Were the Novatians Early Baptists? Cyprian on Church Discipline

(Read the series so far.)

Most Baptists would not disagree with Cyprian on church discipline if they would only read what he wrote. But Ernest Pickering’s characterization is representative of what most Baptists believe about this issue: “Basically, [Novatian] and his followers were contending for a stricter view of the requirements for church membership than was generally accepted in his day.”1 Thus, Novatian is a crusading separatist; Cyprian is a lax compromiser. The truth, however, is that Novatian was a schismatic exclusivist.

Cyprian on church discipline

Cyprian was not lax. He believed that the truly repentant ought to be re-admitted into fellowship, and that the un-repentant should be excluded. When some of the lapsed presumptuously demanded to be re-admitted to the church, Cyprian condemned this “seditious practice” and charged that the clergy who permitted it were “frightened and subdued” men who “were of little avail to resist them, either by vigour of mind or by strength of faith.”2 Instead, Cyprian advocated a moderate, sensible policy:

[W]e balanced the decision with wholesome moderation, so that neither should hope of communion and peace be wholly denied to the lapsed, lest they should fail still more through desperation, and, because the Church was closed to them, should, like the world, live as heathens; nor yet, on the other hand, should the censure of the Gospel be relaxed, so that they might rashly rush to communion, but that repentance should be long protracted, and the paternal clemency be sorrowfully besought, and the cases, and the wishes, and the necessities of individuals be examined into.3

A priest must be able to discern false confessions from real ones.4 Cyprian actually believed the lapsed were being re-admitted too readily! Those who allowed the unrepentant to return to fellowship were actually harming them.5

Returning from the altars of the devil, they draw near to the holy place of the Lord, with hands filthy and reeking with smell, still almost breathing of the plague-bearing idol-meats; and even with jaws still exhaling their crime, and reeking with the fatal contact, they intrude on the body of the Lord.6

Cyprian held that pastors who re-admitted the lapsed rashly ought to be shunned.7 He fumed at these men: “Why do they hinder those who ought to weep continually and to entreat their Lord, from the sorrowing of repentance, and pretend to receive them to communion?”8 Folks who are truly unrepentant are easy to spot, Cyprian argued—just look at their fruit!9 These people receive no forgiveness for their denial of Christ.10 Cyprian’s policy was to look for fruits of honest repentance; for example, he recommended accepting some lapsed people back into fellowship who had been repentant for three whole years.

[W]e think it may be sufficient for entreating the mercy of the Lord, that for three years continually and sorrowfully, as you write, they have lamented with excessive penitential mourning.11

If a priest unwittingly admitted a false repentant person, Cyprian was content to let the Lord sort it all out:

Moreover, we do not prejudge when the Lord is to be the judge; save that if He shall find the repentance of the sinners full and sound, He will then ratify what shall have been here determined by us. If, however, any one should delude us with the pretence of repentance, God, who is not mocked, and who looks into man’s heart, will judge of those things which we have imperfectly looked into, and the Lord will amend the sentence of His servants.12

The following words from Cyprian should destroy the false idea that the man was lax about re-admitting the lapsed:

To a deep wound let there not be wanting a long and careful treatment; let not the repentance be less than the sin. Think you that the Lord can be quickly appeased, whom with faithless words you have denied, to whom you have rather preferred your worldly estate, whose temple you have violated with a sacrilegious contact? Think you that He will easily have mercy upon you whom you have declared not to be your God? You must pray more eagerly and entreat; you must spend the day in grief; wear out nights in watchings and weepings; occupy all your time in wailful lamentations; lying stretched on the ground, you must cling close to the ashes, be surrounded with sackcloth and filth; after losing the raiment of Christ, you must be willing now to have no clothing; after the devil’s meat, you must prefer fasting; be earnest in righteous works, whereby sins may be purged; frequently apply yourself to almsgiving, whereby souls are freed from death.13

All in all, Cyprian advocated a sensible, strict and practical approach to the lapsed. He was not lax at all. Historians who claim otherwise have simply have not read his writings.14

Notes

1 Ernest Pickering, Biblical Separation: The Struggle for a Pure Church (Schaumberg, IL: Regular Baptist Press, 1979), 13.

2 Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle 22.3, ANF 5:300.

3 Ibid, Epistle 51.6, ANF 5:328. See also Epistle 54.13, ANF 5:343.

4 Ibid, On the Lapsed 14, ANF 5:441.

5 Ibid, On the Lapsed 18, ANF 5:442.

6 Ibid, On the Lapsed 15, ANF 5:441.

7 Ibid, Epistle 27.1, ANF 5:306.

8 Ibid, On the Lapsed 16, ANF 5:441.

9 Ibid, On the Lapsed 30, ANF 5:445-446.

10 Ibid, On the Lapsed 34, ANF 5:446.

11 Ibid, Epistle 52.2, ANF 5:336.

12 Ibid, Epistle 51.18, ANF 5:331.

13 Ibid, On the Lapsed 34, ANF 5:447.

14 This author read every single epistle and treatise Cyprian wrote. Much more evidence could be marshalled in support of Cyprian’s approach to church discipline than what is presented here.

