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Home > Fathers of the Church > Epistles (Cyprian of Carthage) > Epistle 51

Epistle 51

To Antonianus About Cornelius and Novatian.

Argument.— When Antonianus, Having Received Letters from Novatian, Had Begun to Be Disposed in His Mind Towards His Party, Cyprian Confirms Him in His Former Opinion, Namely, that of Continuing to Hold Communion with His Bishop and So with the Catholic Church. He Excuses Himself for His Own Change of Opinion in Respect of the Lapsed, and at the End He Explains Wherein Consists the Novatian Heresy.

1. Cyprian to Antonianus his brother, greeting. I received your first letters, dearest brother, firmly maintaining the concord of the priestly college, and adhering to the Catholic Church, in which you intimated that you did not hold communion with Novatian, but followed my advice, and held one common agreement with Cornelius our co-bishop. You wrote, moreover, for me to transmit a copy of those same letters to Cornelius our colleague, so that he might lay aside all anxiety, and know at once that you held communion with him, that is, with the Catholic Church.

2. But subsequently there arrived other letters of yours sent by Quintus our co-presbyter, in which I observed that your mind, influenced by I the letters of Novatian, had begun to waver. For although previously you had settled your opinion and consent firmly, you desired in these letters that I should write to you once more what heresy Novatian had introduced, or on what grounds Cornelius holds communion with Trophimus and the sacrificers. In which matters, indeed, if you are anxiously careful, from solicitude for the faith, and are diligently seeking out the truth of a doubtful matter, the hesitating anxiety of a mind undecided in the fear of God, is not to be blamed.

3. Yet, as I see that after the first opinion expressed in your letter, you have been disturbed subsequently by letters of Novatian, I assert this first of all, dearest brother, that grave men, and men who are once established upon the strong rock with solid firmness, are not moved, I say not with a light air, but even with a wind or a tempest, lest their mind, changeable and uncertain, be frequently agitated here and there by various opinions, as by gusts of wind rushing on them, and so be turned from its purpose with some reproach of levity. That the letters of Novatian may not do this with you, nor with any one, I will set before you, as you have desired, my brother, an account of the matter in few words. And first of all indeed, as you also seem troubled about what I too have done, I must clear my own person and cause in your eyes, lest any should think that I have lightly withdrawn from my purpose, and while at first and at the commencement I maintained evangelical vigour, yet subsequently I seem to have turned my mind from discipline and from its former severity of judgment, so as to think that those who have stained their conscience with certificates, or have offered abominable sacrifices, are to have peace made easy to them. Both of which things have been done by me, not without long-balanced and pondered reasons.

4. For when the battle was still going on, and the struggle of a glorious contest was raging in the persecution, the courage of the soldiers had to be excited with every exhortation, and with full urgency, and especially the minds of the lapsed had to be roused with the trumpet call, as it were, of my voice, that they might pursue the way of repentance, not only with prayers and lamentations; but, since an opportunity was given of repeating the struggle and of regaining salvation, that they might be reproved by my voice, and stimulated rather to the ardour of confession and the glory of martyrdom. Finally, when the presbyters and deacons had written to me about some persons, that they were without moderation and were eagerly pressing forward to receive communion; replying to them in my letter which is still in existence, then I added also this: If these are so excessively eager, they have what they require in their own power, the time itself providing for them more than they ask: the battle is still being carried on, and the struggle is daily celebrated: if they truly and substantially repent of what they have done, and the ardour of their faith prevails, he who cannot be delayed may be crowned. But I put off deciding what was to be arranged about the case of the lapsed, so that when quiet and tranquillity should be granted, and the divine indulgence should allow the bishops to assemble into one place, then the advice gathered from the comparison of all opinions being communicated and weighed, we might determine what was necessary to be done. But if any one, before our council, and before the opinion decided upon by the advice of all, should rashly wish to communicate with the lapsed, he himself should be withheld from communion.

