St. Cyprian on the Church and the Papacy

"...they dare even to set the chair of Peter and the principal Church [at Rome], in which sacerdotal unity has its source...whose faith was praised by the preaching Apostle, and among whom it is not possible for perfidy [errors or perversion of faith] to have entrance." (Epistle 59:14)

This is my short introduction to the chapter "St. Cyprian on the Church" from the scholarly work Studies on the Early Papacy by Dom John Chapman (Kennikat Press, 1971, orig 1928). Fr. Chapman was responding to a German Protestant scholar whose arguments were similar to the anti-Catholic Anglican divines of Chapman's day (the turn of the 20th century).

For those interested in a modern debate between Catholics and Evangelicals on this subject, check out the replies back and forth between Stephen Ray (author of Upon This Rock) and William Webster (author of The Matthew 16 Controversy) and the anti-Catholic rant by James White on Cyprian and Augustine, and Steve Ray's subsequent response.

As you will probably notice, modern anti-Catholic Baptist folks like White and Webster are no match for Catholic patristic scholars like Dom John Chapman, who answered these Anglican arguments long ago. It is a little funny (and somewhat pathetic) seeing such Evangelical critics of the Catholic Church today quote the Church Fathers -- and in fact "borrow" their anti-papal arguments from the Anglican controversialists -- since these modern Evangelicals not only deny the Papacy, but deny virtually everything the Catholic and Anglican scholars of a century ago were agreed upon (a visible Church, the episcopacy, the apostolic succession of Bishops, a common belief about the priesthood, the Eucharist, the sacraments, etc) -- such beliefs that are undeniably taught by Cyprian in the clearest of language, despite how some scholars (today and in the past) might interpret his specific views on the primacy of the Bishop of Rome.

As Steve Ray has pointed out, if you want the "best" arguments against the Papacy from the Protestant side, read the Anglican divines of 100 years ago. A good book that presents both the Catholic vs. Anglican views on the early Papacy is Documents Illustrating Papal Authority AD 96-454 by the Anglican historian Edward Giles (London: SPCK, 1952). I translate some of Fr. Chapman's Latin quotations from the convenient compilation made by Giles.

See also: 

Rome has Spoken, the Case is Closed by Dom John Chapman

St. Athanasius, Arianism, and the Holy See by Dom John Chapman

St. John Chrysostom on the Apostle Peter by Dom John Chapman

St. Jerome and Rome by Dom John Chapman

Some of the relevant passages from the letters and treatises of St. Cyprian of Carthage on the Church and the early Papacy are the following -- taken from the William Jurgens 3-volume set The Faith of the Early Fathers -- for the full context of these statements you can check out the 38-volumes available online from CCEL Church Fathers

"[After quoting Matthew 16:18f; John 21:15ff]...On him [Peter] He builds the Church, and to him He gives the command to feed the sheep; and although He assigned a like power to all the Apostles, yet he founded a single Chair, and He established by His own authority a source and an intrinsic reason for that unity. Indeed, the others were that also which Peter was; but a primacy is given to Peter, whereby it is made clear that there is but one Church and one Chair. So too, all are shepherds, and the flock is shown to be one, fed by all the Apostles in single-minded accord. If someone does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he desert the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that he is in the Church?" (Cyprian, The Unity of the Catholic Church [first edition] 4, c. AD 251)

"Our Lord, whose commands we ought to fear and observe, says in the Gospel, by way of assigning the episcopal dignity and settling the plan of His Church...[quotes Matthew 16:18f]...From that time the ordination of bishops and the plan of the Church flows on through the changes of times and successions; for the Church is founded upon the bishops, and every act of the Church is controlled by these same rulers. Since this has indeed been established by divine law, I marvel at the rash boldness of certain persons who have desired to write to me as if they were writing their letters in the name of the Church, 'since the Church is established upon the bishop and upon the clergy and upon all who stand firm in the faith.'"(Cyprian, Letter 33 (27), 1 to the Lapsed, c. AD 250)

"They who have not peace themselves now offer peace to others. They who have withdrawn from the Church promise to lead back and to recall the lapsed to the Church. There is one God and one Christ, and one Church, and one Chair founded on Peter by the word of the Lord. It is not possible to set up another altar or for there to be another priesthood besides that one altar and that one priesthood. Whoever has gathered elsewehre is scattering." (Cyprian, Letter 43 (40), 5, c. AD 251)

"With a false bishop appointed for themselves by heretics, they dare even to set sail and carry letters from schismatics and blasphemers to the chair of Peter and to the principal Church [at Rome], in which sacerdotal unity has its source; nor did they take thought that these are Romans, whose faith was praised by the preaching Apostle, and among whom it is not possible for perfidy to have entrance." (Cyprian, Letter 59 (55), 14 to Cornelius of Rome, c. AD 252)