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There are 9 Comments

TylerR's picture

Editor

If somebody can find a Baptist history text which actually accurately represents what Cyprian believed about re-admission of the lapsed, please let me know. I'd like to know that somebody has done their homework. Baptists, in our zeal to find a common concern for the purity of the church, have not been fair to Cyprian. I challenge everybody to pull out their history texts from Seminary, and see how the entire Novatian controversy is characterized. I think you'll probably find Cyprian probably isn't fairly represented at all.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Ted Bigelow's picture

Hi Tyler,

Was Cyprian accused/criticized for leaving his church during the first persecution (like, 247 AD or so) - and going and hiding while people in his church were suffering? Or am I wrong?

Thanks for you research here.

TylerR's picture

Editor

He did run away during the persecution from 250-251, and was criticized for it. He communicated with his church by letter during that time. The church at Rome (in which, ironically, Novatian was a leader!) sent this letter to Cyprian's church in Carthage while he was in hiding:

  • "We have been informed by Crementius the sub-deacon, who came to us from you, that the blessed father Cyprian has for a certain reason withdrawn; “in doing which he acted quite rightly, because he is a person of eminence, and because a conflict is impending,” which God has allowed in the world, for the sake of co-operating with His servants in their struggle against the adversary . . ." (Cyprian, Epistle 2.1, ANF 5:280). 

It does seem more than a bit callous to run away, as if his own life is worth more than an "ordinary" Christian's life! 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Ted Bigelow's picture

TylerR wrote:

He did run away during the persecution from 250-251, and was criticized for it. He communicated with his church by letter during that time. The church at Rome (in which, ironically, Novatian was a leader!) sent this letter to Cyprian's church in Carthage while he was in hiding:

  • "We have been informed by Crementius the sub-deacon, who came to us from you, that the blessed father Cyprian has for a certain reason withdrawn; “in doing which he acted quite rightly, because he is a person of eminence, and because a conflict is impending,” which God has allowed in the world, for the sake of co-operating with His servants in their struggle against the adversary . . ." (Cyprian, Epistle 2.1, ANF 5:280). 

It does seem more than a bit callous to run away, as if his own life is worth more than an "ordinary" Christian's life! 

I appreciate how much reading you've done, and sifting through the letters back and forth. I've tried to do that in the past. It felt like herding cats, got a headache, and went into the fetal position for a while.

So, how come Cyprian is looked at as a hero of the faith when *it seems* he was saving his own skin, and risking other's skins?

TylerR's picture

Editor

The Roman Catholics would think more highly of Cyprian than we would! I don't think he's a hero at all. His battle with the Novatians set the stage for sacerdotalism and his belief that nobody could be saved outside the one true church. David Beale spends a lot of time on that (Historical Theology In-Depth, 1:183-199). All this series is aiming to show is that Novatian isn't the (1) crusading Baptist or (2) Baptistic forerunner that many Baptist histories like to paint him as.

Whatever else Cyprian's problems were (and the tail end of my last quote from the article gives you a hint of that ["be earnest in righteous works, whereby sins may be purged; frequently apply yourself to almsgiving, whereby souls are freed from death"], he wasn't lax on re-admitting the lapsed apostates at all. The next article on Novatian's view of the lapsed should make most Baptists raise an eyebrow or two. I wonder who would agree with Novatian? We'll have to wait for the next article to see! 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Todd Wood's picture

I have C. Douglas Weaver's Baptist textbook, From Our Christian Heritage (1997).

Though I disagree with some of Weaver's interpretation at various points in this particular book, I looked up what he said about Cyprian.

Weaver favors Cyprian:

(1) "The church sent him into hiding, but the during this time he wrote them many letters, never ceasing to exhort them to Christian living."

(2) "Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, would have nothing to do with Novation's movement.  Cyprian believed in holiness, but leaving the church was not a holy act.  Rather, Cyprian thought that Novation's split was really caused by the destructive power of personal jealousy over not being elected as the Roman bishop."  And then Weaver provides a provocative quote by Cyprian on jealousy.

But what a gnawing worm of the soul is it, what a plague-spot of our thoughts, what a rust of the heart, to be jealous of another, either in respect of his virtue or of his happiness;  that is . . . to make other people's glory one's own penalty . . . such . . . are ever sighing, and groaning, and grieving; and since envy is never put off by the envious, the possessed heart is rent without intermission day and night.  Other ills have their limit; and whatever  wrong is done, is bounded by the completion of the crim . . . Jealousy has no limit; it is an evil continually enduring, and a sin without end.

(3) When Weaver intersects with Cyprian's view on the Lord's Supper, he writes, "When many sought repentance and a return to the church, they faced a traditional part of the penalty of excommunication by the church--exclusion from participation in the Eucharist.  But Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, began to question the practicality of denying the Supper forever even to the worst of sinners.  Indeed, the Eucharist was "spiritual food" that gave needed strength to believers for daily living."  Cyprian wondered how the penitent could be strengthened in the face of future persecution if they were denied participation in the fellowship of the Lord's Supper.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Thanks, Tyler, for setting things straight.  And thanks, Todd, for sharing what seems a pretty reasonable interpretation.

 

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