Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Thascius Caecilius Cyprian (c200-258 AD) and the Shape of the Church by Chris White

Icon of Cyprian

St. Cyprian was born to a prominent Roman family in Carthage and for his first 50 years lived what most of us would consider a “charmed life.”  His father was a well-known senator and his position afforded Cyprian with the best this world had to offer in terms of education, material goods, and opportunity.  In his early adulthood Cyprian became a teacher of law and rhetoric (a path to politics and/or public acclaim).  His teaching was in high demand and soon Cyprian was a wealthy man with his own household in Carthage and Roman Villa in the countryside.  
Carthage rivaled Rome for sophistication and power

But like many of us in middle-age, Cyprian went through a period of soul-searching and disenchantment with the world around him.  Roman society was never secular but it’s religious foundation lay in the idolatry of the Greeks and Cyprian found this to be trite and full of falsehood.  He had questions about the meaning of life and they were not answered by a pantheon of gods he didn’t believe to be true.  As people begin to search for God it is not uncommon for God to send someone out to find them.  In Cyprian’s case it was an elder in the Christian church of Carthage by the name of Caecillius who shared the good news of Jesus with him and after his conversion served as his instructor as he prepared for baptism.

Cyprian was baptized in the year 246 AD when he was approximately 50 years old.  In gratitude for his instruction and leadership, Cyprian took as his middle name “Caecillius” to honor his spiritual father. Cyprian was an earnest convert.  By his own testimony he felt his heart was renewed and his life had meaning and purpose.  Having an intellectual gift, he gave himself earnestly to Christian studies reading the Bible and early theologians in a dedicated fashion.  Soon he also divested himself of some of  his land and wealth and gave it all to the poor as a means of worship.
An ancient baptismal near present day Carthage

According to Acts 17:26, God determines the time and place of our existence.  We are rightly men and women of our times at the behest of God and thus we have a part in the specific history and destiny of where we live.  Even as Cyprian was growing towards maturity in his new found faith, he had no idea the challenges he would face and the burdens he would bear through the remaining years of his life.

In 248 AD the beloved bishop of the people of Carthage dies.  As the Christian community considers a successor the name of Cyprian is on everyone’s mind.  There was something quite natural about their selection  in that Cyprian was well-known, was well-educated, and from a family that was widely respected and proven leaders.  But there was equally something unnatural about this as well.  St. Paul’s Epistle to Timothy clearly states that an elder or bishop should not be a new convert lest they become swollen with pride and become the prey of the devil (I Tim. 3:16).  As a man with a commanding knowledge of the scriptures, Cyprian knew this and rejected the intentions of the congregation.  Unfortunately for Cyprian, the Church rejected his rejection and literally forced upon him the mantle of being their bishop.  Although his election was resented by some in church leadership who questioned mere popularity as a qualification for bishop, God used Cyprian in a mighty way and his viewpoints were to have a future impress on the entire church for generations to come.

To understand the context of Cyprian’s teachings and ministry you need to be aware that his ministry started with the Decian persecution for the first two years of it, continued with controversy in the aftermath of the persecution and then ended with the Valerian persecution (257-260) of which Cyprian was one of its casualties.  The Decian persecution was very harsh on the church and was very effective in terms of driving many nominal Christians to apostasize.  Cyprian had observed that the years of prosperity and ease that preceded the persecution had caused the discipline and morals of the church to become quite lax.  Cyprian had only started to enforce stricter discipline when the persecution broke out.   Cyprian viewed the persecution as a divine cleansing of the church which led him to set strict standards by which those who came back to the church would be restored to fellowship.

