That translation lacks the word iam, present in the Latin as quoted above. This is the text as represented by the Jesuit scholar — text critic and translator — Maurice Bénevot in both his 1961 edition (The Tradition of Manuscripts: A Study in the Transmission of St. Cyprian’s Treatises, p. 102) and his 1971 text and translation for Oxford Early Christian Texts (De Lapsis and De Ecclesiae Catholicae Unitate, Bk 6.7-8, p. 66).

The manuscript tradition for omitting iam is found in three major traditions of the transmission of De Ecclesiae Catholicae Unitate. The entire sentence is lacking from  fourth. You may be thinking, ‘Well, three textual traditions is enough for me!’ Perhaps for Quintilian or Ammianus Marcellinus or even Cicero and Caesar, but because the monastic life has as its primary focus the attainment of puritas cordi (cf. John Cassian, Conference 1), the Fathers get a much broader treatment than Classical pagans. While some classical texts — alas! — exist only as a palimpsest here and there, or in a few manuscripts of Late Mediaeval production, Fathers such as Cyprian, Leo, Augustine, Ambrose, Gregory the Great, et al., exist in over a hundred each.

In fact, Bénevot 1961 gives us a list of five pages covering the manuscripts of St. Cyprian’s treatises, with one manuscript per line. This is a great wealth of manuscripts! Out of these, he has identified seven major textual traditions. Out of these seven major traditions, the little word iam (now, at this time — thus non iam = no longer) is present in the older, ‘better’ traditions of transmission.

The disappearance of these three letters is no big surprise. The saying is much more pithy and easily-used out of context without iam. And Latin adverbial particles like iam are precisely the sort of thing to go missing in the transmission of texts over the centuries of hand-copying with naught but sunlight from narrow windows, torches, and candles to light the way.

What is the significance of having iam present?

As Bénevot 1971 notes, ‘With iam, it is a warning to those baptized in the Church’. In De Unitate, Cyprian is arguing against schismatics — specifically against Novatian, an episcopal/papal usurper in Rome. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, is at pains throughout this treatise to stress the importance of not rending the fabric of the Church (the Greek word whence schism comes means a tear or rip).

He sees schismatics such as Novatian as deniers of their baptismal vows. They have turned aside from the fellowship of the Church that brought them to faith, aside from the apostolic tradition and regula fidei that preserved the faith for them and nourished them in it. They have declared that they are above the tradition and have chosen to walk separately from the rest of the Church.

With iam, Cyprian is not looking at the pagans (such as he once was) and warning them to come to Mother Church. He is looking at baptised believers who have left the fellowship of the Church and set up rival churches of their own, breaking the fellowship of love and peace established with Christ, and warning them that they are endangering their salvation by walking apart. Having read De Lapsis, about the lapsed who succumbed under persecution, I could easily see this applying to that group as well.

He is also addressing the faithful who have not joined Novatian. He is encouraging them to stay in the communion of the Church that has nourished them.

The application of this treatise On the Unity of the Church for a (post)modern situation is hard to tell. Cyprian, despite the tensions present in North Africa during his episcopate, would probably never have imagined a day when the entire Egyptian Church had separated from everyone else and Latin West and Greek East were also at odds, and the West fragmented and broken into a growing multitude of churches, each claiming access to the original Church of the Apostles.

Perhaps, however, it should at least be cautionary to those tempted to break fellowship with their denomination or local church over things like drums (lack or use) or hymns (lack or use) or incense (lack or use) or preaching (bad or good) or the presence of sinners (aren’t we all?) and cultivate the monastic virtue of stability.

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