CYPRIAN (c. 205–258), also known as Thascius Caecilius Cyprianus; bishop of Carthage. According to his own testimony, Cyprian was raised in Carthage, where he was born probably in the first decade of the third century. Scion of a noble pagan family, he had the opportunity to become well trained in literature and rhetoric. Because he was a successful rhetorician, he acquired fame and friends in the ranks of high society.
Cyprian was already mature when in 246, attracted by the purity of Christian ethics, he was initiated into the Christian faith by the presbyter Caecilius, whose name he adopted. He found theological guidance in the works of Tertullian, whom he called "the teacher," even though he did not follow him in his extreme views.
Within a short period of time Cyprian had acquired such authority that in 248, after the death of Donatus, bishop of Carthage, he was elected his successor "by the voice of the people and the verdict of God." A year later the persecutions under Emperor Decius began. While the pagan mob cried, "Give Cyprian to the lion," he found refuge outside the city, whence he administered the church with the assistance of a committee of vicars.
The persecution badly disrupted the unity of the North African church. The edict of Decius invited all Christians either to sacrifice to the idols, whereupon they would receive a libellus ("certificate"), or to suffer martyrdom. Large groups of Christians everywhere became martyrs to the faith, but others (the sacrificati ) offered some kind of sacrifice, while yet others (the libellatici ) managed to obtain false documents stating that they had offered sacrifice. When these lapsi, or "backsliders," expressed the desire to return to the church, Cyprian instructed his clergy to grant full communion to the sick, but to give only pastoral care to the others until peace came, when a decision could be reached on how to receive the lapsi.
Cyprian found opposition to his policy, however, from a group of tolerant Christians under the layman, later deacon, Felicissimus, who advocated the immediate acceptance of all backsliders without restriction. They were backed by those presbyters who were displeased by Cyprian's election to the episcopate, as well as by numerous confessors, who promptly gave letters of recommendation to backsliders.
When he returned to his see fourteen months after he left, Cyprian convoked a synod that established in concert with Rome the fundamental principles for receiving the backsliders. The sacrificati should undergo penance of varying length, while the libellatici would be received immediately. However, there was a reaction on the part of the rigorists as well. Cyprian did not succeed in preventing a double schism, which resulted from the election of two new bishops as his rivals, Fortunatus and Maximus.
A new crisis, threatened during the reign of Gallus (252) by an outbreak of the plague, was averted by the self-sacrificing attitude of the Christians toward the victims of the misfortune, both Christian and pagan. In the period that followed, Cyprian carried out fruitful pastoral, social, and interchurch activities.
The validity of the baptism of heretics, an old problem exacerbated by the extension of the influence of Novatian, a leading presbyter in Rome, was to vex the church anew. How should the returning heretics be received? Cyprian, in accordance with the custom of the African church, and on the basis of his own ecclesiological persuasions, thought that no sacrament had any validity if performed outside the canonical church. Consequently, all heretics who returned would have to be rebaptized. His opinion was confirmed by three successive synods in 255 and 256. Pope Stephen, maintaining that acceptance should be made only by the laying on of hands, broke relations with Cyprian.
Under Valerian a new edict was issued against the Christians. Cyprian, not wishing to hide this time, was arrested, exiled to a place north of Carthage, and finally condemned to death. On hearing the decision, he said only "Deo gratias." He was beheaded on September 14, 258.
Though the Christian stage of Cyprian's life was short and troubled, he became one of the great writers of the church. He certainly did not possess the force and depth of Tertullian, whose terms and topics he borrowed extensively, but he showed greater understanding and moderation than the latter. His works are the product and proof of his practical interests and they reflect all the major issues and personalities of the day. Three ancient lists cite the titles of his writings, mostly short treatises and letters.
