Vol. 2, Chapter XIII (Cont’d) – The Writings of Tertullian


Tertullian developed an extraordinary literary activity in two languages between about 190 and 220. His earlier books in the Greek language, and some in the Latin, are lost. Those which remain are mostly short; but they are numerous, and touch nearly all departments of religious life. They present a graphic picture of the church of his day. Most of his works, according to internal evidence, fill in the first quarter of the third century, in the Montanistic period of his life, and among these many of his ablest writings against the heretics; while, on the other hand, the gloomy moral austerity, which predisposed him to Montanism, comes out quite strongly even in his earliest productions.

His works may be grouped in three classes: apologetic; polemic or anti-heretical; and ethic or practical; to which may be added as a fourth class the expressly Montanistic tracts against the Catholics. We can here only mention the most important:

1. In the Apologetic works against heathens and Jews, he pleads the cause of all Christendom, and deserves the thanks of all Christendom. Preëminent among them is the Apologeticus (or Apologeticum). It was composed in the reign of Septimius Severus, between 197 and 200. It is unquestionably one of the most beautiful monuments of the heroic age of the church. In this work, Tertullian enthusiastically and triumphantly repels the attacks of the heathens upon the new religion, and demands for it legal toleration and equal rights with the other sects of the Roman empire. It is the first plea for religious liberty, as an inalienable right which God has given to every man, and which the civil government in its own interest should not only tolerate but respect and protect. He claims no support, no favor, but simply justice. The church was in the first three centuries a self-supporting and self-governing society (as it ought always to be), and no burden, but a blessing to the state, and furnished to it the most peaceful and useful citizens. The cause of truth and justice never found a more eloquent and fearless defender in the very face of despotic power, and the blazing fires of persecution, than the author of this book. It breathes from first to last the assurance of victory in apparent defeat.

“We conquer,” are his concluding words to the prefects and judges of the Roman empire, “We conquer in dying; we go forth victorious at the very time we are subdued … Many of your writers exhort to the courageous bearing of pain and death, as Cicero in the Tusculans, as Seneca in his Chances, as Diogenes, Pyrrhus, Callinicus. And yet their words do not find so many disciples as Christians do, teachers not by words, but by their deeds. That very obstinacy you rail against is the preceptress. For who that contemplates it is not excited to inquire what is at the bottom of it? Who, after inquiry, does not embrace our doctrines? And, when he has embraced them, desires not to suffer that he may become partaker of the fulness of God’s grace, that he may obtain from God complete forgiveness, by giving in exchange his blood? For that secures the remission of all offences. On this account it is that we return thanks on the very spot for your sentences. As the divine and human are ever opposed to each other, when we are condemned by you, we are acquitted by the Highest.”

The relation of the Apologeticus to the Octavius of Minucius Felix will be discussed in the next section. But even if Tertullian should have borrowed from that author (as he undoubtedly borrowed, without acknowledgment, much matter from Irenaeus, in his book against the Valentinians), he remains one of the most original and vigorous writers. Moreover the plan is different; Minucius Felix pleads for Christianity as a philosopher before philosophers, to convince the intellect; Tertullian as a lawyer and advocate before judges, to induce them to give fair play to the Christians, who were refused even a hearing in the courts.

The beautiful little tract “On the Testimony of the Soul,” (6 chapters) is a supplement to the Apologeticus, and furnishes one of the strongest positive arguments for Christianity. Here the human soul is called to bear witness to the one true God: it springs from God, it longs for God; its purer and nobler instincts and aspirations, if not diverted and perverted by selfish and sinful passions, tend upwards and heavenwards, and find rest and peace only in God. There is, we may say, a pre-established harmony between the soul and the Christian religion; they are made for each other; the human soul is constitutionally Christian. And this testimony is universal, for as God is everywhere, so the human soul is everywhere. But its testimony turns against itself if not heeded.

“Every soul,” he concludes, “is a culprit as well as a witness: in the measure that it testifies for truth, the guilt of error lies on it; and on the day of judgment it will stand before the court of God, without a word to say. Thou proclaimedst God, O soul, but thou didst not seek to know Him; evil spirits were detested by thee, and yet they were the objects of thy adoration; the punishments of hell were foreseen by thee, but no care was taken to avoid them; thou hadst a savor of Christianity, and withal wert the persecutor of Christians.”

