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The Catholic Historical Review 89.3 (2003) 540-542

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Cyprian the Bishop. By J. Patout Burns, Jr. (London and New York: Routledge. 2002. Pp. xi, 240. $29.95 paperback.)

Burns's monograph is concentrated on the development of the theology of Cyprian in the middle of the third century, especially of the theology of the forgiveness of the (major) sin of apostasy, of the unity of the (one and holy) church, [End Page 540] of the sacrament of baptism/confirmation. But whilst it takes us through, in exemplary detail and with exemplary patience, the historical steps which entailed the enunciation within Cyprian's writings on these contemporary issues, it is far more than that. It seeks to correlate the social and cultural circumstances of different communities at the time with their assumptions about the efficacy of their ritual practices and their concepts of their place in the cosmos; to understand the differing theological stances within their developmental cultural contexts (p. ix); and to see, therefore, that theological emphases will change as social circumstances themselves will change. As such, the monograph is far more than a discrete study of some of the thinking of the mid-third century Western Church as it emerges in its historical setting: it presents, in fact, a test-case for understanding more profoundly theological shifts in different places and at different times and provides some of the tools and demonstrates some of the methods by which such analyses might be done. The thesis boldly, and persuasively, concludes that "Cyprian's theology succeeded in his own time and place because it was well suited to the social situation of that community" (p. 11).

In the case of Cyprian of Carthage this overriding thesis is assisted and clarified by the fact that he had to confront so many opposing groups. In Carthage itself he had to face eventually two rival Christian communities, each led by its own bishop, one laxist, the other rigorist—as well as rebellious clergy and surviving confessors within his own diocese. And he met with stiff opposition in Rome also, from not one but two rival bishops, the breakaway and rigorist Novatian, as well as Pope Stephen, who relied, it would appear, on claimed apostolic tradition for his opposing theological stance on the issue of the validity of schismatic/heretical baptism.

The first four chapters deal with the profile of the Christian community in Carthage and the persecution of Decius (249/251) and its immediate aftermath. One of the great insights here is the perception that the dangers which the persecution occasioned fell unevenly among the ranks of both the clergy and the different social strata of the Carthaginian laity—hence their strongly differing reactions when it came to the question of the forgiveness of the sin of apostasy. Cyprian's moderate solution was to find a liminal rank for penitents but still within the overall communion of the church, and to discern various grades of penitents as well, whilst safeguarding the purity of the church from contamination with the idolatry they had committed, in opposition to the wholesale forgiveness of the laxists and the complete exclusion of the rigorists. This reflects the "cosmic or religious significance" which Cyprian's community assigned "to the differentiation of roles and categories of membership within the church" (p. 65). This led inexorably to Cyprian's views on the unity and indivisibility of the Church based on the college of bishops and thence to his restriction of the salvific powers of baptism to that undivided church (chapters 5-8). The monograph's final chapter glances at the African legacy bequeathed by Cyprian both among the Donatists and the Catholics, arguing convincingly that "[T]he Catholics, no less than the Donatists, had to modify the theology of Cyprian to make it fit the structures of their church" (p. 173) in their changed social and historical circumstances. [End Page 541]

It is unfortunate that we do not have the historical data to be able to delineate the social structures of the community of Novatian—though we might extrapolate with a little...


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