5. And this also I wrote very fully to Rome, to the clergy who were then still acting without a bishop, and to the confessors, Maximus the presbyter, and the rest who were then shut up in prison, but are now in the Church, joined with Cornelius. You may know that I wrote this from their reply, for in their letter they wrote thus: However, what you have yourself also declared in so important a matter is satisfactory to us, that the peace of the Church must first be maintained; then, that an assembly for counsel being gathered together, with bishop, presbyters, deacons, and confessors, as well as with the laity who stand fast, we should deal with the case of the lapsed. It was added also— Novatian then writing, and reciting with his own voice what he had written, and the presbyter Moyses, then still a confessor, but now a martyr, subscribing— that peace ought to be granted to the lapsed who were sick and at the point of departure. Which letter was sent throughout the whole world, and was brought to the knowledge of all the churches and all the brethren.

6. According, however, to what had been before decided, when the persecution was quieted, and opportunity of meeting was afforded; a large number of bishops, whom their faith and the divine protection had preserved in soundness and safety, we met together; and the divine Scriptures being brought forward on both sides, we balanced the decision with wholesome moderation, so that neither should hope of communion and peace be wholly denied to the lapsed, lest they should fail still more through desperation. and, because the Church was closed to them, should, like the world, live as heathens; nor yet, on the other hand, should the censure of the Gospel be relaxed, so that they might rashly rush to communion, but that repentance should be long protracted, and the paternal clemency be sorrowfully besought, and the cases, and the wishes, and the necessities of individuals be examined into, according to what is contained in a little book, which I trust has come to you, in which the several heads of our decisions are collected. And lest perchance the number of bishops in Africa should seem unsatisfactory, we also wrote to Rome, to Cornelius our colleague, concerning this thing, who himself also holding a council with very many bishops, concurred in the same opinion as we had held, with equal gravity and wholesome moderation.

7. Concerning which it has now become necessary to write to you, that you may know that I have done nothing lightly, but, according to what I had before comprised in my letters, had put off everything to the common determination of our council, and indeed communicated with no one of the lapsed as yet, so long as there still was an opening by which the lapsed might receive not only pardon, but also a crown. Yet afterwards, as the agreement of our college, and the advantage of gathering the fraternity together and of healing their wound required, I submitted to the necessity of the times, and thought that the safety of the many must be provided for; and I do not now recede from these things which have once been determined in our council by common agreement, although many things are ventilated by the voices of many, and lies against God's priests uttered from the devil's mouth, and tossed about everywhere, to the rupture of the concord of Catholic unity. But it behooves you, as a good brother and a fellow priest like-minded, not easily to receive what malignants and apostates may say, but carefully to weigh what your colleagues, modest and grave men, may do, from an investigation of our life and teaching.

8. I come now, dearest brother, to the character of Cornelius our colleague, that with us you may more justly know Cornelius, not from the lies of malignants and detractors, but from the judgment of the Lord God, who made him a bishop, and from the testimony of his fellow bishops, the whole number of whom has agreed with an absolute unanimity throughout the whole world. For—a thing which with laudable announcement commends our dearest Cornelius to God and Christ, and to His Church, and also to all his fellow priests—he was not one who on a sudden attained to the episcopate; but, promoted through all the ecclesiastical offices, and having often deserved well of the Lord in divine administrations, he ascended by all the grades of religious service to the lofty summit of the Priesthood. Then, moreover, he did not either ask for the episcopate itself, nor did he wish it; nor, as others do when the swelling of their l arrogance and pride inflates them, did he seize upon it; but quiet otherwise, and meek and such as those are accustomed to be who are chosen of God to this office, having regard to the modesty of his virgin continency, and the humility of his inborn and guarded veneration, he did not, as some do, use force to be made a bishop, but he himself suffered compulsion, so as to be forced to receive the episcopal office. And he was made bishop by very many of our colleagues who were then present in the city of Rome, who sent to us letters concerning his ordination, honourable and laudatory, and remarkable for their testimony in announcement of him. Moreover, Cornelius was made bishop by the judgment of God and of His Christ, by the testimony of almost all the clergy, by the suffrage of the people who were then present, and by the assembly of ancient priests and good men, when no one had been made so before him, when the place of Fabian, that is, when the place of Peter and the degree of the sacerdotal throne was vacant; which being occupied by the will of God, and established by the consent of all of us, whosoever now wishes to become a bishop, must needs be made from without; and he cannot have the ordination of the Church who does not hold the unity of the Church. Whoever he may be, although greatly boasting about himself, and claiming very much for himself, he is profane, he is an alien, he is without. And as after the first there cannot be a second, whosoever is made after one who ought to be alone, is not second to him, but is in fact none at all.

