Church History, Lesson 13: Christianity in North Africa, Part 3

Cyprian2Cyprian (200-258 AD)


Much had changed since Tertullian’s time.  Being a Christian was still a crime, but by 240 AD, someone needed to talk to an older adult to hear stories of the martyrs.  An unofficial peace had existed for 40 years between the Roman Empire and the Christians in North Africa.

Raised as a wealthy pagan, Cyprian became a Christian at 46.  At once, he gave up his former lifestyle, donated his goods and money to the poor, and took a vow of chastity.  “The Second Birth from heaven also restored me to a new humanity, when I had drunk in the Spirit” (Struggle with Paganism 4).

A Christian for only two years, the Christian community in Carthage elected Thascius Caecilianus Cyprianus as its Bishop in 248 AD.  Cyprian became the Bishop of a growing Church in a time of peace.

A year later, life changed.  The Roman Emperor, Decius (249-251 AD), began the first systematic Empire-wide persecution of Christians.  In 50 years, the Church had grown from .36% to 2% of the population—and most had no experience with martyrdom.  So, during this persecution, many recanted their faith.

Cyprian and some presbyters had left Carthage “to ensure everyone is left undisturbed” for “my presence may provoke an outburst of violence and resentment among the pagans” (Letter 7, 1.1).  Ironically, he was right.  For Roman authorities first apprehended the Bishop, which sometimes left many local churches in disarray.  In 251 AD, Decius died, and the persecution ended.

On his return, the Church faced unprecedented problems and required firm and resolute leadership.  With disunity growing between Carthage and Rome, Cyprian called a Church council at Carthage in 251 AD.  There, he presented his On the Unity of the Church.  The Church, he said, is a divine institution, the Bride of Christ, and so there can only be one Bride.  Only in Christ’s Church can people have salvation; outside is darkness and confusion.

In 258 AD, Cyprian died under the persecution of another Emperor, Valerian.


Acts of Mercy

Persecution left many Christians destitute.  Cyprian wrote to his presbyters and deacons:

I am well aware, my dearest brothers, that I have repeatedly urged you in my letters to pay every care and attention to those who have confessed the Lord with words of joy and are now in prison.  Nevertheless, I urge you, again and again, not to be deficient in any way in caring for those whose glory is itself not in any way deficient. [Letter 12]

For Christians forced to work in the mines at Numidia (today, Algeria), Cyprian rallied the churches of Carthage to raise funds to buy freedom for the Christians.  They collected 100,000 sesterces, roughly worth about $160,000 in 2017.  The presbyters and deacons in Numidia wrote back to Cyprian:

Those condemned with us give the greatest thanks to you before God, dearly beloved Cyprian, for you have refreshed struggling hearts by your letters.  You have cured members wounded by cudgels, released feet bound with chains, and smoothed the hair of half-shaved heads.  You have brightened the darkness of the prison, bringing the mountains of the mines down to the plains, delivering fragrant flowers to noses and dissipating the foul odor of smoke. [Letter 77]


Dealing with Those Who Recanted the Faith

Those who offered the sacrifices to Caesar under persecution were called “the lapsed [lapsi],” meaning the fallen away.  Was this an unforgivable sin like Tertullian, Hippolytus, and Origen had earlier taught?

Tertullian based part of his strident view on seeing the Church’s pastorate as a priesthood, comparable to the Levitical priesthood in the Old Covenant.  This thinking made Tertullian unfaltering about “unforgivable sins.”  How so?  As God is set apart and holy from the world of idols and false gods, so too are the people of God.  On this, Cyprian, at first, followed in Tertullian’s footsteps.

Central to this “holiness” thinking was the idea that specific sins—murder, adultery, and idolatry (which included falling away and apostasy)—excluded someone from the people of God.  Why?  Those sins entangled a person with the pagan world and ruined the separation between God’s holy people and the pagan world.  (This still doesn’t answer why that can’t be forgivable if someone repents!)

