Persecution in the Third Century, Part 7

St. Cyprian of Carthage
St. Cyprian of Carthage

The History of Christianity #62

Our History of Christianity Scripture verse today is Revelation 20:4 which reads: “And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.”

Our History of Christianity quote today is from Jim Elliot. He said: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

Today, in the History of Christianity, we are looking at “Persecution In the Third Century” (Part 7) from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).

The Question of the Lapsed: Cyprian and Novatian (Part 2)
Some of these confessors thought that the lapsed should be readmitted directly, with no other requirement than their own declaration of repentance. Soon some of the presbyters, who had other reasons for disliking their bishop, joined the confessors, and the outcome was a schism that divided the church in Carthage and throughout the neighboring areas. Cyprian then called a synod – that is, a gathering of the bishops of the region – which decided that those who had purchased or otherwise obtained certificates without actually having sacrificed would be immediately readmitted to the communion of the church. Those who had sacrificed would only be readmitted on their deathbeds, or when a new persecution gave them the opportunity to prove the sincerity of their repentance. Those who had sacrificed and showed no repentance would never be readmitted. All these actions were to be taken by the bishops, and not by confessors. These decisions ended the controversy, although the schism continued for some time.

The main reason why Cyprian insisted on the need to regulate the readmission of the lapsed into the communion of the church was his own understanding of the church. The church is the body of Christ, and will share in the victory of its Head. Therefore, “outside the church there is no salvation,” and “no one can have God as Father who does not have the church as mother.” By this he did not mean that one had to be in total agreement with the hierarchy of the church – he himself had his own clashes with the hierarchy of Rome. But he did believe that the unity of the church was of supreme importance. Since the actions of the confessors threatened that unity, Cyprian felt that he had to reject those actions and to insist on the need for a synod to decide what was to be done with the lapsed.

Besides this, Cyprian was an admirer of Tertullian, whose writings he studied assiduously. Tertullian’s rigorism had an influence on Cyprian, and he revolted against the idea of restoring the lapsed too easily. The church was to be a community of saints, and the idolaters and apostates had no place in it.

Novatian was more rigorous than Cyprian. He clashed with the bishop of Rome, Cornelius, because in his opinion the lapsed were being readmitted too easily. Years earlier, there had been in the same city a similar conflict between Hippolytus, a noted theologian, and bishop Calixtus, because the latter was willing to forgive those guilty of fornication who repented, and Hippolytus insisted that this should not be done. At that time the result was a schism, so that there were two bishops in Rome. In the case of Novatian’s protests the result was the same. As in so many other cases, the issue was whether purity or forgiving love should be the characteristic note of the church. The schism of Hippolytus did not last long, but the Novatianist schism did continue for several generations.

The significance of these episodes is that they show how, due to its concern for its own purity, and to its understanding of sin as a debt owed to God, the Western church was repeatedly embroiled in debates regarding how that purity should be sustained while still having the church be a community of love. As a result, the restoration of the lapsed was one of the main concerns of the Western church from a very early date. The question of what should be done about those baptized Christians who sinned divided the Western church repeatedly. It was out of that concern that the entire penitential system developed. Much later, the Protestant Reformation was in large measure a protest against that system.

Next time, we will look at Christian Life.


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