Who Am I?

Baptists, Eucharist, and History 19 – Intro to St. Cyprian on Preparing the Cup of Our Lord

Posted: August 3rd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

In this letter St. Cyprian of Carthage addresses an issue on the proper preparation of the Eucharistic cup. I believe it would be extremely beneficial for anyone interested in this topic to read the entire letter. Some were preparing a cup with only water rather than water mixed with wine. However, in his fairly gentle reproof, St. Cyprian lays out the fullest preserved, written theological explanation of the Cup that we have from the early church. (It appears that the Eucharist itself was not often the central topic of controversy in the early centuries.)

As with most Eastern writings (including the whole of the Holy Scriptures, I might point out) it can seem to leap from point to point in ways that jar our Western scholastic inclinations and formation. It makes use of the Holy Scriptures in ways very much like the way Jesus and the Apostles used Scripture, which fits the claim throughout that it was received from them. However, it is not the way we typically read the Holy Scriptures in the West, so that too can be jarring.

St. Cyprian stresses repeatedly the importance of holding to the teaching and practice of Jesus and the Apostles. We’ve seen that same thing expressed in much that we have so far explored, of course, but nowhere as clearly and as often as in this letter. Protestants often seem to imagine an early church running wild with innovations of the faith, adding things, and changing things willy nilly over a relatively short span of time. In truth, I think we Protestants are taking the reality of our approach to the faith and superimposing it on the early church. We innovate and change wildly, as our ever-increasing schism and fragmentation illustrate. Something is considered “old” if it was done two generations ago.

There is not really any evidence that the early church acted in that manner at all. Rather, they seem to cling to what has been traditioned to them in even some of the smallest details. They stand repeatedly against those who do introduce innovations and denounce those innovations in belief and practice. We know through study that oral cultures are remarkably effective at conserving oral tradition over long periods of time, especially in matters of belief and religious practice. Why would we believe that early Christians would be any less effective, especially if we believe they were empowered by the Holy Spirit, which is to say that they were empowered by God?

I see no reason to disbelieve St. Cyprian when he states repeatedly that what he writes is what was traditioned by Jesus and the Apostles one hundred and fifty to two hundred years earlier. That’s just not a very long time when we’re talking about the oral tradition of a core religious perspective on the nature of reality — one for which people were willing to die. That’s right up there near the top of the things you want to be sure you have right. And it was self-correcting. St. Cyprian points that out in the beginning of his letter.

Although I know, dearest brother, that very many of the bishops who are set over the churches of the Lord by divine condescension, throughout the whole world, maintain the plan of evangelical truth, and of the tradition of the Lord, and do not by human and novel institution depart from that which Christ our Master both prescribed and did; yet since some, either by ignorance or simplicity in sanctifying the cup of the Lord, and in ministering to the people, do not do that which Jesus Christ, our Lord and God, the founder and teacher of this sacrifice, did and taught, I have thought it as well a religious as a necessary thing to write to you this letter, that, if any one is still kept in this error, he may behold the light of truth, and return to the root and origin of the tradition of the Lord.

The tradition does not pass through any single line of individuals. It is maintained by the many bishops set over the churches, lest any one of them go astray. This broad practice of traditioning makes it even less likely that the oral tradition was significantly altered in two centuries or less. This is how the faith taught by the Apostles was transmitted. Remember, there still was no New Testament canon. Churches had the septuagint and by this point in time it’s reasonable to assume every Church had the four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. Beyond that, it’s still hit and miss what letters a particular church did or did not have.

But they all had over them a Bishop who had received the oral tradition of the Apostles and who taught it to his presbyters, deacons, and people. And the Bishops did not act in isolation, as we saw in the letter to Rome from the whole African synod. To the extent possible, the met together and corrected each other. As necessary, they acted more strongly. We see St. Cyprian expressing the strength with which he held to the tradition he was given.

Nor must you think, dearest brother, that I am writing my own thoughts or man’s; or that I am boldly assuming this to myself of my own voluntary will, since I always hold my mediocrity with lowly and modest moderation. But when anything is prescribed by the inspiration and command of God, it is necessary that a faithful servant should obey the Lord, acquitted by all of assuming anything arrogantly to himself, seeing that he is constrained to fear offending the Lord unless he does what he is commanded.

The only way that we can assume that the faith radically changed in this environment over a short period of time is to assert that the process of oral transmission of tradition radically failed.

But if it did fail, how can we even trust that the New Testament canon we have is the correct one? After all, the NT is also a product of that oral tradition, not the other way around. I think many of my fellow Protestants seem to have a somewhat confused perspective on the Bible. That’s one of the reasons I like Ben Witherington III so much, though I don’t always agree with his conclusions. I have nevertheless learned a lot from him.

As we’ve seen so far in this very focused look at the Eucharist, the Church did consistently preserve and conserve what it had been traditioned on this one topic. Why would we not believe it retained the whole of the faith under duress without innovation or radical change? I’ll go all Western here and bring out Occam’s famous razor. We know that in oral cultures the process of oral tradition conserves rather than innovates, especially in matters of faith and religious practice. Even in the things that were reduced to writing and to which we have access (a tremendous amount has been lost, though we do sometimes have an archeological find and recover something previously thought lost) we see consistency. We do not see radical innovation and change. So which is more likely? The only reason I can discern to conclude that the early church innovated and changed the faith is because you don’t like the answer if you say they did not.

Well. Clearly my reflections on this letter will involve at least two posts. See you tomorrow!