Here, however, Cyprian now parted paths from Tertullian.  What is strange is that Tertullian considered a previous Pope, Callistus, as too willing to forgive.  But now, the self-appointed Bishop of Rome, Novatian (251-258 AD), insisted the Church can only be made up of those who remain free of serious sin after baptism.  To Novatian, Cyprian was the one too willing to forgive!  Cyprian wrote:

Some of the lapsed have lately written me, who are humble, meek, trembling and fearing God … They have written, pleading to me.  They acknowledge their sin and are repentant, and are not rash, demanding to secure peace. [On the Lapsed 26]


Forgiveness through Faith but also through Absolution

Cyprian did not pit one’s faith against the presbyter granting forgiveness through Absolution.  For him, both were avenues to receive God’s forgiveness.

If anyone … turns the Lord to pardon his sin through His [that is, Christ’s] unceasing works of righteousness, to such a person the Lord grants forgiveness. [On the Lapsed 36]

But this required repentance, not receiving someone back who refused to acknowledge his sin.

An unskilled physician handles the swelling edges of a wound with too soft of a hand, keeping the poison trapped in the deep recesses of the body.  For healing, the injury must be opened and cut so the stronger remedy may remove the corruption. [On the Lapsed 14]

For Cyprian, a “soft hand,” which retained “the poison” was readmitting someone into the Church without repentance.  With repentance, “the wound” was opened and healed by “the stronger remedy.”

We know, with the confidence given to us by the divine Scriptures, by the very God who is its author and who encourages it, that sinners should be constrained to conduct acts of repentance.  Pardon and forgiveness should not be denied to the repentant. [Letter 55, 3]

For Cyprian, this not denying pardon and forgiveness could only come from a presbyter or bishop in a non-heretical church, which confessed the Triune God.

“Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven.  If you retain those of anyone, they are retained” (John 20.22-23).  The power then of forgiving sins is granted to the Apostles and to the Churches they founded …  That power is also given to the bishops, who were [the Apostles’] successors, who were ordained in their place. [Letter 75, 16.1]



Infant Baptism

Because Tertullian believed baptism forgave sins, he promoted delaying baptism for as long as possible.  Why?  Because, for him, some post-baptismal sins weren’t forgivable.  Here again, Cyprian veered away from his mentor.  In a letter from Cyprian and his bishop colleagues, they responded to a question from another bishop, named Fidus, on how early an infant should be baptized.

They wrote an infant didn’t need to wait the full eight days prescribed in Jewish law for circumcision.  For they saw the seven-day delay for circumcision as symbolic, pointing to the resurrection on the eighth day.  Through spiritual circumcision, baptism, the resurrection becomes a reality for the Christian (Colossians 2:11-12, Romans 6:3-5).  They affirmed that baptism conferred the same degree of grace, no matter how old the recipient (Letter 64.4.1-6.2).

The source of all faith and the saving entrance into the hope of life eternal flow from baptism. [Letter 73, 12.1]

We offer prayers for the salvation of all so, as the will of God is done in heaven … so also may His will be done on earth, among those who do not believe.  May those who are earthly by their original birth begin to be heavenly, being born of water and the Spirit. [On the Lord’s Prayer 17]

  • According to Cyprian, what does baptism do?


  • With this understanding, why was infant baptism practiced?


Legitimate Baptisms

A dispute also developed over baptism between Stephen, the Bishop of Rome (254-257 AD), and Cyprian.  In 255-256 AD, the “Novatians” and the “Marcionites” sought to reunite with the Catholic Church.  Were the baptisms by those groups legitimate?  If not, then those entering the Church needed Christian baptism (Letter 72, 1.1).  For all agreed re-baptizing was wrong.

Both also agreed that a legitimate baptism used water, applied in the name of the Triune God.  For Stephen, baptizing in the “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” was enough to be legitimate (Cyprian, Letter 75, 9).  The “effect of baptism” was because of “the majesty of the Name.”  So those “who are baptized anywhere and anyhow … are judged to be renewed and sanctified” (Cyprian, Letter 74, 5).

What mattered for Cyprian wasn’t only the words (“Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”) but the meaning contained in those words.  His response to accepting a Marcionite baptism went like this: “How should they baptize?”  “[In Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus] is implying here the idea of the Trinity, by initiation into which the nations should be baptized.  But Marcion did not believe in this Trinity” (Letter 73, 5.2).