9. Then afterwards, when he had undertaken the episcopate, not obtained by solicitation nor by extortion, but by the will of God who makes priests; what a virtue there was in the very undertaking of his episcopate, what strength of mind, what firmness of faith—a thing that we ought with simple heart both thoroughly to look into and to praise—that he intrepidly sate at Rome in the sacerdotal chair at that time when a tyrant, odious to God's priests, was threatening things that can, and cannot be spoken, inasmuch as he would much more patiently and tolerantly hear that a rival prince was raised up against himself than that a priest of God was established at Rome. Is not this man, dearest brother, to be commended with the highest testimony of virtue and faith? Is not he to be esteemed among the glorious confessors and martyrs, who for so long a time sate awaiting the manglers of his body and the avengers of a ferocious tyrant, who, when Cornelius resisted their deadly edicts, and trampled on their threats and sufferings and tortures by the vigour of his faith, would either rush upon him with the sword, or crucify him, or scorch him with fire, or rend his bowels and his limbs with some unheard-of kind of punishment? Even though the majesty and goodness of the protecting Lord guarded, when made, the priest whom He willed to be made; yet Cornelius, in what pertains to his devotion and fear, suffered whatever he could suffer, and conquered the tyrant first of all by his priestly office, who was afterwards conquered in arms and in war.

10. But in respect to certain discreditable and malignant things that are bandied about concerning him, I would not have you wonder when you know that this is always the work of the devil, to wound God's servants with lies, and to defame a glorious name by false opinions, so that they who are bright in the light of their own conscience may be tarnished by the reports of others Moreover, you are to know that our colleagues have investigated, and have certainly discovered that he has been blemished with no stain of a certificate, as some intimate; neither has he mingled in sacrilegious communion with the bishops who have sacrificed, but has merely associated with us those whose cause had been heard, and whose innocence was approved.

11. For with respect to Trophimus also, of whom you wished tidings to be written to you, the case is not as the report and the falsehood of malignant people had conveyed it to you. For, as our predecessors often did, our dearest brother, in bringing together the brethren, yielded to necessity; and since a very large part of the people had withdrawn with Trophimus, now when Trophimus returned to the Church, and atoned for, and with the penitence of prayer confessed his former error, and with perfect humility and satisfaction recalled the brotherhood whom he had lately taken away, his prayers were heard; and not only Trophimus, but a very great number of brethren who had been with Trophimus, were admitted into the Church of the Lord, who would not all have returned to the Church unless they had come in Trophimus' company. Therefore the matter being considered there with several colleagues, Trophimus was received, for whom the return of the brethren and salvation restored to many made atonement. Yet Trophimus was admitted in such a manner as only to communicate as a layman, not, according to the information given to you by the letters of the malignants, in such a way as to assume the place of a priest.

12. But, moreover, in respect of what has been told you, that Cornelius communicates everywhere with those who have sacrificed, this intelligence has also arisen from the false reports of the apostates. For neither can they praise us who depart from us, nor ought we to expect to please them, who, while they displease us, and revolt against the Church, violently persist in soliciting brethren away from the Church. Wherefore, dearest brethren, do not with facility either hear or believe whatever is currently rumoured against Cornelius and about me.

