Was St. Cyprian a Donatist?

Was St. Cyprian of Carthage a Donatist, or is Donatism a misinterpretation and misapplication of what Cyprian taught? If the former, then why wasn’t he considered a heretic in the Early Church, or even today? If the latter, then what did the Donatists believe that Cyprian didn’t?


Which teachings do you specifically have in mind?


Cyprian is a saint. Heretics aren’t saints.

Yes, the question is really impossible to answer without more detail.

Maybe he/she is thinking of Cyprian’s view of rebaptizing heretics after they recant, which caused a runin with pope Stephen’s objection to the action of rebaptizing. Since Cyprian is a saint, then Cyprian obviously didn’t maintain his view of rebaptizing.

Well here’s my understanding, I may be wrong. Before the Church defines something to be held by the universal Church, it is okay to have differing or even opposing viewpoints. That is why St. Thomas Aquinas could hold to the viewpoint that Mary was not immaculately conceived, since it was not defined as dogma until the 19th century. Likewise it was okay to believe that circumcision for the gentiles was necessary (as many of the early Christians did) before the Council of Jerusalem in the book of Acts.

After the council, if one were to teach that circumcision was still necessary for the Gentiles, knowing the decision that St. Peter and the council had arrived at, then said one would be teaching heresy.

And I believe you are correct about St. Cyprian not maintaining the view on rebaptising.

Correct. Thanks. I’m sorry I didn’t clarify that in the original post.

Can I have a primary source which shows that Cyprian changed his view on rebaptism, before his death?

But Cyprian did not just hold his view on rebaptism as an personal opinion (material heretic), he also called a council to decree rebaptism of heretics, even after Pope Stephen condemned the practice (source: newadvent.org/fathers/0508.htm). Wouldn’t that meet the criteria of a formal heretic?

No, he was not a Donatist (although Donatists did practice rebaptism for EVERY convert who entered their heretical church, they also believed that the sacraments were at the mercy of the priests who performed them, i.e., they claimed that priests who were in a sinful state could not validly perform their sacramental duties because those sacraments would be null and void if they did, which is not something St. Cyprian taught).

The thing is that Donatism was influential in those parts that St. Cyprian once held sway, so I would say that there is some correlation, but not necessarily causation, i.e., I believe they latched onto certain things (errors he made regarding the rebaptism of all heretics and lapsed) he said in his letters to validate their puritanical views.

Here is something I read on an Orthodox website regarding the history of the reception of converts into the Church:

Christianity saw no small number of heresies during the 3rd and 4th centuries, and the originators of the heresies were bishops or prominent presbyters. How to treat those who came to Orthodoxy from those heresies? By what method should they be received? There was an immediate difference of views about this problem within the Orthodox Church. Some insisted that they be received only through baptism, i.e., not to recognize their previous baptism as valid even though it was correct in form (i.e., corresponding to the baptism performed in the Orthodox Church). Others maintained a more tolerant view, accepting as valid that baptism, which was performed by some heretics, since it was performed in the name of the Holy Trinity, and did not require that those coming into Orthodoxy from heresy be re-baptized. A stricter line was taken by Tertullian (himself a Montanist), St. Cyprian of Carthage, Firmilian of Caesarea, and Elanus of Tarsus. St. Cyprian, a proponent of the strict line, convoked two councils in this matter (255-256) and insisted that heretics be received by no other way than baptism. St. Stephen, Pope of Rome (253-257) could be considered to hold a more tolerant view, and his position, according to the famous Hefele, was supported by Eastern bishops. At the same time as St. Cyprian along with a council of 71 bishops insisted that heretics lack any grace and for this reason their sacred acts are invalid, Pope St. Stephen received penitent heretics with the laying of a bishop’s hand on their heads. He did this in accord with the tolerant practice, which was held by other Western bishops. We read an ancient decree of the Council in Arles (Canon 8):

“If anyone shall come from heresy to the Church, they shall ask him to say the Creed; and if they shall perceive that he was baptized into the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost [in Patre et Filio et Spiritu Sancto esse baptizatum] he shall have hands laid upon him only so that he may receive the Holy Ghost. But if he was not baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity, let him be baptized.”[18]

Having learned about the decrees of the Council in Carthage under St. Cyprian’s chairmanship, which demanded the re-baptism of heretics coming into the Church, at first Pope St. Stephen demanded a repeal of these decrees, threatening excommunication and, since the repeals did not take place, he later excommunicated St. Cyprian.[19]

It is interesting to note that Eastern canonists treat the decisions of the Carthage councils critically. Thus, Zonaras commenting on Canon 7 of the Second Ecumenical Council, which calls for the reception of certain kinds of heretics without re-baptism, notes the decree of St. Cyprian, about which he says:

“Thus, the opinions of the Fathers gathered at the council with the great Cyprian do not refer to all heretics and all schismatics. Because the Second Ecumenical Council, as we just pointed out, makes an exception for certain heretics and grants its sanction for their reception without repeating the baptism, demanding only their anointing with the Holy Chrism provided that they renounced their own heresies and all other heresies.”


p.s. St. Cyprian was never a heretic, however, his practice of rebaptising all heretics/lapsed was rather innovative in that our canons/tradition show a more merciful approach to receiving converts (this was more a matter of discipline than doctrine), which is why St. Stephen was at odds with him.

