Reviewed by Paul Sanchez
Cyprian of Carthage: His Life and Impact is part of the Early Church Fathers series, edited by Michael A. G. Haykin. The series aims to reintroduce the church fathers to evangelicals—to bring the ancient church to modern evangelicals, who tragically have grown distant from the fathers. Rather than a critical biography, Brian Arnold expresses the goal of providing “ressourcement” for church, for the purpose of edification (19).
In this volume, Arnold explores the ministry, theology, and spirituality of Cyprian of Carthage. He was born near the beginning of the third century in Carthage—one of the most significant cities of the ancient church. There Tertullian, the father of Latin theology, ministered, Perpetua and her companions were martyred, and even Augustine lived for a time before becoming bishop in the nearby city of Hippo. Arnold argues that Cyprian’s contribution has largely been forgotten and sometimes directly discounted by evangelicals. To some, Cyprian seems too Roman Catholic. Others overlook Cyprian for more well-known figures, such as Augustine, while many others avoid the patristic era altogether. For Arnold to offer Cyprian as a helpful resource to evangelicals, he has an uphill battle to redeem the ancient bishop and demonstrate his ongoing relevance.
If Cyprian is mysterious to many readers, his historical context is exceedingly more so. Arnold traces the early history of Carthage and the arrival of Christianity in the second century. He follows the standard narrative of significant decline in the Roman Empire after the second century, although Peter Brown has called this thesis into question, for instance in Through the Eye of a Needle. Regardless, Cyprian did live in a transitional period. He was born into a wealthy pagan family, but Arnold demonstrates the difficulty of defining Cyprian’s social status with precision. When he became a Christian in 246 and a bishop two years later, he surrendered his life of luxury in service to God. He says, “Cyprian succeeded where the rich young ruler failed, forfeiting his wealth to follow Jesus” (37).
Arnold presents Cyprian’s conversion in a familiar form for evangelicals: Cyprian was born again. As in John 3:5-6, he experienced a new birth by the Holy Spirit. Arnold recognizes that the work of the Spirit and the new birth have not been sufficiently appreciated in Cyprian scholarship. He demonstrates how central this theology was for Cyprian, both in life and thought. Cyprian rose to the bishopric quickly. His background of civic leadership and undeniable intelligence did not satisfy his detractors, who opposed what they perceived to be a hasty installation. Cyprian’s early biographer, Pontius, presented a man of such piety, character, and biblical knowledge, that he met the highest expectations. In 250, the first empire-wide persecution erupted, which became the background to Cyprian’s central doctrinal contribution.
In the fires of persecution some stood for the faith as confessors, bearing the marks of torture like holy badges of honor. Others broke under great duress, but others ran to offer the required sacrifice immediately upon hearing of the order. When persecution subsided, Cyprian returned from hiding to a full-scale crisis, regarding the re-admittance of the lapsed. Arnold elevates Cyprian as a model of moderation, between those who proposed an exceedingly gracious restoration and the rigorists who suggested no mercy for the lapsed. When a plague spread, Cyprian directed Christians to serve the victims, ministering to their needs and offering the hope of the gospel. Arnold declares, “Christians did not just offer their bodies in the amphitheater for refusing to sacrifice during the persecution, they also offered up their lives to care for the sick and dying during the plague” (48). Through this ministry, many believed and entered the household of faith. Persecution returned in 258. This time, Cyprian stood boldly and received the crown of martyrdom.
Arnold demonstrates that Cyprian was a man of the book. The Scriptures were central to his thought. Once converted, he set to study the Scriptures. Arnold says, “He must have been a voracious reader with an eidetic memory, because in a short period of time he demonstrated a command of Scripture, citing passages from all across the canon” (54). No other source shows a comparable influence in his thinking and output. Evangelicals can find a kindred spirit in Cyprian, who believed that God is the author the Scripture. He gave the Bible a deep reverence and unique authority. Cyprian read other Christian authors, most notably Tertullian, but the Bible stood in a category of its own.
When theological controversy arose, Cyprian put to work his biblical knowledge, keen mind, and rhetorical flare. After the persecution of 250, Cyprian faced rival bishops, as well as great confusion among the laity. Arnold rightly argues that Cyprian was motivated by genuine pastoral concern when he addressed the pressing ecclesiological questions. In letters, but especially in On the Lapsed, he contended that grace was available for those who proved to have genuine repentance, even if it might only on their deathbeds. However, those who rushed to offer the sacrifice had incinerated their hope for eternal life. This pleased neither the laxists nor the rigorists of the church. Cyprian perceived the influence that the confessors had, on account of the reverence given them by the church. They took it upon themselves to readmit the lapsed. Arnold says, “Cyprian struck a deal that these letters [for restoring the lapsed] could be used to give restoration to those who were dying, but he held out that the others needed a season of penance” (78). As a leader, Cyprian tried to navigate the precarious situation, and Arnold demonstrates his pastoral concern: “Cyprian’s heart towards the lapsed was not that of a punitive bishop who wanted to bar genuine believers from the church, but that of a loving shepherd who longed for their repentance” (79). Premature re-admittance might both undermine the purity of the church and bring disaster when persecution returned.