Did he assert the same Father, the Creator, as we do?  He did not know the same Son, born of the virgin Mary, the Word made flesh, who bore our sins and conquered death by dying.  Then, as the Firstborn, He originated the resurrection of the flesh and showed to His disciples that He had risen in the same flesh….  How then can someone who is baptized among them receive the forgiveness of sins and the grace of God’s pardon? [Letter 73, 5.2-3]

Something similar exists today with the Mormons.  They use water and baptize “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”  But for them, the Father refers to someone who is “an exalted man.”  The Son refers to “the firstborn of heavenly parents,” who is also “Lucifer’s older brother.”  The “Holy Spirit” refers to “a spirit who has the form and likeness of a man.”

  • Does a Mormon baptism save because it happens to use the correct words?


  • Was Cyprian right by insisting the words “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” refer to the Trinity?



Thirty years earlier, Tertullian spoke of a post-baptismal anointing, the laying on of hands, and an invocation of the Holy Spirit on the baptized person.  Cyprian continued with what he had received.  The baptized were presented to the presbyters of the Church so “by our prayer and by the imposition of hands, they may receive the Holy Spirit and be perfected by the seal of the Lord” (Letter 73).

  • For Cyprian, when did confirmation take place and who did the “confirming”?


Still, Cyprian asserted, “No one is born by receiving the Holy Spirit through the imposition of hands, but through baptism” (Letter 74, 7.1).


The Eucharist

What is Used and What It Does

This life-giving bread and the cup of blessing, hallowed by the solemn benediction, benefits the life of the total man, being at the same time a medicine and an offering, to heal our infirmities and to purge our iniquities. [Cyprian, quoted by Martin Chemnitz in The Examination of the Council of Trent, Volume 2, pg. 491]

It is not … regarded as His blood in the chalice if the chalice lacks the wine. [Letter 63, 2.2]

So when the wine in the chalice is mixed with water, the people are united with Christ and the assembly of believers are linked and joined in Him, in whom they believe. [Letter 63, 13.1]

In this Sacrament, our people are shown to be made one.  As many grains are collected, ground, and mixed to become one bread, so are we in Christ.  For He is the heavenly Bread, and we know that there is only one Body to whom our number is joined and united. [Letter 66, 8]

  • What elements were used for the Lord’s Supper?


  • What did Cyprian believe about the Lord’s Supper?


  • What did he believe God did through the Sacrament?


Who May Commune

Cyprian understood the Old-Covenant Passover prefigured the Eucharist:

The Passover rite contains nothing else in the law of the Exodus than the lamb, which was slain as a foreshadow of Christ, eaten in one house.  God says, “It is to be eaten in one house, and you are not to take any of the flesh outside the house” (Exodus 12:46).  The flesh of Christ, the Lord’s holy Sacrament, cannot be thrown out of doors, nor is there any other home for those who believe except the Church….  In the house of God, in the Church of Christ, those of one mind dwell and continue in concord and simplicity. [On the Unity of the Church 8]

  • What communion practice was Cyprian revealing when he wrote, “The flesh of Christ … cannot be thrown out of doors”?


He also warned about the Eucharist harming those who received them unworthily, implying a discerning communion practice. (On the Lapsed 25-26)

How Young Were Communicants?

“For the Holy Spirit is received through baptism.  Thus, those who are baptized, who received the Holy Spirit, may come to drink from the chalice of the Lord” (Letter 63, 8.3).


The Church

Because of persecution and heresies, Cyprian wanted to direct the flock to something sure.  For him, this was the Church and the Church upholding the “traditions,” which Jesus originally handed to His Apostles.  Thinking through Peter’s words to Jesus, “Lord, where will we go?  You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:69), Cyprian wrote:

Peter teaches in the name of the Church … and the Church does not depart from Christ.  The Church is a people united with a sacred bishop [using Peter as an example of this] and a flock that stands behind her shepherd.  The conclusion you should draw is this: The bishop is in the Church, and the Church is in the bishop.  If anyone is not with the bishop, he is not in the Church. [Letter 66.8.3]

  • Is Cyprian’s focus balanced here?