A friend of Cyprian's, Donatus, had difficulty in breaking away from old pagan customs. In To Donatus, Cyprian says that he himself also feared that he would find difficulty after his turn toward Christianity but that the water of regeneration had made him a new man. To Quirinius, later called Testimonia, is a collection of biblical passages with short comments for the training of new Christians. On the Ornaments of Virgins was written at the beginning of Cyprian's episcopate to praise the virtue of virginity and stress the need for modesty in dress. Cyprian issued On the Lapsed when he returned to his see in 251. In it he expresses his sorrow for the victims of the persecution and draws principles on the basis of which the problem of the backsliders should be solved.
On the Unity of the Catholic Church was written in 251, in face of the apparent danger of a split in the church, to stress that the church of Christ is one and that those who split it bring about an evil worse than the persecution. On the Lord's Prayer, written in 252, presents an edifying allegorical interpretation of the Lord's Prayer. The two treatises To Demetrianus and On Morality answer questions about suffering. The first is an answer to the accusations that arose during the plague, namely that Christian refusal to worship Roman deities was responsible for the present evils. Responsibility for these evils, states Cyprian, is to be found in the moral disorder of pagan society. On Morality was written during the same period to answer the question of why Christians endure the same evils as the pagans—dying prematurely from the plague and from hunger. Cyprian reasons that natural laws, established by the divine will, have universal bearing. Moreover, death is not a punishment for Christians: what travelers do not long to return to their homeland? Heaven is the home of Christians.
Other treatises cover almsgiving, baptism, jealousy, and envy, or are meant to enhearten Christians facing persecution. A number of other short treatises, mostly from the third century, have been falsely attributed to Cyprian.
The letters of Cyprian, some of them small treatises in themselves, are also important. Most refer to the problems of his episcopate: the consequences of persecution under Decius, the problem of the backsliders, the Novatian schism, and the question of the baptism of heretics. Popes Cornelius, Lucius, and Stephen, and the bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, are his most eminent correspondents.
A man of action, Cyprian was concerned exclusively with practical questions as aspects of the great problem of the church. "We struggle for the honor and the unity of the Church," he declares (Letters 73.11). His insistence that there is only one leader of the faith and his fear of the separatist movements within the church led him to stress the element of unity. He insisted that on a high level the church is one, because its founder is one, but simultaneously it is also universal. The one church is diffused into the universal through the multiplicity of bishops. The Petrine chair, the cathedra, is the one church; the sees of the local bishops constitute the universal church.
The fourth chapter of Cyprian's On the Unity examines unity on a second level, the unity of the body of bishops. The interpretation of this text, preserved in two recensions, has presented problems for theological research. The longer recension, because it is favorable to papal primacy, was once considered by many to be an interpolation. After the research of Othmar Perler, Maurice Bévenot, and others, however, both recensions are regarded as genuine. The long text stresses that "primacy was given to Peter" by Christ and that "those who abandon the chair of Peter cannot belong to the church." The mistake of earlier historians was that they identified the chair of Peter with the see of Rome. It appears that Cyprian was already aware of such a misunderstanding, and for this reason he removed those expressions and gave the text the short form. What Cyprian wished to say was that in the famous verse of Matthew 16:18, "Upon this rock [petra ] I will build my Church," the rock and chair of Peter is the faith, and since the faith is one, the see is also one. In this one see all the apostles take part, as well as their successors. "Episcopatus unus est" ("The episcopate is one"), and the particular bishops are coparticipants in it. Further, the bishops are closely joined by the law of personal love and concord, and also through their common origin (Letters 43.5; 69.3). Therefore the important problems of the church can be solved only by a common decision of the bishops in synod.
On the local level, every church constitutes a unity achieved through the bond of the bishop, the clergy, and the laity. The faithful must be united with the bishop in the sense understood by Ignatius of Antioch; and he who is not one with the bishop is not even with the church. But the unity must operate reciprocally. Cyprian never acted without consultation with his clergy and people.
