Cyprian of Carthage (c. 210–258 AD), writing to his friend Donatus, provides a poetic recounting of his conversion in order to encourage him towards reflection on divine things. In the letter entitled Ad Donatum (To Donatus), Cyprian provides various details which reveal his life prior to becoming a Christian. Cyprian describes having clients and wearing both gold and purple, clear signs that he belonged to a higher class of society. His description of “vine-covered porticos” and similar locations in chapter one seems to indicate the privilege of elegant property ownership. Cyprian’s description of using “cultivated rhetoric” most certainly points to his abilities and training in the art of public speaking, additionally pointing to a Roman education provided to citizens with significant resources. Understanding that Cyprian comes from the upper class of society helps readers to understand not only the basic thrust of the treatise, but specifically his various descriptions in chapter fifteen.
Cyprian speaks to his friend using spiritual warfare language. Donatus is now part of the “spiritual camp” and therefore should heed the call to remain “uncorrupted and chastened in religious virtues.” Consistent prayer and reading, presumably Scripture, will ensure this. The exhortation to read speaks volumes to Donatus’s abilities and his means. First, he is educated. Second, he has access to Scripture, a personal copy of some or perhaps all of Scripture. Cyprian states, “Speak now with God; let God now speak with you.” This affirms his exhortation to prayer and reading. Donatus is to pray, that is, speak to God. When Cyprian speaks of God speaking to Donatus, he’s likely referring to Donatus’s reading of Scripture. Cyprian confirms this by encouraging Donatus to allow God to instruct him through his precepts. Cyprian relates the idea of wealth to God’s spiritual blessings. Drawing upon imagery of extravagant houses, Cyprian emphasizes how Christian virtues are a better adornment for one’s life. It is clear that Cyprian has an intimate knowledge of elegant living by describing “ceilings enriched with gold and houses decorated with slabs of precious marble.” Rather than seek adornment of things that will perish, Donatus is to fashion himself with spiritual décor. His is the temple where God dwells and “in which the Holy Spirit begins to live.” The decorations which are befitting for the Christian “colors of innocence” and be lit by “the light of justice.” Spiritual decorations such as this will never be tarnished as gold or decay with age, according to Cyprian.
This comparison of gilded homes as an image of Christian virtue, encouraging Donatus towards faithfulness to God, could only be useful if his reader understood its significance. Should Donatus had been of lower class, this imagery would likely have been less impactful or possibly mute. This is an encouragement away from temporary wealth and things “destined to perish” and were to be received by one who perhaps struggled with some temptations. If not tempted by these things, then certainly Donatus existed in a context where he could relate to the metaphor. Cyprian does more than simply present a contrast between worldly wealth and spiritual riches, Cyprian relates spiritual riches to the eventual resurrection. Spiritual riches last forever and “can only be fashioned for the better, when the body returns.” This idea relates the understanding of building up Christian virtue in anticipation of the future resurrection. This is the only sure hope that Christians have. Cyprian laments those who believe they have possessions, but really possess nothing. Possessions offer “no stable confidence to those who possess it.”
Ad Donatum is a revealing text, recounting one who was saved out of an aristocratic lifestyle, and connects with one who can understand such a life. With this common background, imagery of extravagance can be used to communicate spiritual truths, particularly as it relates to growing in Christian virtue. Additionally, it reveals how Christianity had adherents at every economic level. Cyprian affirms the eternal temptation of wealth, but advances the ever more beautiful reality of “everlasting splendor” with Christ. This chapter, and the entirety of the letter, indicates how God can save even those who exist at the height of wealth, yet still calls all to a life of Christ-like piety.
About the Author:Coleman M. Ford
Coleman is currently a Ph.D. student in Church History and Spirituality at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and on pastoral staff at the Village Church. His dissertation focuses on spiritual friendship and pastoral care in Augustine of Hippo. His other research interests lie in pastoral care and theology, patristic exegesis, and patristic spirituality.