"There speaks Peter, upon whom the Church would be built, teaching in the name of the Church and showing that even if a stubborn and proud multitude withdraws because it does not wish to obey, yet the Church does not withdraw from Christ. The people joined to the priest and the flock clinging to their shepherd are the Church. You ought to know, then, that the bishop is in the Church and the Church in the bishop, and if someone is not with the bishop, he is not in the Church. They vainly flatter themselves who creep up, not having peace with the priests of God, believing that they are secretly in communion with certain individuals. For the Church, which is One and Catholic, is not split nor divided, but is indeed united and joined by the cement of priests who adhere one to another." (Cyprian, Letter 66 (69), 8 to Florentius Pupianus, c. AD 254)

St. Cyprian on the Church by Dom John Chapman

For centuries it has been a commonplace in England to speak of "the Cyprianic theory of the episcopate." From the time of the Reformation Anglican episcopalians have appealed to the great martyr of Carthage as a witness to their own theory of government by bishops without a Pope. Cyprianic study has been quite an Anglican speciality, from the great names of Dodwell, Pearson and Fell to Archbishop Benson in our own day, besides controversialists without number.

In Germany, on the other hand, the views of St. Cyprian have not had such primary importance ascribed to them by Protestants, for Lutherans have not been so anxious to claim the third century on their side, nor was St. Cyprian of the least use to them in any case. Consequently a number of German Protestant authorities have taken much the same estimate of his opinions as Catholics have done. It is to be noted that many Catholics have exaggerated in claiming St. Cyprian as a witness to "Ultramontane" doctrines which he does not teach, and that they may be to some extent answerable for the reaction on Dr. Koch's part which has led him to publish a study of St. Cyprian in German which reproduces the main arguments which have been all along so familiar in England and so little heeded in Germany. Professor Koch has written temperately and carefully, and has studied his subject. I do not find that he has said anything very new. But he is rather more rigid and thorough-going in his theory than most Anglicans have ventured to be.

A Theory Examined: Peter is "First" Meaning Priority of Time?

Prof. Koch [Cyprian and the Roman Primacy by von Hugo Koch; Leipzig: 1910] begins by giving an interpretation of the famous fourth chapter of the De Unitate (on the Unity of the Catholic Church), with which I cannot altogether agree. He cites Fr. Poschmann's explanation, and comments thus :

"This is so far true, that Cyprian does distinguish between the building of the Church on Peter and the commission of the power of the keys; and he reserves the one to Peter, and lets the other be received by the other Apostles as well. Correct likewise is the comparison: super unum aedificat ecclesiam -- unitatis originem ab uno incipientem sua auctoritate disposuit -- exordium ab unitate proficiscitur. But precisely this comparison shows how Cyprian understands super unum aedificat ecclesiam. This clause finds its interpretation in the other two clauses, and simply means: the building of the Church begins with one (mit einem)."

Not mit but auf, and that makes all the difference: upon one, not with one. Cyprian never thought of Peter as the first to be laid of the foundation stones, but as the Rock on which the foundations are laid. You cannot begin to build with a rock; you begin to build upon a rock! Firmilian understood the passage rightly, when he said: super quem fundamenta ecclesiae collocata sunt, "upon whom the foundations of the Church were laid." Koch continues:

"The Lord could have delivered the power of the keys to all the Apostles at once. But he gave the full powers first to Peter, and only later to the rest of the Apostles, in order that He might show clearly that His Church should be one." And: "As a distinction for Peter there remains only the priority of time of his investiture with the power of the keys, the remembrance of the short-lived numerical unity of the apostolic authority, and the exemplification, which was thereby created for all time, of the moral unity of the Church. In this sense Peter is for all time 'the foundation of the Church,' the man super quem aedificauit Dominus ecclesiam.'"

St. Cyprian does not explicitly say this. Did he mean it? There are good reasons, I think, for doubt [note: He certainly does not call Peter "the foundation of the Church" but says "the Church was built upon him" (Ep 71; 59:7; 66:8; 73:7) or "was founded upon him" (Ep 43; 70; 73:11; De hab virg 10; Ad Fortun 11]. A priori we may argue that it is a very far-fetched explanation of "the rock on which the Church is built" to say that it signifies a man who for a short time, while our Lord was still on earth, possessed nominally (but without exercising it) the supreme government of the Church. I do not think I should feel comfortable in a house built on a temporary rock.

Epistle 73 and the Power of Bishops

I quite admit that to Cyprian Matthew 16:18 is "not a promissory bill for a future time, but an actual making over of authority." But from this passage we could not have gathered so much: it is from Epistle 73that we learn this directly. Cyprian is not speaking there of the unity of the Church, nor of the episcopate, but of the power of bishops alone to forgive sins:

Nam Petro primum Dominus, super quem aedificauit ecclesiam et unde unitatis originem instituit et ostendit, potestatem istam dedit ut id solueretur quod ille soluisset. Et post resurrectionem quoque ad Apostolos loquitur dicens: sicut misit, etc.

