Cyprian Thascius Caecilius
Cyprian Thascius Caecilius, a bishop and martyr, was born in North Africa, probably in Carthage, about the beginning of the third century. His father was wealthy, and one of the principal senators of Carthage. His noble parentage insured him a good education, by which his natural endowments, which were of a high order, were duly developed, both intellectually and. morally, according to the heathen type of training. The representation he gives, after his conversion to Christianity, of his earlier immoral life, is generally regarded as an exaggeration springing from humility, and the legend to the effect that he:had given himself to the practice of sorcery is not accredited. His life, while he still stood in heathenism, is very much buried in obscurity, even as to the precise time and place of his birth. His biographer, the deacon Pontius, regarded all this as unworthy of mention "in view of that spiritual greatness" which characterized his subsequent life. It seems, however, that he was an earnest student, and that, having enjoyed all the advantages furnished in his time, he excelled in the study of oratory and eloquence, and devoted himself to the teaching of law and rhetoric in his native city, where he was greatly admired, became wealthy, and lived in affluence and grandeur. His life seems to have received new impetus, concentrated purpose, and true meaning from the time of his conversion and baptism, which occurred A.D. 246, when he was not far short of fifty years old. He had been won to Christianity by a presbyter, Caecilius, who also instructed and prepared him for baptism, at which time Cyprian added to his name that of Caecilius, out of gratitude to his Christian teacher. Before his conversion he was exercised by a deep sense of the vanity of heathenism. In his tract De Gratia Dei, addressed to his friend Donatus soon after his conversion, speaking of his spiritual state while yet in heathenism, he says: 'I lay in darkness, and floated on the world's boisterous sea, with no resting-place for my feet, ignorant of my proper life, and estranged from truth and light." God's mercy in his baptism he ever praises as being a marked epoch in his life. He felt himself to be a new man, having received "by means of the regenerating wave" the "second birth, by the Spirit derived from on high." As a new man, he now devoted himself fully to the study of the holy Scriptures, and also to a life of celibacy and voluntary poverty. He studied the holy Scriptures earnestly, and also the best ecclesiastical writers known, among whom Tertullian was his favorite, with whom he communed in mind every day, calling for him, as Jerome relates, with the simple word, "Hand me the Master." He sold his estate, and gave the proceeds, together with almost all else that he possessed, for the support of the poor. This he did with the double end in view of renouncing and despising all secular influences, and at the same time fulfilling the law of charity, which he believed God prefers to all sacrifices. Besides the above-mentioned letter, ad Donatum, he about this time wrote several works, in which he unfolded his new principles and convictions, as, for instance, De idolorum vanitate and his Libri III testimoniorum adv. Judceos. So wonderfully grew his Christian reputation that, on the death of Donatus, the bishop of Carthage, there was a pressing cry from both clergy and laity that Cyprian might be ordained as his successor. He modestly declined the nomination, but the people would not be put off. They so besieged him with their importunities. that he fled into retirement to avoid the popular pressure; but the place of his concealment was discovered, and the people surrounded his house, closed every avenue of escape, and refused to withdraw until he should yield to their wishes. He at length humbly bowed to what. seemed to him now a necessity imposed on him by the providence of God. Thus, in perhaps not more than two years after his baptism, with the unanimous approbation of the bishops of the province, he was consecrated bishop of Carthage A.D. 248. His elevation to this place of dignity and power, though effected under such wide favor, was for him the beginning of long and severe conflicts. Opposition to him arose among some presbyters. Some of the more aged, among whom were Fortunatus and Donatus, who had themselves aspired to the vacant office, with some of their friends among the laity, opposed his elevation as being still only a novice in the Church. SEE DONATISTS. These gave him much trouble. He treated them with kindness, but at the same time maintained the authority and dignity of his office with decision. In the time of peace which had preceded his official term, luxurious extravagance and immorality had gotten the upper hand in society. Cyprian pushed earnestly for reform and discipline. This became the occasion of increased opposition, his strictness having been attributed to a spirit of hierarchical assumption of power, though he did nothing, especially in the beginning of his episcopate, without first gathering in the views of the presbyters, whom he calls his compresbyteri (comp. Ep. 14). Still worse troubles came with the persecution under Decius, which broke out not much more than a year after he had been