2. His polemic works are occupied chiefly with the refutation of the Gnostics. Here belongs first of all his thoroughly catholic tract.” On the Prescription of Heretics.” It is of a general character and lays down the fundamental principle of the church in dealing with heresy. Tertullian cuts off all errors and neologies at the outset from the right of legal contest and appeal to the holy Scriptures, because these belong only to the catholic church as the legitimate heir and guardian of Christianity. Irenaeus had used the same argument, but Tertullian gave it a legal or forensic form. The same argument, however, turns also against his own secession; for the difference between heretics and schismatics is really only relative, at least in Cyprian’s view. Tertullian afterwards asserted, in contradiction with this book, that in religious matters not custom nor long possession, but truth alone, was to be consulted.

Among the heretics, he attacked chiefly the Valentinian Gnostics, and Marcion. The work against Marcion (A. D. 208) is his largest, and the only one in which he indicates the date of composition, namely the 15th year of the reign of Septimius Severus (A. D. 208). He wrote three works against this famous heretic; the first he set aside as imperfect, the second was stolen from him and published with many blunders before it was finished. In the new work (in five books), he elaborately defends the unity of God, the Creator of all, the integrity of the Scriptures, and the harmony of the Old and New Testaments. He displays all his power of solid argument, subtle sophistry, ridicule and sarcasm, and exhausts his vocabulary of vituperation. He is more severe upon heretics than Jews or Gentiles. He begins with a graphic description of all the physical abnormities of Pontus, the native province of Marcion, and the gloomy temper, wild passions, and ferocious habits of its people, and then goes on to say:

“Nothing in Pontus is so barbarous and sad as the fact that Marcion was born there, fouler than any Scythian, more roving than the Sarmatian, more inhuman than the Massagete, more audacious than an Amazon, darker than the cloud of the Euxine, colder than its winter, more brittle than its ice, more deceitful than the Ister, more craggy than Caucasus. Nay, more, the true Prometheus, Almighty God, is mangled by Marcion’s blasphemies. Marcion is more savage than even the beasts of that barbarous region. For what beaver was ever a greater emasculator than he who has abolished the nuptial bond? What Pontic mouse ever had such gnawing powers as he who has gnawed the Gospel to pieces? Verily, O Euxine, thou hast produced a monster more credible to philosophers than to Christians. For the cynic Diogenes used to go about, lantern in hand, at mid-day, to find a man; whereas Marcion has quenched the light of his faith, and so lost the God whom he had found.”

The tracts “On Baptism” “On the Soul,” “On the Flesh of Christ,” “On the Resurrection of the Flesh” “Against Hermogenes,” “Against Praxeas,” are concerned with particular errors, and are important to the doctrine of baptism, to Christian psychology, to eschatology, and christology.

3. His numerous Practical or Ascetic treatises throw much light on the moral life of the early church, as contrasted with the immorality of the heathen world. Among these belong the books “On Prayer” “On Penance” “On Patience,” — a virtue, which he extols with honest confession of his own natural impatience and passionate temper, and which he urges upon himself as well as others, — the consolation of the confessors in prison (Ad Martyres), and the admonition against visiting theatres (De Spectaculis), which he classes with the pomp of the devil, and against all share, direct or indirect, in the worship of idols (De Idololatria).

4. His strictly Montanistic or anti-catholic writings, in which the peculiarities of this sect are not only incidentally touched, as in many of the works named above, but vindicated expressly and at large, are likewise of a practical nature, and contend, in fanatical rigor, against the restoration of the lapsed (De Pudicitia), flight in persecutions, second marriage (De Monogamia, and De Exhortatione Castitatis), display of dress in females (De Cultu Feminarum), and other customs of the “Psychicals,” as he commonly calls the Catholics in distinction from the sectarian Pneumatics. His plea, also, for excessive fasting (De Jejuniis), and his justification of a Christian soldier, who was discharged for refusing to crown his head (De Corona Militis), belong here. Tertullian considers it unbecoming the followers of Christ, who, when on earth, wore a crown of thorns for us, to adorn their heads with laurel, myrtle, olive, or with flowers or gems. We may imagine what he would have said to the tiara of the pope in his mediaeval splendor.



The chronological order of Tertullian’s work can be approximately determined by the frequent allusions to the contemporaneous history of the Roman empire, and by their relation to Montanism. See especially Uhlhorn, Hauck, Bonwetsch, and also Bp. Kaye (in Oehler’s ed. of the Opera III. 709-718.) We divide the works into three classes, according to their relation to Montanism.

(1) Those books which belong to the author’s catholic period before a.d. 200; viz.: Apologeticus or Apologeticum (in the autumn of 197, according to Bonwetsch; 198, Ebert; 199, Hesselberg; 200, Uhlhorn); Ad Martyres (197); Ad Nationes (probably soon after Apol.); De Testimonio Animae; De Poenitentia; De Oratione; De Baptismo (which according to cap. 15, was preceded by a Greek work against the validity of Heretical Baptism); Ad Uxorem; De Patientia; Adv. Judaeos; De Praescriptione Haereticorum; De Spectaculis (and a lost work on the same subject in the Greek language).