(But it is plain where and by whom remission of sins can be given, that is to say, the remission that is given in baptism. First the Lord gave that power to Peter, on whom he built the Church and whom he appointed and declared the origin of unity, that what he loosed should be loosed. And after the resurrection he speaks to the apostles also saying...[then follows quote from John 20:21-23] Epistle 73:7; Giles, page 70)

But surely we must presume that in Cyprian's idea Matthew 16:18f "gave a power" which was not to be exercised as yet, whereas John 20:21ff, was a real investiture; for he was not ignorant of Matthew 18:18, where before the resurrection the Lord says to all the Apostles not equivalent words merely but the same which he had recently addressed to Peter.

Consequently we must suppose that he prefers to quote John 20:21 because that solemn occasion was a real investiture of the Apostles with an actual power, not a merely future power. It is inconceivable that he should have regarded Peter as the sole possessor of the power of binding and loosing from the promise or gift at Caesarea Philippi until after the resurrection, as though the text Matthew 18:18 were non-existent!

Epistle 33 and Apostolic Succession

I venture to suggest that it is a pity Koch did not treat Cyprian's view of Peter chronologically, and that he would have done well to consider Epistle 33 before coming to the De Unitate. In that letter, which Koch has frequently cited but never discussed, there is no question of the unity of the Church, but only of the authority of the bishop, which had been attacked by the issues of an "indulgence" as though in the name of the Church, without Cyprian's knowledge. He is indignant at being thus ignored:

Dominus noster, cuius praecepta metuere et seruare debemus, episcopi honorem et ecclesiae suae rationem disponens in euangelio loquitur et dicit Petro: "Ego dico tibi . . . etc . . . et in caelis." Inde per temporum et successionum uices episcoporum ordinatio et ecclesiae ratio decurrit ut ecclesia super episcopos constituatur et omnis actus ecclesiae per eosdem praepositor gubernetur. Cum hoc ita diuina lege fundatum sit, miror quosdam audaci temeritate, etc.

(Our Lord, whose precepts we ought to fear and observe, determines the honor of a bishop and the order of his Church, when he speaks in the Gospel, and says to Peter, "I say unto thee, that thou art Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church...." etc. Thence, through the changes of times and successions, the ordination of bishops and the plan of the Church flow on, so that the Church is settled upon the bishops, and every act of the Church is regulated by these same prelates. Since then this is founded on divine law, I marvel that some, with bold daring, have ventured to write to me as if they wrote in the name of the Church; wheres the Church is established in the bishop, and clergy, and all who stand fast. Epistle 33:1; Giles, page 49-50)

Here there is nothing about post resurrectionem; the text Matthew 18:18 is the charter of monepiscopacy entirely apart from any consideration of Peter possessing his powers alone for a certain period. The power given to Peter of binding and loosing is the episcopal power. What is more important is that the founding of the Church upon bishops: et ecclesia super episcopos constituatur, and the meaning of "being founded on" is explained as "being governed by." Bishops are successors of the Apostles [Ep 3:3; 45:3; etc]; but so far as the monarchical character of the episcopate is concerned, they are rather for Cyprian the successors to Peter's unique position as rock on which the Church is built, which he has not in common with the other Apostles, as Koch has allowed.

But is it consistent with this to say: "As a distinction for Peter there remains only the priority of time of his investiture" ? If Peter is the foundation only in the sense that he was for a time alone the holder of episcopal powers, how can the Church be "founded upon the bishops" ? Surely bishops have not zeitliche Prioritat ! It is no good for Koch to explain that Peter receiving alone the episcopal powers is the type of the bishop -- everyone can see that, and no one denies it -- but Koch has explained that "to be a foundation" means to be first in order of time, and is equivalent to unitatis originem ab uno incipientem understood of time, in a transient sense, and to exordium ab unitate in the same transient sense. Apply this to bishops, and we get the sense "Bishops are the foundation of the Church as having authority first in order of time" ! If Cyprian really meant priority of time by foundation, he could never have thought of saying that the Church was founded upon the bishops.

St. Peter is Shepherd and Foundation

Again, the treatise De habitu virginum [C. 10] is doubtless earlier than De unitate. Here Cyprian has Petrus etiam, cui oues suas Dominus pascendas tuendasque commendat, super quem posuit et fundauit ecclesiam (Peter also, to whom the Lord commends his sheep to be fed and guarded, on whom he placed and founded the Church... Giles, page 56) Now Cyprian habitually says that Christ founded the Church on Peter, when he mentions that Apostle, and it is certain that he regarded this as a special prerogative of Peter. Here he apparently names the charge to feed the sheep as a similarly honourable distinction belonging to Peter alone. He undoubtedly thought this charge to Peter was addressed to bishops in his person, for it is impossible to consider all his expressions about bishops as shepherds of a flock to be derived solely from John 10; rather the application to bishops is from chapter 21, the unity of the flock from chapter 10. Can we suppose him unaware that the charge to Peter alone in chapter 21 was subsequent to the investiture of all the Apostles in chapter 20 ? This would be even more violent than to suppose he always forgot Matthew 18:18 !

