Ante-Nicene Fathers/Volume V/Cyprian/Introductory Notice to Cyprian

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Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. V by Cyprian, translated by Robert Ernest Wallis
Introductory Notice to Cyprian

Introductory Notice to Cyprian.

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[a.d. 200–258.] If Hippolytus reflects the spirit of Irenæus in all his writings, it is not remarkable. He was the spiritual son of the great Bishop of Lyons, and deeply imbued with the family character imparted to his disciples by the blessed presbyter of Patmos and Ephesus.  But while Cyprian is the spiritual son and pupil of Tertullian, we must seek his characteristics and the key to his whole ministry in the far-off See and city where the disciples were first called Christians. Cyprian is the Ignatius of the West. We see in his works how truly historical are the writings of Ignatius, and how diffused was his simple and elementary system of organic unity. It embodies no hierarchical assumption, no “lordship over God’s heritage,” but is conceived in the spirit of St. Peter when he disclaimed all this, and said, “The presbyters who are among you I exhort, who am also a presbyter.” Cyprian was indeed a strenuous asserter of the responsibilities of his office; but he built upon that system universally recognised by the Great Councils, which the popes and their adherents have ever laboured to destroy. Nothing can be more delusive than the idea that the mediæval system derives any support from Cyprian’s theory of the episcopate or of Church organization. His was the system of the universal parity and community of bishops. In his scheme the apostolate was perpetuated in the episcopate, and the presbyterate was an apostolic institution, by which others were associated with bishops in all their functions as co-presbyters, but not in those reserved to the presidency of the churches. Feudal ideas imposed a very different system upon the simple framework of original Catholicity. But a careful study of that primitive framework, and of the history of papal development, makes evident the following propositions:—

1. That Cyprian’s maxim, Ecclesia in Episcopo, whatever else he may have meant by it, is an aphoristic statement of the Nicene Constitutions. These were embedded in the Ignatian theory of an episcopate without a trace of a papacy; and Cyprian’s maxims had to be practically destroyed in the West before it was possible to raise the portentous figure of a supreme pontiff, and to subject the Latin churches to the entirely novel principle of Ecclesia in Papa. To this novelty Cyprian’s system is essentially antagonistic.

2. It will be seen that Cyprian, far from being the patron of ecclesiastical despotism, is the expounder of early canons and constitutions, in the spirit of order and discipline, indeed, but with the largest exemplification of that “liberty” which is manifested wherever “the Spirit of the Lord” is operative. Cyprian is the patron and defender of the presbytery and of lay co-operation, as well as of the regimen of the episcopate. His letters illustrate the Catholic system as it was known to the Nicene Fathers; but, of all the Christian Fathers, he is the most clear and comprehensive in his conception of the body of Christ as an organic whole, in which every member has an honourable function.[1] Popular government and representative government, the legitimate power and place of the laity, the organization of the Christian plebs into their faculty as the ἀντιλήψεις of St. Paul,[2] the development of synods, omni plebe adstante,—all this is embodied in the Catholic system as Cyprian understood it.

3. The Orientals[3] in large degree, even under their yoke of bondage and the superstitions engendered by their decay, have ever adhered to this Ignatian theory, of which Cyprian was the great expounder in the West; while the terrible schism of the ninth century, which removed the West from the Nicene basis, and placed the Latin churches upon the foundation of the forged Decretals,[4] was effected by ignoring the Cyprianic maxims, and then by a practical pulverizing of their fundamental principle of unity. This change involved a subversion of the primitive episcopate, an annihilation of the rights of the presbytery, and a total abasement of the laity; in a word, the destruction of synodical constitutions and of constitutional freedom.

4. The constitutional primacy, of which Cyprian was an early promotor, had to be entirely destroyed by decretalism before the papacy could exist. Gregory the Great stood upon the Cyprianic base when he pronounced the author of a scheme for a “universal bishopric” to be a forerunner of Antichrist. It was the spirit of the Decretals to substitute the fictitious idea of a divine supremacy in one bishop and one See, for the canonical presidency of a bishop who was only primus inter pares.