Kaye puts De Spectaculis in the Montanistic period. De Praescriptione is also placed by some in the Montanistic period before or after Adv. Marcionem. But Bonwetsch (p. 46) puts it between 199 and 206, probably in 199. Hauck makes it almost simultaneous with De Baptismo. He also places De Idololatria in this period.

(2) Those which were certainly not composed till after his transition to Montanism, between a.d. 200 and 220; viz.: Adv. Marcionem (5 books, composed in part at least in the 15th year of the Emperor Septimius Severus, i.e. a.d. 207 or 208; comp. I. 15); De Anima; De Carne Christi; De Resurrectione Carnis; Adv. Praxean; Scorpiace (i.e. antidote against the poison of the Gnostic heresy); De Corona Militis; De Virginibus ve!andis; De Exhortatione Castitatis; De Pallio (208 or 209); De Fuga in persecutione; De Monogamia; De Jejuniis; De Pudicitia; Ad Scapulam (212); De Ecstasi (lost); De Spe Fidelium (likewise lost).

Kellner (1870) assigns De Pudicitia, De Monogamia, De Jejunio, and Adv. Praxean to the period between 218 and 222.

(3) Those which probably belong to the Montanistic period; viz.: Adv. Valentinianos; De cultu Feminarum (2 libri); Adv. Hermogenem.


198. Minucius Felix

(I.) M. Minucii Felicis Octavius, best ed. by Car. Halm, Vienna 1867 (in vol. II. of the “Corpus Scriptorum Eccles. Latin.”), and Bernh. Dombart, with German translation and critical notes, 2d ed. Erlangen 1881. Halm has compared the only MS. of this book, ormerly in the Vatican library now in Paris, very carefully (“tanta diligentia ut de nullo jam loco dubitari possit quid in codice uno scriptum inveniatur”).

Ed. princeps by Faustus Sabäus (Rom. 1543, as the eighth book of Arnobius Adv. Gent); then by Francis Balduin (Heidelb. 1560, as an independent work). Many edd. since, by Ursinus (1583), Meursius (1598), Wowerus (1603), Rigaltius (1643), Gronovius (1709, 1743), Davis (1712), Lindner (1760, 1773), Russwurm (1824), Lübkert (1836), Muralt (1836), Migne (1844, in “Patrol.” III. Col. 193 sqq.), Fr Oehler (1847, in Gersdorf’s “Biblioth. Patr. ecelesiast. selecta,” vol. XIII). Kayser (1863), Cornelissen (Lugd. Bat. 1882), etc.

English translations by H. A. Holden (Cambridge 1853), and R. E. Wallis in Clark’s “Ante-Nic. Libr.” vol. XIII. p. 451-517.

(II.) Jerome: De Vir. ill. c. 58, and Ep. 48 ad Pammach., and Ep. 70 ad Magn. Lactant.: Inst. Div. V. 1, 22.

(III.) Monographs, dissertations and prolegomena to the different editions of M. Fel., by van Hoven (1766, also in Lindner’s ed. II. 1773); Meier (Turin, 1824,) Nic. Le Nourry, and Lumper (in Migne, “Patr. Lat.” III. 194-231; 371-652); Rören (Minuciania,) Bedburg, 1859); Behr (on the relation of M. F. to Cicero, Gera 1870); Rönsch (in Das N. T Tertull.’s, 1871, P. 25 sqq.); Paul P. de Felice (Études sur l’Octavius, Blois, 1880); Keim (in his Celsus, 1873, 151-168, and in Rom. und das Christenthum, 1881, 383 sq., and 468-486); Ad. Ebert (1874, in Gesch. der christlich-latein. Lit. I. 24-31); G. Loesche (On the relation of M. F. to Athanagoras, in the “Jahr b. für Prot. Theol.” 1882, p. 168-178); RENAN (Marc-Auréle, 1882, p. 389-404); Richard Kuhn: Der Octavius des Minucius Felix. Eine heidnisch philosophische Auffassung vom Christenthum. Leipz. 1882 (71 pages). See also the art. of Mangold in Herzog2 X. 12-17 (abridged in Schaff-Herzog); G. Salmon in Smith and Wace III. 920-924.

