Volume 11, Issue 1: Patres
Little is known of the early life of Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage. A wealthy man and professional rhetorician before his conversion, after professing faith in A.D. 246 he renounced all his wealth and devoted himself to a life of chastity. Cyprian rose quickly in the ranks of the early church; within two years of his baptism he was elected Bishop of Carthage. Although Cyprian himself and several older bishops objected to his taking this position, he eventually submitted to the will of the people and held the office from 248 until his martyrdom in 258. In his writings we are left with a glimpse of the ecclesiastical skeleton of the third-century church. Rome frequently asserts that the tradition of the papacy is thoroughly Cyprianic, but to make this assertion requires one to drasticly overlook much of Cyprian's writing.
The first of Cyprian's controversies came in A.D. 250 with the reign of Decius as Roman Emperor. Under Decius bishops were to be executed and all other Christians tortured until they recanted. Fabian, the Bishop of Rome, was martyred; and Cyprian went into hiding, continuing his duties as bishop by letter. As the persecution increased, many of the Christians apostatized. Given the option of sacrificing to pagan gods or being tortured to death, much of the church chose to renounce Christ, although many stood strong in their faith, preferring to die as martyrs.
One Carthaginian believer, Numidicus, stood by as his wife was burned at the stake. He was then burned, stoned and left for dead. His daughter found him later, barely alive, and brought him home to recover. A number of believers, like Numidicus, survived the torture, but never failed to confess Christ. These faithful Christians were then given an elevated status in the church as confessors. As the persecution ended, many of the believers who had sacrificed and apostatized returned to the church seeking readmittance and forgiveness. While the surviving bishops debated how readmission should be administered, the returning Christians began to make their appeals to the Confessors, who had begun abusing their elevated status by granting forgiveness for these sins.
Cyprian was one of the most vocal in condemning this early form of indulgences. "Let no one cheat himself, let no one deceive himself. The Lord alone can have mercy. He alone can bestow pardon for sins which have been committed against Himself, who bore our sins, who sorrowed for us, whom God delivered up for our sins. Man cannot be greater than God, nor can a servant remit or forego by his indulgence what has been committed by a greater crime against the Lord...." (Treatises of Cyprian 3.17).
While he was fighting the indulgences of the confessors, Cyprian also battled the schismatic Novatian, a prominent Roman presbyter. As the persecution ended and the apostate Christians began to seek readmittance, Novatian insisted that they not be accepted on any terms, regardless of any signs of repentance. When the church ignored his protests and began to bring the lapsed back into communion, Novatian left the church to form his own, claiming that his was the only true church. Not only were the apostate Christians excluded, but so was anyone who shared the Lord's table with them.
Cyprian explains the Novatian heresy, and in doing so, describes an early church ecclesiology that leaves little room for modern Roman assumptions. Cyprian emphasizes the fallibility of church government. "Moreover, we do not prejudge when the Lord is to be the judge; save that if He shall find the repentance of the sinners full and sound, He will then ratify what shall have been here determined by us. If however, any one should delude us with the pretense of repentance, God, who is not mocked, and who looks into man's heart, will judge of those things which we have imperfectly looked into, and the Lord will amend the sentence of His servants" (Epistles 51.18). He continues to explain that our only intercessor is Christ.
"Then, moreover, what a swelling of arrogance it is, what oblivion of humility and gentleness, what a boasting of his own arrogance, that any one should either dare, or think that he is able to do what the Lord did not even grant to the apostles; that he should think that he can discern the tares from the wheat, or, as if it were granted him to bear the fan and to purge the threshing-floor" (Epistles 51.25).
Although Cyprian did consider the seat of Peter, the Roman bishop, to be of symbolic importance, he insists that the significance of Peter being given the keys is in its declaration of the unity of the church. What belonged to the whole church was given to one man, but the Roman bishop was considered a `co-bishop,' and nothing more. He clearly teaches that Peter had no primacy over the other apostles. "For neither did Peter, whom first the Lord chose, and upon whom He built His Church, when Paul disputed with him afterwards about circumcision, claim anything; so as to say that he held the primacy, and that he ought rather to be obeyed by novices and those lately come" (Epistles 70.3). The authority of the catholic church was to rest in the community of bishops, who were to be elected by the people (Epistles 67.3). The apostolate being passed on through the episcopate, and each bishop answering to God alone, "...every bishop disposes and directs his own acts, and will have to give an account of his purposes to the Lord" (Epistles 51.21).
After becoming bishop in A.D. 248, Cyprian only held his office for a brief nine years. On August 30, 257, under the persecution of Emperor Valerian, Cyprian was exiled to Curubis. One year later, he was returned to his hometown of Carthage to be retried. He was ordered to sacrifice to the Roman gods, but refused with courage, continuing to confess his faith in Christ. On the 14th of August, 258, Cyprian was beheaded.