There are definite consequences of this kind of unity for the process of salvation. The church is the bride of Christ, pure and incorrupt; therefore, "no one can have God as Father, if he does not have the Church as mother" (On the Unity 6). In opposition to Tertullian, Cyprian insisted that the Holy Spirit is active only within the church: "Salus extra ecclesiam non est" ("There is no salvation outside the church," Letters 73.21). The church is the ark of Noah, whose passengers were the only ones saved from the great flood. The sacraments of the church, especially baptism, Eucharist, penance, and ordination, are valid only within the framework of the canonical ecclesiastical life.
Cyprian's feast is celebrated in the Western church on September 16, while in the Eastern church it is celebrated on October 2, and in the Anglican on September 26; the confusion occurs because of an Antiochian magician of the same name who converted to Christianity. At the time of Augustine, there were already three churches dedicated to Cyprian's name. His relics were transferred to Lyons under Charlemagne and were later deposited at Moissac in southern France.
The dissemination of Cyprian's writings in the Middle Ages shows that he was more honored than any other Latin church writer, except for the four great doctors of the Western church. He is one of the principal founders of Latin theology. Augustine was profoundly influenced by his views; the Council of Ephesus (431) used demonstrative passages from his works; the Gelasian Decree put him at the head of its list of orthodox bishops; and the Decretum of Gratian gave official weight to his treatise On Unity, which was widely used during the investiture controversy.
Works by Cyprian
The works of Cyprian were edited for the first time by Johannes Andreae in Cypriannus opera (Rome, 1471). This edition is unsatisfactory, as is that of Étienne Baluze and S. Mauri, Sancti Caecilii Cypriani (Paris, 1726), reprinted in Patrologia Latina, vol. 4, edited by J.-P. Migne (Paris, 1865). A critical edition, S. Thasci Caecilii Cypriani Opera omnia, 3 vols., "Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum," 3.1–3 (1868–1871), has been edited by Wilhelm Hertel. Robert Weber, Maurice Bévenot, Manib Simonetti, and Claudio Moreschini have edited the excellent Sancti Cypriani episcopi opera, 2 vols., "Corpus Christianorum, seria Latina," 3, 3A (Turnhout, Belgium, 1972–1976). The works of Cyprian have been translated by Robert E. Wallis in Saint Cyprian: Writings, 2 vols., "Ante-Nicene Christian Library," vols. 8, 13 (Edinburgh, 1868–1869).
Works about Cyprian
The comprehensive studies of Edward White Benson, Cyprian: His Life, His Times, His Work (London and New York, 1897), and Paul Monceaux, Histoire littéraire de l'Afrique chrétienne, vol. 2, Saint Cyprien et son temps (Paris, 1902), are still valuable, as is also the discussion of Cyprian's doctrine by Adehémar d'Alès, La théologie de S. Cyprien, 2d ed. (Paris, 1922). The recent study of Michael M. Sage gives a complete and good picture of his personality, times, and activity. The studies of Ulrich Wickert, Sacramentum unitatis, Ein Beitrag zum Verständnis der Kirche bei Cyprian (Berlin, 1971), Peter Hinchliff's Cyprian of Carthage and the Unity of the Christian Church (London, 1974), Charles Saumagne's Saint Cyprien, évêque de Carthage, "pape" d'Afrique, 248–258: Contribution à l'étude des "persécutions" de Dèce et de Valérien (Paris, 1975), and Michael A. Fahey's Cyprian and the Bible: A Study in Third-Century Exegesis (Tübingen, 1971) present particular aspects of Cyprian's activity. Hugo Koch has presented his research, which sheds new light on the evaluation of Cyprian's ecclesiology, in two writings, Cyprianische Untersuchungen (Bonn, 1926) and Cathedra Petri: Neue Untersuchungen über die Anfänge der Primatslehre (Giessen, 1930). Maurice Bévenot published, besides a number of small articles, a large work, The Tradition of Manuscripts: A Study in the Transmission of Saint Cyprian Treatises (Oxford, 1961).
Panagiotis C. Christou (1987)
Translated from Greek by Philip M. McGhee