(IV.) On the relation of Minuc. Fel. to Tertullian: Ad. Ebert: Tertullian’s Verhältniss zu Minucius Felix, nebst einem Anhang über Commodian’s Carmen apoloqeticum (1868, in the 5th vol. of the “Abhandlungen der philol. histor. Classe der K. sächs. Ges. der Wissenschaften”); W. Hartel (in Zeitschrift für d. öester. Gymnas. 1869, p. 348-368, against Ebert); E. Klusmann (“Jenaer Lit. Zeitg,” 1878) Bonwetsch (in Die Schriften Tert., 1878, p. 21;) V. Schultze (in “Jahr b. für Prot. Theol.” 1881, p. 485-506; P. Schwenke (Ueber die Zeit des Min. Fel. in “Jahr b. für Prot. Theol.” 1883, p. 263-294).

In close connection with Tertullian, either shortly before, or shortly after him, stands the Latin Apologist Minucius Felix.

Converts are always the most zealous, and often the most effective promoters of the system or sect which they have deliberately chosen from honest and earnest conviction. The Christian Apologists of the second century were educated heathen philosophers or rhetoricians before their conversion, and used their secular learning and culture for the refutation of idolatry and the vindication of the truths of revelation. In like manner the Apostles were Jews by birth and training, and made their knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures subservient to the gospel. The Reformers of the sixteenth century came out of the bosom of mediaeval Catholicism, and were thus best qualified to oppose its corruptions and to emancipate the church from the bondage of the papacy.

I. Marcus Minucius Felix belongs to that class of converts, who brought the rich stores of classical culture to the service of Christianity. He worthily opens the series of Latin writers of the Roman church which had before spoken to the world only in the Greek tongue. He shares with Lactantius the honor of being the Christian Cicero. He did not become a clergyman, but apparently continued in his legal profession. We know nothing of his life except that he was an advocate in Rome, but probably of North African descent.

II. We have from him an apology of Christianity, in the form of a dialogue under the title Octavius. The author makes with his friend Octavius Januarius, who had, like himself, been converted from heathen error to the Christian truth an excursion from Rome to the sea-bath at Ostia. There they meet on a promenade along the beach with Caecilius Natalis, another friend of Minucius, but still a heathen, and, as appears from his reasoning, a philosopher of the sceptical school of the New Academy. Sitting down on the large stones which were placed there for the protection of the baths, the two friends in full view of the ocean and inhaling the gentle sea breeze, begin, at the suggestion of Caecilius, to discuss the religious question of the day. Minucius sitting between them is to act as umpire (chaps. 1-4).

Caecilius speaks first (chs. 5-15), in defence of the heathen, and in opposition to the Christian, religion. He begins like a sceptic or agnostic concerning the existence of a God as being doubtful, but he soon shifts his ground, and on the principle of expediency and utility he urges the duty of worshipping the ancestral gods. It is best to adhere to what the experience of all nations has found to be salutary. Every nation has its peculiar god or gods; the Roman nation, the most religious of all, allows the worship of all gods, and thus attained to the highest power and prosperity. He charges the Christians with presumption for claiming a certain knowledge of the highest problems which lie beyond human ken; with want of patriotism for forsaking the ancestral traditions; with low breeding (as Celsus did). He ridicules their worship of a crucified malefactor and the instrument of his crucifixion, and even an ass’s head. He repeats the lies of secret crimes, as promiscuous incest, and the murder of innocent children, and quotes for these slanders the authority of the celebrated orator Fronto. He objects to their religion that it has no temples, nor altars, nor images. He attacks their doctrines of one God, of the destruction of the present world, the resurrection and judgment, as irrational and absurd. He pities them for their austere habits and their aversion to the theatre, banquets, and other innocent enjoyments. He concludes with the re-assertion of human ignorance of things which are above us, and an exhortation to leave those uncertain things alone, and to adhere to the religion of their fathers, “lest either a childish superstition should be introduced, or all religion should be overthrown.”

In the second part (ch. 16-38), Octavius refutes these charges, and attacks idolatry; meeting each point in proper order. He vindicates the existence and unity of the Godhead, the doctrine of creation and providence, as truly rational, and quotes in confirmation the opinions of various philosophers (from Cicero). He exposes the absurdity of the heathen mythology, the worship of idols made of wood and stone, the immoralities of the gods, and the cruelties and obscene rites connected with their worship. The Romans have not acquired their power by their religion, but by rapacity and acts of violence. The charge of worshipping a criminal and his cross, rests on the ignorance of his innocence and divine character. The Christians have no temples, because they will not limit the infinite God, and no images, because man is God’s image, and a holy life the best sacrifice. The slanderous charges of immorality are traced to the demons who invented and spread them among the people, who inspire oracles, work false miracles and try in every way to draw men into their ruin. It is the heathen who practice such infamies, who cruelly expose their new-born children or kill them by abortion. The Christians avoid and abhor the immoral amusements of the theatre and circus where madness, adultery, and murder are exhibited and practiced, even in the name of the gods. They find their true pleasure and happiness in God, his knowledge and worship.