Epistle 43: One Church and One Chair Founded on the Rock (Peter)

Very shortly before the De Unitate, Cyprian wrote Epistle 43, which was in reality the basis of that book. Here we find:

Deus unus est et Christus unus et una ecclesia et cathedra una super Petrum Domini uoce fundata. Aliud altare constitui aut sacerdotium nouum fieri praeter unum altare et unum sacerdotium non potest. Quisque alibi collegerit spargit.

(....They, who have departed from the Church, do not allow the Church to recall and bring back the lapsed. There is one God, and one Christ, and one Church, and one chair founded by the voice of the Lord on the rock. Another altar cannot be set up, nor a new priesthood made, besides the one altar and the one priesthood. Whoever gathers elsewhere scatters.Epistle 43:5; Giles, page 50)

Here we are told, as if the argument needed no development, that one Church and one chair (i.e. the monarchical character of the episcopate) were founded upon Peter. Again -- as in Epistle 33 -- not a word about priority of time. The founding upon Peter is held to prove in the same way both the unity of the Church and the monarchy of the bishop. What is that way? It seems to me clear enough that Cyprian means that Peter just as much as the bishop is a permanent not a transient guarantee of the unity of the ediface which rises upon a single rock.

On the Unity of the Catholic Church: UPON ONE [PETER] CHRIST BUILDS HIS CHURCH

Next in order we come back to De Unitate 4. The structure of the passage is easy enough to analyze:

(1) Introduction: Tractatu longo atque argumentis opus non est.... (If any one consider and examine these things, there is no need for lengthened discussion and arguments. There is an easy proof for faith in a summary of truth....)

(2) Argument: Loquitur Dominus ad Petrum: "Ego dico in caelis." SVPER VNVM AEDIFICAT ECCLESIAM. (The Lord says to Peter, "I say unto thee", says he, "that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church...." etc UPON ONE [Peter] HE BUILDS THE CHURCH.)

(3) Objection: Quamuis apostolis omnibus parem potestatem tribuat....tenebuntur. (and though to all the apostles, after his resurrection, he gives an equal power and says [quote from John 20:21-23]...)

(4) Reply: tamen ut unitatem manifestaret, unitatis eiusdem originem ab uno incipientem sua auctoritate disposuit. (...yet in order that he might make clear the unity, by his authority, he has placed the source of the same unity, as beginning from one [Peter]...)

(5) Objection repeated: Hoc erant utique et ceteri apostoli quod fuit Petrus, pari consortio praediti et honoris et potestatis. (Certainly the other apostles were what Peter was, endowed with equal fellowship both of honor and of power...)

(6) Repeated reply: Sed exordium ab unitate proficiscitur.... (...but a beginning is made from unity, that one Church of Christ may be shown... De Unitate 4; Giles, page 50-51)

Now Koch makes the objection an integral part of the argument: "that Peter alone at first what the other Apostles only became later on." But that does not suit the structure of the sentence, and the earlier passages have taught us that the whole argument is contained in Matthew 16:18-19. It is summed up in the four words SUPER VNVM AEDIFICAT ECCLESIAM (UPON ONE HE BUILDS THE CHURCH). The objection is not intended to make the argument clearer. On the contrary, it is an objection which has presented itself (or very likely was urged by Felicissimus or the five rebel priests) and must be met somehow. The replies are really nothing else but reiterations of SUPER VNVM AEDIFICAT ECCLESIAM in ponderous and pompous language. If Cyprian had wanted to reply: "At any rate Peter was the first to be given the power, and that is what I mean by his having the Church built upon him," he could have said so plainly, though it would have been a complete change from his view inEpistles 33 and 43. But his words are far from having such a meaning on the surface.

Take the solemn metrical close sua auctoritate disposuit: Are we to understand: "He made by His authority the disposition that Peter should be the first in order of time" ? Surely it is odd to invoke "authoritative disposition" for a merely typical and allegorical precedence! And exordium ab unitate proficiscitur -- can we construe: Exordium -- the first giving of the power, proficiscitur -- takes its start,ab unitate -- from a single individual? Is not this too far-fetched? Surely ab uno means "from Peter considered as the one rock," and ab unitate means "from the unity of the one man who is the rock."

I should paraphrase the two replies somewhat as follows: "That He might make unity manifest, BY HIS AUTHORITY HE ORDAINED for this same unity an origin beginning from one, i.e. He built His one Church upon one" and "but the beginning of the Church takes its start from the unity of the one rock." I don't think Cyprian meant any more than this. Zeitliche Prioritat never entered his head; he merely repeats that there were indeed many Apostles with co-ordinate jurisdiction, but only one rock: super unum aedificat ecclesiam (upon one He builds the Church).

