St. Cyprian’s Seamless Garment: An Answer to Peter Leithart on Church Unity
I‘m very grateful for the dialogue that has emerged in recent weeks with regards to the catholicity, unity and uniqueness of the one Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, particularly in an engagement with the camp calling itself “Reformed Catholic” (a minority group within the general Reformed tradition), represented most prominently by Dr. Peter Leithart.
One of the assertions that this group has made is that the current divided and fractured state of Christians is not (as Orthodox Christians and Rome would say) evidence of divisions from the Church, but rather divisions within the Church, and indeed, that God actually wants it that way.
I want to address this idea that the Church should expect to be divided and that this is part of God’s plan, because of what occurred in the Old Covenant kingdom of Israel.
Peter Leithart writes:
The theological history of 1-2 Kings gives an overall model for thinking about a church that is genuinely divided; it explains how I can describe Catholics and Orthodox as brothers and sisters while at the same time accusing them of liturgical idolatry; in the end, 1-2 Kings (with some parallels from 1-2 Chronicles) gives hope that the division of the church is not permanent, and that we will all one day share a great Passover, such as there never was in Israel (2 Kings 23:22).
Leithart’s assertion is that the reason we can consider the Church to be divided in our day is because Israel and Judah were divided at various points in their history, as recorded in the Old Testament scriptures, and yet somehow both remained a part of God’s covenanted people. There are a number of problems with this way of thinking, however. I would counter that the only actual “division” of the Catholic Church (which for Orthodoxy is the Orthodox Church) is that of time and space, which is overcome through the mysteries and divine services of the Church.
First, the Old Testament scriptures are not meant to overturn the Gospel. The Gospels are the pinnacle of God’s written revelation to humanity, and serve as the most clear and authoritative icon of Christ in the Church’s possession. To take narratives from the Old Testament, apply them as metaphors, and then make those metaphors to be the most authoritative teachings for the Church is quite the stretch, but that is what Leithart and company are doing. There is a reason the Orthodox Church places the book of the Gospels on the altar, and not the Ten Commandments (as it was in the Temple)—the New Testament is the lens through which to read the Old, not the other way around.
Secondly, the Gospels and other scriptures of the New Covenant teach the exact opposite of what Leithart is espousing here. The New Testament teaches that the Church is one and incapable of being divided, because the Church is the Body of Christ, Who is not divisible. We are no longer of “the old man” as Christians. We are in Christ and therefore schism makes no sense.
St. Cyprian of Carthage writes that we are “to stand in the footsteps of a conquering Christ, that we may not again be incautiously turned back into the nets of death, but, foreseeing our danger, may possess the immortality that we have received” (Treatise on the Unity of the Church 1:2). And to stand in Christ’s footsteps is to both heed and obey His commandments. St. Cyprian has strong words for those he regards as not following Christ in His one, true Church, but are rather intentionally leading people away from the unity of faith:
And what can be more crafty, or what more subtle, than for this enemy… to devise a new fraud, and under the very title of the Christian name to deceive the incautious? He has invented heresies and schisms, whereby he might subvert the faith, might corrupt the truth, might divide the unity… although they do not stand firm with the Gospel of Christ, and with the observation and law of Christ, they still call themselves Christians, and, walking in darkness, they think that they have the light, while the adversary is flattering and deceiving, who, according to the apostle’s word, transforms himself into an angel of light, and equips his ministers as if they were the ministers of righteousness, who maintain night instead of day, death for salvation, despair under the offer of hope, perfidy under the pretext of faith, antichrist under the name of Christ; so that, while they feign things like the truth, they make void the truth by their subtlety. This happens, beloved brethren, so long as we do not return to the source of truth, as we do not seek the head nor keep the teaching of the heavenly Master. (Treatise 1:3)
Cyprian notes there are many people in his day that call themselves “Christians” but are in no way “of Christ” or of the same Church body. There is no “lowest common denominator” brotherhood being taught here. On the contrary, Cyprian repeatedly teaches of one Church, with one, true faith:
Which one Church, also, the Holy Spirit in the Song of Songs designated in the person of our Lord, and says, “My dove, my spotless one, is but one. She is the only one of her mother, elect of her that bare her.” Does he who does not hold this unity of the Church think that he holds the faith? Does he who strives against and resists the Church trust that he is in the Church, when moreover the blessed Apostle Paul teaches the same thing, and sets forth the sacrament of unity, saying, “There is one body and one spirit, one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God? (Treatise 1:4)
The image of the unity of the Church is seen, according to Cyprian, by the unity of the episcopate (that is, the bishops), and as rays of sunshine spreading to the farthest reaches of the earth:
The episcopate is one, each part of which is held by each one for the whole. The Church also is one, which is spread abroad far and wide into a multitude by an increase of fruitfulness… the Church, shone over with the light of the Lord, sheds forth her rays over the whole world, yet it is one light which is everywhere diffused, nor is the unity of the body separated. Her fruitful abundance spreads her branches over the whole world. She broadly expands her rivers, liberally flowing, yet her head is one, her source one; and she is one mother, plentiful in the results of fruitfulness: from her womb we are born, by her milk we are nourished, by her spirit we are animated. (Treatise 1:5)
Furthermore, by Cyprian’s vision of the Church, the claim that there are multiple Churches or that divisions in the Church have created various “branches” of one Church is actually calling the Bride of Christ an adulteress. Cyprian says that those who join with “other churches” are the ones co-habiting with adulteresses and that they have no part in Christ:
The spouse of Christ cannot be adulterous; she is uncorrupted and pure. She knows one home; she guards with chaste modesty the sanctity of one couch. She keeps us for God. She appoints the sons whom she has born for the kingdom. Whoever is separated from the Church and is joined to an adulteress, is separated from the promises of the Church; nor can he who forsakes the Church of Christ attain to the rewards of Christ. He is a stranger; he is profane; he is an enemy. He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother. If any one could escape who was outside the ark of Noah, then he also may escape who shall be outside of the Church. (Treatise 1:6)
We can also perhaps recall the words of the Apostle Paul in the Acts of the Apostles: “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved!” (Acts 27:31). What Leithart and others are proposing is that there are multiple ships, multiple Arks of Salvation. It is as though, when Noah was building the ark, others started building their own arks, preferring different emphases in construction technique, and then proposing that one can choose whichever ark one pleases, still be saved and be “of Noah.”
But there could be only one Ark of Noah, and there can be only one Church, one Body and Bride of Christ (as Solomon writes, “the only one” for him). There can be no other, for Christ is not adulterous and the Church is not an adulterous woman, but a woman “without spot or wrinkle.”
Leithart claims that we should be okay with the fact that the Church is a “rent garment,” but Cyprian says otherwise:
This sacrament of unity, this bond of a concord inseparably cohering, is set forth where in the Gospel the coat of the Lord Jesus Christ is not at all divided nor cut, but is received as an entire garment… That coat bore with it an unity that came down from the top, that is, that came from heaven and the Father, which was not to be at all rent by the receiver and the possessor, but without separation we obtain a whole and substantial entireness. He cannot possess the garment of Christ who parts and divides the Church of Christ. (Treatise 1:7)
Even the Roman soldiers were not so bold as to tear the garment of Christ, but in our own day we have in Leithart one who would justify a division in the garment of Christ by appeals to the division of Israel in the Old Testament. Cyprian, perhaps almost anticipating this argument, brings up the division of the kingdom that is recorded in 1 Kings (3 Kingdoms/Reigns in the Septuagint):
As the twelve tribes of Israel were divided, the prophet Abijah rent his garment. But because Christ’s people cannot be rent, His robe, woven and united throughout, is not divided by those who possess it; undivided, united, connected, it shows the coherent concord of our people who put on Christ. By the sacrament and sign of His garment, He has declared the unity of the Church… Who, then, is so wicked and faithless, who is so insane with the madness of discord, that either he should believe that the unity of God can be divided, or should dare to rend it— the garment of the Lord— the Church of Christ? (Treatise 1:7-8)
Cyprian continues to discuss that we are to live as one house of God in the Church, with one mind and with complete unanimity and agreement. As St. Clement of Rome told the Corinthians, we should prefer to leave the Church itself and abandon our own souls to the Evil One than to cause a schism in the Body of Christ.
