Bishop of Carthage 249 to 258 and martyr; d. Carthage, Sept. 14, 258.
Life. Before his conversion (246) Cyprian (Caecilius Cyprianus) had the best education of the day and made his mark as a master of eloquence. In his account of the transformation effected by his baptism (Ad Donatum ), he paints his early life in dark colors but without significant detail. His style is stilted and affected, but the sincerity of his response to grace is shown by his distribution of his abundant wealth to the poor and by his dedication to chastity—as also, thereafter, by the almost complete absence of artificiality in his speech and writing.
Cyprian's newly found devotion to Christ led him to the Scriptures as a practical guide to his thought and life, and he profited by and added to an already existing collection of proof texts in his testimonia. He read tertul lian and used him freely, but with discrimination: though he called Tertullian "the Master," he often disagreed with him radically. His early election to the episcopate is proof of the influence he exercised in Carthage, though it gained him a few lifelong clerical enemies.
Decian Persecution (250–251). Cyprian went "underground" during the persecution of Decius, directing and encouraging his clergy and faithful from his place of hiding and resisting the insubordination of some of the priests and of the confessors who were pandering to the lapsed. On his return he addressed his people about these last (De lapsis ), and with the other African bishops in concert with Rome drew up equitable measures, exacting further penance only from the Christians who had sacrificed to the pagan gods (sacrificati ). As the liberal opposition persisted in its schism and a contrary rigorist schism under novatian broke out in Rome, Cyprian delivered
his famous address, De ecclesiae catholicae unitate. The threat of a fresh persecution under Gallus (252) led to the restoration of Communion to the penitents, and the same year Cyprian had to appeal to the courage of his people during a devastating plague, urging them to self-sacrificing charity toward Christian and pagan sufferers alike (De mortalitrate ).
The spread and persistence of the Novatianist schism raised the question whether those who had received Novatianist baptism should, on reconciliation with the Church, be baptized anew. This led to the baptismal controversy (255–257). It was the practice of the African Church (as of many Oriental churches) to ignore all heretical baptisms, and Cyprian himself maintained that no baptism, or any sacrament administered outside the Church, had any value. He felt that the unity of the Church was at stake, and by his correspondence and in three successive synods he succeeded in rallying the whole African episcopate to his view, as is proved by the unanimous votes of the third synod, Sept. 1, 256 (Sententiae episcoporum numero LXXXVII ).
The very length of the controversy indicates that Cyprian's view was not so obvious as he tried to make out and that, in fact, it was not the universal practice of the Church. Indeed Stephen, bishop of Rome, appealed to traditional practice when he exacted that reconciliation should be effected without fresh Baptism. Cyprian vehemently repudiated this recognition of heretical baptism as a betrayal of the Church's unity and refused to be intimidated by Stephen's threat of excommunication. Cyprian was supported in this attitude by a vehement denunciation of Pope Stephen that he received from firmilian, bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia. However, Cyprian may well have been distressed about it, for it was at this time that he wrote his treatise De bono patientiae.
Valerian Persecution. Cyprian was exiled to Curubis on the coast (Aug. 30, 257), and a year later, by reason of more stringent imperial orders, he was returned to be tried in Carthage, where he was permitted to wait quietly in his villa. He ignored the proconsul's summons to Utica, determined, as he said, not to deprive his own people of the witness of their bishop's martyrdom. The plain records of his trial and of his last moments before beheading show him treating it all as a matter of course, with no call for rhetoric. Martyrdom spoke louder than words. Of Christ himself he had written: Dei Sermo ad crucem tacens ducitur (The Word of God was led, wordless, to the cross).
Cyprianic Corpus. Cyprian's writings are generally divided into treatises, letters, and spuria, among which the last are a few contemporary significant writings. Besides the treatises already mentioned, the Ad Demetrianum is a vigorous defense of Christianity against pagan calumnies; but most of the treatises are addresses to his flock: an exhortation to those expecting martyrdom, Ad Fortunatum, a commentary on the Our Father; De dominica oratione, a conference to consecrated virgins; De habitu virginum; and the last two, on charity and on jealousy, De opere et eleemosynis and De zelo et livore. The Quod idola dii non sint is almost certainly spurious.