Priority of Time Remains?

In what does this prerogative of Peter consist? "Nothing remains," says Koch, "but priority of time." I have given enough reasons to show that priority of time does not remain. What remains is obviously a metaphor used by our Lord, the name He gave to Peter -- this alone is sufficient to prove the unity of the building erected upon him, without defining precisely what it implies. The objection is not really gone into, it is thrust aside: "Yes, I know they all had the same power, but the Church is built upon one." I think it is useless to interrogate the passage further, for Cyprian never saw very far, though he was always quite clear and logical as far as he saw. Koch's fault, and a pardonable one, is that he has tried to make a complete theory out of what is incomplete. Now I do not want to fall into the same mistake (I find myself constantly on the verge or over the verge as I write), and therefore I will not draw any conclusion from this passage as to the position of Peter as centre of the Church's unity; I only observe that there is something substantial and permanent about a rock-foundation.

But I think one may say that Cyprian was not satisifed with the passage, and for this reason re-wrote it. Koch, indeed, does not accept the proofs I gave in 1902-3 that the so-called "interpolation," or alternative form of this chapter (De Unitate 4) was really written by Cyprian [Chapman is vindicated by modern scholarship that both versions originated with Cyprian]. I will not swear to it. But I simply cannot discover any other explanation of the phenomena. [I skip Chapman's discussion of the different versions of De Unitate].

Now I am much impressed by the way in which all the data of the evidence are accounted for by the hypothesis that St. Cyprian himself composed the alternative passage. This supposition explains the alteration of chapter 19, the early date according to the MS evidence (I do not expect many people to follow this), the early quotations and (above all) the language, for Cyprian had the habit of repeating himself, and is sure to have the same phrase again when he returns to the same idea. This hypothesis does not seem to leave any serious difficulty, and I have been quite unable to invent any alternative theory. Neither of my courteous critics, Dr. Watson and Prof. Koch, has suggested any explanation. Until another theory is propounded, I imagine mine holds the field. But it depends entirely on circumstantial evidence, and is therefore liable to be dethroned if a better or equally satisfactory hypothesis is suggested.

St. Cyprian and the Primacy of Rome

So far I have been speaking merely about matters of scholarship, which scarcely affect the question of Cyprian's opinion about the Roman primacy. But this last is what mainly interests Koch. I must say I do not think it is a very important question. There is indeed plenty of room for difference of opinion as to details. But the main point is clear -- on an important matter Cyprian refused to accept the judgment of the Pope, and enunciated the absurd doctrine that bishops must agree to differ on all points where the faith does not come in. This is at least what his words come to, if we turn them into a theory of Church government.

But I have always held that such a treatment of Cyprian is unjustifiable. He was a practical man, without philosophy or theology. His generalisations are working rules for the moment, and do not apply beyond the circumstances with regard to which he framed them. His outlook was extremely narrow, and his logic was very short-sighted. In his passionate anger at Pope Stephen's unreasonableness (as he thought it), he argues as though the Roman tradition were heresy of the most absurd and blasphemous character, but he adds that every bishop is free to hold it if he pleases -- the Roman view cuts at the root of Church unity, and thus at the ground of all truth and of all authority, but it would be wrong to break with a bishop who holds it -- baptism by heretics defiles instead of cleansing, yet the bishop is to rebaptize or not as he thinks fit!

The measures he took in the case of the lapsed are based on propriety, prudence and kindliness, rather than upon theological principles. Not that he cannot argue from principle; on the contrary, he lays down the law and deduces the conclusion, without seeing how far it may lead him. He never perceives that his theory of the independence of bishops leads to anarchy, and could not be acted upon for a single year. He does not realise that his doctrine of church unity has led him into heresy and into schism. When tradition is quoted against him, his answer is ready: So much the worse for tradition! What would Irenaeus, what would Tertullian have said to such a doctrine?

Cyprian and Firmilian

The contrast with Firmilian is amusing. The Cappadocian does not run down tradition, he meets the Roman tradition with an Asiatic tradition -- this is to argue like a Churchman. He accepts Cyprian's arguments against Stephen, but he rationally concludes: "Thou art worse than all the heretics!" At the threat of excommunication Cyprian apparently determined not to break with Rome, even if Rome broke with him; but Firmilian has no such scruples, Stephen has excommunicated himself, he is a schismatic as well as a heretic -- here again we hear an ecclesiastic speaking. In contrast to this great Eastern bishop, the martyr of Carthage is a recent convert who has mastered but few Church principles and has exaggerated those few. He knows that he is supreme in his diocese as bishop, and his autocratic ways arouse a fierce opposition, in spite of his holiness, his eloquence and the generosity with which he distributes his wealth.

Opposition makes him cling the more to his authority, he makes the unity of the diocese and the monarchy of the bishop the same as the unity of the whole Church, and contempt of the bishop's power is the root of all heresy and schism! Novatianism throws the Church into a turmoil, and this confirms his theory, for at its rise the Novation schism was simply a question of rival popes, not of rival views about penance.