Once we forsake the errors of human argument in favor of the authority of the gospel, we can return to the apostolic tradition with a sincere and reverent faith. [Letter 73, 15.2]

For Cyprian, the Church was to maintain God’s traditions.  Referring to those who didn’t, he wrote:

While disregarding God’s tradition, they strive after strange doctrines and introduce the teachings of a human system.  These are those whom the Lord reproaches and rebukes in His gospel, saying: “You have such a fine way of rejecting the commandments of God to observe your own traditions!” (Mark 7.9). [On the Unity of the Church 19]


Cyprian valued Scripture (though no official list of the books existed).  For him, Scripture needed to be understood based on the Church’s understandings.  Otherwise, a person could easily become a heretic.

Why do your deaf ears not hear the saving precepts to which we are exhorting?  Why do your blind eyes not see the path to penitence to which we are pointing?  Why does your mind, closed and estranged, not grasp the life-giving medicines that we both learn and teach from the heavenly Scriptures? [On the Lapsed 23]

The Prayer During the Service

Cyprian noted for whom the Church prayed.

  • Those who died in the Faith (Letter 1, 2.2), including prayers for the martyrs on the anniversaries of their deaths (Letter 39, 3.1)
  • The faithful (Letter 37, 1.2; Letter 61, 4.2; Letter 62, 4.2)
  • Benefactors (Letter 62, 4.2)
  • And enemies (On the Lord’s Prayer 17), which included governmental authorities.

The Equality of Bishops

Cyprian held that bishops formed a collegium or college, who were successors of the Apostles as a group, not as an individual.  To him, all bishops were equal, and unity in the Church was founded on the unity of the bishops in terms of their teaching.

Callistus (last week’s lesson) was the first Pope to apply Matthew 16:18 to refer to Peter the person (“On this rock, I will build my Church”).  In line with Irenaeus’ thinking, Cyprian granted Rome the status of “first among equals” because of the antiquity of that bishopric and its claims of double apostolicity.  But he did not see the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) as above the other bishops.

No one may set himself up as a bishop of bishops.  By tyranny or terror, no one may compel his colleague to obey.  For every bishop, according to his liberty and power, has his proper right to judge [meaning in his area of jurisdiction].  He can no more be judged by another than he can judge another.  Instead, we all wait for the judgment of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Only He has the power, both by placing us in the government of His Church and by judging us in our conduct there. [The Seventh Council of Carthage, 255-256 AD, held under Cyprian]


From what he received, Cyprian continued.  In his day, deacons performed the following tasks:

  1. Reading the Scripture and preaching during the service, under the directions of the bishop
  2. Announcing prayers and praying during the Service
  3. Baptizing
  4. Bringing the consecrated elements to the sick confined to their homes
  5. Distributing the consecrated elements of the Eucharist during the Service
  6. Serving the people of God, including helping to take care of the sick and the poor

Although deacons were ordained, they never functioned independently of the bishop.


The Lasting Legacy of Cyprian’s Phrases

The Te Deum

The Te Deum, first rang out in a world shrouded in the shadows of death.  Its first words were composed at the end of Cyprian’s letter, “On Mortality,” which he wrote in a time of plague and warfare.  Cyprian wrote his words in an accented Latin prose, called “cursus leoninus” (lion-like track), an elaborate metrical Latin.

These are phrases Nicetas (335-414 AD), the Bishop of Remesiana (today in Serbia), borrowed from Cyprian in the 4th century, to write the Te Deum.

  • apostolorum gloriosus chorus” = “company of the apostles”
  • prophetarum … numerus” = “goodly fellowship of the prophets”
  • martyrum innumerabilis populous” = “the noble army of martyrs”

Other Phrases

  • “There is no salvation outside the Church.” (Letter 73, 21.2)
  • “He cannot have God for his Father who does not have the Church as his mother” (On the Unity of the Church 6)


Link to the next Lesson.


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