Persecution In the Third Century, Part 6

St. Cyprian of Carthage
St. Cyprian of Carthage

The History of Christianity #61

Our History of Christianity Scripture verse today is 1 Peter 4:19 which reads: “Wherefore let them that suffer according to the will of God commit the keeping of their souls to him in well doing, as unto a faithful Creator.”

Our History of Christianity quote today is from William Tyndale. He said: “For if God be on our side, what matter maketh it who be against us, be they bishops, cardinals, popes, or whatsoever names they will?”

Today, in the History of Christianity, we are looking at “Persecution In the Third Century” (Part 6) from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).

The Question of the Lapsed: Cyprian and Novatian (Part 1)

In spite of its brief duration, the persecution under Decius was a harsh trial for the church. This was due, not only to the persecution itself, but also to the problems that had to be faced after it. In short, the great question before the church was what to do about the “lapsed” – those who, in one way or another, had weakened during the persecution. There were several complicating factors. One was that not all had fallen in the same manner nor to the same degree. The case of those who ran to offer sacrifice as soon as they were told of the imperial decree was hardly the same as that of those who purchased fraudulent certificates, or those others who had weakened for a moment, but had then reaffirmed their faith and asked to rejoin the church while the persecution was still in progress.

Given the great prestige of the confessors, some thought that they were the ones with authority to determine who among the lapsed ought to be restored to the communion of the church, and how. Some confessors, particularly in North Africa, claimed that authority, and began restoring some of the lapsed. This met with the opposition of many bishops who claimed that only the hierarchy had the authority to restore the lapsed, and that only it could do so in a uniform and just manner. Still others were convinced that both the confessors and the bishops were showing too much leniency, and that the lapsed ought to be treated with greater rigor. In the debate surrounding this question, two people played crucial rules: Cyprian and Novatian.

Cyprian had become a Christian when he was about forty years old, and shortly thereafter had been elected bishop of Carthage. His favorite theologian was Tertullian, whom he called “the master.” Like Tertullian, he was trained in rhetoric, and he could easily overwhelm his opponents with his arguments. His writings are among the best Christian literature of the time.

Cyprian, who had become a bishop shortly before the persecution, thought that his duty was to flee to a secure place with other leaders of the church, and continue guiding the flock through an extensive correspondence. As was to be expected, many interpreted this decision as an act of cowardice. The church of Rome, for instance, had lost its bishop in the persecution, and the clergy of that city wrote to Cyprian questioning his decision. He insisted that he had fled for the good of his flock, and not out of cowardice. As a matter of fact, his valor and conviction were amply proven a few years later, when he gave his life as a martyr. But meanwhile his own authority was questioned, and there were many who claimed that the confessors of Carthage, who had suffered for their faith, had more authority than he did, particularly when it came to the question of the restoration of the lapsed.

Next time, we will continue looking at The Question of the Lapsed: Cyprian and Novatian.

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