Book Review: Cyprian the Bishop by J. Patout Burns

May 27th, 2010 | By | Category: Blog Posts

The period of persecution under Decius in the middle of the third century and the subsequent controversies in Italy and Northern Africa is one of the most confusing periods of ante-Nicene Church history. So much writing has survived that we are able to bring a lot of characters into play. To make things more confusing, some persons had similar sounding names and they all seemed to disagree on various issues for the same reasons or the same issues for various reasons! One confusing issue is that Eusebius refers to Novatian, the Roman rigorist and schismatic, as Novatus which is the same name as a laxist priest (and schismatic for the opposite reason) in Carthage!

“Cyprian the Bishop” J. Patout Burns, Jr. (2001)

I’ve read many accounts of this historical narrative (and most of St. Cyprian’s writings). Besides conflicting information, I get the impression that many of those writing these accounts don’t have such a strong command of this time period themselves. For this reason, I was particularly excited to read J. Patout Burn’s Cyprian the Bishop. As I understand it, Burns has devoted a large portion of his professional career solely to the study of St. Cyprian of Carthage and the surrounding controversies.

The first chapter is a chronological narrative of St. Cyprian’s Christian life from baptism to martyrdom which I found particularly helpful. Oddly enough, I might now command a stronger understanding of the whole thing if I had stopped there (and I may well re-read that first part just for the sake of clarity).

Burns’ style is clear and accessible but not terribly interesting. He never confuses (which I appreciate) but seems a bit repetitive. Though, the confusing nature of this time period may warrant the repetition and I don’t think it detracted too much from the book. He is even handed through most of the book and appears to represent all sides fairly but on page 165, (just 11 pages before the end), he makes this surprising blunder:

The primacy of the papal system which emerged in the medieval period would have been puzzling to the African bishops of the third century: they firmly grasped Peter as a symbol of unity but understood the Petrine office only at the local level.

I do not object, of course, that St. Cyprian agreed with the universal jurisdiction of the Papacy; clearly (at least after his dispute with Pope St. Stephen) he did not. I do not have a problem with Burns saying that the medieval papacy would not have seemed natural to the African bishops of the third century. I object to the absurd claim that it ’emerged’ in the medieval period. The papacy of the fifth century wouldn’t have seemed natural to them – forget about the medieval period – and St. Cyprian was fighting the papal authority of the third century! Burns’ wording here is terrible and is rather amateur (in an otherwise scholarly book). Wherever one stands on the papacy, no serious historian can doubt that papal primacy was already ’emerging’ by this time. It would have been an error to say papal jurisdiction, which is less foundational than primacy, emerged in the medieval period but even the issue of jurisdiction can be shown to be emerging (if one wants to use that term). The most ironic thing is that this very book could be cited to show the emergence of papal jurisdiction because it is a study of the first major controversy on the subject!

While I do appreciate the work of a historian to see the world through the eyes of the subject studied, in the final chapter, “Cyprian’s African Heritage,” it seems that Burns becomes too fond of St. Cyprian’s arguments and uses them as a standard to judge the Catholic Church. It seems that Burns begins to argue (not as from the mouth of St. Cyprian but from his own) that the Pope was wrong on re-baptism. Beginning on page 169, he abruptly declares, “The Roman practice of accepting baptism performed in schism or heresy came without a theoretical justification; it was based upon customary practice alone.”

Which is odd not only because it’s flatly wrong, but also because on page 109 he himself admits that there were arguments being made for the Roman case and not only from Italy (Bishop Jubianus for example): “Jubianus suggested and Stephen charged that Cyprian and his colleagues were following Novatian’s innovative practice of rebaptizing schismatics rather than the established tradition of both the church and most heretics: receiving baptized converts by the imposition of hands.” (Emphasis added)  If Burns and St. Cyprian were right, that would actually mean that Protestants weren’t Christians because they received baptism outside of the Catholic Church.   Thankfully, this issue was decided a long time ago by the universal Church – we do not re-baptize!

Burns is not careful to appreciate St. Cyprian’s legacy through the eyes of the Church, and as a result, it appears that he ends up siding on St. Cyprian on those uniquely Cyprianic ideas which were preserved most faithfully by schismatics rather than by the Catholic Church. It was the Donatists in Northern Africa that adopted the stand of St. Cyprian & the African bishops, not the Catholics. St. Cyprian was certainly a great Church father and martyr to whom we likely owe more than we realize, but he was wrong on a few issues and they do need to be recognized.

Overall, I would recommend the book to those interested in developing a greater understanding of St. Cyprian and his controversies.

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  1. Another good read of his is “Theological Anthropology in Early Christianity.” The theological anthropology of St. Irenaeus of Lyons (2nd century) however, is not speculative, but got some very original ideas of mans conscious development to meet gods plan for his salvation (through spiritual evolution). It actually reduces itself to a practical explanation of traditional theology, yet, the majority of third century Fathers and Christian writers follow his work Against Heresies, where he writes:
    “Humanity slowly progresses, approaches perfection, and draws near to the uncreated God. The perfect is the uncreated, God. It was therefore appropriate for humanity first to be made, being made to grow, having grown to be strengthened, being stronger to multiply, having multiplied to recover from illness, having recovered to be glorified, and once glorified to see its Lord. God is the one who is going to be seen; the vision of God produces incorruptibility; incorruptibility makes a person approach God.”

  2. Cyprian the Bishop was the key person in the development of Christianity in North Africa. This book aided me much in gaining more insights on the church history. The book correlated well his theology and his practice as a bishop. You could really say that it is not subjective. All the details given were pure facts. Although there were controversies during Cyprus’ time, he accepted the thought of schismatic baptism.

  3. I appreciate the thoughtful review, but in my judgment your criticisms miss the point. When Burns says the “papal system” he is thinking of a very specific set of assumpti0ns and practices that emerged in the medieval period. That system assigned a particular range of meanings to papal primacy. So, he does not mean that there is no emerging primacy prior to the medieval period; he means what he says, namely, that there is a specific understanding of primacy embedded in the medieval system, which would have been foreign to third century African bishops.

    One might disagree about how this point ought to be expressed and whether the author has put it well. On the other hand, when you criticize the author’s assertion that the Roman baptismal practice was “based upon customary practice alone,” there can be no doubt you’ve simply misunderstood his point. You point out that Stephen and Jubianus did have an argument: Tradition! But, obviously, an argument based solely on traditional practice is “based upon customary practice alone,” just as the author says. His point is that “tradition” is not a THEORETICAL justification, i.e., a justification based on a theory of how baptism works, or of how baptism administered outside the communion of the Church could be valid. That theoretical justification remained to be provided.

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