At the close of the dialogue (chs. 39-40), Caecilius confesses himself convinced of his error, and resolves to embrace Christianity, and desires further instruction on the next day. Minucius expresses his satisfaction at this result, which made a decision on his part unnecessary. Joyful and thankful for the joint victory over error, the friends return from the sea-shore to Ostia.

III. The apologetic value of this work is considerable, but its doctrinal value is very insignificant. It gives us a lively idea of the great controversy between the old and the new religion among the higher and cultivated classes of Roman society, and allows fair play and full force to the arguments on both sides. It is an able and eloquent defense of monotheism against polytheism, and of Christian morality against heathen immorality. But this is about all. The exposition of the truths of Christianity is meagre, superficial, and defective. The unity of the Godhead, his all-ruling providence, the resurrection of the body, and future retribution make up the whole creed of Octavius. The Scriptures, the prophets and apostles are ignored, the doctrines of sin and grace, Christ and redemption, the Holy Spirit and his operations are left out of sight, and the name of Christ is not even mentioned; though we may reasonably infer from the manner in which the author repels the charge of worshipping “a crucified malefactor,” that he regarded Christ as more than a mere man (ch. 29). He leads only to the outer court of the temple. His object was purely apologetic, and he gained his point. Further instruction is not excluded, but is solicited by the converted Caecilius at the close, “as being necessary to a perfect training.” We have therefore no right to infer from this silence that the author was ignorant of the deeper mysteries of faith.

His philosophic stand-point is eclectic with a preference for Cicero, Seneca, and Plato. Christianity is to him both theoretically and practically the true philosophy which teaches the only true God, and leads to true virtue and piety. In this respect he resembles Justin Martyr.

IV. The literary form of Octavius is very pleasing and elegant. The diction is more classical than that of any contemporary Latin writer heathen or Christian. The book bears a strong resemblance to Cicero’s De Natura Deorum, in many ideas, in style, and the urbanity, or gentlemanly tone. Dean Milman says that it “reminds us of the golden days of Latin prose.” Renan calls it “the pearl of the apologetic literature of the last years of Marcus Aurelius.” But the date is under dispute, and depends in part on its relation to Tertullian.

V. Time of composition. Octavius closely resembles Tertullian’s Apologeticus, both in argument and language, so that one book presupposes the other; although the aim is different, the former being the plea of a philosopher and refined gentleman, the other the plea of a lawyer and ardent Christian. The older opinion (with some exceptions) maintained the priority of Apologeticus, and consequently put Octavius after a.d. 197 or 200 when the former was written. Ebert reversed the order and tried to prove, by a careful critical comparison, the originality of Octavius. His conclusion is adopted by the majority of recent German writers, but has also met with opposition. If Tertullian used Minucius, he expanded his suggestions; if Minucius used Tertullian, he did it by way of abridgement.

It is certain that Minucius borrowed from Cicero (also from Seneca, and, perhaps, from Athenagoras), and Tertullian (in his Adv. Valent.) from Irenaeus; though both make excellent use of their material, reproducing rather than copying it; but Tertullian is beyond question a far more original, vigorous, and important writer. Moreover the Roman divines used the Greek language from Clement down to Hippolytus towards the middle of the third century, with the only exception, perhaps, of Victor (190-202). So far the probability is for the later age of Minucius.

But a close comparison of the parallel passages seems to favor his priority; yet the argument is not conclusive. The priority of Minucius has been inferred also from the fact that he twice mentions Fronto (the teacher and friend of Marcus Aurelius), apparently as a recent celebrity, and Fronto died about 168. Keim and Renan find allusions to the persecutions under Marcus Aurelius (177), and to the attack of Celsus (178), and hence put Octavius between 178 and 180. But these assumptions are unfounded, and they would lead rather to the conclusion that the book was not written before 200; for about twenty years elapsed (as Keim himself supposes) before the Dialogue actually was recorded on paper.

An unexpected argument for the later age of Minucius is furnished by the recent French discovery of the name of Marcus Caecilius Quinti F. Natalis, as the chief magistrate of Cirta (Constantine) n Algeria, in several inscriptions from the years 210 to 217. The heathen speaker Caecilius Natalis of our Dialogue hailed from that very city (chs. 9 and 31). The identity of the two persons can indeed not be proven, but is at least very probable.

Considering these conflicting possibilities and probabilities, we conclude that Octavius was written in the first quarter of the third century, probably during the peaceful reign of Alexander Severus (A. D. 222-235). The last possible date is the year 250, because Cyprian’s book De Idolorum Vanitate, written about that time is largely based upon it.