5. Hence the Cyprianic system has ever been the great resource of the “Gallicans against the Ultramontanes” in the cruel but most interesting history of the West. From the Council of Frankfort to our own times Cyprian’s spirit is reflected in Hincmar, in Gerbert, in the Gallican canonists, in De Marca, in Bossuet, in Launoy, in Dupin, in Pascal, in the Jansenists (Augustinians), and by the Old Catholics in their late uprising against the dogmatic triumph of Ultramontanism. Nobody can understand the history of Latin Christianity without mastering the system of Cyprian, and comprehending the entirely hostile and uncatholic system of the Decretals.

6. I am not anxious to conceal the fact that I profoundly sympathize with the free spirit, the true benignity, and the moral purity which are everywhere rejected in the writings of Cyprian. If ever American Romanism becomes sufficiently enlightened and purified to comprehend this great Carthaginian Father, and to speak in his tones to the Bishop of Rome, a glorious reformation of this alien religion will be the result; and then we may comprehend the mysterious Providence which has transferred to these shores so many subjects of the despotism of the Vatican. Meanwhile the student of the Ante-Nicene Fathers will not be slow to perceive that he has, in the eight volumes of this series, all that is needful to disarm Romanism, to refute its pretensions, and to direct honest and truth-loving spirits in the Roman Obedience to the door of escape opened by Döllinger and his associates in the “Old Catholic” effort for the restoration of the Latin churches.  Let us “speak the truth in love,” and pray the Lord to bless this and every endeavour to promote and to sanctify the spirit of enlightened research after the “pattern in the mount.” For “thus saith the Lord, Stand ye in the ways, and see and ask for the old paths:”  τὰ ἀρχαῖα ἔθη. The following Introduction, from the Edinburgh editor, supplies further answers to inquiry, and suffices to elucidate the subjoined narrative of Pontius.

Little is known of the early history of Thascius Cyprian (born probably about 200 a.d.) until the period of his intimacy with the Carthaginian presbyter Cæcilius, which led to his conversion a.d. 246. That he was born of respectable parentage, and highly educated for the profession of a rhetorician, is all that can be said with any degree of certainty. At his baptism he assumed the name of his friend Cæcilius, and devoted himself, with all the energies of an ardent and vigorous mind, to the study and practice of Christianity.

His ordination and his elevation to the episcopate rapidly followed his conversion. With some resistance on his own part, and not without great objections on the part of older presbyters, who saw themselves superseded by his promotion, the popular urgency constrained him to accept the office of Bishop of Carthage (a.d. 248), which he held until his martyrdom (a.d. 258).

The writings of Cyprian, apart from their intrinsic worth, have a very considerable historical interest and value, as illustrating the social and religious feelings and usages that then prevailed among the members of the Christian community. Nothing can enable us more vividly to realize the intense convictions—the high-strained enthusiasm—which formed the common level of the Christian experience, than does the indignation with which the prelate denounces the evasions of those who dared not confess, or the lapses of those who shrank from martyrdom. Living in the atmosphere of persecution, and often in the immediate presence of a lingering death, the professors of Christianity were nerved up to a wonderful contempt of suffering and of worldly enjoyment, and saw every event that occurred around them in the glow of their excited imagination; so that many circumstances were sincerely believed and honestly recorded, which will not be for a moment received as true by the calm and critical reader. The account given by Cyprian in his treatise on the Lapsed[5] may serve as an illustration. Of this Dean Milman observes: “In what a high-wrought state of enthusiasm must men have been, who could relate and believe such statements as miraculous!”[6]

Before being advanced to the episcopate, Cyprian had written his Epistle to Donatus shortly after his baptism (a.d. 246); his treatise, or fragment of a treatise, on the Vanity of Idols; and his three books of Testimonies against the Jews. In the following translation the order of Migne has been adopted, which places the letter to Donatus, as seems most natural, first among the Epistles, instead of with the Treatises.

The breaking out of the Decian persecution (a.d. 250) induced Cyprian to retire into concealment for a time; and his retreat gave occasion to a sharp attack upon his conduct, in a letter from the Roman to the Carthaginian clergy.[7] During this year he wrote many letters from his place of concealment to the clergy and others at Rome and at Carthage, controlling, warning, directing, and exhorting, and in every way maintaining his episcopal superintendence in his absence, in all matters connected with the well-being of the Church.

