More on St. Cyprian of Carthage


Below are some responses I gave to the facebook page “Shameless Orthodoxy” – I here keep it for my records, but feel free to read.

Thank you for your response. During day time hours (EST) I won’t be as available. But I have a shot now, so I will take it. I will divide my post into points which correspond to yours. This way you know what I am seeking to engage. But a preliminary remark – At the end of the podcast, you will hear me say that my treatment of Cyprian is not over. In fact, and any of my readers could tell you this, Cyprian was not a Papal supremacist. And I don’t recall I said that. That said, his stated theology matches the logic of the Catholic model, as it was known then, as well as progressively throughout the centuries up unto our day.

(1) “Chair of Peter” – This is hardly a reference to merely a personal succession, with the mere implication Peter was at Rome. Here is why. When Cyprian read the gospel of Matthew, chapter 16:16-18, he saw the formation of the Church’s essential structure (i.e. the order of bishops). “Our Lord…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 you, that you are Peter and on this rock I will build My church (Etc & Etc)’……From there, 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 upon divine law….” (Ep. 26). That Cyprian understood the ‘place of Peter’ just described as the ‘chair of Peter’ or the ‘chair of the Bishop’ is made clear by his saying – “They who have departed from the Church, not 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” (Ep. 39.5). When he says “one Chair founded by the voice of the Lord on the rock”, he is clearly alluding to the office of bishop which he understood as being founded in the investiture of Christ into St. Peter, and since he refers to it as “chair”, we are safe in saying that “chair of Peter”‘ is not merely a reference to a personal succession, but to the very essential order of the office of Bishop, much less that Peter died in Rome. The next question we should ask is this – Did Cyprian think the “chair of Peter” or the “office of Bishop” be rendered obedience, or merely honorific respect? Cyprian answers – “For this has been the source from which heresies and schisms have arisen, that God’s priest is not obeyed, nor do people reflect that there is for the time one Priest in the church [i.e. the Bishop] , who for the time is judge in place of Christ , and if the whole brotherhood would obey him, according to divine teaching, no one would stir up anything against the college of Priests; no one after the divine judgement….” (Ep. 54.5) and “…they are the Church who are a people united to the Priest, and a flock sticking to its shepherd. From this you ought to realize that the bishop is in the Church, and the Church in the bishop; and if any one is not with the bishop, he is not in the Church” (Ep. 68.8). So not only is “chair of Peter” the divinely established order for Christ’s church, specifically the “chair of the Bishop”, but this “chair” is owed obedience by the people. So Cyprian sees in Peter the establishment of an office which is owed obedience and the faithful adherence of unity. Peter is an authoritative figure for Cpyrian, *precisely because* the figure of Peter is the figure of the Bishop. Now, if you deduct this authoritative character from Cyprian’s “Peter”, then you’ve at the same time deducted the authority of bishops. Obviously, the local community is in view here. More to say below.

(2) Certainly what princeps/principalem/principalis means in Cyprian is a matter of interpretation. Though I would argue that it can mean even for him one above his peers. For example, in his 12th Treatise, chapter 12, he uses the word to describe Jesus as the “princeps” to translate the Micah passage where Israel is promised the “Prince” or “Messiah”, which is a reference to the coming King of David, but then also uses “principio” to translate “his goings forth from the beginning [principo] from the days of old”, which indicate an reference of origin, or beginning. The fact of the matter is simple – depending on the context, principalem can mean “first in historical date” or “originating norm”. We know for sure that Cyprian does not mean to say that the Roman church was the first *historical* church, for that we have holy Jerusalem, the mother of all churches, as well as Antioch and plenty more which were planted during the mission of the Palestinians. He also certainly does not mean the Roman church is the first church planted from which Carthage was born. We have no idea where and when Carthage was planted as a church. Rather, when Cyprian distinguishes the ecclesia romana with principalem, we must look to the context for what defines the unique characterization. In fact, we are told “from whence the unity of the priesthood to its rise”. Well, the sounds a whole like what Cyprian has described of the Apostle Peter. In fact, it sounds a whole lot like what Cyprian understood of the office of Bishop. And that goes for *whichever* copy of De Unitate you wish you utilize as authentically Cyprianic. I think the German scholar, Ludwig Hertling, got it right when he comments: “He [Cyprian] cannot have meant this historically, since Rome was not the first missionary center. Historically, the Church began from Jerusalem. Cyprian’s exorta est must therefore be a present perfect, referring to the once-for-all and ever renewed origin from Rome of the communio linking the bishops. Rome is thus the focal point of the communio, not as the geographical center but as the center of its power and legitimacy” (Church and Papacy, page 69). I will add another Cyprianist, Dr. Allen Brent, Fellow @ Cambridge (professor of early Church history), whose profile can be seen at the following link ( ) – “Another meaning for exordium is, according to the editors of the Oxford Latin Dictionary, ‘the warp set up on a loom before the web is started’, and, by extension, the ‘weaving’ of fate. Cyprian’s view of the Church is of a network of bishops bound together by the bonds of mutual recognition and inter-communion….but the logic of such a network is that it has, like the weaving of a piece of cloth, a starting point in the process. This theological sense, derived from his theological model of the undivided ‘robe’ of Christ, is what for him necessitates Rome as the centre of the web as it were, holding its unity together. Thus, I believe that Cyprian, in his confrontation with Stephen, was wrestling with a problem of his own (and not, as Dunn believes, of Stephen’s own) making. How is the episcopal college to react when the exordium behaves differently from how the model predicted that it would and ought to behave?” (Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Pg 521).

