A Tale of Two Bishops: St. Cyprian and the Novatianists

For the previous post in this series, see A Tale of Two Bishops: An Introduction Via Ravenna.

The history of early Christianity is replete with persecutions, and the time of St. Cyprian was no different. After thirty-eight years of tolerance, AD 250 began another persecution of Christians at the hand of the emperor Decius. At his command, all imperial inhabitants must sacrifice to the Roman deities. After they had done so, they were provided with a certificate (libellus) stating that they have fulfilled the requirement. Those who refused were tortured and eventually killed.

The harsh persecution also prevented the election of a new bishop of Rome after the martyrdom of Pope St. Fabian. Filling the leadership gap during the period of sede vacante, is Novatian, one of the primary presbyters of Rome. Novatian was himself a gifted man, both in rhetoric and theology, and was the first Latin-language theologian in Rome. Of the remaining works we possess from him is De Trinitate, a seminal work of early orthodox Christian Trinitarian thought which borrows from Tertullian of Carthage. On behalf of the Roman clergy, he also wrote several epistles to St. Cyprian to address (false) rumors of lapsi being readmitted to the Church without penance.

However, the election of St. Cornelius, instead of Novatian, to the bishopric of Rome caused a crisis around the empire. Novatian gathered three bishops from Italy who ordained him to the episcopate and declared him the rightful Pope of Rome. Most ancient writers on the topic attribute this to Novatian’s jealousy; however, the primary concern of the Novatianists was what Novatian perceived to be lax treatment of the lapsi. He declared the lapsi blasphemers of the Holy Spirit (cf. Jerome’s Epistle XLII), an unforgivable sin, punishable by lifelong excommunication. Those who followed him into schism called themselves Puritans (Greek: Kathari) and later added all mortal sins (adultery, murder, etc.) to the list of unforgivable sins.

The schism of Novatian also split the Church in Carthage where St. Cyprian was bishop. Cyprian himself probably did not help matters. During the persecution he fled into hiding, earning him a great deal of ill will in Carthage and prompting a letter from Rome demanding that he justify his actions. In his response to Rome, Cyprian claims he was instructed in a vision to flee; an explanation which seemed to his opponents ex post facto. Further, he placed strict restrictions on the veneration of martyrs who had not yet been canonized; angering those who had confessed Christ during the persecution and making him appear lax toward the lapsi. However, in spite of the many in Carthage who had joined the Novatianist schism, Cyprian was actually a moderate, requiring strict penance of the lapsi in many cases. Further, Cyprian would also later prove his courage by martyrdom under the Emperor Valerian.

Turning to the primary concern of this series, the schism in Carthage led to a secondary conflict: how should converts from schisms and heresies be received into the Church, by baptism or some other means? Rome, along with much of North Africa, had practiced receiving such persons by an anointing with oil. Carthage too had such a practice in antiquity, but a local council under one of St. Cyprian’s predecessors, Agrippinus, had adopted the practice of reception by baptism. This novelty became a point of contention with the Novatianists in Carthage who preferred to keep the old custom.

The job of defending Carthage’s contemporary practice fell to St. Cyprian. In 255 and 256, Cyprian summoned two or three local councils in Carthage which upheld their local practice, even in the face of Pope St. Stephen who requested that they maintain the more ancient custom. However, Cyprian’s defense of rebaptism was not successful and Carthage returned to its ancient (pre-Agrippinian) praxis. Jerome, in his Dialogue Against the Luciferians, described the situation this way:

Cyprian of blessed memory tried to avoid broken cisterns and not to drink of strange waters: and therefore, rejecting heretical baptism, he summoned his African synod in opposition to Stephen, who was the blessed Peter’s twenty-second successor in the see of Rome. They met to discuss this matter; but the attempt failed. At last those very bishops who had together with him determined that heretics must be re-baptized, reverted to the old custom and published a fresh decree.

Thus, the three main issues of the Novatianist schism are: forgivness of mortal sin after baptism, ecclesiology and rebaptism. We must ask ourselves, why did these controversies arise? And why did they arise in Carthage? The answer we will see, lies in Tertullian.

