Note: This is posting #23 in a series on historical theology within the Christian church. To view other postings, please click here.
Like the confused legacy of Origen, Cyprian of Carthage also left behind a legacy that is mired in discrepancy. Although not condemned as a heretic (and in contrast to Origen he was actually made a saint in the Catholic church) Cyprian left behind interesting pieces not consistent with Scriptural truth. However, there is much to be learned and gained from Cyprian that was consistent with God’s own teachings. Therefore, he is noteworthy to our understanding of the development of historical theology. I find it necessary to examine first, his life (and next week we will examine his legacy).
Born around AD 200 as Thascius Cyprian to a wealthy family in Carthage, he did not become a Christian until he was 46 years old through the teachings of Caecilius. Upon conversion, he began distributing his wealth to the poor, a move that would make him very popular. As a result of this popularity, the opinion of the people forced leadership to make Cyprian a bishop. Eventually he would oversea the area of Carthage from AD 248 until his death just 10 years later.
Persecution was rampant during his lifetime, like that of many of the church fathers, which mean many Christians sought to live in a manner that would leave them unnoticed by opposition. Cyprian was no different, and in fact he came under criticism for fleeing the most intense time of persecution. He would return from the desert after the most intense time of persecution had passed. This move allowed him to serve for several more years.
With a primary contribution to the area of leadership, Cyprian provided a unique look on the Christian life in that he not only taught, but he lived out his teachings as part of who he was. With heresy and confusion becoming more commonplace with the teachings of the bishops, Cyprians contributions are notable because he united the church under specific guidelines, transforming the job of bishop from overseer into administrator. In fact, he standardized the office of bishop across the universal church, ultimately linking soteriology and ecclesiology as a result.
As teachings often do, Cyprian invited conflict with his standardization. Interestingly though, it was not because it seemed to go too far, but rather because it did not go far enough. It was though that there should be one ‘supreme’ bishop over all. This was most noted in his public disagreements with Stephen (of Rome). There disagreements would never be resolved though, because persecution forced them to deal with more pressing issues that lead to their own deaths. So the issue had to be temporarily set aside until others could later address the issue.
Cyprian would be put to death in AD 258 by Roman executioners. Although supporters would plot an escape for him, he discouraged them from following through by refusing to participate. He was content to die a martyr’s death. He left behind his legacy through his writings, most notable writings that addressed the unity of belief with truth and salvation and a challenging discourse about fellowshipping with professed believers who denied Jesus Christ during persecution.
Next week, we will take a more in depth look at the legacy of Cyprian left through his theology.