Note on sources: My discussion makes use of the following resources: With reference to the history, I’ll largely be following the first volume of Justo Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity, and for the theology I’ll be following the discussion in Everett Fergusson’s Baptism in the Early Church.
If you remember from the previous installment, the problem that arose from Decius’ persecution was that it created the “confessors,” whose moral authority began to conflict with that of the church’s duly appointed hierarchy. This was especially a problem in North Africa. Cyprian became bishop of Carthage shortly before the persecution began. When it did, he decided to take the church’s administration into hiding to keep it intact and provide remote guidance – sort of like the emergency plans that attempt to keep the president and other key figures safe and, consequently, the government still functioning.
Of course, this looked like running away to some. Cyprian proved his courage by submitting to martyrdom in a later persecution, but this is still in the future for our purposes. In Decius’ aftermath, many claimed that the confessors in Carthage wielded greater authority than Cyprian, especially on the question of what to do with the lapsed. Cyprian was a moderate. He was more rigorous than many, but he was not as rigorous as some of the confessors and their followers.
This controversy progressed to the point where Cyprian called a synod to settle the matter against the confessors. Despite the synod’s ruling, however, the schism continued. Perhaps the schism was most evident in Rome. The rigorists there appointed their own bishop, Novatian, in competition with Cornelius, the established bishop. Eventually, however, the two parties reunited.
To concretize things theologically, the issue was whether those who had been baptized by the Novatian schismatics had to be re-baptized upon admittance to the church. Nota Bene: For Cyprian, the church is like Noah’s ark – it is a vehicle of salvation, a conduit for God’s sacramentally administered grace. This is why he can say that there is no salvation outside of the church. The corollary of this statement is that there are no sacraments outside of the church. In order to maintain the validity of those sacraments, Cyprian thought that the clergy had to be held to a higher standard than the laity.
Cyprian was willing to accept that the majority of Christians will have failings, such as those encountered in Decius’ persecution. The key point, however, was to maintain the integrity of the clergy, who could then supply the faithful, and those who had lapsed, with access to salvation through the sacraments. The problem with the schismatics is that they had separated themselves from the church’s sacramental system (sacramental-industrial complex?) by breaking fellowship with the church’s duly appointed leadership. As he puts it in one letter, “Only those leaders who are set in authority within the church…have the lawful power to baptize and to grant forgiveness of sins.”
Consequently, Cyprian would not admit that schismatic baptism is baptism, and thus did not see the practice of baptizing schismatics upon admittance to the church as re-baptism: this was the first true baptism that they had received. Cyprian’s position was based on North African precedent, but the non-Novatian bishop in Rome – now Stephen rather than Cornelius – disagreed. He supported receiving such schismatics into the church through the laying on of hands, since they had already been baptized. Cyprian persisted, however, calling a number of councils to support his position. Thus, North Africa maintained its own distinctive ecclesiological and baptismal tradition against Rome.
Finally, and briefly, baptism was central to Cyprian’s vision of the Christian life. Through the ministrations of the Holy Spirit, Cyprian believes that baptism provides forgiveness from sins, regeneration, and new birth. Given this, Cyprian understands the Christian life as the process whereby one’s baptism is fulfilled in one’s life. It is the process whereby you become what baptism already made you. As Cyprian puts it, “We pray that we who were sanctified in baptism may be able to persevere in that which we have begun to be.” Given the trials faced in Decius’ persecution, Cyprian could even reflect on the fact that it is one thing to begin faith in baptism, but an altogether more difficult thing to preserve and perfect that faith.