(3) I cannot accept the idea that Cyprian is speaking purely in historical terms which leave Peter as exordium or Rome as the place of it as something isolated in the past. This is to divorce Cyprian’s theology of the Church authority, which is not only founded historically in the person of Peter, but which continues on in the “successions” (Ep 26). It is not as if the order of Bishop begins with Peter as the first in a series of persons. Not every bishop in the universal church is descendant of Peter, for one. Secondly, Cyprian understands the *current* order of bishops to be the “place of Peter” (Ep 51.8). Peter has an ongoing character in the life of the Church’s magisterium. Not personal, of course, but official (officium or Cathedra) . But if that were not enough, the very version of De Unitate that an Orthodox or Anglican would want to use already shows how Cyprian’s theology does not permit at all a break away from the constant vitality of the “source”. Consider this portion – “The Church also is one, which is spread abroad far and wide into a multitude by an increase of fruitfulness. As there are many rays of the sun, but one light; and many branches of a tree, but one strength based in its tenacious root; and since from one spring flow many streams, although the multiplicity seems diffused in the liberality of an overflowing abundance, yet the unity is still preserved in the source. Separate a ray of the sun from its body of light, its unity does not allow a division of light; break a branch from a tree—when broken, it will not be able to bud; cut off the stream from its fountain, and that which is cut off dries up.” So you see here that the source is not some historical point which we can all forget and merely refer to in moral terms. No, it has an ever-renewed (as Hertling stated above) vitality and even essential function in the ongoing unity of the organism. Cut it off from here, and you have death. This is why Cyprian can say “he who deserts the chair of Peter is already a schismatic”. Mind you, this was also the logic of St. Optatus, St. Jerome, and St Augustine. The latter, in fact, was famous for making the following melody meant to be repeatedly sung by those aggravated by the Donatist schismatics – “Number the bishops from the See of Peter itself. And in that order of fathers see who succeeds whom; That is the rock against which the gates of hell do not prevail” (Ps. c. Partes Don. str. 18). Lastly, you had quoted Cyprian where he said “decreed made by all of us” to say that Cyprian was expressing Orthodox ecclesiology. However true that is, that very epistle (Ep 54) shows that Fortunatus and Felicissimus understood the Roman see to be possessed of a higher authority than the African concilium , and that is one of the reasons why Cyprian was complaining.

(4) I will go into this more in the next podcast, but en nuce, Cyprian did not follow through with the ideology he already knew was true about the Roman see. As soon as you individuate the Roman see along “Petrine” lines, then you are de facto attributing to her an individuating authority over all others. This is, no doubt, how St. Stephen I understood it. It is a shame we do not have his corpus, for then Cyprian’s prestige would not have its reputed influence in Anglican/Orthodox ecclesiological think tanks. But here’s the thing. Eastern Orthodox & Anglican scholars have already acknowledged that Cyprian individuated and attributed to the Roman “ecclesia” the very character of Petrine primacy. I quote from Dr. Beresford Kidd – “Cyprian also quite naturally acknowledges that there is a sense in which the title Cathedra Petri belongs more specifically to the Roman see (supposing, of course, though facts, as we have seen, are against it, that St. Peter was ever bishop of Rome) as well as a sense in which the African church owes its unitas sacerdotalis, or episcopate, to Rome as to the ‘principal’ or mother-church” (Roman Primacy, 28-29). Also, Fr Laurent Cleenewerk acknowledges the same (His Broken Body, pg 286). Now, they do not believe that such Petrine-attribution entails that Rome has any unique authority. But here’s the problem. For Cyprian, Peter is the Bishop of the Apostles. That was the very reason why he wrote his De Unitate was because of the clash between the presbyterate and the episcopate in North African and Rome. By showing that the episcopate draws from the fount of Peter’s office, he shows that presbyter, deacon, and laity alike are bound by obedience to the bishop, and he who breaks from the bishop is no longer in the Church (i.e. Fortunatus and Felicissimus). So, for Cyprian’s argument to work, the “Peter” figure which he builds his theology of Bishops upon must be an authoritative figure, otherwise it collapses and his case against the schismatics is undone. So for scholars to admit that Cyprian attribute Petrinity to the Roman see, and one which is unique to all, it creates an issue of inconsistency either in their own argument, or Cyprian’s own argument.
My own position – Cyprian’s theory of ecclesiology leads directly to Papal supremacy, however, he did not connect these dots as others did. And this is why I don’t like to call it “Cyprian’s ecclesiology”, for it was not his. Stephen made appeals to the Petrine prerogative against Africa, and so it must have been known quite well in Rome. Cyprian’s ends with the practical idea that each bishop is sovereign and answers to God alone on the day of judgment. This is not an ecclesiology which is even taken up by the Byzantine East (Metropolitan/Patriarchate), for both East and West now agree that an Ecumenical Council can judge all bishops (save, in the perspective of the West, the Pope). His went down espousing rules which no one embraced, and which would have never worked in achieving the unity he so elegantly defended in theory. If you want an Eastern Orthodox saint who defended everything I am saying here, and who bases it all of Cyprianic material, read the letters/sermons of Pope St. Leo the Great.

1 thought on “More on St. Cyprian of Carthage

  1. Pingback: Saint Peter, the Rock, and the Keys: Symbolic Representations of the Catholic Church | Erick Ybarra

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