Cyprian and the tolerance of our Mother the Church  
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Dr. Marcel Poorthuis

Cyprian and the tolerance of our Mother the Church

A heritage between identity and exclusion

Cyprian addresses invariably fellow-Christians when he alludes to the dictum ‘oustide the Church no salvation’. Schismatics and those who profess the Christian faith in a wrong way by denying God the Father and Creator, they are according to Cyprian the enemies of Mother the Church, who cannot hope for salvation. We agree with Francis Sullivan in that we simply do not know what Cyprian’s thought on pagans was.(1) We may add that even if we knew, the relevance of it for a genuine understanding of other religions would be extremely limited.

Hermeneutical reflections

We have seen how Cyprian’s dictum: ‘Outside the Church no salvation’, developed and transformed itself in several ways. It would be too hasty to assume hermeneutically that what is at stake here is merely a gradually unfolding of the truth. Cyprian is often quoted as an early advocate of the primacy of Rome. The absolute allegiance to the Pope demanded  from Boniface VIII would then be no more than a specification of what Cyprian already mentioned.

Although this hermeneutics is quite feasible in Catholic theology it demonstrates once more the importance of close historical scrutiny. Recently, Avery Cardinal Dulles quoted Cyprian’s Letter to Pope Cornelius in 252 referring to the See of Rome as ‘the throne of Peter,... the chief church, from which the unity of the episcopate has arisen’. (Ep. 59:14; CSEL 3.2.683, ANF 54:14).(2) Dulles continued by stating that pope St. Stephen, Cyprian’s contemporary, claims to speak as a successor of Peter in settling the question of the validity of heretical baptisms.(3) Ostensibly, Dulles quoted two important proofs for the primacy of Rome in ecclesiastical affairs. Dulles failed to note, however, that Cyprian confronts pope Stephen with the unity of the Church as the main argument against the pope’s standpoint that imposition of the bishop’s hands is enough for those baptized outside the Church.(4)

Firmilian, bishop of Caesarea, agrees with Cyprian and in his letter to Cyprian around 256 C.E., does not even hesitate to compare Stephen with the treacherous Judas (Letter 75:2 Bayard; 74:2 ANF). ‘With such a man can there be one Spirit and one body, in whom perchance there is not even one mind, so slippery and shifting and uncertain it is? But as far as he (Stephen) is concerned let us leave him’,  Firmilian exclaims indignantly! (Epistle 75:25 Bayard; 74:25 ANF). The unity of the Church is here held as a warning against pope Stephen. It does not seem proper to gloss over these differences of opinion by quoting both Cyprian and Stephen as unqualified champions of the primacy of Rome. Incidentally, pope Stephen uses words like ‘pseudochristus’, ‘pseudoapostolus’ and a ‘dolosus operarius’, a treacherous worker (end of Epistle 75:25 Bayard; 74:25 ANF), to qualify Cyprian!

Hence, the hermeneutics of  a gradual unfolding of the truth should be supplemented and corrected by an additional hermeneutics aiming at detecting historical nuances and differences of opinion obscured in later Church history. In this hermeneutics, historical differences of opinion are not ‘work accidents’ that should be ignored or replaced by final decisions. They testify to a living faith and are an indispensible tool for us Christians today to see our problems in a more nuanced light. In addition, the conflicts and the arguments are a better way to determine what was at stake then than the mere solutions. In that respect, Cyprian’s letters are of invaluable importance. It enables the reader to detect multiple meanings in Cyprian’s theology of the Church: both the centrality of Rome and the autonomy of the local bishop and even of the local community; or the brotherly love between bishops rather than the autonomy of one bishop; or not even the bishop but the believers as the central ‘locus’ of the Church with whom the bishop should identify and to whom he should listen.

Our hermeneutics allow even an interest in those Christian practices that seem to be condemned from the outset or that are even considered as non-existent. These practices may remind us of what took place anyway, sometimes beyond imagination and warn us against drawing a too strict demarcation between Church and sect.

A Eucharist celebrating woman

As such Firmilian’s story in the same letter quoted above (Epistle 75:10 Bayard; 74:10 ANF) about an incident of some 22 years earlier is of invaluable importance. Around 234 C.E., there was a woman prophesying impending earthquakes. In addition, she walked barefoot in the snow without being harmed by it. This woman celebrated Eucharist with the usual formula of the ritual words(5), and baptized with the authentic interrogation and the proper Trinitarian formula, as the writer does not fail to notice. Firmilian wonders whether Stephen would approve such a baptism and that is why he brings up the whole story. He refers here to the Montanist sect, which from 170 CE on, became an important current in the early Church, claiming an authentic early Christian tradition of charismatic prophecy.(6)

The prophetic element in the Montanist sect is well-known. To explain its occurrence, some scholars point to the earliest layers of Christianity such as the Didache 11 (beginning 2d century CE). That there were women in the early Church who conferred baptism is also quite known, as becomes clear in Tertullian (De baptismo 17). Tertullian strongly objects to it, but would later on become Montanist himself. Whether that step meant for Tertullian a change in perspective on women in the Church, we simply do not know. 

