CHAPTER VI. —THE FATHERS OF THE SECOND AND THIRD CENTURIES

Section
6.—Cyprian.


became Bishop of Carthage about the middle of the third century, and suffered martyrdom in the persecution of the Emperor Valerian, 260. He was a great reader and admirer of Tertullian, but he was a man of a much more amiable and beautiful character, as well as a much more pleasing and interesting writer, than his master, as he used to call him. Cyprian is altogether one of the finest characters we meet within the history of the early church; and his letters may still be read with profit, both by private Christians prosecuting the work of sanctification in their own souls, and by ministers of the gospel desiring to cherish the spirit in which their arduous and often very difficult and trying work ought to be carried on. Milner gives a very full and interesting account of Cyprian, and some edifying and impressive extracts from his letters, all well worthy of perusal; and he subjoins to all this a very full, elaborate, and, in the main, just and judicious comparison between him and his great cotemporary, Origen. Cyprian seems to have taken his views of divine truth somewhat more purely and simply from the Scriptures than many of the early writers; to have had less tendency than many of them to mix up scriptural truth with philosophical speculations, or to invent mere fancies of his own without any scriptural warrant; and to have had somewhat more of at least the spirit of the gospel. He was, indeed, far from being free from error; for while he ascribes the conversion of sinners, and the remission of all sins previous to conversion, to the grace of God through Christ, he does talk as if he thought that their subsequent sins might be washed away by penitence, almsgiving, and other good works. Neither can it be denied that, with all his personal and ministerial excellences, he did contribute to the propagation of unsound and dangerous errors upon some points. He gave some countenance to certain honors being paid to martyrs and confessors, which led at length, though not in his time, to their being invocated and worshipped. He was a zealous inculcator of obedience to ecclesiastical authorities, and is usually regarded as having done something to elevate the standard of episcopal domination, though even the Cyprianic bishop was very different from the modern one; and he advocated some notions about the absolute necessity and ordinary effects of baptism, which tended to corrupt the doctrine of the sacraments, and to accelerate the progress of superstition.

The works of Cyprian are the great battlefield of the Prelatic controversy, so far as the testimony of the first three centuries is concerned; and there are several important works upon both sides of this controversy, whose very titles are taken from Cyprian’s name; as, for example, on the Prelatic side, Bishop Sage’s "Principles of the Cyprianic Age," and, a much larger and more important work, his Vindications of them and, on the Presbyterian side, Principal Rule’s "Cyprianic Bishop Examined," and a more valuable work, Jameson’s "Cyprianus Isotimus," both of them written in answer to Sage. The principal controversies in which Cyprian himself was engaged, —the principal, indeed, which agitated the church in his time, —were, first, the schism which Novatian made in the church of Rome, in which Cyprian strenuously supported the Roman bishop Cornelius; and the other about re-baptizing those who had been baptized by heretics, in which he came into open collision with Stephen, one of Cornelius’ successors. It is very certain, from a variety of statements in Cyprian’s works, that even before the middle of the third century, very many had joined the church who were not really believers in Jesus Christ, and that it contained not a few whose outward conduct even was far from adorning the profession they made. Accordingly, in the persecution under the Emperor Decius, a great many professing Christians apostatized from the faith, and offered sacrifice to heathen idols. After the persecution ceased, and these persons—the lapsed, as they were called—asked readmission into the church, great difficulties arose as to the way in which their case should be disposed of. Cyprian, and the church in general, were inclined to receive them, provided they made a credible profession of penitence, and submitted to the ordinary penitential discipline. The number of the lapsed, however, was so great, that it was not easy to enforce these regulations. A device was fallen upon, which is curious, as indicating the gross ignorance and inconsideration which then prevailed, and the formal and superstitious spirit that was brought to bear upon ecclesiastical arrangements. Men who bad suffered something in the persecution without lapsing, and were in consequence called confessors, were applied to by the lapsed to ask for them readmission into the church, without submitting to public penance. Many of these confessors—under the influence, there is reason to fear, of vanity and self-conceit—complied with these requests; and, as a compliment to these confessors, very many of the impenitent lapsed were readmitted into communion. The absurdity of this is too gross to need any exposure, and its prevalence affords a very unfavorable indication of the internal state of the church. Cyprian opposed this device, and though in some respects he gave undue and unwarranted honor to martyrs, he severely censured these confessors for this gross and senseless abuse of the respect that was entertained for them.

