Cyprian the Bishop (Routledge Early Church Monographs)

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He could count on the support of only three of the eight presbyters remaining in Carthage and of a minority of the faithful laity; he dared not enter the city himself for fear of provoking an anti-Christian riot among the general population. Shortly thereafter, the imperial action had ceased and popular resentment of the Christians had subsided so that Cyprian could return to Carthage and resume direct governance of the community. He implored them to seek the forgiveness of God and the peace of the church through humble repentance.

Insistence on extended penance for sacrificers and formal excommunication of the rebellious clergy of Carthage provoked the establishment of a rival communion with its own hierarchy in Africa. After the death of Bishop Fabian during the opening days of the persecution, the Roman church had decided not to elect a successor; it was governed only by its presbyters throughout the persecution. In March , a majority of the clergy and the people, with the assent of the attending bishops of neighboring cities, elected Cornelius bishop.

On grounds which remain obscure, the presbyter Novatian organized a dissenting group which included many confessors.

How a Bishop is Made

He then arranged his own ordination as bishop and established a competing communion. The letters and emissaries of the rival Roman bishops arrived in Carthage during the meeting of the African bishops. Each charged the other with various crimes and, it may be presumed, with having an improper policy regarding the reconciliation of the lapsed. Soon thereafter, some confessors who had supported Novatian and joined his faction upon their release from prison negotiated a reconciliation with Cornelius.

A bishop named Trofimus and the entire congregation which he had led into apostasy were readmitted into communion though at least some had been guilty of sacrifice. Its leader, Privatus of Lambaesis, was able to form an alliance which grew to include four other deposed bishops. They appealed unsuccessfully for recognition by the synod of African bishops meeting in Carthage in April The rigorist bishop of Carthage, Maximus, charged that the purity of the church had been ruined. Not only were those who bought certificates admitted to the church but sacrificers who had recovered their bodily health after being reconciled at what had erroneously been judged to be the point of death were then allowed to remain in the communion.

The replacement bishops appealed to their African colleagues to intervene on behalf of their churches.

Institute for Religion & Critical Inquiry

Cyprian and his colleagues directed the Spanish congregations to stand fast in rejecting the apostates, asserting that Stephen had not only violated a policy accepted by his predecessors but would pollute himself and his own church by entering into communion with these idolatrous bishops.

Rebaptism of schismatics This series of disagreements set the stage for a bitter conflict between the Roman and African churches over the status of baptism performed in heresy or schism. In response to inquiries and objections from bishops spread throughout Roman Africa, Cyprian wrote a series of letters defending the practice of requiring rebaptism, some in his own name and some with his colleagues in Proconsular Africa. In reporting their decision -9to Stephen, however, they allowed that other bishops might act differently within the unity of the church.

Cyprian called an unusual meeting on 1 September and circularized influential colleagues outside Africa with dossiers of the relevant correspondence. When Stephen died early in August , he was succeeded by Sixtus, with whom the Africans enjoyed cordial relations. A year later he made formal confession of Christianity before the Roman authorities and was executed on 14 September , the first martyrbishop of the African church. He became and remained its greatest hero. The practice of rebaptism continued to be disputed even within the African church.

After the Diocletian persecution at the beginning of the fourth century, it became one of the issues used by the Donatist church to identify itself with the heritage of Cyprian in opposition to the Catholic church in Africa which followed the Roman practice of accepting schismatics and heretics through the imposition of hands. His treatises and collected correspondence were carefully preserved and regularly cited by opposing sides, each claiming him as patron and guide.

The scriptural texts which he cited and the symbols which he drew from them to establish and evoke the unity and purity of the church would serve as the currency of the conflict between Catholics and Donatists. The solutions which he drew from these premises, however, became the standards of a position which was rejected in the Latin church outside Africa. After the Constantinian revolution, it no longer corresponded to the role of the church in the empire and the consequent structures of its communal organization.

Finally, the cultural shifts in behavioral code, ritual practice and cosmology or theology which accompanied these structural changes will be noted.


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In this way, the scene will be set for the eruption of the first controversy, over the reconciliation of the lapsed. Fabrications, blatant lies or outrageous interpretations of events would have discredited Cyprian and failed to win the support of the clergy and laity who were in danger. Moreover, certain of the practices and dispositions which he reported would seem to have been necessary conditions for subsequent events.