The standard collection of 81 letters includes a few by his correspondents or by other contemporaries. Altogether they give a vivid picture of Christian life in Carthage, especially during the persecutions, and throw light on the organization of the Church not only in Africa from Mauretania to Tripolitania, but also in Spain, Gaul, and Rome itself. At the same time they reveal the character and activities of Cyprian, a bishop often in peril of his life but totally dedicated to his flock, and while a leader of men, beloved and respected by Christian and pagan alike, yet the object of slander and opposition from a handful of his clergy. He could be sympathetic yet firm, just as he could be lyrical in his praises and mordant in his irony. He was a man of prayer who drew his strength from his faith in Christ and the Holy Spirit dwelling in the Church, at one with the sufferings of those whom he encouraged to martyrdom, and training his people to be at one with him in his own. His writings reveal his practical faith and his humanity far better than does the stilted eulogy of his Vita (written soon after his martyrdom, apparently by his deacon, Pontius) or even the so-called Acta proconsularia, though both these records have preserved factual details that complete the portrait. These, too, form part of the corpus.
Ecclesiology. Cyprian's conception of the Church manifests itself in his treatment of Baptism, the Eucharist, penance, and the ministry, as also in his relations with the laity (parents and children, virgins, etc.), with his clergy, and with his fellow bishops. He had a keen sense of the unity of the Church which was shown in his own church of Carthage, not only by the assertion of his episcopal authority over the faithful, but also by his normal practice of making no clerical appointment without first consulting his clergy and people. All alike had committed themselves to Christ; and their union with him, which had begun with the remission of sin in Baptism, was fostered and strengthened by the Eucharist and repaired or restored by almsdeeds or by the official Penance in which bishop, clergy, and faithful cooperated with the repenting sinner.
The Universal Church. The Carthaginian Church was only part of a greater unity: the unity, first, of the African Churches, whose bishops met in frequent synods, and then of all the rightful bishops of the ecclesia catholica, whose common faith and concord were inspired by the Holy Spirit. Hence heresy and schism were equally abhorrent to Cyprian as breaches of the one faith and of the charity that the unity of the Church demanded. Anyone who broke with his bishop put himself outside the Church; and a bishop who broke away from the consortium of his fellow bishops not only put himself outside the Church, but forfeited all his episcopal powers, as did a bishop who betrayed the faith under persecution or who led a scandalous life.
In reaction, perhaps, to Tertullian's montanism, Cyprian believed that the Spirit was not active save through the legitimate bishops of the Church; hence his stand against heretical baptism and orders. He did not allow for any uncovenanted action of the Spirit, and while he was wont to quote "He that is not with Me is against Me" (Lk 11.23), he never quoted "He that is not against you is for you" (Lk 9.50). His attitude was later explicitly adopted by the donatists. St. augustine, while refuting them, rightly excused Cyprian's mistake as a result of the incomplete understanding, in earlier times, of the complexities of sacramental efficacy. In the interval the Church's practice had been defined on the lines laid down by Pope Stephen, against Cyprian's intransigence, but with qualifications that met some of Cyprian's criticisms.
The Roman Primacy. The dispute between Pope Stephen and the African bishops raises the question of Cyprian's attitude to the papacy, which has given rise to much barren controversy in the past. This was partly a result of the so-called interpolations in Cyprian's De unitate but chiefly because of the mistaken assumption, common to both sides, that if the papal primacy was of divine origin, Cyprian would have recognized it on the baptismal issue and bowed before it. Catholics strove to prove that he did, others that he did not. But it is now generally recognized that in the first centuries the position of the bishop of Rome was not so clear-cut as to constitute a doctrine explicitly believed by every part of the Church, but was the subject of a development analogous to that of many other elements of the faith.
Cyprian's attitude (of which his dispute with Stephen was only a short, if violent, phase) represents one of the stages of that development in the African area. If he based the unity of the Church on the concord of bishops—the "collegiality of the episcopate"—it was because they all derived their responsibilities and powers in the Church from Peter "on whom the Church was built." He argued that Christ had first entrusted them to that one man alone (Peter) to show that all the shepherds of the Church should act as one, that is, in harmony with one another. But this theory, true as far as it went, put all bishops on the same level and left vague the position of the bishop of Rome in spite of his having inherited, in a more special way, the Cathedra Petri.
In practice Cyprian generally showed the greatest regard toward Rome and recognized his obligation to inform its bishop of any important development in his own Church. Even when he thought that Pope Stephen was imperiling the unity of the Church by recognizing heretical baptism, he never considered that Stephen should be deposed, as he had Marcianus of Arles for his Novatianism. In fact, he showed by his conduct a certain consciousness of elements in the mystery of the Church that he did not allow for in this theory of its unity. Thus if each bishop was free to "rebaptize" or not (as Cyprian's second council assured the pope), what would Cyprian do when heretics reconciled by Stephen visited Carthage? According to him they had never been baptized and, logically, he would have to refuse them communion. Without being aware of it, he was undermining that very unity of the Church that he had so much at heart.