13. For if any are seized with sicknesses, help is given to them in danger, as it has been decided. Yet after they have been assisted, and peace has been granted to them in their danger, they cannot be suffocated by us, or destroyed, or by our force or hands urged on to the result of death; as if, because peace is granted to the dying, it were necessary that those who have received peace should die; although the token of divine love and paternal lenity appears more in this way, that they, who in peace given to them receive the pledge of life, are moreover here bound to life by the peace they have received. And therefore, if with peace received, a reprieve is given by God, no one ought to complain of the priests for this, when once it has been decided that brethren are to be aided in peril. Neither must you think, dearest brother, as some do, that those who receive certificates are to be put on a par with those who have sacrificed; since even among those who have sacrificed, the condition and the case are frequently different. For we must not place on a level one who has at once leapt forward with good-will to the abominable sacrifice, and one who, after long struggle and resistance, has reached that fatal result under compulsion; one who has betrayed both himself and all his connections, and one who, himself approaching the trial in behalf of all, has protected his wife and his children, and his whole family, by himself undergoing the danger; one who has compelled his inmates or friends to the crime, and one who has spared inmates and servants, and has even. received many brethren who were departing to banishment and flight, into his house and hospitality; showing and offering to the Lord many souls living and safe to entreat for a single wounded one.

14. Since, then, there is much difference between those who have sacrificed, what a want of mercy it is, and how bitter is the hardship, to associate those who have received certificates, with those who have sacrificed, when he by whom the certificate has been received may say, I had previously read, and had been made aware by the discourse of the bishop, that we must not sacrifice to idols, that the servant of God ought not to worship images; and therefore, in order that I might not do this which was net lawful, when the opportunity of receiving a certificate was offered, which itself also I should not have received, unless the opportunity had been put before me, I either went or charged some other person going to the magistrate, to say that I am a Christian, that I am not allowed to sacrifice, that I cannot come to the devil's altars, and that I pay a price for this purpose, that I may not do what is not lawful for me to do. Now, however, even he who is stained with having received a certificate,— after he has learned from our admonitions that he ought not even to have done this, and that although his hand is pure, and no contact of deadly food has polluted his lips, yet his conscience is nevertheless polluted, weeps when he hears us, and laments, and is now admonished of the thing wherein he has sinned, and having been deceived, not so much by guilt as by error, bears witness that for another time he is instructed and prepared.

15. If we reject the repentance of those who have some confidence in a conscience that may be tolerated; at once with their wife, with their children, whom they had kept safe, they are hurried by the devil's invitation into heresy or schism; and it will be attributed to us in the day of judgment, that we have not cared for the wounded sheep, and that on account of a single wounded one we have lost many sound ones. And whereas the Lord left the ninety and nine that were whole, and sought after the one wandering and weary, and Himself carried it, when found, upon His shoulders, we not only do not seek the lapsed, but even drive them away when they come to us; and while false prophets are not ceasing to lay waste and tear Christ's flock, we give an opportunity to dogs and wolves, so that those whom a hateful persecution has not destroyed, we ruin by our hardness and inhumanity. And what will become, dearest brother, of what the apostle says: I please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved. Be followers of me, as I also am of Christ. And again: To the weak I became as weak, that I might gain the weak. 1 Corinthians 9:22 And again: Whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member rejoice, all the members rejoice with it.

16. The principle of the philosophers and stoics is different, dearest brother, who say that all sins are equal, and that a grave man ought not easily to be moved. But there is a wide difference between Christians and philosophers. And when the apostle says, Beware, lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, Colossians 2:8 we are to avoid those things which do not come from God's clemency, but are begotten of the presumption of a too rigid philosophy. Concerning Moses, moreover, we find it said in the Scriptures, Now the man Moses was very meek; Numbers 12:3 and the Lord in His Gospel says, Be merciful, as your Father also had mercy upon you; and again, They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. Matthew 9:12 What medical skill can he exercise who says, I cure the sound only, who have no need of a physician? We ought to give our assistance, our healing art, to those who are wounded; neither let us think them dead, but rather let us regard them as lying half alive, whom we see to have been wounded in the fatal persecution, and who, if they had been altogether dead, would never from the same men become afterwards both confessors and martyrs.