He had defended himself against the encroachments of the confessors, of the five opposing priests, of the deacon Felicissimus, and of the rival bishop Fortunatus, when he was yet more rudely disturbed by the edict of Stephen. It is another attack on his rights as a bishop -- that is all he sees. His main argument is that Stephen is illogical, and wrong, but he adds that the very idea of uniformity in such a matter is shocking, for its interferes with episcopal rights!

This is very remarkable. We know from Cyprian that Stephen issued an edict which ordered obedience under pain of excommunication. We learn from Firmilian that Stephen based his edict on an appeal to his succession from Peter. As to both these points Firmilian has, of course, an answer ready: the excommunication recoils upon Stephen, and his edict shows him to be no true successor to Peter. But Cyprian has nothing to say on either point. He is angry at the threat, but remains passive; it never strikes him that he is in the same case as Privatus of Lambese when branded by the letters of Donatus of Carthage and Fabian of Rome, or as Marcianus of Arles when denounced to Stephen by Cyprian himself! And he does not deal with the Pope's claim to give a binding decision; his reply is simply that no one can interfere -- he never adds, "not even the successor of Peter." This omission is so very astonishing that I always understand it to mean that Cyprian never quite took in the situation; he never realized, as Firmilian realized at once, that here was a command from one who meant to be obeyed, or he would have denied his credentials. I think he is quite convinced that the Pope has some undefined sphere of authority, but he must not interfere with the rights of bishops as exercised at Carthage!

But it is a practical matter, based on no large theory; for he holds that, though a large number of bishops agreed with Novation about the penance of the lapsed, they have no right to their view, they are heretics! If the bishops of Southern Gaul cannot get rid of their colleague at Arles, the bishop of Rome is the person to notify them of their duty. Why should not Marcianus of Arles be as free as Faustinus of Lyons to act as he pleased about the lapsed? There is no answer, except that Cyprian happened to agree with Stephen about the lapsed and to disagree with him about rebaptism. In the case of the Spanish bishops who were said to have lapsed, both sides tried to get the countenance of the Pope -- I do not see that we shall be saying too much if we call this appealing to Rome.

More on Cyprian's "Theory of the Episcopate"

Cyprian must, I think, have been at the moment blinded by rage against Stephen, for he heard only one side, and yet declared that Stephen had been basely deceived! He sees that Stephen gave a formal sentence; but he never denies his right to do so. Yet his decision is that the judgment is incorrect, and therefore need not be atteneded to; the rights of the other side remain what they were. This is bad law.

As councils have no compelling force, as the Pope need not be obeyed, unless one happens to agree with him, there is no remedy left for disorder. Yet Cyprian has complete confidence in the divine ordination of Church unity, and in the moral unanimity of bishops "glued together." I fear it was the shortness of his experience which made it possible to put forward a theory which no one has ever held before or since. This is why I think "St. Cyprian's theory of the episcopate" is of no importance except for his own biography. No one else has ever held it, and Cyprian himself held it only as a practical determination: "I will be master in my own diocese," and did not push it to its ultimate results; he did not see where it must lead and he did not apply it to other bishops.

Epistle 59: To the Chair of Peter and the Principal Church at Rome

It is just when we realize how strongly Cyprian felt about this authority of bishops that we see how important are his admissions and his silences on the subject of Rome. Here we have not his own theorizing but current ecclesiastical views which he could not avoid assimilating. The chief text is Epistle 59:14 --

Post ista adhuc pseudoepiscopo sibi ab haereticis constituto nauigare audent, et ad Petri Cathedram adque ad ecclesiam principalem unde unitas sacerdotalis exorta est ab schismaticis et profanis litteras ferre, nec cogitare eos esse Romanos, quorum fides Apostolo praedicante laudata est, ad quos perfidia habere non possit accessum

(After all this, they yet in addition, having had a false bishop ordained for them by heretics, dare to set sail, and to carry letters from schismatic and profane persons to the chair of Peter, and to the principal church, whence the unity of the priesthood [sacerdotal unity] took its rise [or has its source]. They fail to reflect that those Romans are the same as those whose faith was publicly praised by the apostle, to whom unbelief [or error, heresy, perversion of faith] cannot have access. Epistle 59:14; Giles, page 60)

Koch is obliged to admit that Cyprian sees in Rome a peculiar dignity, though no authority; but he thinks that Cyprian's language is elsewhere so distinct in denying all authority above that of bishops, that he must regard Rome as having only a moral supremacy, an honourable fame. Quite true, if we are to take his occasional protests about the independence of bishops as a complete, logical (and absurd) theory. But even so, what a place this single passage assigns to Rome! Koch's attempt to harmonize it with Cyprian's supposed theory is not very successful. Look at the contrast between the "schismatics and profane persons" and the immaculate faith of the Romans, which the Apostle had praised two hundred years before, and of which it was still possible to predicate that where it reigns unfaith has no access [note: in early ecclesiastical Latin perfidia means "unfaith" or "heresy," not simply "deceit"].