The first 39 of the epistles, excepting the one to Donatus, were probably written during the period of Cyprian’s retirement. He appears to have returned to his public duties early in June, 251. Then follow many letters between himself and Cornelius bishop of Rome, and others, on subjects connected with the schisms of Novatian, Novatus, and Felicissimus, and with the condition of those who had been perverted by them. The question proposed in Epistle 52 was settled in the Council that was held in May, 252; and the reference to that anticipated decision limits the date of the letter to about April in the same year. In the 53d Epistle, Cyprian is alluding to the impending persecution of Gallus, under which Cornelius was banished in July, 252. The 56th Epistle was a letter of congratulation to Cornelius on his banishment; and therefore it must have been written before September 14th in that year, the date of the death of Cornelius. Lucius, his successor, was also banished, and was congratulated on his return by Cyprian in Epistle 57, which therefore must have been written about the end of November, 252. The 59th Epistle is referred by Bishop Pearson to the beginning of the year 253.

There seems nothing to suggest the date of Epistles 60 and 61, except the probability that they were written during a time of peace; and for this reason they are referred to the beginning of Cyprian’s episcopate, before the outbreak of the Decian persecution, a.d. 249. It is usual to assign Epistle 64 to the same year, or at least to a very early period of Cyprian’s official life; but it seems scarcely likely that his episcopal counsel should have been sought by a brother bishop in a matter of practice, until he had had some experience; and as it was probably written at a time of peace, when discipline had become relaxed, the date 253 seems preferable. The 68th Epistle is easily dated by the reference, on page 246, to an episcopate of six years’ duration; and it must therefore have been written in a.d. 254. On the 14th September, Cyprian was banished to Curubis by the Emperor Valerian. From his place of exile he wrote Epistle 76, which was replied to in Epistles 77, 78, and 79. Doubts are entertained as to the date of Epistle 80, whether it should be referred to a.d. 250 or 257.  Pamelius prefers the latter date, on the ground that the Rogatianus to whom it is inscribed was one who survived the Decian persecution, and a younger man than the one who, as he supposes, was declared to have suffered martyrdom at the date of this Epistle.[8] This, however, seems very unsatisfactory; and the weight of authority is in favour of the earlier date. The remaining Epistles are easily limited by their contents to the period immediately preceding Cyprian’s martyrdom.

For the sake of uniformity, it has been thought well to adhere to the arrangement of Migne, in the order of the Epistles as well as in their divisions. For the convenience of reference, however, the number of each Epistle in the Oxford edition is appended in a note. For a similar reason, the general form of Migne’s text has been used in the following translation; but the use of other texts and of preceding translations has not been rejected in the endeavour to approximate to the sense of the author.  Moreover, such various readings as might suggest different shades of meaning in doubtful passages have been given.

The Translator has only to add, that, as a rule, an exact rendering has been sought after, sometimes in preference to a version in fluent English. But, except in cases where the corruption or obscurity of the text seems insurmountable, the meaning of the writer is believed to be given fairly and intelligibly.  The style of Cyprian, like that of his master Tertullian, is marked much more by vehemence than perspicuity, and it is often no easy matter to give exact expression in another language to the idea contained in the original text. Cyprian’s Life, as written by his own deacon Pontius, is subjoined.

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Note by the American Editor.[9]

It is easy to speak with ridicule of such instances as Dean Milman here treats so philosophically. But, lest believers should be charged with exceptional credulity, let us recall what the father of English Deism relates of his own experiences, in the conclusion of his Autobiography: “I had no sooner spoken these words (of prayer to the Deist’s deity) but a loud though yet a gentle noise came from the heavens, for it was like nothing on earth, which did so comfort and cheer me, that I took my petition as granted, and that I had the sign I demanded.…This, how strange soever it may seem, I protest, before the eternal God, is true,” etc. Life of Herbert, p. 52, Popular Authors (no date).  London. From Horace Walpole’s edition.


Footnotes[edit]

  1. Eph. iv. 15, 16; 1 Cor. xii. 12–30. I have little doubt that our author’s theory was guided by his conceptions of this passage, and by Ignatian traditions.
  2. 1 Cor. xii. 28.
  3. See Guettée’s Exposition, p. 93.
  4. Of which, hereafter, in an elucidation. See Guettée, p. 383.
  5. P. 368, vol. i. Edin. edition.
  6. Milman’s History of Christianity, vol. ii. p. 190, note b. See note, p. 266.
  7. Epistle ii.
  8. P. 328, Ed. Edinburgh.
  9. See p. 265.