Whether Cyprian ever came to see the ambiguity of his position is not known; but even if Stephen excommunicated him (which is quite uncertain), after Stephen's death Cyprian's relations with Rome seem to have been renewed. Rome must have soon forgotten the brush with Cyprian, since it included the day of his martyrdom among the very few feasts of its earliest calendar, that of the chronographer of 354, and set his name permanently among the martyrs selected for special mention in the canon of its liturgy.
Influence and Memory. Cyprian's influence in subsequent ages may be gauged by the number of manuscripts of his works that have survived, perhaps surpassed only by those of the four great Latin doctors of the church. Already highly esteemed by Augustine, he was one of the few authorities quoted as decisive at the Council of ephesus (431) against nestorianism, and his name heads the list of orthodox Fathers in the Decretum Gelasianum. He was used by both sides in the investi ture controversy and also provided material for gra tian's Decretum, through which the great scholastics chiefly quoted him.
Diligently transcribed during the renaissance, his writings were freely drawn upon for proof texts during the century of the Reformation by Cardinal fisher, John calvin, Robert bellarmine, and many other writers.
In modern times a number of authors specify the contrasting ecclesiologies that allow or refuse validity to sacraments conferred outside the Church as being, respectively, Augustinian or Cyprianic, but this is an over-simplification. Cyprian's ecclesiology contained much more than do many such "Cyprianic" theories today, and except for that one point, Augustine's ecclesiology was but a development of Cyprian's.
By the time of St. Augustine there were in Carthage three churches dedicated to St. Cyprian, one of which stood over his tomb. At Moissac, in the south of France, what purport to be his relics have been venerated since 1122, having been transferred there from Lyons, where, according to florus the deacon, they were brought from Carthage in the time of Charlemagne.
Feast: Sept. 16.
Bibliography: Works. Opera omnia, ed. g. hartel, 3 v. (Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum (Vienna 1866–) 3.1–3.3; 1868–71); Patrologiae cursus completus, series latina; suppl., ed. a. hamman (Paris 1957–) 1:34–71; "De ecclesiae catholicae unitate," critical ed. in m. bÉvenot, The Tradition of Manuscripts (Oxford 1961) 96–123; Select Epistles, ed. t. a. lacey, tr. n. marshall (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge; London; 1922); "The Lapsed" and "The Unity of the Catholic Church," ed. and tr. m. bÉvenot (Ancient Christian Writers, ed. j. quasten et al. 25; Westminster, Md.-London 1957). Literature. m. bÉvenot, "St. Cyprian and Moissac: A 13th–Century Sequence," Traditio 19 (1963) 147–166; St. Cyprian's "De Unitate" Chapter 4 in the Light of the Manuscripts (Analecta Gregoriana 11; Rome 1937); "Primatus Petro datur, " Journal of Theological Studies 5 (1954) 19–35. j. le moyne, "… De Unitate chapitre 4," Revue Bénédictine 63 (1953) 70–115. Latinitas christianorum primaeva 5, 6, 8, 9 (Nijmegen 1936–39). a. d'alÉs, La Théologie de saint Cyprien (2d ed. Paris 1922). h. koch, Cyprianische Untersuchungen (Bonn 1926); Cathedra Petri (Giessen 1930). b. poschmann, Ecclesia Principalis … zur Frage des Primats bei Cyprian (Breslau 1933). j. quasten, Patrology, 3 v. (Westminster, Md. 1950–53), 2:340–383. b. altaner, Patrology, tr. h. graf from 5th German ed. (New York 1960) 193–205. Clavis Patrum latinorum, ed. e. dekkers (2d ed. Streenbrugge 1961) 38–79. p. godet, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 1903–50; Tables générales 1951–) 3.2:2459–70. o. bardenhewer, Geschichte der altkirchlichen Literatur, 5 v. (Freiburg 1913–32) 2:442–517. e. w. benson, Cyprian: His Life, His Times, His Work (London 1897). j. j. sebastian, Baptisma Unum in Ecclesia Sancta …: A Theological Appraisal of the Baptismal Controversy in the Work and Writings of Cyprian of Carthage (Delhi 1997). j. p. burns, "Social Context in the Controversy Between Cyprian and Stephen," Studia Patristica 24 (Louvain 1993) 38–44. m. m. sage, Cyprian (Cambridge, Mass. 1975). p. b. hinchcliff, Cyprian of Carthage and the Unity of the Christian Church (London 1974). Letters of St. Cyprian of Carthage, 4 v., ed. g. w. clarke (New York 1984). p. monceaux, Histoire littéraire de l'Afrique chrétienne, 7 v. (Paris 1901–23; repr. Brussels 1963) v.2. j. ludwig, Der heilige Märtyrerbischof Cyprian von Karthago (Munich 1951).