In Early Christian Thinkers: The Lives and Legacies of Twelve Key Figures edited by Paul Foster the chapter on Cyprian of Carthage is written by J. Patout Burns.
Cyprian was the Bishop of Carthage during the persecutions under Emperor Decius. As many Christians denied Christ the church had to decide what to do with them when they wanted to return after the persecutions. According to Burns, “…they had been unable to determine the proper course of action on the basis of scripture. They had brought forward passages but found that none of them offered adequate guidance for the decision they were facing (p. 136).” This lack of obvious guidance from Scripture forced the church to think serious about their theology, especially ecclesiology. This is where Cyprian contributed.
Cyprian’s ecclesiology precedes and prepares the way for later Roman Catholic and Orthodox ecclesiology. Cyprian was focused on maintaining the unity of the church. He saw salvation as coming through the church: “No one can have God for Father without having the Church for Mother (p. 135).” Christ had chosen the apostles and the apostles had chosen successors. These successors were the bishops and “…the bishop was the principle of unity…” for the church (p. 131).
To fight the bishop was to fight the chosen of God. To fight the chosen of God was to put one’s self outside the church. The bishops maintained accountability through an episcopal college (remember, Cyprian’s context is Africa). “Heretical of schismatic Christian communities were established by demonic attacks on the unity of the church, and as such they were functionally idolatrous (p. 132).” So if one were to be part of the true church through which salvation and sanctification were derived one must be submitted to an orthodox bishop. Burns writes of Cyprian: “The unity of the church was not, however, the result of human co-operation: it was a created expression of the indivisible unity of the Trinity (p. 133).”
The purity of the church was essential, so schismatics and those who had denied Christ had to go through ritual cleansing. Orthodox bishops would offer baptisms and sin-removing Eucharist meals. Sinful bishops impacted the whole church (pp. 133-134).
This emphasis on baptism and Eucharist by bishops solidified the orthodoxy and unity of the church in the mind of Cyprian (like Roman Catholic and Orthodox ecclesiology today). Cyprian’s influence helped many churches decide what to do with those who left the fold and denied Christ. He obviously influenced Christian doctrines of unity, the Sacraments, and the episcopate. In his context I understand why he argued for what he argued. As a “low-church” person myself I obviously think the effort to maintain a visible unity of the church went too far.
Burns’ chapter is a very helpful introduction to Cyprian for those interested.