Arnold argues both that the Roman Catholic doctrine of penance has its roots in the lapsed controversy, but also that the full-orbed theology of penance is not present in Cyprian. Trying to rehabilitate Cyprian for evangelicals, he challenges the Roman Catholic theology of penance that undermines the sufficiency of Christ’s once for all atonement. He grants that Cyprian did teach that good works were a part of purging post-baptism sin, but argues that Cyprian is conflicted and unclear on the theological implications of his theology. The idea of penance, as showing remorse and making amends for one’s sin, as well as the rightful role of church discipline, should not be disagreeable to evangelicals, even if the verbiage itself is now unhelpful.
Related to re-admittance, Cyprian addressed the issue of baptism. He argued that schismatics, such as the rival Novatianists, and heretics, such as the Marcionites, did not have a valid baptism. Anyone from outside of the catholic fold must be re-baptized for entrance. As a corollary, salvation was available only through the catholic church. Arnold argues that Roman Catholics, not surprisingly, “co-opted Cyprian, especially in the Middle Ages” (92). Cyprian was useful to bolster the papacy. Indeed, Cyprian stressed the unity of the church and episcopal authority, but Arnold demonstrate the fallacy of reading later ideas back into Cyprian’s corpus. For instance, Cyprian argued for episcopal authority, but only as a plurality of bishops. Arnold argues that manuscript evidence strongly suggests this reading. Even institutionally, Cyprian recognized that the church was spread geographically around the world, and yet was one body, which seems to be different from the strictly institutional nature of the later Roman Catholic Church. Evangelicals might still disagree with Cyprian’s final conclusions concerning ecclesiology, but Arnold argues that evangelicals have settled into another extreme from which they would benefit from hearing Cyprian. Arnold says, “Cyprian speaks loudly to the contemporary evangelical scene where union to the church is optional, so long as an individual has a ‘personal relationship with Jesus’” (99). If Cyprian over emphasized church unity and institutional authority, evangelicals have nearly abandoned it altogether. Giving direct application, he says, “We would do well to retrieve his wisdom on this point, and call for a moratorium on the hypothetical person who has placed his faith in Jesus but who seeks to live out the Christian faith disconnected from the church” (99).
Arnold devotes a chapter to Cyprian’s spirituality, “Cyprian and the Christian Life.” This chapter is the most edifying of the book. Arnold demonstrates Cyprian’s deep spirituality of humility, prayer, and suffering. Regretfully, Cyprian is often known only as a sharp-witted theologian and polemicist, but Arnold brings to light a man of deep faith. Considering Cyprian’s many trials, Arnold says, “What got him through this decade that was dense with trials was a life saturated in prayer” (119). Cyprian pressed the urgency of prayer. He says it “must be sought with earnestness, tears, and groaning” (120). Cyprian wrote a treatise on the Lord’s prayer, calling it a template for prayer. By means of application, Arnold says, “Shallowness of spirituality is nothing new. For those suffering from spiritual lethargy, Cyprian’s first question would likely have been aimed at how much time a person spends with God in prayer” (123). Cyprian elevated the spirituality of patience. He called patience “the pinnacle of virtue” (131). If the edification of the reader is his goal, this section alone is sufficient to meet it.
Arnold clarifies that he is “not calling for an uncritical recovery of Cyprian” (151). In his final chapter he gives his most critical assessments. He suggests several areas that are worthy of emulation and reflection, including his insistence on upholding the purity of the church, while also recognizing areas of concern, such as his theology of baptismal regeneration and his mishandling of justification and the all-sufficiency of the atonement. Arnold proves that Cyprian is not so far from evangelicals as to be of no benefit. He winsomely commends Cyprian as a resource for the modern church, which is lacking in many of the areas of which Cyprian is exemplary: robust ecclesiology, deep spirituality, and bold leadership. For these reasons I commend this book to Christians widely—ministers and laypeople. I will be looking forward to more books in this series.
Paul Sanchez is a PhD candidate in church history at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and is Lead Elder and Preaching Pastor at Emaus Church in San Jose, CA. You can follow him on twitter @paulsanchez408.
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Cyprian of Carthage: His Life and Impact