17. But since in them there is that, which, by subsequent repentance, may be strengthened into faith; and by repentance strength is armed to virtue, which could not be armed if one should fall away through despair; if, hardly and cruelly separated from the Church, he should turn himself to Gentile ways and to worldly works, or, if rejected by the Church, he should pass over to heretics and schismatics; where, although he should afterwards be put to death on account of the name, still, being placed outside the Church, and divided from unity and from charity, he could not in his death be crowned. And therefore it was decided, dearest brother, the case of each individual having been examined into, that the receivers of certificates should in the meantime be admitted, that those who had sacrificed should be assisted at death, because there is no confession in the place of the departed, nor can any one be constrained by us to repentance, if the fruit of repentance be taken away. If the battle should come first, strengthened by us, he will be found ready armed for the battle; but if sickness should press hard upon him before the battle, he departs with the consolation of peace and communion.

18. Moreover, we do not prejudge when the Lord is to be the judge; save that if He shall find the repentance of the sinners full and sound, He will then ratify what shall have been here determined by us. If, however, any one should delude us with the pretence of repentance, God, who is not mocked, and who looks into man's heart, will judge of those things which we have imperfectly looked into, and the Lord will amend the sentence of His servants; while yet, dearest brother, we ought to remember that it is written, A brother that helps a brother shall be exalted; and that the apostle also has said, Let all of you severally have regard to yourselves, lest you also be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ; Galatians 6:1-2 also that, rebuking the haughty, and breaking down their arrogance, he says in his epistle, Let him that thinks he stands, take heed lest he fall; and in another place he says, Who are you that judgest another man's servant? To his own master he stands or falls; yea, he shall stand, for God is able to make him stand. John also proves that Jesus Christ the Lord is our Advocate and Intercessor for our sins, saying, My little children, these things write I unto you, that you sin not. And if any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Supporter: and He is the propitiation for our sins. And Paul also, the apostle, in his epistle, has written, If, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us; much more, being now justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. Romans 5:8-9

19. Considering His love and mercy, we ought not to be so bitter, nor cruel, nor inhuman in cherishing the brethren, but to mourn with those that mourn, and to weep with them that weep, and to raise them up as much as we can by the help and comfort of our love; neither being too ungentle and pertinacious in repelling their repentance; nor, again, being too lax and easy in rashly yielding communion. Lo! A wounded brother lies stricken by the enemy in the field of battle. There the devil is striving to slay him whom he has wounded; here Christ is exhorting that he whom He has redeemed may not wholly perish. Whether of the two do we assist? On whose side do we stand? Whether do we favour the devil, that he may destroy, and pass by our prostrate lifeless brother, as in the Gospel did the priest and Levite; or rather, as priests of God and Christ, do we imitate what Christ both taught and did, and snatch the wounded man from the jaws of the enemy, that we may preserve him cured for God the judge?

20. And do not think, dearest brother, that either the courage of the brethren will be lessened, or that martyrdoms will fail for this cause, that repentance is relaxed to the lapsed, and that the hope of peace is offered to the penitent. The strength of the truly believing remains unshaken; and with those who fear and love God with their whole heart, their integrity continues steady and strong. For to adulterers even a time of repentance is granted by us, and peace is given. Yet virginity is not therefore deficient in the Church, nor does the glorious design of continence languish through the sins of others. The Church, crowned with so many virgins, flourishes; and chastity and modesty preserve the tenor of their glory. Nor is the vigour of continence broken down because repentance and pardon are facilitated to the adulterer. It is one thing to stand for pardon, another thing to attain to glory: it is one thing, when cast into prison, not to go out thence until one has paid the uttermost farthing; another thing at once to receive the wages of faith and courage. It is one thing, tortured by long suffering for sins, to be cleansed and long purged by fire; another to have purged all sins by suffering. It is one thing, in fine, to be in suspense till the sentence of God at the day of judgment; another to be at once crowned by the Lord.