Called the Father of Latin Christianity, Tertullian was the first to write in Latin and provided the basis for many of Latin theology’s expressions of Christology and Trinitarian thought. In fact, it is Tertullian who gave us the word “Trinity” (trinitas) itself. However, Tertullian was not without controversy. St. Augustine would later claim that Tertullian had left the Catholic Church of Carthage to join the Montanists, a sect which emphasized ongoing prophetic utterances and a strict moral code. However, modern scholars, most notably Tabbernee, now believe that in Carthage Montanism was not a separate church but a debate within the local church.

In the three-way debate between the Popes of Rome, Cyprian and the Novatianists we find Tertullian writ large. In On Baptism, written circa 200AD, Tertullian taught rebaptism (“Thus [heretics] cannot receive [baptism] either, because they have it not.” – On Baptism 15). Within a few years, rebaptism became the new practice of Carthage under Agrippinus (ca. AD 215). But why is this an important issue for Tertullian? In chapter 20 we find these words:

Therefore, you blessed ones, for whom the grace of God is waiting, when you come up from that most sacred washing of the new birth, and when for the first time you spread out your hands with your brethren in your mother’s house, ask of your Father, ask of your Lord, that special grants of grace and apportionments of spiritual gifts be yours.

Several things are notable in this simple verse. First, as Killian McDonnell notes, we find the first reference in history to the church as mother. Second, we find a three-fold movement from baptism, through birthing to a liturgical prayer for the reception of the new patrimony which is spiritual charism (peculia gratiae, distributiones charismatum subiacere). Thus, Tertullian’s rejection of the ancient baptismal practice is intrinsically tied to the charismatic expectation of the neophytes. Heretics cannot possess baptism because they do not possess the same disipline (disciplinae) and therefore do not possess the same God or Christ (On Baptism 15).

Similar too is the issue of the forgiveness of mortal sins after baptism. Circa 210AD, Pope Zephyrinus issued a decree that adultery and fornication could be forgiven after baptism. By this decree he had hoped to settle the long standing question of how to interpret Hebrews 10:26ff. The Roman book Shepherd of Hermas, had implied that mortal sins could not be forgiven. So too did the condemnation of the subsequent baptisms of the Elcesaites (Hippolytus – Refutation IX.X). But in issuing his decree, Pope Zephyrinus clearly instituted the forgiveness of mortal sins via penance. This greatly angered Tertullian, who subsequently wrote his treatise On Modesty to contradict it. This work is notable for its reliance on local prophetic utterances to justify opposition to what is perceived as lax treatment of adulterers.

Thus, in Carthage we find that the Novatianist schism is precisely a debate within the local Montanist leanings. The Novatianists have kept the old practice on baptism, but merge it with the Montanist insistence that post-baptismal sins are unforgivable. Conversely, Cyprian defends Tertullian’s new practice on baptism, which he attributes to Agrippinus, but upholds the decree of Pope St. Zephyrinus on forgiveness of mortal sins and his later condemnation of Montanism.

Among the writings which remain from this controversy are a treatise On the Unity of the Church and numerous epistles (LXIX-LXXV) from St. Cyprian, which provide a thorough defense of not only their more recent custom, but the ecclesiology that he believes compels it. From the perspective of St. Cyprian’s opponents, we possess an anonymous treatise On Re-Baptism which, although it cannot be dated with certainty, internal evidence suggests that it was written contemporary to and against St. Cyprian. This, combined with the numerous arguments against St. Cyprian which we can reconstruct from his epistles, gives us a fairly complete picture of his opponents.

Even though Cyprian’s thesis on baptism was not upheld in Carthage, his articulation of ecclesiology became the standard self-understanding of the Catholic Church, in both the Latin and Greek worlds. In particular, his vivid imagery of Christ’s unrent garment and the virgin undefiled have become the standard icons of the Church. The real question that would await later theologians is whether or not someone can reconcile Cyprian’s ecclesiology with the ancient custom of accepting (some) heretical baptisms.

In the next post we will explore precisely what Cyprian said regarding reception via baptism and how it relates to his ecclesiology. Further, we will pay close attention to what he borrows from Tertullian, and what he avoids borrowing.

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