When one surveys Church history and examines the third century one of the most notable characteristics of it is the amount of persecutions the Christians went through. Under such emperors as Septimius Severus, Maximinus the Thracen, Trajan Decius, Valerian, and Aurelian Christians were tortured and executed.
One of the cities that the Christians suffered was that of Carthage in North Africa (present day Republic of Tunisia). In 250 AD the Emperor Trajan Decius issued an edict which required that all citizens of the empire to sacrifice to the gods of the Roman state in front of a Roman magistrate. To prove that one had offered the sacrifice, they would be given a certificate by the magistrate affirming that they had conformed to the edict of the emperor. The Christian response in Carthage was varied; some eagerly went to offer sacrifices, some bribed the magistrates to acquire a certificate, others suffered extreme tortures before finally agreeing to the emperors demands, while finally there were those who endured the tortures either to the point of death (becoming martyrs) or surviving (becoming confessors). A delicate situation arose with the fact that many of the Christians who had apostatized desired to be reconciled with the Church. In response to these fallen Christians (the ‘lapsed’) were two extremes. On one side was a group known as the ‘laxist’ party. They insisted that due to the good confession of the martyrs (by their ‘merits’) they were able to grant immediate absolution to the lapsed without enforcing any penance upon them. On the other side, represented by the anti-pope Novatian, contested that there in fact could be no restoration of the lapsed and that no repentance could reconcile them with their apostasy. Standing in the middle of the two groups was the policy of St. Cyprian of Carthage. St. Cyprian himself had fled during the persecutions and went into hiding but once the persecutions had ended he convened a council in Carthage in 251 AD to address the question of the reconciliation of the lapsed.
The Error of the Laxist Party: the Rejection of Penance.
St. Cyprian’s response to the question of the lapsed is dealt with at length in a treatise written by him entitled, “The Fallen”. The majority of the treatise is St. Cyprian’s response to the laxist party, both addressing why he finds their position erroneous and positing also his own position. When addressing the position of the laxist party he declares that the absolution given by them is, “an invalid and false reconciliation, dangerous to those who grant it, and liable to be of no advantage to those who receive it.” (ch. 15) In the 14th chapter of the treatise, St. Cyprian sets forth that the penance given to the lapsed by the priests is medicinal and that the penance is necessary before one can be admitted back to participation in the Eucharist, to fail to give a penance would be disastrous, “It is an unskilled doctor who examines the swelling hollows of wounds with a hand that act sparingly. He only increases the infection shut up within in the deep recesses of the organs while he is trying to preserve them.” (ch. 14) He likens the actions of the laxist party granting immediate absolution without penance to an unskilled doctor who does more damage to this patient while trying to treat his wounds. To immediately come from the pagan sacrifice to the Eucharist is to come from the cup of demons to the cup of the Lord in Cyprian’s mind. Cyprian’s main concern in the healing and restoration of the lapsed and he believes that those who are readmitted to the Eucharist without penance are eating and drinking condemnation on themselves by partaking unworthily. In the 24th-26th chapters of his treatise, St. Cyprian gives some examples of what has happened to some of the lapsed Christians who were admitted to the Eucharist without first confession, penance, and absolution, which ranges from a condition of dumbness, to convulsive weeping and vomiting, and even death. Due to the severity of their sins, the renunciation of Christ by means of the offering of sacrifice to the gods, the lapsed require a greater penance before being brought back into Eucharistic communion.
The Argument of the Merits of the Martyrs.
After addressing the laxist party’s position of granting absolution without penance and the danger of this practice he then moves on to address the underlining principle which the laxist party stands upon: the merit of the martyrs. To begin with he affirms that the martyrs have boldness and intercede before God, “We believe indeed that the merits of the very many martyrs and the works of the just will prevail before the Judge, but when the Day of Judgement will come, when, following the sunset of this age and world, His people will stand before the Judgement seat of Christ.” (ch. 17) For Cyprian it is clear that presently the martyrs do intercede for men before God (he has in his mind the text of Rev. 6:10-11, which he invokes in the next chapter) but ultimately it is Christ Who judges. Cyprian then advances his argument based off of this principle. In chapter 20 he brings to the table the Gospel passage of Matt. 10:32-33. He reasons that if Christ indeed confesses the martyrs, then He also denies those who denied Him by offering the pagan sacrifices; both articles of the passage stand for Cyprian. He adds that the martyrs can do nothing against Christ. He noted in chapter 18 that in the passage of Rev. 6:10-11 that while the martyrs do cry out to God, nevertheless they are commanded by God to be calm and patient. The martyrs intercession are effective as long as they correspond to the will of God. Therefore, in Cyprian’s argument, the martyrs cannot go against Christ’s denial of the lapsed and neither therefore can the bishops of the laxist party claim the merits of the martyrs as an effective justification to grant immediate absolution to the lapsed without them undergoing penance. Cyprian, in chapter 19, gives Scriptural examples of how both Moses (In Ex. 32:31-33) and Jeremiah (In Jer. 7:16, and 11:14) interceded for impenitent Israel yet God did not grant Israel immediate forgiveness. Forgiveness (absolution) is only granted after repentance (penance). Thus we can see that for Cyprian the practice of the laxist party of granting an immediate absolution to the lapsed, based off of the merits of the martyrs, without requiring them to undergo any penance is contrary to the way of God given in the Scriptures and is therefore unacceptable.
The Policy of St. Cyprian.
For Cyprian is it necessary first that those who apostatized first come before a priest and confess his sins. It is then necessary for the priest to give to the lapsed Christian a penance, which for Cyprian is a time of fasting, mourning, lamenting, and seeking God’s mercy while performing works of righteousness. Only after a time of penance can the priest then extend the absolution to the lapsed Christian and return him to stand with the faithful and receive the Eucharist. Only this way can guarantee the healing and forgiveness of the lapsed Christian.