21. And, indeed, among our predecessors, some of the bishops here in our province thought that peace was not to be granted to adulterers, and wholly closed the gate of repentance against adultery. Still they did not withdraw from the assembly of their co-bishops, nor break the unity of the Catholic Church by the persistency of their severity or censure; so that, because by some peace was granted to adulterers, he who did not grant it should be separated from the Church. While the bond of concord remains, and the undivided sacrament of the Catholic Church endures, every bishop disposes and directs his own acts, and will have to give an account of his purposes to the Lord.

22. But I wonder that some are so obstinate as to think that repentance is not to be granted to the lapsed, or to suppose that pardon is to be denied to the penitent, when it is written, Remember whence you are fallen, and repent, and do the first works, Revelation 2:5 which certainly is said to him who evidently has fallen, and whom the Lord exhorts to rise up again by his works, because it is written, Alms do deliver from death, Tobit 4:10 and not, assuredly, from that death which once the blood of Christ extinguished, and from which the saving grace of baptism and of our Redeemer has delivered us, but from that which subsequently creeps in through sins. Moreover, in another place time is granted for repentance; and the Lord threatens him that does not repent: I have, says He, many things against you, because you suffer your wife Jezebel, which calls herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed to idols; and I gave her a space to repent, and she will not repent of her fornication. Behold, I will cast her into a bed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent of their deeds; Revelation 2:20-22 whom certainly the Lord would not exhort to repentance, if it were not that He promises mercy to them that repent. And in the Gospel He says, I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repents, more than over ninety and nine just persons that need no repentance. Luke 15:7 For since it is written, God did not make death, neither has He pleasure in the destruction of the living, Wisdom 1:13 assuredly He who wills that none should perish, desires that sinners should repent, and by repentance should return again to life. Thus also He cries by Joel the prophet, and says, And now, thus says the Lord your God, Turn even to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your heart, and not your garments, and return unto the Lord your God; for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repents Him of the evil appointed. Joel 2:12-13 In the Psalms, also, we read as well the rebuke as the clemency of God, threatening at the same time as He spares, punishing that He may correct; and when He has corrected, preserving. I will visit, He says, their transgressions with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes. Nevertheless, my loving-kindness will I not utterly take from them.

23. The Lord also in His Gospel, setting forth the love of God the Father, says, What man is there of you, whom, if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much l more shall your heavenly Father give good things to them that ask Him? Matthew 7:9-11 The Lord is here comparing the father after the flesh, and the eternal and liberal love of God the Father. But if that evil father upon earth, deeply offended by a sinful and evil son, yet if he should see the same son afterwards reformed, and, the sins of his former life being put away, restored to sobriety and morality and to the discipline of innocence by the sorrow of his repentance, both rejoices and gives thanks, and with the eagerness of a father's exultation, embraces the restored one, whom before he had cast out; how much more does that one and true Father, good, merciful, and loving— yea, Himself Goodness and Mercy and Loverejoice in the repentance of His own sons! nor threatens punishment to those who are now repenting, or mourning and lamenting, but rather promises pardon and clemency. Whence the Lord in the Gospel calls those that mourn, blessed; because he who mourns calls forth mercy. He who is stubborn and haughty heaps up wrath against himself, and the punishment of the coming judgment. And therefore, dearest brother, we have decided that those who do not repent, nor give evidence of sorrow for their sins with their whole heart, and with manifest profession of their lamentation, are to be absolutely restrained from the hope of communion and peace if they begin to beg for them in the midst of sickness and peril; because it is not repentance for sin, but the warning of urgent death, that drives them to ask; and he is not worthy to receive consolation in death who has not reflected that he was about to die.