199. Cyprian

Comp. §§ 22, 47 and 53.

(I.) S. Cypriani Opera omnia. Best critical ed. by W. Hartel, Vindob. 1868-’71, 3 vols. oct. (in the Vienna “Corpus Scriptorum ecclesiast. Latinorum”); based upon the examination of 40 MSS.

Other edd. by Sweynheym and Pannartz, Rom. 1471 (ed. princeps), again Venice 1477; by Erasmus, Bas. 1520 (first critical ed., often reprinted); by Paul Manutius, Rom. 1563; by Morell, Par. 1564; by Rigault (Rigaltius), Par. 1648; John Fell, Bp. of Oxford, Oxon. 1682 (very good, with Bishop Pearson’s Annales Cyprianici), again Amst. 1700 and since; the Benedictine ed. begun by Baluzius and completed by Prud. Maranus, Par. 1726, 1 vol. fol. (a magnificent ed., with textual emendations to satisfy the Roman curia), reprinted in Venice, 1758, and in Migne’s “Patrol. Lat.” (vol. IV. Par. 18, and part of vol. V. 9-80, with sundry additions); a convenient manual ed. by Gersdorf, Lips. 1838 sq. (in Gersdorf’s “Biblioth. Patrum Lat.” Pars II. and III.)

English translations by N. Marshall, Lond., 1717; in the Oxf. “Library of the Fathers,” Oxf. 1840 and by R. G. Wallis in “Ante-Nicene Lib.” Edinb. 1868, 2 vols. N. York ed. vol. V. (1885).

(II.) Vita Cypriani by Pontius, and the Acta Proconsularia Martyrii Cypr., both in Ruinart’s Acta Mart. II., and the former in most ed. of his works.

(III.) J. Pearson: Annales Cyprianici. Oxon. 1682, in the ed. of Fell. A work of great learning and acumen, determining the chronological order of many Epp. and correcting innumerable mistakes.

H. Dodwell: Dissertationes Cyprianicae tres. Oxon. 1684; Amst. 1700; also in Tom. V of Migne’s “Patr. Lat.” col. 9-80.

A. F. Gervaise: Vie de St. Cyprien. Par. 1717.

F. W. Rettberg: Cyprianus nach seinem Leben u. Wirken. Gött. 1831.

G. A. Poole: Life and Times of Cyprian. Oxf. 1840 (419 pages). High-church Episcop. and anti-papal,

Aem. Blampignon: Vie de Cyprien. Par. 1861.

CH. E. Freppel (Ultramontane): Saint Cyprien et l’église d’ Afrique an troisième siécle. Paris, 1865, 2d ed. 1873.

Ad. Ebert: Geschichte der christl. latein. Literatur. Leipz. 1874, vol. I. 54-61.

J. Peters (R.C.): Der heil. Cyprian. Leben u. Wirken. Regensb. 1877.

B. Fechtrup: Der h. Cyprian, Leben u. Lehre, vol. I. Münster, 1878.

Otto Ritschl: Cyprian vom Karthago und die Verfassung der Kirche. Göttingen 1885.

Articles on special topics connected with Cyprian by J. W. Nevin and Varien (both in “Mercerburg Review” for 1852 and ‘53); Peters (Ultramontane: Cyprian’s doctrine on Unity of the Church in opposition to the schisms of Carthage and Rome, Luxemb 1870); Jos. Hub. Reinkens (Old Cath. Bp.: Cypr’s. Doctr. on the Unity of the Church. Würzburg, 1873).


I. Life of Cyprian

Thascius Caecilius Cyprianus, bishop and martyr, and the impersonation of the catholic church of the middle of the third century, sprang from a noble and wealthy heathen family of Carthage, where he was born about the year 200, or earlier. His deacon and biographer, Pontius, considers his earlier life not worthy of notice in comparison with his subsequent greatness in the church. Jerome tells us, that he stood in high repute as a teacher of rhetoric. He was, at all events, a man of commanding literary, rhetorical, and legal culture, and of eminent administrative ability which afterwards proved of great service to him in the episcopal office. He lived in worldly splendor to mature age, nor was he free from the common vices of heathenism, as we must infer from his own confessions. But the story, that he practised arts of magic arises perhaps from some confusion, and is at any rate unattested. Yet, after he became a Christian he believed, like Tertullian and others, in visions and dreams, and had some only a short time before his martyrdom.

A worthy presbyter, Caecilius, who lived in Cyprian’s house, and afterwards at his death committed his wife and children to him, first made him acquainted with the doctrines of the Christian religion, and moved him to read the Bible. After long resistance Cyprian forsook the world, entered the class of catechumens, sold his estates for the benefit of the poor, took a vow of chastity, and in 245 or 246 received baptism, adopting, out of gratitude to his spiritual father, the name of Caecilius.