And why has it this prerogative? It is the Chair of Peter, on whom the Church was built, it is thus the "primatial Church," from which the unity of the episcopate had its rise. Is it not cutting it rather fine to say this means only that Peter received his apostolic powers as a type of unity before the other apostles received theirs, consequently the Church where he settled later on is said to be "the place whence unity had its rise" ? I do not think I could believe this, however much I tried. I do not attempt to define exactly how much St. Cyprian meant, but he meant a good deal more than that.

I may seem to have been speaking most disrespectfully of an illustrious saint. On the contrary I have been defending him. He was not so far-sighted or consistent as Koch thinks, but he had far more common sense, and his devotion to the unity of the Church atones, as St. Augustine saw, for his overvehemence and exaggerations.

On a Personal Note

I studied St. Cyprian before I became a Catholic. I was first introduced to him in a theological college, where I was told to understand him much as Koch does. But I was chiefly impressed by his arguments for unity. I think them now after twenty years what I thought them then -- unanswerable arguments for the truth of the Catholic Church. I was not and am not concerned with his opposition to the Pope -- "quae in Stephanum irritatus effudit" -- for the Church has decided against him; Optatus is a complete antidote; Augustine holds his view to be heresy and his conduct reprehensible, though his martyrdom atoned; St. Jerome speaks yet more clearly; St. Vincent of Lerins says that Stephen behaved just as befitted the high place he held. The good Anglicans in appealing to Cyprian neglect his main doctrine, the necessity of one Church, and appeal to his error with the Donatists and the Luciferians.

Prof. Koch is a very good-natured controversialist; he is accurate and never does wilful violence to the texts he interprets, though I cannot always think he has got hold of the right interpretation. Still I often agree with him. His fault is his attempt to systematize what is unsystematic. He has studied the ultimate results of a few expressions, and uses them as a norm, explaining away whatever is out of harmony with them. In much the same way some Catholic controversialists have been so impressed by a few texts of Cyprian about Rome that they have understood other passages without sufficient warrant in a similar sense, and have glossed over some difficulties. This is equally mistaken in method, but it is at least kinder to the Saint!

And after all, how slight his errors are! He resists the Pope on a point which he is sure does not touch the faith, and wherein consequently the Pope might be in the wrong. He wishes for more elasticity in discipline than experience has found practical. He is a little irreverent to tradition, but not to tradition about the faith. His chief error -- one day to be called heresy -- was caused by his very hatred of heresy and his devotion to unity. Contrast the errors, some monstrous, some childish, of Clement of Alexandria, of Tertullian, of Hippolytus, of Origen. No one wishes to appeal to the mistakes of these great men as witnesses to ancient tradition, because they are for the most part views which no one wants to hold today. In comparison with them, the great episcopate of Cyprian (marred only by a few not ignoble errors of judgment) and his immaculate faith shine with redoubled lustre, nay outshine even the glory of his martyrdom.

St. Jerome on St. Cyprian

St. Jerome (c. Lucif 23) tells us:

"Blessed Cyprian attempted to avoid heresy, and therefore rejected the baptism conferred by heretics, sent [the acts of] an African Council on this matter to Stephen, who was then Bishop of the city of Rome, and twenty-second from St. Peter; but his attempt was in vain. Eventually those very Bishops, who had decreed with him that heretics were to be rebaptized, returned to the ancient custom, and published a new decree."

This event is not otherwise testified. In fact, we do not know what happened after St. Cyprian's last letter to Pope Stephen. We cannot guess what was St. Jerome's authority. It is fairly clear that St. Cyprian was not cut off from communion with Rome under Dionysius and Xystus. It is inconceivable that Stephen withdrew his decision; it is almost as unlikely that Dionysius or Xystus dropped it. On the other hand, St. Cyprian's extreme anger, shown in his letter to Pompeius, is likely to have passed, as anger does. He had previously admitted the ancient custom, for bishops who preferred it. It is not very probable that his hundred bishops should have continued to support him against Rome. Did he make some explanations or concessions? The Donatists knew no more than St. Augustine knew. St. Optatus assumes that peace was never broken. Indeed, had Cyprian and all Africa been cut off from Rome by a minor excommunication (as we might gather from Firmilian's letter) the event would have been tremendous in import and notoriety. St. Augustine must be right that peace was somehow patched up without any weakening on the part of Rome.

St. Augustine on St. Cyprian

St. Augustine was at one time doubtful whether St. Cyprian's letters on this matter were genuine -- C. Cresc I 32 (38), II 31 (39), though he preferred simply to say that they are not canonical Scripture, and that he does not follow them (ibid). But elsewhere he admits that the style is Cyprian's -- Epistle 93, 10 (35), remarking that, though we do not know whether he changed his mind, "it is not incongruous to suppose that so great a man did correct his view"; at any rate, si quid in eo fuerat emendandum, purgauit Pater falce passionis (compare De bapt I, xviii:28, in catholica unitate permansit, et charitatis ubertate compensatum est, et passionis falce purgatum).

