From Unity to Unanimity in St. Cyprian

****Except from a larger treatment of Cyprian and Augustine***

From the beginning of De ecclesiae catholicae unitate, Cyprian identifies the body of Christ as one of the central images of the Catholic church. Already in section 4, Cyprian writes, “if a man does not hold fast to this oneness [unitatem] of the Church, does he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he resists and withstands the Church, has he still confidence that he is in the Church, when the blessed Apostle Paul gives us this very teaching and points to the mystery of Oneness [unitatis] saying ‘One body and one Spirit, one hope of your calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God’?” Here, Cyprian directly associates Paul’s language of the “body” with the language of unitas. Yet, while such a connection between the body and unity is shared in common with nearly every commentator, including Augustine, Cyprian offers a unique understanding of the nature of this unitas.

In order to understand the way in which Cyprian’s conception of the body is connected to his understanding of doctrinal uniformity (unanimity), it is necessary to examine some of the related terminology. In De ecclesiae catholicae unitate, Cyprian employs a wide array of interrelated terms in order to express his notion of unity—including: unitas, concordia/discordia, pacem, unanimis, and consentio/dissideo—the entirety of which must be put into play if the subtlety of his notion, and its divergence from Augustine is to be revealed with requisite clarity.

The clearest exposition of this notion of unity as unanimity can be found in twelfth and thirteenth sections of De ecclesiae catholicae unitate designated in the Newman edition by the subtitle “’Two or three gathered in my name’: unity recommended, not sectarianism.” In these sections, as the title indicates, Cyprian is primarily concerned with offering an exegesis of Matt. 18.19-20: “truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” For Cyprian, the exegetical center of this passage is to be found in the “agree on earth” [συμφωνήσωσιν ἐξ ὑμῶν ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς], through which the two former instances of the “two or three” [δύο ἢ τρεῖς] are to be interpreted and limited. As he writes, “For Our Lord was urging His disciples to unanimity [unanimitatem] and peace [pacem] when He said: ‘I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything whatsoever you shall ask, it shall be done for you by my Father who is in heaven. For wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, I am with them.’ —showing that it is not the number but the unanimity [unanimitatem] of those praying that counted most.”
Two points are essential to this exegesis: first, is the linguistic shift from unitas to unanimis. While certainly these terms are not unrelated, both referring fundamentally to a coming together, they do nevertheless bear quite distinct connotations. Whereas the former is a broader term which often connotes a mere numerical unity, the second more directly connotes a conformity of opinion, as the English equivalent “unanimous” indicates. Thus, second, having slipped from the broader unitas to unanimis, it is unsurprising that the numerical coming together of the “two or three,” the gathering [συνηγμένοι], is relegated to a secondary role, beneath the primacy of the “agree on earth,” understood by Cyprian in dogmatic/doctrinal terms. The dogmatic nature of this concern can be seen in Cyprian’s assertion that “Our Lord is speaking of His Church, … He is telling those who are in the Church, that if they are of one mind [si ipsi concordes fuerint]…” Thus, for Cyprian, the impetus of this passage is a call to agreement [concordes fuerint] primarily, and a call to physical or ecclesial gathering [συνηγμένοι] only tangentially. “Corruptors and false interpreters of the Gospel,” he insists, “quote the end [οὗ γάρ εἰσιν δύο ἢ τρεῖς συνηγμένοι … ἐκεῖ εἰμὶ ἐν μέσῳ αὐτῶν] and ignore what has gone before.”

In this way, Cyprian has not only transitioned from unitas to unanimis, but further, from unanimis to concordia. This transition is made explicit below, where Cyprian continues his exegesis, writing:

“He [Jesus] condemns the discord [discordiam] of the faithless; and with His own lips He commends concord [pacem] to His faithful, by making clear that He is with two or three who pray in harmony [unianimiter], rather than with an number of dissenters [dissidentibus pluribus], and that more can be obtained by the united [concordi] prayers of a few than by the petitioning of many who are in disagreement [discordiosa].”

Cyprianic unity, can thus be seen as to primarily revolve around the suppression of dissidence and disagreement. And lest this dissidence be understood in overly schismatic terms (as a breaking of communion, rather than primarily as doctrinal dissonance), Cyprian writes elsewhere that “Our Mother should have the happiness of clasping to her bosom all her people in one like-minded body [consentientis populi corpus unum].” Thus consentio, agreement or assent, joins unanimis and concordia, further cementing the largely doctrinal bent of Cyprianic unitas.

Of course, this is not to say that Cyprian is unconcerned with a break in unity that extends beyond doctrine, but simply, that he understands such schismatic breaks to presuppose the former doctrinal break. Said conversely, for Cyprian, ecclesial unity presupposes doctrinal unity, presupposes a “like-minded body.” This notion, that the gathered unity of the church presupposes a doctrinal unity, can be clearly seen in Cyprian’s account of the emergence of schism. For Cyprian, it is the break of unanimis/concordia/consentio which corrupts the flesh of the body of Christ. In language that is simultaneously violent and medical, Cyprian insists that dissent is a disease or a cancer which violently tears apart the internal organs of the church. “God is one, and Christ is one, and his church is one; one is the faith and one the people cemented together by harmony into the strong unity of a body,” Cyprian writes, “that unity cannot be split; that one body cannot be divided by any cleavage of its structure, nor cut up in fragments with its vitals torn apart.” Of course, “cannot” should not here be taken as possibility, but rather, colloquially equivalent to “should not” or “must not.” For De ecclesiae catholicae unitate in its entirety is premised upon the recognition that such schism is a distinct possibility. Rather, the implication of this passage is not that the church cannot break, but that it cannot fragment and survive. “Nothing that is separated from the parent stock,” Cyprian insists, “can ever live or breathe apart; all hope of its salvation is lost.”

Thus for Cyprian, the manner by which schism grows and develops is clear. Schism begins in discordia or dissideo, where is festers in the body of the church, spreading until it is “cut out.” For as Cyprian writes in De lapsis, “he is a poor doctor whose timid hand spares the swelling, festering wound, and who, by letting the poison remain buried deep in the body, only aggravates the ill. The wound must be cut open, the infected parts cut out, and the wound treated with stringent remedies.” Of course, for Cyprian, such “cutting out” of the heretical infection is not the generation of the schism, for already in their discordia and dissideo, these dissenters have committed the sin of schism; “for it is not we who have left them, but they who have left us … they have cut themselves off from the source and origin of [the Christian] realities.”

In this way we have seen that Cyprian’s conception of the the unity of the church, and consequently his interpretation of the body of Christ, is defined before all else by an insistence upon unanimity.

****Except from a larger treatment of Cyprian and Augustine***


Posted on December 23, 2013, in Thoughts and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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