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Cyprian of Carthage

Cyprian of Carthage

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Cyprian (c. 200-258 A.D.) was born to a wealthy pagan family in North African Carthage. He grew up outside of the Christian faith, converting to Christianity only later in life. He was baptized at the age of 40 and he marked this occasion of a new phase in his life by selling everything that he had in order to give the proceeds to the poor. He decided to live the rest of his life in an austere manner, choosing a life of chastity and devotion to God and the Church. He was elected Bishop of the Church in Carthage in 248/249 by popular acclaim. He tried to evade the calling, but ultimately ended up accepting the acclamation and served as bishop over the next nine years.

Shortly after he became Bishop in Carthage, the persecutions under Emperor Decius began (250 A.D.), ending a period of 50 years of relative peace for the churches. The persecution focused especially on prominent leaders of the churches. This would have included Cyprian, and so he fled, but not out of fear of persecution. He felt that by fleeing, he would still be available for the Church as its leader once the persecutions ended. He also sought to direct the life of the Church through numerous letters and correspondence while he was away. Nonetheless, he was criticized for fleeing, especially by the Roman clergy who had lost their own bishop. Cyprian responded that his staying would have only brought more suffering on the church at Carthage, which would then have been targeted for persecution because of his prominence.

After the persecution ceased in 251 A.D., but even before Cyprian had fully returned to Carthage, he was faced with the task of dealing with the restoration of three types of people: (1) those who had flocked to the pagan temples in order to comply with the demands of the emperor, as well as (2) those who had bowed to pressure from relatives and friends and (3) those who had obtained false certificates in order to avoid persecution. Alongside those who had escaped persecution stood the "Confessors," as they were known, who had survived the persecution without compromising their faith. Instead of holding the defection against those who had lapsed, the Confessors called for their immediate reinstatement into the church. A political battle thus ensued that threatened the unity of the Church. Therefore a synod was called to resolve the issue, for which Cyprian wrote two treatises: On the Unity of the Church and On the Lapsed. The resolution Cyprian offered in these document s was that those who refuse to do penance should not be forgiven, even on their deathbeds; those who purchased certificates should be admitted into the Church immediately; the fallen should do penance for the rest of their lives and be restored on their deathbed, or, if they remained faithful during another persecution they should be reinstated. He further counseled that fallen clergy should be deposed and schismatics excommunicated.

Cyprian wrote at least ten treatises on this and various other subjects, but he is most often remembered for his first treatise on the church where he enunciated the principle of the Church as the indispensable ark of salvation (De Unit. Eccl. 6). His Epistle 73.21 put forward the further assertion that there is no salvation outside the church, no forgiveness of sins, no work of the Spirit, no Eucharist, and no Baptism. He also challenged the ecclesiastical authority of Rome over other dioceses such as Carthage, although he did exalt the primacy of Peter and Rome. He did not, however, concede to Rome his own ecclesiastical authority, nor did he counsel other bishops to do so.

In 257 A.D. Imperial authority intruded upon Carthage once again in the form of persecution, this time instigated by Valerian. Cyprian did not flee. Instead he was exiled to Curubis only to be returned to Carthage for trial a year later due to an even more severe edict from Valerian. He was to appear before the proconsul Galerius Maximus. This time Cyprian had no choice but to remain for trial, and when faced with denial or confession of his faith, he chose to confess his faith. For this confession of faith he was immediately beheaded, but his legacy as a leader of the Church and a martyr still lives on even today.