This practice, however, was extensively acted upon in the church; and it seems to have driven Novatian, who was one of the presbyters of the church of Rome, into the opposite extreme, and led him to maintain, as the Montanists had done, that the lapsed, and other persons who had been guilty of heinous crimes, should be forever excluded from church communion. They did not deny that they might be forgiven by God, but they thought they ought never to be forgiven by the church, —a notion manifesting great ignorance of the church’s duty and functions, but yet based apparently upon a perversion of sounder views than then generally obtained of the elements of which the church ought to be composed. Novatian and his supporters, however, went further than this; and, by a process of exaggeration and extravagance which has been often similarly exemplified since his time, he contended, not only that the church ought forever to exclude the lapsed from her communion, but also, moreover, that the church which admitted the lapsed, even upon a credible profession of penitence, became thereby so polluted, that her communion ought to be renounced. Accordingly, upon this ground, he himself and his followers renounced the communion of the church of Rome, and set up a rival communion of their own in the same city, of which Novatian became the bishop, or, as the Romanists call him in the style of a later age, the antipope. These views of Novatian had not in themselves any foundation in Scripture, but being opinions which are rather apt to spring up in the minds, and to commend themselves to the feelings of pious men, when the communion of the visible church has fallen into a condition of laxity and impurity, they received a considerable measure of support; and it is in some respects creditable to the church that they did so. They have at various times been in substance brought forward, though most commonly by men who were more distinguished for pious feeling than for soundness of judgment. Cyprian strenuously opposed Novatian, and by his high character and great influence in the church afforded important assistance to Cornelius in his ,contest with his rival. This controversy is interesting chiefly as casting some light upon the state of doctrine, sentiment, and practice in the church at the period at which it took place. Mosheim, in his Commentaries, gives a full view of the grounds taken by the different parties, and of the manner in which they defended them; and Neander, in treating of this subject,[1] has some very beautiful and striking observations on the measures of truth and error exhibited by both parties on the two general subjects that might be said to be involved in the controversy, —viz., first, the principles of penitence; and secondly, what it is that constitutes the idea and essence of a true church.

The other controversy, in which Cyprian took an active part, and in which he came into open collision with Stephen, Bishop of Rome, was upon this point, —whether persons who had been baptized by heretics should, or should not, on applying for admission into any branch of the orthodox or catholic church, be baptized again. The doctrine and practice of the churches upon this point varied. The Asiatic churches in general held that the baptism of heretics was null and void, and that persons coming from heretical communions should be baptized, just as if they had never received baptism at all. The church of Rome, and most of the Western churches, took the opposite side, and maintained that the baptism of heretics was valid, and that those who had received it should not be re-baptized. Cyprian took the side of the Eastern churches, and strenuously supported the necessity of re-baptizing those who had been baptized in the communion of the heretical sects. Both parties were of one mind, in holding the general position that baptism should not in any case be repeated; but the question was, whether baptism, administered by heretics, was really baptism, and served the purposes for which baptism was instituted. Stephen appealed to the tradition of the church in opposition to re-baptizing; but Cyprian, in reply to this appeal, gives us a noble testimony to the perfection and supremacy of the Scripture, as the only standard by which the controversy ought to be decided. Even Scripture, however, cannot be said to furnish any very direct or decisive evidence upon the subject. We find on both sides of the question, as then discussed, many very injudicious and unsatisfactory attempts to extract from scriptural statements a direct and precise decision upon the point. Scripture plainly enough sanctions the opinion, that baptism, in order to be valid, i.e., in order to be what ought to be held and reckoned baptism—whatever may be the effects resulting from it—ought to be administered in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Beyond this it does not appear that there are any very clear or satisfactory materials in Scripture for laying down any other definite proposition on the subject except this, —that baptism, in order to be valid, and to be held and received as such, so that it should not be repeated, must be administered in a solemn and orderly way, in a communion, which is entitled to be regarded as in some sense a branch of the church of Christ. Those who believe that infant baptism is unlawful will, of course, in consistency, regard it as null and void. But, irrespective of this peculiarity, there does not, seem to be clear scriptural ground for laying down any other doctrines upon this subject than the two which lave been stated; and the second and most important of them, viz., that it must be administered in the communion of a society which, however erroneous in doctrine and corrupt in practice, is yet regarded as a church of Christ, leaves the whole subject on a footing very loose and undetermined. This general principle does not seem to have been formally denied by either party in the controversy; but there were peculiarities in the way in which it was necessary then to apply it which have not commonly existed, and no very clear or definite views then obtained as to what the unity of the church consisted in.