raised to the episcopal office, in which the heathen populace with violence demanded his death, crying Cyprianurn ad leonem! The cruel edict came to Carthage about the beginning of A.D. 250. The heathen hailed it as letting loose their rage upon one who, having but a few years before stood so prominent in heathenism, now occupied the front rank in the Christian Church. He accordingly was their first mark. He, however, saved himself by flight, which was made the occasion for fresh reproaches from those in the Church who still bore the old grudge against him. Some saw cowardice in this self-exile, but many praised it from considerations of prudence, and as a course which would still preserve his great worth and influence to the Church after peace should be restored. He kept himself in constant correspondence with the Church, and in the deepest sympathy with the trials of the confessors and martyrs. He longed to be with them, and looked upon himself as deprived of all this by a necessity painful to his heart. He himself seems to have possessed the' consciousness of having been in the path of duty, and he gave abundant evidence in his after life, in times of pestilence and in the persecution of Valerian, that he possessed the firmest Christian courage, and knew no fear of death in the path of duty. The strict and severe manner in which, after his return from flight, he dealt with those who had denied the faith under trial was not favorably regarded even by those who had faithfully endured the persecution, and was viewed as coming with less charity and grace from him who had himself withdrawn from the fire. The effects of the persecution had been terribly disastrous. Multitudes were driven from the faith like chaff before the wind. Cyprian looked upon it as a providential sifting of the Church made necessary by its previous worldly and immoral state, and hence was concerned that the lapsed should not be restored without the strictest care. Of the havoc and confusion thus produced in the Church, and the troubles of restoration, he gives a sad picture in his work De Lapsis. His strictness with the lapsed gave rise to new troubles. The faction of disaffected presbyters was headed now by Felicissimus, with whom were joined Novatian and four others who refused to acknowledge his authority in the form he exercised it in the case of the lapsed. They undertook to establish an independent church, into which the lapsed were to be allowed to enter without further delay. Many of the impatient among the lapsed were charmed by this open door for speedy restoration. The result was a serious schism. Cyprian maintains his position firmly, and in a letter warns all against this snare of the devil (Epistle 43). An important series of controversies ensues relating to the unity of the Church, the nature of schism, the validity of baptism by heretics, and affiliated points, which became the occasion of one of the most important works of Cyprian on The Unity of the Church. This controversy also gradually involved the question of the independency of the episcopate, and the merits of the claims of Stephanus, the bishop of Rome, as over against the bishop of Carthage. (See Herzog's Real-Encyklopadie, 3, 219, 220; also four articles on Cyprian by Dr. Nevin in the Mercersburg Review, vol; 4:1852, particularly p. 527-536.) In this Novatian controversy Cyprian showed great bitterness as well as great firmness, and his statements as to his adversaries are to be taken with many grains of allowance. Hagenbach, in Herzog's Real-Encyklopadie, briefly sums up the closing scene of his life, and gives an estimate of his character, which we translate. "At length the time came when he should have opportunity to wipe out the stain which was supposed to rest on his name in consequence of his flight by the blood of his own martyrdom. It took place in the Valerian persecution. On the 30th of August, 257, it was demanded of him by the Roman consul, Aspasius Paternus, to offer to the gods. Having refused, he was banished to Caribis, a day's journey from Carthage. From this place he comforted the Church through letters. In a dream he saw foreshadowed the bloody fate which should in a year befall him. Having been called back from exile, he withdrew for a brief season to his country home. Under the consul Galerius Maximus, the successor of Aspasius Paternus, he received his final hearing. With serene composure and the words 'God be praised,' he welcomed the sentence, which was that he should be executed by the sword. Followed by a large crowd of spectators, he was led out beyond the city to a spot planted with trees. Here he laid off his over-clothes, kneeled down, prayed, and received the stroke of death, on the 14th of September, A.D. 258. To the executioner he gave twenty-five pieces of gold. The Christians buried him near the spot on which he suffered martyrdom. Over his grave, as well as over the place where he suffered death, churches were afterwards erected, which were, however, demolished at the invasion of the Vandals under Genseric. According to a legend, Charlemagne conveyed his bones to France, where they were preserved, first at Lyons and afterwards at Aries." Other churches also (Venice, Compiegne, and Rosnay in Flanders) claim to be in possession of his remains.