He himself, in a tract soon afterwards written to a friend, gives us the following oratorical description of his conversion: “While I languished in darkness and deep night, tossing upon the sea of a troubled world, ignorant of my destination, and far from truth and light, I thought it, according to my then habits, altogether a difficult and hard thing that a man could be born anew, and that, being quickened to new life by the bath of saving water, he might put off the past, and, while preserving the identity of the body, might transform the man in mind and heart. How, said I, is such a change possible? How can one at once divest himself of all that was either innate or acquired and grown upon him?… Whence does he learn frugality, who was accustomed to sumptuous feasts? And how shall he who shone in costly apparel, in gold and purple, come down to common and simple dress? He who has lived in honor and station, cannot bear to be private and obscure … But when, by the aid of the regenerating water, the stain of my former life was washed away, a serene and pure light poured from above into my purified breast. So soon as I drank the spirit from above and was transformed by a second birth into a new man, then the wavering mind became wonderfully firm; what had been closed opened; the dark became light; strength came for that which had seemed difficult; what I had thought impossible became practicable.”

Cyprian now devoted himself zealously, in ascetic retirement, to the study of the Scriptures and the church teachers, especially Tertullian, whom he called for daily with the words: “Hand me the master!” The influence of Tertullian on his theological formation is unmistakable, and appears at once, for example, on comparing the tracts of the two on prayer and on patience, or the work of the one on the vanity of idols with the apology of the other. It is therefore rather strange that in his own writings we find no acknowledgment of his indebtedness, and, as far as I recollect, no express allusion whatever to Tertullian and the Montanists. But he could derive no aid and comfort from him in his conflict with schism.

Such a man could not long remain concealed. Only two years after his baptism, in spite of his earnest remonstrance, Cyprian was raised to the bishopric of Carthage by the acclamations of the people, and was thus at the same time placed at the head of the whole North African clergy. This election of a neophyte was contrary to the letter of the ecclesiastical laws (comp. 1Ti_3:6), and led afterwards to the schism of the party of Novatus. But the result proved, that here, as in the similar elevation of Ambrose, Augustin, and other eminent bishops of the ancient church, the voice of the people was the voice of God.

For the space of ten years, ending with his triumphant martyrdom, Cyprian administered the episcopal office in Carthage with exemplary energy, wisdom, and fidelity, and that in a most stormy time, amidst persecutions from without and schismatic agitations within. The persecution under Valerian brought his active labors to a close. He was sent into exile for eleven months, then tried before the Proconsul, and condemned to be beheaded. When the sentence was pronounced, he said: “Thanks be to God,” knelt in prayer, tied the bandage over his eyes with his own hand, gave to the executioner a gold piece, and died with the dignity and composure of a hero. His friends removed and buried his body by night. Two chapels were erected on the spots of his death and burial. The anniversary of his death was long observed; and five sermons of Augustin still remain in memory of Cyprian’s martyrdom, Sept. 14, 258.


II. Character and Position

As Origen was the ablest scholar, and Tertullian the strongest writer, so Cyprian was the greatest bishop, of the third century. He was born to be a prince in the church. In executive talent, he even surpassed all the Roman bishops of his time; and he bore himself towards them, also, as “frater” and “collega,” in the spirit of full equality. Augustin calls him by, eminence, “the catholic bishop and catholic martyr;” and Vincentius of Lirinum, “the light of all saints, all martyrs, and all bishops.” His stamp of character was more that of Peter than either of Paul or John.

His peculiar importance falls not so much in the field of theology, where he lacks originality and depth, as in church organization and discipline. While Tertullian dealt mainly with heretics, Cyprian directed his polemics against schismatics, among whom he had to condemn, though he never does in fact, his venerated teacher, who died a Montanist. Yet his own conduct was not perfectly consistent with his position; for in the controversy on heretical baptism he himself exhibited his master’s spirit of opposition to Rome. He set a limit to his own exclusive catholic principle of tradition by the truly Protestant maxims: “Consuetudo sine veritate vetustas erroris est, and, Non est de consuetudine praescribendum, sed ratione vincendum.” In him the idea of the old catholic hierarchy and episcopal autocracy, both in its affinity and in its conflict with the idea of the papacy, was personally embodied, so to speak, and became flesh and blood. The unity of the church, as the vehicle and medium of all salvation, was the thought of his life and the passion of his heart. But he contended with the same zeal for an independent episcopate as for a Roman primacy; and the authority of his name has been therefore as often employed against the papacy as in its favor. On both sides he was the faithful organ of the churchly spirit of the age.

