The new birth in a wicked world: Cyprian’s “Letter to Donatus”

I recently read Justin Taylor’s brief interview with Michael Haykin from Southern Seminary.  Haykin, whose book on the Church Fathers is forthcoming, recommended Cyprian’s “Letter to Donatus.” I finally read it in full today and found it quite remarkable.  According to short introduction to the document, Cyprian had promised Donatus to write to him about spiritual matters.  Cyprian expresses his doubt that he is up to the task, but offers “things, not clever but weighty, words, not decked up to charm a popular audience with cultivated rhetoric, but simple and fitted by their unvarnished truthfulness for the proclamation of the divine mercy.”  He follows with beautiful description of his marvel at the new birth:

While I was still lying in darkness and gloomy night, wavering hither and there, tossed about on the foam of this boastful age, and uncertain of my wandering steps, knowing nothing of my real life, and remote from truth and light, I used to regard it as a difficult matter, and especially as difficult in respect of my character at that time, that a man should be capable of being born again — a truth which the divine mercy had announced for my salvation—and that a man quickened to a new life in the layer of saving water should be able to put off what he had previously been; and, although retaining all his bodily structure, should be himself changed in heart and soul. How, said I, is such a conversion possible, that there should be a sudden and rapid divestment of all which, either innate in us has hardened in the corruption of our material nature, or acquired by us has become inveterate by long accustomed use? These things have become deeply and radically engrained within us. When does he learn thrift who has been used to liberal banquets and sumptuous feasts? And he who has been glittering in gold and purple, and has been celebrated for his costly attire, when does he reduce himself to ordinary and simple clothing? One who has felt the charm of the fasces and of civic honours shrinks from becoming a mere private and inglorious citizen. The man who is attended by crowds of clients, and dignified by the numerous association of an officious train, regards it as a punishment when he is alone. It is inevitable, as it ever has been, that the love of wine should entice, pride inflate, anger inflame, covetousness disquiet, cruelty stimulate, ambition delight, lust hasten to ruin, with allurements that will not let go their hold.

These were my frequent thoughts. For as I myself was held in bonds by the innumerable errors of my previous life, from which I did not believe that I could by possibility be delivered, so I was disposed to acquiesce in my clinging vices; and because I despaired of better things, I used to indulge my sins as if they were actually parts of me, and indigenous to me. But after that, by the help of the water of new birth, the stain of former years had been washed away, and a light from above, serene and pure, had been infused into my reconciled heart—after that, by the agency of the Spirit breathed from heaven, a second birth had restored me to a new man—then, in a wondrous manner, doubtful things at once began to assure themselves to me, hidden things to be revealed, dark things to be enlightened, what before had seemed difficult began to suggest a means of accomplishment, what had been thought impossible, to be capable of being achieved; so that I was enabled to acknowledge that what previously, being born of the flesh, had been living in the practice of sins, was of the earth earthly, but had now begun to be of God, and was animated by the Spirit of holiness. You yourself assuredly know and recollect as well as I do what was taken away from us, and what was given to us by that death of evil, and that life of virtue. You yourself know this without my information. Anything like boasting in one’s own praise is hateful, although we cannot in reality boast but only be grateful for whatever we do not ascribe to man’s virtue but declare to be the gift of God; so that now we sin not is the beginning of the work of faith, whereas that we sinned before was the result of human error. All our power is of God; I say, of God. From Him we have life, from Him we have strength, by power derived and conceived from Him we do, while yet in this world, foreknow the indications of things to come. Only let fear be the keeper of innocence, that the Lord, who of His mercy has flowed into our hearts in the access of celestial grace, may be kept by righteous submissiveness in the hostelry of a grateful mind, that the assurance we have gained may not beget carelessness, and so the old enemy creep upon us again.

But if you keep the way of innocence, the way of righteousness, if you walk with a firm and steady step, if, depending on God with your whole strength and with your whole heart, you only be what you have begun to be, liberty and power to do is given you in proportion to the increase of your spiritual grace. For there is not, as is the case with earthly benefits, any measure or stint in the dispensing of the heavenly gift. The Spirit freely flowing forth is restrained by no limits, is checked by no closed barriers within certain bounded spaces; it flows perpetually, it is exuberant in its affluence. Let our heart only be thirsty, and be ready to receive: in the degree in which we bring to it a capacious faith, in that measure we draw from it an overflowing grace. Thence is given power, with modest chastity, with a sound mind, with a simple voice, with unblemished virtue, that is able to quench the virus of poisons for the healing of the sick, to purge out the stains of foolish souls by restored health, to bid peace to those hat are at enmity, repose to the violent, gentleness to the unruly—by startling threats to force to avow themselves the impure and vagrant spirits that have betaken themselves into the bodies of men whom they purpose to destroy, to drive them with heavy blows to come out of them, to stretch them out struggling, howling, groaning with increase of constantly renewing pain, to beat them with scourges, to roast them with fire: the matter is carded on there, but is not seen; the strokes inflicted are hidden, but the penalty is manifest. Thus, in respect of what we have already begun to be, the Spirit that we have received possesses its own liberty of action; while in that we have not yet changed our body and members, the carnal view is still darkened by the clouds of this world. How great is this empire of the mind, and what a power it has, not alone that itself is withdrawn from the mischievous associations of the world, as one who is purged and pure can suffer no stain of a hostile irruption, but that it becomes still greater and stronger in its might, so that it can rule over all the imperious host of the attacking adversary with its sway!

Contrasting the wickedness of the world to the new life that Christians enjoy, Cyprian details the sins of violence, gladiatorial games, the theater (“The old horrors of parricide and incest are unfolded in action calculated to express the image of the truth, so that, as the ages pass by, any crime that was formerly committed may not be forgotten”), sexual immorality, legal corruption, and the lives of the rich and powerful.

Returning to the Christian life, Cyprian writes that Christians have peace that allows “a man to withdraw from these eddies of a distracting world, and, anchored on the ground of the harbour of salvation, to lift his eyes from earth to heaven; and having been admitted to the gift of God, and being already very near to his God in mind, he may boast, that whatever in human affairs others esteem lofty and grand, lies altogether beneath his consciousness. ”  Growing in holiness, which Cyprian depicts as beautifying the Holy Spirit’s dwelling place (our bodies) with “justice” and” innocence,” should mean more to us than building grand houses.

Cyprian’s very personal account of his growth in Christ was really wonderful to read, and his denunciation of the evils of Roman society helped me to get a better picture of the conflict between ancient Christians and their surrounding culture.  I’d be interested to know more about Cyprian’s sense of how Christians should live in the world in addition to maintaining personal holiness.  I’m sure that this is found to some extent in his many letters.  Cyprian also connects his new birth directly with his baptism, which is a more sacramental view than I am used to.  But I also have come to a better understanding of this view recently.

For more on Cyprian, there was a really interesting account of his leadership in the North African church in a recent Christianity Today article by Joseph Hellerman about the necessity of a church being a family.  I’d recommend that article as a good contrast to the individualism that rules so much of our church lives.

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2 comments

  1. What a beautiful description of conversion. Is this the Donatus of the Donatist heresy, which held that there was no repentance for those who had wavered and denied Christ in the persecutions and that their future baptisms and liturgies were invalid? I didn’t know they were contemporaries. It is interesting to read this work not only in the light of initial conversion, but also the confession, penance and restoration that the Church held out to those who returned to the faith. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, though.

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