Read more on the later Donatist Controversy in North Africa  

But Cyprian was destined for controversy because during the persecution, he, the bishop of the city, went into hiding.  Cyprian defended his position as thoroughly biblical: “Our Lord commanded us in times of persecution to yield and fly.  He taught this and practiced it  himself.  For since the martyr’s crown comes by the grace of God, it cannot be gained before the appointed hour.  He who retires for a time and remains true to Christ, does not deny his faith, but only abides his time”.  Though very much criticized for his pattern of hiding and avoiding arrest during persecutions, Cyprian’s extant writings show that he was actively leading his people.  He instructed all to not offer themselves up, but if caught not to cave-in and apostasize but stand faithful in the face of persecution and torture.
In the wake of this persecution,  Cyprian was faced with the issue of dealing with those who failed to stand and yet wanted to be re-admitted to the church.  He believed their failure to stand in persecution sundered their bonds with Christ and the church.  Although Cyprian didn’t originate the idea of penance, this idea certainly crystallized in his times.  If the community of the faithful was going to remain truly that, grievous failure (such as apostasy) and the desire to be restored to the church needed an orderly connection.
Cyprian was committed to theology and the scripture

In truth, Cyprian dealt with this quite circumspectly.  Some had been faithful in their confession but had been tortured severely and had a momentary break in their loyalty.  Others had used money to buy off the authorities.  And still others, even lay leaders, gave up without a fight.  He recognized that there were degrees of failure and made allowances for human frailty.  It seems that his strongest policy was directed towards those who willingly cooperated with the Roman government.
In this case if you were penitent you may attend a sermon or church gathering but you will be deprived of the sacraments until you are on your deathbed or so sick that death might be imminent. 

Cyprian also advocated an alternative if you felt  your soul was in peril.  The alternative was to offer yourself in martyrdom during another persecution.  This offering of your lifeblood was believed efficacious in cancelling out your previous betrayal of Christ by undergoing a second baptism.  In Luke 12:50 Jesus referred to his going to the cross as “a baptism” and so it was implied that this was a baptism in blood. Others were critical of this and cited a tradition that a Christian who had been faithful in a persecution and didn’t die could and did have the right to forgive and restore the lapsed.

Cyprian’s view may seem stern but in fact was a ‘golden-mean’.  Novatus, a priest in Carthage who set himself up in Cyprian’s place when he went into hiding the first time, readmitted everyone who had lapsed without any question of their motives or circumstance.  On the other hand, the Pope in Rome had taken the view (at least for a short period) that never under any circumstance could a lapsed Christian return to the church.

Watch a short 2 minute video on Cyprian and Pope Cornelius 

Penance was considered a medicine for the soul.  It allowed a person to demonstrate over time their sorrow for their sin and eventually be received back into the church as a full member.  It allowed for grace and forgiveness but also restoration and discipline in the community of the faithful.  It may seem that the church forgot the fact that Jesus took back Peter after Peter denied him on the night of his betrayal and arrest (Mt. 26:75) and that Christ is our advocate and mediator before the Father when we sin (I John 2:1).  From my own perspective it seems withholding the benefits of the sacraments from a sorrowful believer is a denial of grace, but the modern viewpoint tends to cheapen grace by extending it often at the sacrifice of all church discipline.  I would also suggest that today’s evangelicals do actually have a form of penance in their ranks.  Witness the complete predictability of what happens when a high-profile minister is caught having committed a grievous sin.  Although the names and sins vary, their elders uniformly send the pastor and his spouse away to a counseling center for 10 weeks and then they return with several accountability advisors and then they are officially restored.  The ancients were seeking the same end in the absence of a therapeutic culture.

Cyprian in bishop's clothing

But far beyond his policies regarding lapsed Christians, Cyprian’s impress on the office of the bishop and the role of the church came to be the dominant view of Christendom and centuries later contributed to the development of the Roman papacy.  Cyprian held a high view of his office as a bishop.  In his day, the bishop was the leader of a church in a particular area (such as a city) and governed the life of the church in its worship and discipline.  Other ministers of congregations were his deputies and served under his authority.  His view was that “Bishop is in the church, and the church is in the Bishop and outside of the church there is no salvation”.  What Cyprian was doing was pointing to the reality, much more clearly known in his day, that bishops either succeeded or were connected in their succession to the original apostles of Christ.  Lists were kept and maintained because it was believed this would maintain and conserve the truth and apostolic foundations of the true church (as opposed to any heretical or schismatic churches).  Being connected with a true bishop in church membership and the receiving of the sacraments ensured that one had believed in the true gospel and was rightly connected into the body of Christ.  Apostolic succession and the inheritance of the churches knowledge and experience is important to all Christians.  For Protestant Christians the inheritance of the faith is found in the Apostolic writings (The New Testament) alone.  For Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism the inheritance of the faith comes the scriptures but also the long and unbroken chain of bishops from the ancient times to the present.
Bishops met in councils to discuss problems and theology

