Cyprian of Carthage: Catechized for Martyrdom

Today marks the feast day of St. Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258), North African bishop and martyr of the early church. In addition to his justly famous writings on the unity of the church, Cyprian also left a number of important catechetical works, such as the Ad Quirinum, and exhortations to martyrdom, especially Ad Fortunatum, which I will draw on below. I have a particular interest these days in tracing the connections between how Christianity’s emergence as a church of the martyrs shaped its understandings and practices of catechesis.

Cyprian become bishop of Carthage only a year before the Decian persecution of AD 249, the first major widespread and systematic persecution that affected Christians. Prior to this event, persecutions—while ever present—were sporadic, local, and often mob-driven.

The Decian persecution of 249–250 created an extraordinarily difficult situation for the nascent church. While many Christians suffered courageously for their faith—sacrificing their lives and the livelihood of the families they left behind—many “lapsed,” denied the faith, or handed over sacred texts or property. Cyprian himself was exiled during this period.

When the fury of the initial persecution died down, a problem arose about what to do with bishops who had lapsed, and, more specifically, the validity of the baptisms of those whom they’d baptized. If the bishop’s authority was invalidated by lapsing, could the efficacy of the sacrament of baptism also be invalidated? For those who wanted to return to church, or those who had been baptized by a lapsed bishop, would they need to be re-baptized?

These were the questions that fostered the difficult debates over the unity and holiness of the church, and specifically the role of bishops and the validity of baptism as a means of securing that unity. Over the next two centuries, these problems were hotly debated, culminating in the late 390s and early 400s with Augustine’s disputes with the Donatists.

Cyprian, for his part, played a vital role in defending the unity of the church. Over the next decade—before his own martyrdom under Valerian in 258—he wrote about the importance and beauty of church unity. In Pope Benedict XVI’s catecheses on the saints from 2007, he reminds us of several memorable images from Cyprian: “outside the Church there is no salvation” (Epistles 4.4 and 73.21) and “no one can have God as Father who does not have the Church as mother” (On the Unity of the Church 6). Cyprian also employed the language of the unity of the church as Christ’s “seamless garment” (On the Unity of the Church 7). Cyprian maintained that this unity was founded on Peter (On the Unity of the Church 4), and found its perfect fulfillment in the Eucharist (Epistle 63.13). Finally, Cyprian’s writings could also relate the unity of the church in more philosophically theological terms: “God is one and Christ is one,” Cyprian noted, which also meant “his Church is one, and the faith is one, and the Christian people is joined into a substantial unity of body by the cement of concord. Unity cannot be severed. And what is one by its nature cannot be separated” (On the Unity of the Church 23).

Alongside and within his writings on the church, Cyprian also developed a theology of martyrdom and catechesis. My hunch is that these themes—church, catechesis, baptism (baptism by water), and martyrdom (baptism by blood") were important and mutually interpreting realities for Cyprian.

In the preface to his treatise to Fortunatus, Cyprian relates the “two baptisms” this way:

Let us only who, by the Lord’s permission, have given the first baptism to believers, also prepare each one for the second; urging and teaching that this is a baptism greater in grace, more lofty in power, more precious in honour—a baptism wherein angels baptize—a baptism in which God and His Christ exult—a baptism after which no one sins any more—a baptism which completes the increase of our faith—a baptism which, as we withdraw from the world, immediately associates us with God. In the baptism of water is received the remission of sins, in the baptism of blood the crown of virtues. This thing is to be embraced and desired, and to be asked for in all the entreaties of our petitions, that we who are God’s servants should be also His friends (Ad Fort. praef. 4)

It’s not a coincidence, it seems, that early Christian catechesis—as preparation for baptism—developed in the context of a martyr church, a church which recognized martyrdom as a “second baptism,” a baptism by blood. Both pre-baptismal catechesis and exhortations to martyrdom were both, in an important sense, preparations for dying.

In the rest of the treatise, Cyprian goes on to outline a basic narrative of instruction for how to be a martyr—twelve-step program, in fact, which unfolds how one goes from the fearful slavery of idolatry to the fearless freedom of martyrdom.

It goes something like this:

  1. Idols are not gods. “For things which are made are not greater than their maker and fashioner; nor can these things protect and preserve anybody, which themselves perish out of their temples, unless they are preserved by man. But neither are those elements to be worshipped which serve man according to the disposition and ordinance of God.”

  2. God alone is to be worshipped.

  3. God threatens those those who sacrifice to idols.

  4. God does not easily pardon idolaters.

  5. God is “so angry with idolatry, that He has even commanded those to be slain who persuade others to sacrifice and serve idols.”

  6. We ought to prefer nothing but Christ. “[B]eing redeemed and quickened by the blood of Christ, we ought to prefer nothing to Christ, because He preferred nothing to us”; “on our account [he] preferred evil things to good, poverty to riches, servitude to rule, death to immortality; that we, on the contrary, in our sufferings are preferring the riches and delights of paradise to the poverty of the world, eternal dominion and kingdom to the slavery of time, immortality to death, God and Christ to the devil and Antichrist.”

  7. We ought not fall back into the world when we face persecutions. Having been “snatched from the jaws of the devil, and freed from the snares of this world,” a Christian facing difficulty should not desire to return to the world.

  8. Instead, they must be urged on to persevere in faith and virtue.

  9. Because “afflictions and persecutions are brought about for this purpose, that we may be proved.”

  10. We need not fear injuries or the threat of persecution because “greater is the Lord to protect than the devil to assault.”

  11. Our persecutions ought not be a surprise, because the good and righteous have always suffered at the hands of the unrighteous. “[I]t is no new thing which happens to Christians, since from the beginning of the world the good have suffered, and have been oppressed and slain by the unrighteous.”

  12. Finally, hope: “In the last place, it must be laid down what hope and what reward await the righteous and martyrs after the struggles and the sufferings of this time, and that we shall receive more in the reward of our suffering than what we suffer here in the passion itself.”

The Exhortation to Martyrdom offers a carefully developed narrative of the Christian life. It is not that these are simple steps or some kind of formula. But this text does reveal a basic plan or map of the journey from idolatry to Christianity—and what to do and how to think when temptations come along.

Catechesis, we could say then, is about teaching Christians not to fear death—more specifically bodily death. It teaches Christians to fear the One who has power over body and soul rather than those who have only power to kill the body, to look at our life from an eternal perspective. But we can also recognize that this is not a “light-switch” kind of change. It’s a change that comes in fits and starts, it involves temptations, hesitations, fears, and failures.

Cyprian’s catechesis shows, above all, that there is a deliberate correspondence between teaching new believers what it meant to say—whether before the font or before their persecutors—Christianus sum, “I am a Christian.” To make this declaration was the work of diligent and intentional training.

Christian martyrs, to paraphrase Tertullian, are made, not born.