Reflection: Cyprian’s Ecclesiology

This paper was initially written for the course Early and Medieval Christianity in Winter 2011.

Four main points of Cyprian’s ecclesiology stand out.  First, the Church is one, united around the same teachings.  Second, authority lies in the episcopate as the spiritual descendants of the apostles.  Third, there is a sharp line between those in the Church and those outside of it, such as heretics and schismatics.  Fourthly and finally, in the specific challenge of the baptismal controversy, those outside the Church do not have the power to perform valid baptisms.

Cyprian’s treatise On the Unity of the Church proclaims this first point loud and clear.  It is obvious to him that God desires a unified church.  He claims that the only reason it is not is because of Satan, who “has invented heresies and schisms whereby he might subvert the faith, might corrupt the truth, might divide the unity” (section 3).  One of the themes that are introduced within that sentence and carries on is that these three ideas are equated: subverting the faith is the same thing as corrupting truth and is the same thing as dividing unity.  Thus while those leading heretical groups or schism factions would call themselves Christians, they are not, because the true Church is united.  In Section 4 and elsewhere, he even refers to “the sacrament of unity,” and in Section 15, he extrapolates the commands to love God and neighbour to include “be united,” as if they are the same thing.

The majority of the rest of On the Unity of the Church provides a multitude of examples through Scripture of where unity is glorified and division condemned.  The Trinity itself cannot be divided (6; also On Baptism, 5).  Cyprian contrasts how Abijah tore Jeroboam’s garment into pieces after the division of Israel into two kingdoms with how Jesus’ garment was not divided. Therefore, unlike Israel, Jesus’ Church cannot be divided (7; also On Baptism, 6).  He also sees Rahab as pointing towards the Church, as it was necessary for her whole family to gather in one place in order to be saved, and uses the same argument for the gathering together in one house for the Passover (8).  In another work, On Baptism, Cyprian sees the elements of Communion as also symbolic of unity (6).  At least the lapsed only hurt themselves and have now seen the error of their ways, seeking a return to the church, while those causing schisms not only continue to stay outside the church themselves but separate others as well (On the Unity of the Church, 19).

In explaining how the Church’s unity should be maintained, Cyprian agrees with the earlier writings of Tertullian and speaks of apostolic succession.  He seems to be opposed to the idea of the bishop of Rome having a higher authority than other bishops, claiming that “to all the apostles… he gives an equal power” and that “assuredly the rest of the apostles were the same as was Peter” (4).  Instead, the episcopate as a whole is the primary authority, and within itself it is “to be one and undivided” (5).  This episcopate must be given, not taken for oneself (10; also the references to Korah, Dathan and Abiram in 18).  Yet, he still sets the stage for papal authority with his discussion of Peter being first among the apostles as the rock of Jesus’ church.

Since the true Church is united, then the obvious conclusion is that those causing division are obviously not a part of the true Church.  This creates a very sharp contrast between those in and those out.  “The spouse of Christ cannot be adulterous; she is uncorrupted and pure” (6) makes the line clear: those within the church are pure and those outside are corrupted.  The true Church keeps the commands of Jesus (2) while those outside “do not stand firm with the Gospel of Christ” (3).  Regarding those outside of the church, he asks rhetorically “does he think that he has Christ, who acts in opposition to Christ’s priests, who separates himself from the company of His clergy and people?” (17)  The oft-quoted answer to this question: “He can no longer have God for his father, who has not the Church for his mother” (6).

The baptismal controversy became a focal point for some of this ecclesiology.  Against those who have caused a schism in the Church, Cyprian says “they think that they can baptise; although they forsake the fountain of life, they promise the grace of living and saving water” (11).  Cyprian’s letter to Magnus, also called On Baptism, deals with this issue in more depth.  The modern reader may be confused by this idea of leaving the Church being the same as leaving “the fountain of life” as they have not forsaken any of the beliefs held central to Christianity.  They have left the mainstream Church, however, which is equated by Cyprian to leaving the faith (7).  He condemns baptism by those outside the tradition of apostolic succession, namely Novation, and calls it “profane washing” because “no heretics and schismatics at all have any power or right” (1).  Since Novation did not come to his office through “lawful ordination”, he cannot exercise the Church’s power to baptise (3).  Novation and other schismatics themselves claim that sins are forgiven through the Church, but according to Cyprian, Novation is not a part of the Church.  This makes baptism by Novation invalid (7).

In summary, Cyprian claims that above all else, the Church is one, united under the authority of the episcopate through lawful ordination.  This forces a sharp line of contrast between those in the Church and those outside, and carries with that such conclusions as that those outside (even if they call themselves inside) do not have the power to baptize.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.