On the Church: Select Letters (Cyprian of Carthage)

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Puritanboard Clerk
St Cyprian of Carthage. ed. and trans. Allen Brent. On the Church: Select Letters. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2006.

The background to Cyprian’s various controversies is the Decian persecution (circa 250 AD). This persecution was designed, not to kill the church, but to compromise it, specifically that the layman would promote the imperial religion. For example, by forcing Cyprian into exile, Roman authorities knew the laity would lack guidance.

Cyprian has two goals: elucidate the nature of the church and deal with the role of the confessors. These two problems will force him later to give a rigorist approach to the rebaptism of heretics.

On Church Unity

The unity of the church is a simple concept: it is the unity of the college of bishops. Any break from the bishops is a break from unity, and hence Christ’s body.

The Problem of the Confessors

The confessors are those who suffered persecution, yet for one reason or another, did not actually die under torment, yet they never wavered in their faith. For obvious reasons, and rightly so, they would have a sort of honor in the community. At the same time the lapsed were those who faltered under torture. Under what conditions could they rejoin the church? The Confessors began to issue pardons to the lapsed apart from church oversight, and that is the problem with which Cyprian had to deal.
The “confessors” in Cyprian’s day functioned in similar ways as overly powerful parachurch ministries do today. If your pastor is not hard-core enough, that is okay, the confessor (or parachurch ministry) can do the same thing. Cyprian was wise enough to see the danger.

On Baptism

There is a fundamental ambiguity in Cyprian’s approach. He rightly says heretical baptisms do not count, as they do not confess the true God rightly. He then applies this schemata to Pope Stephen and Novatian, men who did confess God rightly. It is one thing to say that Novation rendered the unity of the church, and one could perhaps make an argument that schismatic baptisms do not count. That is not exactly what Cyprian does. He lists a number of heretical groups (Marcionites, Valentinians, etc.) and applies that logic to Stephen. That perhaps explains why Cyprian’s view of the church would be unworkable after Chalcedon. More on that below.

What is Cyprian’s response to Novation? It is quite simple. It does not matter what Novation actually teaches; for, as he is outside the church, “he is not a Christian” (Ep. 55.24.1). Hard words, indeed. Cyprian does not leave us in doubt to the nature of the church. It is “the college of sacred bishops” (55.24.4).

Indeed, “the only source from which heresies arise that give birth to schism is disobedience to God’s sacred bishop, in failure to note that there is one bishop in a church and one judge in Christ’s place at one time” (Ep. 59.5.1). We note several things: Cyprian has adopted the Roman provincial language of the city and applied to the church. Each city can only have one bishop, full stop. On a more problematic note, Cyprian’s claim that heresies only arise from disobedience to the bishop seems wrong, and it seems like it depends on which group is telling the story.

It needs to be said, that for all his austere rhetoric on church unity, rhetoric I think quite damaging to the later church, Cyprian’s proposal for reconciliation is far more humane than Novation’s. Cyprian actually allowed the lapsed back into the church. There was always this proto-Donatist strain in North African thought, and we see the beginning of it, perhaps, with Novation.

On the Eucharist

There must have been groups that used only water in the Lord’s Supper, for Cyprian spends a good deal of time refuting them. He argues that the Lord’s chalice must have both water and wine. What is his justification for it? The wine our Lord would have used at the Supper would have been mixed with water. The water represents the Spirit.

Cyprian clearly uses the language of “promise” in connection with “sacramentum,” particularly in the actions of Melchizedek (Ep. 63.4.1). Sacramentum for Cyprian is a loose term, meaning also the bond of the organic structure which we are, as we “are united and joined and kneaded together…just as much wheat gathered and ground down and kneaded together forms one bread, so we recognize that there is one body in Christ” (63.13.4)

Nota Bene

Cyprian (or actually Firmilian) relates the story of a woman who was possessed by a demon, seducing presbyters and deacons alike. She (or rather, the demon) was resisted by a brave exorcist (Ep. 75.10.3-4).


Cyprian’s theology represents a focal point in the thought of the church, from which there is no going back. Schism is always schism from the church, never in the church. Unfortunately, this is completely unworkable as time goes on. Take the post-Chalcedonian schisms: both sides, Chalcedonian and miaphysite, could say with equal clarity that each held to Nicea and Ephesus, and each had a bishop succeeding the apostles, yet who split from whom? It is not immediately apparent.

Even worse, what happens when major cities fall under Turkish or Soviet rule, with the case that one is a slave to the Turk (and probably also the Freemasons) and the other a puppet of the communists? Communion with such bishops, particularly in the latter case, would endanger one’s safety, not because of the police knocking on the door, but because of the church informing the police.

Or for the coup de grace: there were three popes in the West at one time. Two of which were in schism. Which two? Cyprian’s theology cannot answer that question. For all that, though, this was a delightful and mentally stimulating read.
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