24. In reference, however, to the character of Novatian, dearest brother, of whom you desired that intelligence should be written you what heresy he had introduced; know that, in the first place, we ought not even to be inquisitive as to what he teaches, so long as he teaches out of the pale of unity. Whoever he may be, and whatever he may be, he who is not in the Church of Christ is not a Christian. Although he may boast himself, and announce his philosophy or eloquence with lofty words, yet he who has not maintained brotherly love or ecclesiastical unity has lost even what he previously had been. Unless he seems to you to be a bishop, who— when a bishop has been made in the Church by sixteen co-bishops— strives by bribery to be made an adulterous and extraneous bishop by the hands of deserters; and although there is one Church, divided by Christ throughout the whole world into many members, and also one episcopate diffused through a harmonious multitude of many bishops; in spite of God's tradition, in spite of the combined and everywhere compacted unity of the Catholic Church, is endeavouring to make a human church, and is sending his new apostles through very many cities, that he may establish some new foundations of his own appointment. And although there have already been ordained in each city, and through all the provinces, bishops old in years, sound in faith, proved in trial, proscribed in persecution, (this one) dares to create over these other and false bishops: as if he could either wander over the whole world with the persistence of his new endeavour, or break asunder the structure of the ecclesiastical body, by the propagation of his own discord, not knowing that schismatics are always fervid at the beginning, but that they cannot increase nor add to what they have unlawfully begun, but that they immediately fail together with their evil emulation. But he could not hold the episcopate, even if he had before been made bishop, since he has cut himself off from the body of his fellow bishops, and from the unity of the Church; since the apostle admonishes that we should mutually sustain one another, and not withdraw from the unity which God has appointed, and says, Bearing with one another in love, endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Ephesians 4:2-3 He then who neither maintains the unity of the Spirit nor the bond of peace, and separates himself from the band of the Church, and from the assembly of priests, can neither have the power nor the honour of a bishop, since he has refused to maintain either the unity or the peace of the episcopate.

25. Then, moreover, what a swelling of arrogance it is, what oblivion of humility and gentleness, what a boasting of his own arrogance, that any one should either dare, or think that he is able, to do what the Lord did not even grant to the apostles; that he should think that he can discern the tares from the wheat, or, as if it were granted to him to bear the fan and to purge the threshing-floor, should endeavour to separate the chaff from the wheat; and since 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, 2 Timothy 2:20 should think to choose the vessels of gold and of silver, to despise, to cast away, and to condemn the vessels of wood and of clay; while the vessels of wood are not burnt up except in the day of the Lord by the flame of the divine burning, and the vessels of clay are only broken by Him to whom is given the rod of iron.

26. Or if he appoints himself a searcher and judge of the heart and reins, let him in all cases judge equally. And as he knows that it is written, Behold, you are made whole; sin no more, lest a worse thing happen unto you, John 5:14 let him separate the fraudulent and adulterers from his side and from his company, since the case of an adulterer is by far both graver and worse than that of one who has taken a certificate, because the latter has sinned by necessity, the former by free will: the latter, thinking that it is sufficient for him that he has not sacrificed, has been deceived by an error; the former, a violator of the matrimonial tie of another, or entering a brothel, into the sink and filthy gulf of the common people, has befouled by detestable impurity a sanctified body and God's temple, as says the apostle: Every sin that a man does is without the body, but he that commits fornication sins against his own body. 1 Corinthians 6:18 And yet to these persons themselves repentance is granted, and the hope of lamenting and atoning is left, according to the saying of the same apostle: I fear lest, when I come to you, I shall bewail many of those who have sinned already, and have not repented of the uncleanness, and fornication, and lasciviousness which they have committed. 2 Corinthians 12:21

