St. Cyprian on the Roman See: Ecclesia Principalis Unde Unitas Sacerdotalis Exorta Est


I may have 2 or more articles (here and here) on this blog already about the ecclesiology of St. Cyprian, and so the readers will know of my particular understanding of it. Those who have read also know that I am of the opinion that Cyprian had an internal conflict in his ecclesiology since, on the one hand, he posed the idea of the unity of the Church to be guaranteed by the unity of Bishops,  that the unity of Bishops hinged on the singular chair of Peter (understood as a universal reality unto which all Bishops adhere),  that, in some way, the Episcopate of Rome occupies a special position as the successor and holder of Peter’s chair, and on the other hand, that there is no such thing as a “bishop of Bishops“, or  one holds universal headship and thus governmental jurisdiction over the whole network of Bishops. In fact, the sustaining of this unity, in the mind of Cyprian, was the “glue of concord” or the “agreement between Bishops“. So long as this glue or agreement was sustained, there was the principle of unity and peace. The problem with this, of course, is this glue and agreement were not permanently secured in such a way that no division was possible, at least in some proportion which forces one to have to discriminate between groups, councils, and regions of Bishops versus others. It is to this factor that some of Cyprian’s contemporaries pushed for logical implications which transgressed his own comfort zone, as we shall see.

The 3rd century, in which Cyprian lived, had its number of episcopal divisions; after all, you had the Novatianist episcopate which Cyprian condemned, and even credited the Bishop of Rome with special contribution to its condemnation. But Cyprian surely did not live long enough to see the scale of controversy that would be in store for the coming Donatist schism which would be born in his own native country – Africa. In fact, it was against this Donatistic schism which caused the apologists of the true Church to discrminate down to a single Bishop what constituted the supreme “Cathedra Petri” (chair of Peter) by suggesting that all who remain united to the See of Rome were incorporated into the single reality of ecclesia, and none others. I here think of St. Optatus and St. Augustine, who both wrote extensively in this vein. Still, Cyprian lived far before the onslaught of the 4th century schisms caused by the Arian-speculators,  whose divisive spirit was also supported by the Imperium of the day. It was in this century that we say one Synod after another, competing with each other. The deposition of St. Athanasius by his fellow Eastern hierarchs gathered in Council was overturned by what many anti-Papal Cyprianic fans of the 3rd century call the “tyrannical Bishop”, that prelate of the Roman See. The entourage of Eusebius would have, without a doubt, agreed with such a sentiment. What irony, therefore, is proven when, by the 5th-century Councils of Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451) have both Africans and Byzantinists whole heartedly receiving the Bishop of Rome as (a) successor of St. Peter, (b) sole occupant of his Chair, (c)  head of the Universal Church, and (d) final arbiter on matters of faith and discipline?

In any case, this is not so much about the development of the Papal See as it is Cyprian and his ecclesiology. So every Bishop successor of St. Peter, eh? The Papalists even today admit that Cyprian no doubt had this concept in mind. Even the good old Abbot of Downside Abbey, Patrician Fr. John Chapman, admitted that “St. Peter is commonly said by the Fathers to be the type of monoepiscopacy” and that “Peter was to the ancient the type of centralized power” (Studies in Early Papacy, p. 83). Such is old news to well-versed Papal apologists. But what may not be old news is that a certain non-Catholic has taken note of the Cyprianic problem I described above. Hailing from Russia, former Eastern Orthodox History professor at St. Sergius Institute in Paris, Fr. Nicolas Afanasssieff, describes wonderfully the contradictory egg in Cyprian which hatched in the theologies of others:

“….according to his doctrine there should have really been one single Bishop at the head of the Universal Church. He was unwilling to place the Bishop of Rome outside the concors numerositas of bishops, and yet the place given by him to the Roman Church did raise it above the ‘harmonious multitude’. The ideal ‘Peter’s throne’ occupied by the whole episcopate became confused in Cyprian’s mind with the actual throne occupied by the Bishop of Rome. According to Cyprian, every Bishop occupies Peter’s throne (the Bishop of Rome among others), but the See of Peter is Peter’s throne par excellence. The Bishop of Rome is the direct heir of Peter, whereas the others are heirs only indirectly, and sometimes only by the mediation of Rome. Hence Cyprian’s insistence that the Church of Rome is the root and matrix of the Catholic Church. The subject is treated in so many of Cyprian’s passages that there is no doubt; to him, the See of Rome was ecclesia principalis unde unitas sacerdotalis exorta est. But he does not proceed to draw any conclusions from his doctrine about the See of Rome. Cyprian could not deny that the See of Rome held a preponderant position: but he was intuitively in step with trends in the whole Church which did not allow him to make the Bishop of Rome head of the episcopate. The Bishop of Rome undertook to relive him, and drew the necessary conclusions himself. Logically it was inevitable…No wonder Cyprian’s system turned out to be a historical failure! In his declining years Cyprian was to see his system crash before his own eyes. He saw that the concors numerositas (concord of bishops) was only an ideal; in reali life there is certainly numerositas, but not concord, since a concors numerostias cannot work without a Head.” (from “The Church Which Presides in Love” pp .98-99,  in “Primacy of Peter” edited by Fr. John Meyendorff)

The “Bishop of Rome” who drew the conclusion of Cyprian’s ecclesiology was no less than Pope St. Stephen I. Now, a point of clarification. I don’t believe Stephen learned this from Cyprian. We are speaking conceptually, and not chronologically. It was surely prior to Stephen that the Bishops of Rome had this conclusion.  Anyhow, took much space would be taken to describe the famous controversy between Rome and North Africa during this time, and so I will say briefly that the Pope wrote an Edict on the matter of baptism which required the African churches, and others, to receive heretical converts who had been already baptized in the Trinitarian name without re-baptizing them, and rather to receive them with the laying on of hands. His Edict did claim to carry the authority to command and excommunicate outside of the diocese of Rome and based it on the prerogative of being successor of Peter’s throne.  One of the firs times this occurs in Papal history, Pope St. Callistus I being perhaps an earlier example. What is even more interesting is that the post-3rd century Catholic Church would look back and say Cyprian was, in fact, wrong. St. Vincent Lérins, when giving an example of the Pope abiding by antiquity rather than novelty, described St. Stephen as follows: “Pope Stephen of blessed memory, Prelate of the Apostolic See, in conjunction indeed with his colleagues but yet himself the foremost, withstood it, thinking it right, I doubt not, that as he exceeded all others in the authority of his place, so he should also in the devotion of his faith“. So, much to the contrary of what many might think, it was not tyranny that went down with St. Stephen’s memory.  I leave with a description that Anglican historian J.N.D. Kelly gives of this Pope and how it shows that Stephen certainly came to the conclusion that Cyprian did not:

These incidents throw light on the growing recognition, in the middle of the 3rd cent., of the pre-eminent position of Rome, as a court of appeal at any rate for Gaul and Spain, and as the see with which other sees deemed it appropriate to be in communion. Stephen emerges as an imperious and uncompromising prelate, fully aware of his prerogative; his rival Bishops did not hesitate to put the blame for splitting the Church on him. It is interesting that he was accused of ‘glorying in his standing as Bishop and of claiming to hold succession from Peter, on whom the foundations of the church were laid’. He was in fact the first Pope, so far as is known, to find a formal basis for the Roman primacy in the Lord’s charge to the Apostle Peter cited in Matt 6:18.” (Oxford Dictionary of Popes, p. 21)

3 thoughts on “St. Cyprian on the Roman See: Ecclesia Principalis Unde Unitas Sacerdotalis Exorta Est

  1. Pingback: Cyprianic-Nausea: Anglican Scholar Turns To Rome | Erick Ybarra's Registry of Apologetics

  2. Pingback: Review of East/West Debate (Part 1) | Erick Ybarra

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

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