Cyprian, like others in his day, also believed that the bishop of one church was the equal to all other bishops in the world.  He believed in praying for other bishops and also to gather with them to discuss and make judgments on matters of faith and teaching.  The practice of councils was in place and the practice of the North African churches prior to Constantine and Nicea although it is marked as the first world council.  One should also note that Cyprian, strong as he was on the importance of the bishop, believed in collegiality.  The concept of the Roman Papacy having primacy over all the bishops of the church would have been utterly contrary to his thought on this office despite the fact that his thinking was adopted to support it.

The Valerian persecution (257-260 AD) was more fierce and more torturous than many of the other persecutions.  Empire wide, it was directed specifically to Church leadership, members of the senate, military and aristocracy that were Christians.  Valerian sent a letter to the pro-consul of Carthage naming Cyprian as one he wanted targeted for death.

In 257 he was demanded to sacrifice to the god Jupiter by the local pro-consul.  Cyprian refused and found himself banished from Carthage.  He continued to write and teach his church from a distance at his country estate in Utique. But the next year a death sentence was handed down and Cyprian was to report to the proconsul there for it to be carried out.  When he was officially summoned to the magistrate, Cyprian fled Utique and went back to Carthage. There and there only would Cyprian present himself to bear witness and seal his testimony, for it was Carthage and not Utique that Cyprian was the chief bishop.

Great resource landing page for further study of St. Cyprian here 

Cyprian writes “For whatever the bishop as confessor says at the moment of his confession he speaks, under the inspiration of God, as the mouth of them all (meaning the Christian community of Carthage). On Sept. 14, 258 AD  Cyprian was taken outside the city where he gave the executioner 25 gold pieces (to do his job well), stripped off his outer garments, prayed, and then kneeled to receive the sword.He was buried on the spot and church was built over his grave.  Unfortunately the later invasion of the Vandals ended up causing the church to be demolished. 
Beheading of Cyprian in church frescoe

Cyprian truly had no view of the visible and invisible church.  For him, all Christian life was directly related to your external connection to the visible church.  His most well-known words must be understood in that context:  “He cannot have God as his father who does not have the church as their mother.”  “Outside the church there is no salvation.”  To be outside the church is to be outside the ark of God’s provision drowning in the flood.  In a time when church membership is minimized in its importance and is seen as contributing nothing to a person’s salvation, Cyprian seems hard to understand.  But his passion was that Christians be connected to Jesus and that connection was made from within the body of Christ which was a very visible presence in his world. 

Born to New Life : Cyprian of Carthage.  Oliver Davies Ed.  (New Rochelle : New City Press, 1992)
Cyprian of Carthage.  On the Church.  Allen Brent, trans.  (Crestwood : St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2006)

Chadwick, Harold J. and John Foxe.  The New Foxes’s Book of Martyrs.  (New Brunswick :  Bridge-Logos Publishing, 1997)

“Cyprian”  Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Knowledge.  McClintock and Strong Eds.  (Grand Rapids : Baker Book House, 1981)

“Cyprian”  New Dictionary of Theology.  Ferguson, Wright, and Packer Eds.  ( Downers Grove : Intervarsity Press, 1988)

The Oxford History of Christianity.  John McManners Ed.  (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1990)
Latourette, Kenneth Scott  The History of Christianity Vol. 1. Rev. Ed.  (New York : Harper and Row, 1975)

Saint of the Day:  Lives, Lessons, and Feasts.  Leonard Foley O.F.M. Ed., Pat McCloskey O.F.M. Rev.  (Cincinnati : St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2001)

Schaff, Philip.  History of the Christian Church Vol. II: Ante-Nicene Christianity AD 100-325.  (Grand Rapids : Eerdmans Publishing, 1910)

No comments:

Post a Comment