The generality of what were then called the heretical sects might with truth, and without any breach of charity, be denied the character of churches of Christ; so that whatever we may think of the abstract original principle, Cyprian was right in denying that these baptisms, with which they had then actually to do in practice, should be held as valid.[2] If there were any heretical sects at this period subsisting in distinct communions in addition to the Gnostic sects—and upon this point we have no very certain information—they must have consisted of persons who denied the divinity of our Saviour, under the name of Ebionites and Artemonites; and they might be justly denied to be churches of Christ. It is not very wonderful that Cyprian, in maintaining, in these circumstances, tire necessity of re-baptizing, was led into some notions upon the unity and catholicity of the church, which are of an unscriptural and dangerous character, and which, though on this occasion employed by him in opposing the Bishop of Rome, have been since very largely employed by that church in the construction and defense of her hierarchic and exclusive system. It was the fact at this time, that the great body of the churches throughout the world were living, so far as they had the means and opportunities of knowing and holding intercourse with each other, in terms of friendly communion; and that they were, upon the whole, warranted in regarding these heretics who were not united with them as not entitled to the character of churches of Christ. This, which was merely true de facto at the time, was converted by Cyprian into a sort of general principle or doctrine, in unfolding which he brought out, for the first time, with anything like clearness or distinctness, the idea of a catholic church, comprehending all the true branches of the church of Christ, and bound together by a risible and external unity. This was Cyprian’s grand contribution to the progress of error and corruption in the church, and the ultimate growth of the Papacy; and we must not allow our esteem for the personal piety and excellence of the man to blind us to the magnitude of the error, —a temptation to which in this case, Milner has very manifestly yielded.

Cyprian’s views about the re-baptizing of heretics did not generally prevail in the church; but, on the contrary, soon lost ground, —chiefly, we believe, from the rise and growth in subsequent generations of other sects which deviated less widely from the general doctrines of the church, and which, therefore, men shrunk from denying to be in any sense churches of Christ. The general feeling and practice of the great body of the church has been decidedly opposed to re-baptizing, both in ancient and in modern times. And no Protestant church has ever denied the validity even of Popish baptism, until this was done recently by the most influential and respectable section of the Presbyterian church in the United States of North America. But though, upon the particular topic of re-baptizing, Cyprian’s views have been generally rejected both by Papists and Protestants, the principles he laid down in defending his cause have had a wide and general currency, and have been carried out to applications which he never dreamed of. He may not unfairly be regarded as the author of the idea of the necessity of the whole church, and all its branches, being connected together in an eternal visible unity, —an idea which forms the very basis of the Papal system. Cyprian, indeed, did not hold the necessity of one visible head of the church, possessed of authority or jurisdiction over all its branches; and nothing can be more clear and certain, from the way in which the controversy between him and Stephen was conducted, than that neither Cyprian nor anybody else at that time regarded the Bishop of Rome as the sovereign ruler of the church. Cyprian regarded the visible unity of the church as embodied in the unity of the episcopate, or the combination of bishops, each independent in his own sphere, all equal to each other in point of power and authority, and all to be regarded as equal colleagues in the government of the church. These views are stated by Cyprian so fully and so clearly, that they cannot be misunderstood or explained away; and of course they are manifestly inconsistent with the idea that he would ever have sanctioned the modern pretensions of the Papal See.

But it cannot be denied that, in unfolding his idea of visible unity, he has put forth some obscure and unintelligible statements[3] about a certain primacy of rank or order, though not of power or jurisdiction, given to Peter over the other apostles, as the symbol, type, or embodiment of the unity which Christ imposed upon His church; and of these statements the Church of Rome has not been slow to take advantage. It is quite certain, however, that Cyprian held that all bishops had equal power and authority, each being in his own sphere independent of any other bishop; that he denied to the then Bishop of Rome any jurisdiction over the churches of Africa; and that he did not ascribe to Peter any jurisdiction over the other apostles, but merely a certain primacy of rank or order. Nay, it can, we think, be proved that he ascribed to bishops only a similar primacy of rank or order above presbyters, without regarding them as possessed by divine authority of any real, superior, inherent power or jurisdiction. On these grounds, Presbyterians, Prelatists, and Papists have all confidently appealed to Cyprian in support of their respective opinions. All these three parties have something plausible to allege in their behalf from the writings of Cyprian; though the Papists, as usual, have had recourse to forgery and interpolation in order to increase the strength of their evidence.[4] The real and the whole truth upon this point—and it is of considerable importance in the history of church government—I am persuaded may be embodied in the three following propositions: —First, there is enough in the writings of Cyprian to prove that, down even till the middle of the third century, the substantial identity of bishops and presbyters was maintained; and that the idea of the episcopate being, by divine appointment, a distinct, independent, higher office than the presbyterate, was yet not generally received; Secondly, There is enough to prove that in Cyprian’s time, and in a great measure through his exertions, an important distinction between bishops and presbyters, implying some superiority not well defined, of the one over the other, became prevalent; and Thirdly, That he has laid down, though very vaguely and obscurely, some principles which, when fully carried out and applied, lay a good foundation for maintaining that there should be one visible head of the whole church, and for vesting some kind or degree of primacy or supremacy in the Bishop of Rome.


ENDNOTES:

[1] Commentarii, Saec. iii., secs. xv. and xvi., pp. 512‑527. Neander, History of Christ. Rel., vol. 1, pp. 237‑268, Rose’s translation.

[2] Dionysius of Alexandria though agreeing in the main with Cyprian, was disposed, much to his honor, to except the Montanists.

[3] So Barrow thought them. —The Pope’s Supremacy.

[4] Gieseler, vol. 1, p. 154. Note, Cunningham’s translation.