Under such a flag of caution, then, the analysis will begin with attention to the boundary separating the church from the city and then turn to the internal structures of the Christian community. Although the Christians did not practice the renunciation of private property in favor of common ownership, they did contribute from their resources to a common fund. They believed that sharing in the fellowship of the church and its ritual meal were necessary for attaining eternal salvation.

It was established by the very action of praying at a single altar, eating of a common loaf and sharing a single cup.

Baptismal profession required the renunciation of all other religious practices, and in particular the avoidance of contact with the demonic idolatry which permeated Roman imperial society. Yet the church was not isolated: its members had numerous, routine interactions with the dominant culture. The wealthy, in particular, were engaged in the economic life of the empire: they had estates to preserve and enlarge, dependants to control and protect.

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The pervading influence of Roman society is also indicated by the operation of its class system within the Christian community. The distinction between honestiores and humiliores among the free persons was largely based on inherited wealth and status. Both church membership and office were assigned cosmic significance but neither had any formal relationship to the Roman class structure. Thus the class differentiation among Christians in Carthage tended to work against the unity and coherence of the group because it ran counter to the ideology of the community.

Because Roman justice differentiated the coercion it imposed according to social class, this division caused tension among the church members during the persecution. It was not so highly bounded a group, however, as to provide its members independence from the demands of Roman society, whose institutions controlled their economic security and bodily safety. The differentiation of religious roles, each with its rights and responsibilities, established a set of social classes peculiar to the church community.

Clergy, in the several grades, were distinguished from other communicants, 26 who were in turn separated from catechumens, penitents and the excluded sinners. Each community had only one bishop, who served for life. The bishop was elected either by the community or by the bishops of neighboring churches with the consent of the community he would govern; he was then installed by other bishops. The election could be considered an expression of divine choice of a particular candidate.

He interpreted the behavioral demands of the gospel to the community and punished those who failed to fulfill them. He supervised the repentance and reconciliation of sinners, acting as he claimed in the place of Christ until the last day and final judgment. Each had age requirements, specific duties and assigned compensation. The widows and indigent were enrolled to receive financial support. These women retained their property but they refrained from marriage and were not to associate closely with men. Catechumens preparing for admission through the ritual of baptism were subject to behavioral restrictions but also had certain claims on the church, such as the right to immediate baptism and membership when they were in danger of death.

At a suitable time, they were examined by the bishop and ritually readmitted to the church. Thus the community was vulnerable to the attack mounted in the Decian persecution, which forced the Christians to choose between the two societies, the two behavior patterns, and the two reward systems in which they continued to be involved.

The empire would not extend to Christian monotheists the religious exemption which it continued to concede to the Jews; instead it would require Christians to participate in the state cult. The Christians, however, were prepared neither to relax their religious exclusivism nor to attempt an economically and politically independent society. The church, therefore, had to look to its boundary, to the way in which it regulated its engagement with the dominant culture.

Because the edict was enforced in accordance with the behavioral norms of the Roman class system, it also challenged the role differentiation within the Christian communities.

Cyprian the Bishop (Routledge Early Church Monographs)

The Roman judicial system dealt in very different ways with the honestiores and humiliores. The nobility, based upon wealth, were more likely to be hailed before the imperial commissioners and required to comply with the edict; humiliores might never be called forward and required to take a stand. They could also avail themselves of a type of fictive compliance which was regularly used in doing other forms of business.

Personally or through an agent, they could declare themselves unable to follow the prescriptions of the law, make a payment which they might interpret as a fine, and receive a certificate attesting to their participation in a sacrifice, which all knew they had refused to perform. In this way, they would avoid actual contact with idolatry, would preserve and even acknowledge their Christian commitment, and yet would avoid the loss of property and position attendant upon a more public confession of Christian faith. Poorer Christians, the humiliores, faced a different burden.

If they publicly refused to comply with the edict, they might be tortured or reduced to slavery. Since they did not have the moveable financial resources of the rich, voluntary exile would have made them refugees rather than exiles, dependent upon the support of Christian communities in larger cities.

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