The question whether Cyprian was likely to give in depends on the other question, which view did he hold more strongly: the one, that nothing can justify the breaking of unity; the other, that it was permissible for some bishops to teach that heretics could only baptize into the devil, whereas others might justly hold their baptism to be valid, according to a mistaken tradition.

It is natural that Anglicans should assume that Cyprian must have adhered loyally and generously to the comprehensiveness which includes contradictory theories and acts, whereas he would willingly give up (for the sake of the view that black is white) his former declarations that it is necessary to be inside the Church. St. Augustine judges contrariwise that the martyr was not at heart a latitudinarian, but was above all a lover of unity. Perhaps the fourth and fifth centuries were nearer in sympathy to Cyprian than were the 17th or the 19th.

"What he poured forth against Stephen in his irritation I will not discuss over again," says St. Augustine (De bapt V, xxv:36). He believes that "uicit tamen pax Christi in cordibus eorum." But only Donatists could think Cyprian was in the right, and not the Pope. Puller takes the Donatist side, and parodies St. Augustine's words about Cyprian. He doubts whether Stephen was a martyr (and the fact is doubtful), adding:

"If he [Stephen] did so die, we may hope that he purged away in that second baptism whatever was amiss in his life." (Puller, Primitive Saints, 3rd edition, page 70)

"He [Cyprian] merited to attain the crown of martyrdom; so that any cloud which had obscured the brightness of his mind was driven away by the brilliant sunshine of his glorious blood." (St. Augustine, De bapt I, xviii:28)

St. Vincent on St. Cyprian and the Bishop of Rome

St. Vincent of Lerins takes the orthodox view:

"The custom has ever flourished in the Church, that the more religious a man is the more he opposes novel inventions. Examples are very numerous. But to be brief, let us take but one, and that one especially from the Apostolic See [at Rome]; that all may see more clearly than daylight with what power, with what energy, with what perseverance the integrity of the Religion once received has always been defended by the blessed succession of the Blessed Apostles."

"Once upon a time, Agrippinus of venerable memory, bishop of Carthage, first of all men, against the divine Canon of Scripture, against the rule of the universal Church....thought rebaptism ought to be practised....Then Pope Stephen of blessed memory, Prelate of the Apostolic See, together with his colleagues, indeed, but yet beyond the others, resisted; thinking it fit, I deem, that he should surpass all others as much by the devotion of his faith as by the authority of his rank...."

"What was the end? What force was there in the African council? By God's gift, none at all. All, as a dream or a tale, was abolished, forgotten."

"Et, o rerum mira conuersio! Auctores eiusdem opinionis catholici, consectatores haeretici, iudicantur; absoluuntur magistri, condemnantur discipuli; conscriptores librorum filii regni erunt, adsertores uero gehenna suscipiet?"

"For who is so mad to doubt that blessed Cyprian, that light of all saints and martyrs, with his colleagues shall reign for eternity with Christ? Or who, on the contrary, so sacrilegious as to deny that the Donatists and the other plagues, who boast that it is by the authority of that Council that they rebaptize, shall burn with the devil for ever?" (Commonitorium I:6)

In the East there were others in the fourth century besides St. Basil who thought it might be well sometimes to rebaptize heretics; but such peculiarities were apparently only put in practice in rare cases. It was certainly not the custom anywhere to rebaptize Arians or Semi-Arians. From the fifth century onwards the East is absolutely in line with the West, and St. Basil's theoretical opinion remains a dead letter. All St. Cyprian's torrents of argument, eloquence, invective against the teaching of Rome were in vain.


Notes omitted for brevity

The Anglican historian Edward Giles comments: "Cyprian is clearer than Origen about the meaning of our Lord's words to Peter (Matt 16:18). To him the rock is Peter, and our Lord built his Church on Peter. He says this so often that no one doubts that it is his view. Cyprian also claims that this text gives the bishops their authority, for the Church is settled upon them....Disputes on this version [of De Unitate 4] have therefore turned on the question whether in Cyprian's view the primacy of Peter was a permanent factor in the Church or not. On the one hand it is suggested that 'Peter is not the real ground, not the cause nor the centre, but only the starting point in time, and the means of recognition of Church unity' [quoting Hugo Koch]....Against this view Dom Chapman stresses the words'Upon one he builds the Church.' That one is Peter; Peter is the rock, and the idea of a temporary rock is absurd. There is no mention of priority in time in Epistles 33 and 43, and from these letters it seems clear to Chapman that Cyprian means Peter, like the bishop to be 'a permanent not a transient guarantee of the unity of the edifice which rises upon a single rock.''"(Giles, page 49, 52)