The character of Cyprian and his acts, in the various circumstances of his life, have been variously estimated. While some admire and praise his exalted views and shining virtues as a Church dignitary, others charge him with pride and despotism. The holy earnestness with which he honored his calling, the high degree of self-denial he manifested in life and in death, and as little be denied him as his extraordinary qualifications and activity as a leader in the Church. Herein we must seek his peculiar greatness. Speculative thinking was not his forte. In this respect he is excelled not only by the Alexandrians, but also by Tertullian, to whose theology he conformed his own. Prominent among his doctrinal presentations is that of tie Church, the unity of which he develops, not so much dialectically and theoretically as he apprehends it in actual life, and sets it forth in telling pictures in a concrete and energetic way. (Comp. his work, De unitate ecclesiae.) Cyprian may be regarded as the father of the Roman episcopal system. "In consequence of confounding the ideas of the visible and invisible Church, he referred all Christian life to communion with a definite external Body. In his view the Church was an outward organism founded by Christ, of which the bishops were the pillars; to them the Holy Spirit was communicated through the ordination of the apostles, and hence they were the indispensable links for connecting the Church with Christ. Only through them could the Holy Spirit be imparted, and out of the Church no one could be saved. AExtra eeclesiam hanc visibilem nulla salus. It is of no avail, says Cyprian, what any man teaches; it is enough that he teaches out of the Church. It can be only human outrageous wilfulness to substitute anything for a divine institution, to erect a human altar instead of the divine" (Neander). Nor can it be denied that Cyprian laid the foundations of the primacy of the see of Rome. He placed the unity of the Church in the episcopate, making the bishops representatives of the apostles; and further, he made the chair of St. Peter the center of episcopal unity, and the Church at Rome the root of all (radix et matrix ecclesiae Catholicae, Epist. 45). Practically, in his quarrel with pope Stephen (see above), he denied this primacy; but the doctrine lay in his own writings, and, after he had passed away, the legitimate inferences from his doctrines were drawn by his successors. But, while the writings of Cyprian afforded undoubtedly a basis, on the one hand, for Roman and prelatical claims, they have unquestionable merit, on the other, of setting forth Scripture as the sole ground of faith. During his controversy with pope Stephen, who was continually talking, of tradition, Cyprian uttered the sharp and pregnant aphorism, "Custom without truth is only ancient error." As an interpreter of Scripture, Cyprian occupies altogether a practical stand-point, and hence does not despise allegory wherever it forces itself upon his fancy. (See Herzog, Real-Encyklop. 3, 220-221.) His life has been written by the African presbyter Pontius, De vita Cypriani (in Ruinart, Acta Martyrum, ii, and in the editions of the works of Cyprian). With this, compare Acta Proconsularia Martyrii Cypriani (in Ruinart, 216 sq.); Lactant. Div. Inst. v.1; Eusebius, H. E. 7:3; also later works of Pearson, Annales Cyprianici (Oxf. 1682); P. Maran, Vita Cypriani; H. Dodwell, Diss. Cyprianioc (Oxon. 1684); Tillemont, Memoires, 4:76 sq.; (Gervaise), La vie de S. Cyprien (Paris, 1717, 4 vols.); Freppel, St. Cyprien, et l'eglise d'Afrique en in. le 'sicle (Paris, 1865, 8vo); Quart. Review, London, July, 1853, art. iv; Cooper, Free Church of ancient Christendom, p. 297 sq. (Lond. 1844, 18mo); Cunningham, Historical Theology, ch. vi, § 6.
The best editions of Cyprian's works (Opera Omnia) are those of Oxf. 1682, fol., ed. Fell; Amst. 1700; Par., Benedictine ed., 1726, fol., and Ven. 1728, fol. Translation: The genuine Works of St. Cyprian, with his Life, by Pontius, by Nathaniel Marshall, LL.B. (London, 1717, fol.); also in French by Lombert (1682). Translations of separate tracts: On Mortality, with others, by Elyot (1534), by Brende (1553), by Story (1556), and by Lupset (1560); on The Lord's Prayer, by Paynel (1539); on Virgins, by Barksdale (1675); on The Unity of the Church, by bishop Fell (1681, 4to); and by Horsburgh (1815). The Epistles translated, Library of the Fathers, vol. xvii (Oxf. 1844); the Treatises, Lib. of Fathers, vol. 3 (Oxford, 1840). The life and martyrdom of Cyprian, by Pontius, his intimate friend, is still extant, and printed in several editions of the Opera Omnia, but the style is too rhetorical for simple truth. A compact edition of Cyprian for practical use is Cypriani Opera Genuina, ed. Goldhorn (Leips. 18389, 2 parts). A new Life of Cyprian, by Poole, was published in 1840 (Oxf. 8vo); another, by Rettberg, in 1831 (Gottingen, 8vo); another in Saint Cyprien, OEuvres completes, traduct. Guillon (Par. 1836, 2 vols. 8vo). New editions of several of the epistles were published by Krabinger (Tubing. 1853-1858, sq.).