27. Neither let the new heretics flatter themselves in this, that they say that they do not communicate with idolaters; although among them there are both adulterers and fraudulent persons, who are held guilty of the crime of idolatry, according to the saying of the apostle: For know this with understanding, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, whose guilt is that of idolatry, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Ephesians 5:5 And again: Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; putting off fornication, uncleanness, and evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which are the service of idols: for which things' sake comes the wrath of God. Colossians 3:5-6 For as our bodies are members of Christ, and we are each a temple of God, whosoever violates the temple of God by adultery, violates God; and he who, in committing sins, does the will of the devil, serves demons and idols. For evil deeds do not come from the Holy Spirit, but from the prompting of the adversary, and lusts born of the unclean spirit constrain men to act against God and to obey the devil. Thus it happens that if they say that one is polluted by another's sin, and if they con tend, by their own asseveration, that the idolatry of the delinquent passes over to one who is not guilty according to their own word; they cannot be excused from the crime of idolatry, since from the apostolic proof it is evident that the adulterers and defrauders with whom they communicate are idolaters. But with us, according to our faith and the given rule of divine preaching, agrees the principle of truth, that every one is himself held fast in his own sin; nor can one become guilty for another, since the Lord forewarns us, saying, The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him. Ezekiel 18:20 And again: The fathers shall not die for the children, and the children shall not die for the fathers. Every one shall die in his own sin. Deuteronomy 24:26 Reading and observing this, we certainly think that no one is to be restrained from the fruit of satisfaction, and the hope of peace, since we know, according to the faith of the divine Scriptures, God Himself being their author, and exhorting in them, both that sinners are brought back to repentance, and that pardon and mercy are not denied to penitents.

28. And oh, mockery of a deceived fraternity! Oh, vain deception of miserable and senseless mourners! Oh, ineffectual and profitless tradition of heretical institution! To exhort to the repentance of atonement, and to take away the healing from the atonement; to say to our brethren, Mourn and shed tears, and groan day and night, and labour largely and frequently for the washing away and cleansing of your sin; but, after all these things, you shall die without the pale of the Church. Whatsoever things are necessary to peace, you shall do, but none of that peace which you seek shall you receive! Who would not perish at once? Who would not fall away, from very desperation? Who would not turn away his mind from all design of lamentation? Do you think that the husbandman could labour if you should say, Till the field with all the skill of husbandry, diligently persevere in its cultivation; but you shall reap no harvest, you shall press no vintage, you shall receive no fruits of your olive-yard, you shall gather no apples from the trees; or if, urging upon any one the possession and use of ships, you were to say, Purchase, my brother, material from excellent woods; inweave your keel with the strongest and chosen oak; labour on the rudder, the ropes, the sails, that the ship may be constructed and fitted; but when you have done this, you shall never behold the result from its doings and its voyages?

29. This is to shut up and to cut off the way of grief and of repentance; so that while in all Scripture the Lord God sooths those who return to Him and repent, repentance itself is taken away by our hardness and cruelty, which intercepts the fruits of repentance. But if we find that none ought to be restrained from repenting, and that peace may be granted by His priests to those who entreat and beseech the Lord's mercy, inasmuch as He is merciful and loving, the groaning of those who mourn is to be admitted, and the fruit of repentance is not to be denied to those who grieve. And because in the place of the departed there is no confession, neither can confession be made there, they who have repented from their whole heart, and have asked for it, ought to be received within the Church, and to be kept in it for the Lord, who will of a surety judge, when He comes to His Church, those whom He shall find within it. But apostates and deserters, or adversaries and enemies, and those who lay waste the Church of Christ, cannot, even if outside the Church they have been slain for His name, according to the apostle, be admitted to the peace of the Church, since they have neither kept the unity of the spirit nor of the Church.

30. These few things for the present, out of many, dearest brother, I have run over as briefly as I could, that I might thereby both satisfy your desire, and might link you more and more closely to the society of our college and body. But if there should arise to you an opportunity and power of coming to us, we shall be able to confer more fully together, and to consider more fruitfully and more at large the things which make for a salutary agreement. I bid you, dearest brother, ever heartily farewell.

About this page

Source. Translated by Robert Ernest Wallis. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/050651.htm>.

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