The story as told by Firmilian, however, even proves that there were women who celebrated the Eucharist. This should give food for thought to those who are sure that from the time of the apostles on no woman ever has taken upon her a priestly task. In order for this fact to be of significance, this requires again a hermeneutics in which the later developments do not automatically determine the interpretation of previous events.

Another hermeneutic device that would place these phenomena without further ado outside the Church, in the Montanist sect, should likewise be thought over more thoroughly. This operation, taken as a given fact, fails to do justice to the plurality of Christian life. We should realize that in this case Firmilian and Cyprian defend a case – rebaptism – that was to be abandoned by the Church later on. Hence, the dividing lines between orthodoxy and heterodoxy should not be drawn too strictly. Otherwise Firmilian’s  (not well-known) story would not add anything to our knowledge of Church history and would not be of significance to the Christian life of today.

Hermeneutics conducing to renewed understanding

Moreover, the hermeneutics of a gradual unfolding of the truth fail to acknowledge the growing distance to the time of origin of Christianity. It would be more logical from a theological point of view to speak of a gradual decline instead of a gradual unfolding of the truth in relation to the beginnings of Christianity.(7) However, both options fail to realize that theological hermeneutics are first and foremost necessary to understand better the present time in which the Church should make the vocation of the Christian life a living reality. Theological hermeneutics do not foster a nostalgia for a supposedly ideal Christian past, but should enable a renewal of the future in the perspective of the Kingdom of God. Seen in this light, it would be more appropriate to realize that in Church history gain and loss go hand in hand.

First and foremost the primacy of Scripture should be the guide here, not in favor of a nostalgic retour to the origin of Christianity, but because Scripture testifies of the same living Christ who can be encountered today. The infinite richness of spiritual guidance found in Scripture both fosters and transcends the historical realizations in Church history. As we have demonstrated, it is obvious that the New Testament testifies to a relationship with Judaism which is all but obscured in later ecclesiastical sources. Paul’s ‘mystery’ to characterize Israel has been replaced by its condemnation, the permanent vocation of Israel by the abolishment of Judaism and the replacement by the Church.

Cyprian clearly testifies to this development. Cyprian does not deal with the people outside the Church. Hence his statements do not concern them. It is after Christianity became the dominant religion that the same maxims will be applied to all people outside the  Church.(8) His view of Judaism is that of a deviant group, stubbornly resisting the Christian message. Here it is important to realize that contact and exchange continued to exist in spite of Patristic condemnations. Council texts such as Elvira 305 and Laodicea in the middle of the fourth century CE warn Christians against such contacts by prohibiting the keeping of Sabbath, the sharing of meals, Jewish blessings of the crop and so on. Apparently these practices continued to exist.(9) These canon laws and prohibitions are addressed to Christians, not to Jews. Bodddens Hosang demonstrates that it is only in the sixth century CE that prohibitions directly address Jews, a clear indication that dominant Christianity and political power have become intertwined to such an extent that the Council can enforce sanctions upon Jews as well.


Love and meekness are the driving forces behind his idea of the unity of the Church, brotherly (and sisterly) community the way Christians should behave toward each other. The salvation promised to such a Christian community is not only something only to be awaited after death, but is the life of faith and charity and communion with God, shared by all believers. This remains the indispensible and lasting heritage of Cyprian for Christians. It is this salutary Christian life that will never draw upon intolerance and condemnation if it does not want to destroy its claim to offer salvation. This salutary life will not fail to impress as a gentle invitation to all to benefit from this community of Christian love.

Marcel Poorthuis



(1) F. Sullivan, Salvation outside the Church?, pp. 22-23.

(2) “Ad ecclesiam principalem unde unitas sacerdotalis exorta est”. ‘Unitas sacerdotalis’ here translated  as ‘unity of the episopate’.

(3) Avery Cardinal Dulles s.j., Magisterium. Teacher and Guardian of the Faith (Naples Florida 2007), p. 27. Dulles’ book: The survival of dogma, New York 1971, seems to apply a more ‘open’ hermeneutics.

(4) In a sort of irony of history, Augustin will advocate Stephen’s practice as the one to be followed: De baptismo contra Donatistas,  edited by M. Petschenig. (CSEL 51, pars 1) (Vienna-Leipzig, 1909), II:2-14.

(5) ‘Sacrificium Domino non sine sacramento solitae praedicationis’, See for the emendation ‘non’, P. de Labriolle, Les sources de l’histoire du Montanisme (Fribourg / Paris 1913), p. 65.

(6) See on this passage from Firmilian: Christine Trevett, Montanism. Gender, Authority and the New Prophecy, (Cambridge 1996), p. 171. She prefers the expression ‘New Prophecy’ to Montanism as prophecy was a phenomenon outside Montanism as well. The designation ‘Montanism’ is attested only centuries after the rise of the movement, Trevett argues.

(7) Actually, Protestantism is much more inclined than Catholicism to see it that way.

(8) This is the main thesis of the important book of F. A. Sullivan, Salvation outside the Church? racing the History of the Catholic Response (New York 1992).

(9) See: F.J.E. Boddens Hosang, Establishing Boundaries. Christian-Jewish relations in Early Council Texts and the Writings of Church Fathers (Enschede 2008). This dissertation will appear in elaborated form in the series Jewish and Christian Perspectives (Brill Leyden).

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