St. Cyprian, third-century bishop of Carthage, developed a theory of church unity almost universally accepted up to the European Reformation: to be a member of the body of Christ you needed to be in communion with a priest who was in communion with a bishop who in turn was in communion with all other bishops in the world. But, how could you discern who was a legitimate bishop? And, on what kind of issue would it be right to break off communion? Additionally, could self-authenticating ministries, like those of martyrs and confessors who had suffered for the faith, supersede this order? Finally, did the Church need, and in what form, a universal bishop who could guarantee the integrity of the network of bishops?
St. Cyprian wrestled with these questions in his letters and treatises. Each volume contains an introduction to the two principal controversies that spurred St. Cyprian to write his defense on church unity: first, the readmission to the Eucharist of those Christians who had lapsed or fallen in the persecution under Emperor Decius; and second, the sacramental validity of baptism in heretical and schismatic communities.
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Cyprian of Carthage (AD 200–258) was an important early Christian writer. He was born in North Africa, received a classical education, and became a leading member of the legal fraternity in Carthage. He converted to Christianity as a middle-aged man and was baptized circa AD 245. Upon his baptism he gave a large portion of his wealth to the poor, among whom he was always popular. He became bishop of Carthage in AD 249. Under his leadership the Church in Carthage endured multiple periods of persecution. Cyprian consolidated his popularity with moderate, yet firm policies on reconciling recanters to the Church. In AD 256, a particularly severe wave of persecution called for the execution of all Christian clergy, culminating in Cyprian’s martyrdom in AD 258. A number of his pastoral epistles and treatises survive, including his most important work, On the Unity of the Church, in which he famously states “He can no longer have God for his father who has not the Church for his mother.”
Allen Brent is professor of early Christian history and literature at Edmund’s College, Cambridge.