It were great injustice to attribute his high churchly principle to pride and ambition, though temptations to this spirit unquestionably beset a prominent position like his. Such principles are, entirely compatible with sincere personal humility before God. It was the deep conviction of the divine authority, and the heavy responsibility of the episcopate, which lay it the bottom both of his first “nolo episcopari,” and of subsequent hierarchical feeling. He was as conscientious in discharging the duties, as he was jealous in maintaining the rights, of his office. Notwithstanding his high conception of the dignity of a bishop, he took counsel of his presbyters in everything, and respected the rights of his people. He knew how to combine strictness and moderation, dignity and gentleness, and to inspire love and confidence as well as esteem and veneration. He took upon himself, like a father, the care of the widows and orphans, the poor and sick. During the great pestilence of 252 he showed the most self-sacrificing fidelity to his flock, and love for his enemies. He forsook his congregation, indeed, in the Decian persecution, but only, as he expressly assured them, in pursuance of a divine admonition, and in order to direct them during his fourteen months of exile by pastoral epistles. His conduct exposed him to the charge of cowardice. In the Valerian persecution he completely washed away the stain of that flight with the blood of his calm and cheerful martyrdom.

He exercised first rigid discipline, but at a later period — not in perfect consistency — he moderated his disciplinary principles in prudent accommodation to the exigencies of the times. With Tertullian he prohibited all display of female dress, which only deformed the work of the Creator; and he warmly opposed all participation in heathen amusements, — even refusing a converted play-actor permission to give instruction in declamation and pantomime. He lived in a simple, ascetic way, under a sense of the perishableness of all earthly things, and in view of the solemn eternity, in which alone also the questions and strifes of the church militant would be perfectly settled. “Only above,” says he in his tract De Mortalitate, which he composed during the pestilence, “only above are true peace, sure repose, constant, firm, and eternal security; there is our dwelling, there our home. Who would not fain hasten to reach it? There a great multitude of beloved awaits us; the numerous host of fathers, brethren, and children. There is a glorious choir of apostles there the number of exulting prophets; there the countless multitude of martyrs, crowned with victory after warfare and suffering; there triumphing virgins; there the merciful enjoying their reward. Thither let us hasten with longing desire; let us wish to be soon with them, soon with Christ. After the earthly comes the heavenly; after the small follows the great after perishableness, eternity.”


III. His Writings

As an author, Cyprian is far less original, fertile and vigorous than Tertullian, but is clearer, more moderate, and more elegant and rhetorical in his style. He wrote independently only on the doctrines of the church, the priesthood, and sacrifice.

(1.) His most important works relate to practical questions on church government and discipline. Among these is his tract on the Unity of the Church (A. D. 251), that “magna charta” of the old catholic high-church spirit, the commanding importance of which we have already considered. Then eighty-one Epistles, some very long, to various bishops, to the clergy and the churches of Africa and of Rome, to the confessors, to the lapsed, etc.; comprising also some letters from others in reply, as from Cornelius of Rome and Firmilian of Caesarea. They give us a very graphic picture of his pastoral labors, and of the whole church life of that day. To the same class belongs also his treatise: De Lapsis (A. D. 250) against loose penitential discipline.

(2.) Besides these he wrote a series of moral works, On the Grace of God (246); On the Lord’s Prayer (252); On Mortality (252); against worldly-mindedness and pride of dress in consecrated virgins (De Habitu Virginum); a glowing call to Martyrdom; an exhortation to liberality (De Opere et Eleemosynis, between 254 and 256), with a touch of the “opus operatum” doctrine; and two beautiful tracts written during his controversy with pope Stephanus: De Bono Patienti, and De Zelo et Livore (about 256), in which he exhorts the excited minds to patience and moderation.

(3.) Least important are his two apologetic works, the product of his Christian pupilage. One is directed against heathenism (de Idolorum Vanitate), and is borrowed in great part, often verbally, from Tertullian and Minucius Felix. The other, against Judaism (Testimonia adversus Judaeos), also contains no new thoughts, but furnishes a careful collection of Scriptural proofs of the Messiahship and divinity of Jesus.



Among the pseudo-Cyprianic writings is a homily against dice-playing and all games of chance (Adversus Aleatores, in Hartel’s ed. III. 92-103), which has been recently vindicated for Bishop Victor of Rome (190-202), an African by birth and an exclusive high churchman. It is written in the tone of a papal encyclical and in rustic Latin. See Harnack: Der pseudo-cyprian. Tractat De Aleatoribus, Leipzig 1888. Ph. Schaff: The Oldest Papal Encyclical, in The Independent, N. York, Feb. 28, 1889.