Church History for Dummies #5: Cyprian of Carthage

Cyprian of Carthage, as his names suggests, was a rich and cultured man of Carthage, the capital of the Roman province in Africa (modern-day Tunisia). In around AD 246 he became a Christian and devoted his life to celibacy, poverty and the study of the Scriptures. Just two years later, he was made Bishop of Carthage.

However, once the persecution of the Emperor Decius began in AD 250, Cyprian is said to have fled. The Christians, especially those who were ‘confessors,’ that is, those who had been tortured for their confession and stood the test, looked down upon those who fled persecution. Upon his return to Carthage in AD 251, the bishops inflicted stricter terms for readmission into the church. It was here, though, that Cyprian wrote his most important work, The Unity of the Catholic Church. Cyprian would go on to redeem his initial flight from persecution when he was exiled and suffered a courageous martyrdom in AD 258.

Cyprian is known for strongly fighting against the Bishop of Rome, Stephen, surrounding the subject of receiving baptism and whether or not persons could be baptized outside of the catholic church. Cyprian was of the opinion that baptism was reserved for the catholic church and that separatist groups who entered the church had to themselves be rebaptized.

Cyprian’s works are characterized by a church-oriented clarity, simplicity, and concern about practical ecclesial matters. His ministry was marked by a desire to preserve unity, especially among the bishops. This is especially seen in his attempt to bring together Tertullian’s ‘Spirit-dominated puritanism’ and the church of the bishops.

Theologically, he believed that the bishops shared equality quite like the apostles did, that ministers were priests, and that the Lord’s Supper was the sacrifice of the cross.


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