Read your Bible, pray everyday, and you’ll grow, grow, grow, says the children’s song. Can it really be that simple? Thascius Cyprian was born around AD 200 was from an upper class family and received the best of classical education, rising in his career as a Rhetorician in Carthage, North Africa. At the age of 46 he came across a pastor named Caecilius, who shared the gospel with him and he was soon soundly converted. He began to write effective Christian treatise and became a ‘best-seller’ in the young Christian community. Just two years later, he would become the key Christian leader of this important city, being ordained as the Bishop of Carthage. Unfortunately it was just then that one of the most brutal official persecutions of Christians broke out under the Emperor Decian and he would become a martyr of ten years of ministry. Cyprian’s pastoral heart is seen even before his ordination, as many people in the churches sought him out for spiritual instruction. One piece of correspondence preserved for us is an excellent small treatise written to his friend Donatus, who asked him to write concerning the spiritual life. What advise would this educated, worldy-wise pastor give?
The basic argument Cyprian follows is that one should have contempt for the world (meaning the fleshly pleasures of the unbeliever) and a thirst for prayer and Bible reading. Here are a few choice quotes.
On spiritual growth Cyprian writes: “…liberty and power to do is given in proportion to the increase of your spiritual grace.” In other words as we grown in spiritual grace we grow in godliness. “The Spirit” he assures us is not limited in his power to grant growth “Let our heart only be athirst, and be ready to receive” he councils (276). Many Christians today are frustrated with their level of spiritual growth and their liberty and power to pursue godliness. But how can one grow in grace and be filled with the spirit when engaged in the pleasures of the world? Cyprian challenges his third century reader with words that should speak equally well to our age.
On the gladiatorial games Cyprian writes: “Man is slaughtered that man may be gratified… The gladiatorial games are prepared, that blood may gladden the lust of cruel eyes.” Indeed, “the skill that is best able to kill is an exercise and an art… What can be said more inhuman—what more repulsive?” Video gamers and moviemakers today compete to have the highest KPM’s (kills per minute) in their entertainments. We ought to make a distinction between digital technology and reality. But like Cyprian, ought we still to consider moral judgments in these entertainments. When games like GTA thrive, digitally “Crime is not only committed, but it is taught” (277).
On the theatres Cyprian writes: “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… Adultery is learnt while it is seen… what a degradation of morals it is, what a stimulus to abominable deeds, what food for vice… Men are emasculated and all the pride and vigor of their sex is effeminated… They picture Venus immodest… to violate the purity of boys.” He concludes, “Can he who looks upon such things be healthy-minded or modest” (277)? I think that this is a good question. It’s amazing how uniform the ancient church was in condemning the theatre. I find television and movies entertaining. And there have usually been uplifting choices. We have had movies like The Ten Commandments, or Ben Hur, or The Prince of Egypt, rooted in godly, biblical themes. Cyprians Romans did not. But if we are honest, what is most of Hollywood producing? Does it bring up practices that were a crime in the past? Does it effeminate men? Does it picture immodest women? Does it insight the lust of boys? Can undiscerning movie goers ever grow spiritually?
On the Moral slide of the legal system Cyprian writes: “Crimes are everywhere common’ and everywhere in the multiform character of sin, the pernicious poison acts by means of degraded minds.” But as Roman morals slipped he notes, “The laws have come to terms with crimes, and whatever is public has begun to be allowed… wrong” he notes, “is done in the midst of the laws themselves” (278). What a Cyprian state we are living in! Have you noticed any moral changed in our laws in the last thirty, or forty years? Our laws have progressively moved from the right to life to a culture of death in abortion, and now euthanasia more and more being encoded as law. Attempting to stop murder is now considered illegal! If we say, well if it isn’t illegal it is okay, we are basing our morality on a pretty shaky foundation.
On economic security Cyprian writes: “[the] rich…even in the midst of their riches…are torn to pieces by the anxiety of vague thought, lest the robber should spoil, lest the murderer should attack, lest the envy of some wealthier neighbour should become hostile, and harass them with malicious lawsuits. Such a one” Cyprian notes, “enjoys no security either in his food or in his sleep” (279). Money cannot buy you happiness, but its acquisition is purchased with sorry and bought with endless rue.
Well, if we live in such a world, Cyprian encourages us, turn from these worldly things: “the one peaceful and trustworthy tranquility” he explains is found only when a person will “withdraw from these eddies of a distracting world, and anchored in the harbour of salvation, to lift his eyes from earth to heaven.” (279). There are three steps to accomplishing this. First, Cyprian urges us that we will find peace when: “We are constrained to have more love for what we shall be, by being allowed to know and to condemn what we were.” We too once loved in he world of sin, but we have been delivered, and cleansed and this process of sanctification “is a gratuitous gift from God… accessible to all” when we do our part.
And what is our part? Our part is to “observe a disciplined uncorrupted and chastened in the virtues of religion” (279). In other words, live like a Christian. How? This is where Cyprians third and four steps come in. He urges his reader: “Be constant as well in prayer as in reading; now speak to God, now let him speak with you, let him instruct you in His precepts, let Him direct you.” Then “let us spend [the day] in gladness, not let even the hour of repast be without heavenly grace” (280). So, basically, to recap, the advice of a third century Christian leader is “Read your Bible, pray every day, and you’ll grow, grow, grow.” I guess the song is right.
To read the full letter, consult “Epistle 1: To Donatus” in The Anti-Nicene Fathers. Volume 5. Ed. Philip Schaff (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004), 275-280.