For Leithart and others, however, schism is almost an essential attribute of the Church itself, and unity is a mere fantasy and eschatological hope. The scriptures and rest of the tradition of the Church show the opposite: the Church is one Body, with one faith and one Head over all. These are not novel ideas or mere assertions, but are the very words of the Gospel and of the New Covenant. No amount of metaphorical Old Testament text wrangling can overturn them.
While many attempt to promote competing assemblies or “churches” in our day, Cyprian writes they have no authority to do so: “Thus Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, who endeavoured to claim to themselves the power of sacrificing in opposition to Moses and Aaron the priest, underwent immediate punishment for their attempts” (Treatise 1:18). The simple act of gathering together in the name of the Lord is not what constitutes the Church—rather, the unity of faith must be joined with it:
Nor let any deceive themselves by a futile interpretation, in respect of the Lord having said, “Wheresoever two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Corrupters and false interpreters of the Gospel quote the last words, and lay aside the former ones, remembering part, and craftily suppressing part: as they themselves are separated from the Church, so they cut off the substance of one section. For the Lord, when He would urge unanimity and peace upon His disciples, said, “I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth touching anything that you shall ask, it shall be given you by my Father which is in heaven. For wheresoever two or three are gathered together in my name, I am with them”; showing that most is given, not to the multitude, but to the unanimity of those that pray. (Treatise 1:12)
Since Leithart and those who agree with him are not assembling in unity with the one, true Church, they are only paying mind to the latter part of the Lord’s words, “If two of you shall agree.” But those in agreement here are the apostles themselves, not any two people claiming to follow Christ. Only the apostolic Church—who preserves faithfully the traditions of the apostles—can make this claim. Leithart and his fellows in Reformed Catholicity claim that they have actually improved upon and even reformed the apostolic Church. Those who call the apostolic faith of the Orthodox “idolatry” and “childish” are certainly not in agreement with it, and so it is some wonder how they can claim that such childish idolaters would actually be their brothers and sisters within the Church.
Despite the the rise heresies and schisms (which we should expect, as per 1 Corinthians 11:19), we should not worry that the Church could ever abandon or be without the truth of God:
Let none think that the good can depart from the Church. The wind does not carry away the wheat, nor does the hurricane uproot the tree that is based on a solid root. The light straws are tossed about by the tempest, the feeble trees are overthrown by the onset of the whirlwind. The Apostle John execrates and severely assails these, when he says, ‘They went forth from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, surely they would have continued with us.” (Treatise 1:9)
What the Orthodox Church is claiming is no more and no more controversial than what Cyprian quoted from 1 John 2:19 “They went forth from us, but they were not of us.”
That said, the unity of the Church—because of its theanthropic, indivisible unity with Christ as its Head—is not an occasion for triumphalism, arrogance or pride, but rather an occasion for intercession for the life of the world, which is the ultimate purpose of this dogma. Because there can be only one Church, it is the Church’s duty to pray for the world and to gather the world into the Church, not to leave the world outside and merely to offer recognition for its gatherings.
While Leithart and others might be angered that the Orthodox Church would not commune them in the celebration of the Eucharist, this is only done for the sake of their salvation and the unity of the Faith—it is not about condemning them, but about preserving the unity of the faith as handed down to us from the Apostles.
Our communion tables are not truly “closed” in the sense that Leithart claims—they are guarded; guarded for the sake of the true unity that comes only when people are of the same mind and of the same faith. All are welcome to the communion and fellowship of the Orthodox Church, provided that all are in agreement with the Orthodox faith and living in submission to the living tradition of the Holy Spirit. Thus, this act is not an exclusion, but an invitation. And it is in this sense alone that the Church can truly be seen as an icon of the Holy Trinity here on earth. We do not live with a hope for unity, but in its current reality, the unity that is the Lord Jesus Christ.
Vincent Martini has a BA in Philosophy from Indiana University and is an Orthodox convert / layman in the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America. He resides in northwest Arkansas.