Thanks, Josie!

from a conversation 3 yrs ago. #[FONT=Arial]139, #142 , [/FONT]

When push came to sholve Cyprian had a temper that didn’t exactly serve him well on this one. Cyprian was pro papal authority until it went against HIM, then unfortunately his ego got in the way. Pope Stephen was correct, Cyprian was wrong.

In extension, If Cyprian’s view prevailed which it didn’t, then that entire area would have had to be rebaptised because of their practices and views, prelates included. So in that case, who could do the baptizing / rebaptizing validly?

This also points directly to the understanding and power of the sacrament of confession / reconciliation, post baptism, to fix such problems

You are correct and I wrong, St. Cyprian did not seem to change his views on rebaptism. Here are some interesting quotes on the situation from the Early Church, taken from:biblicalcatholic.com/apologetics/num44.htm

St. Jerome on St. Cyprian

St. Jerome (c. Lucif 23) tells us:

"Blessed Cyprian attempted to avoid heresy, and therefore rejected the baptism conferred by heretics, sent [the acts of] an African Council on this matter to Stephen, who was then Bishop of the city of Rome, and twenty-second from St. Peter; but his attempt was in vain.** Eventually those very Bishops, who had decreed with him that heretics were to be rebaptized, returned to the ancient custom, and published a new decree."**

This event is not otherwise testified. In fact, we do not know what happened after St. Cyprian’s last letter to Pope Stephen. We cannot guess what was St. Jerome’s authority. It is fairly clear that St. Cyprian was not cut off from communion with Rome under Dionysius and Xystus. It is inconceivable that Stephen withdrew his decision; it is almost as unlikely that Dionysius or Xystus dropped it. On the other hand, St. Cyprian’s extreme anger, shown in his letter to Pompeius, is likely to have passed, as anger does. He had previously admitted the ancient custom, for bishops who preferred it. It is not very probable that his hundred bishops should have continued to support him against Rome. Did he make some explanations or concessions? The Donatists knew no more than St. Augustine knew. St. Optatus assumes that peace was never broken. Indeed, had Cyprian and all Africa been cut off from Rome by a minor excommunication (as we might gather from Firmilian’s letter) the event would have been tremendous in import and notoriety. St. Augustine must be right that peace was somehow patched up without any weakening on the part of Rome

St. Augustine on St. Cyprian

St. Augustine was at one time doubtful whether St. Cyprian’s letters on this matter were genuine – C. Cresc I 32 (38), II 31 (39), though he preferred simply to say that they are not canonical Scripture, and that he does not follow them (ibid). But elsewhere he admits that the style is Cyprian’s – Epistle 93, 10 (35), remarking that, though we do not know whether he changed his mind, “it is not incongruous to suppose that so great a man did correct his view”; at any rate, si quid in eo fuerat emendandum, purgauit Pater falce passionis (compare De bapt I, xviii:28, in catholica unitate permansit, et charitatis ubertate compensatum est, et passionis falce purgatum).

The question whether Cyprian was likely to give in depends on the other question, which view did he hold more strongly: the one, that nothing can justify the breaking of unity; the other, that it was permissible for some bishops to teach that heretics could only baptize into the devil, whereas others might justly hold their baptism to be valid, according to a mistaken tradition.

It is natural that Anglicans should assume that Cyprian must have adhered loyally and generously to the comprehensiveness which includes contradictory theories and acts, whereas he would willingly give up (for the sake of the view that black is white) his former declarations that it is necessary to be inside the Church. St. Augustine judges contrariwise that the martyr was not at heart a latitudinarian, but was above all a lover of unity. Perhaps the fourth and fifth centuries were nearer in sympathy to Cyprian than were the 17th or the 19th.

“What he poured forth against Stephen in his irritation I will not discuss over again,” says St. Augustine (De bapt V, xxv:36). He believes that “uicit tamen pax Christi in cordibus eorum.” But only Donatists could think Cyprian was in the right, and not the Pope. Puller takes the Donatist side, and parodies St. Augustine’s words about Cyprian. He doubts whether Stephen was a martyr (and the fact is doubtful), adding:

"If he [Stephen] did so die, we may hope that he purged away in that second baptism whatever was amiss in his life." (Puller, Primitive Saints, 3rd edition, page 70)

"He [Cyprian] merited to attain the crown of martyrdom; so that any cloud which had obscured the brightness of his mind was driven away by the brilliant sunshine of his glorious blood." (St. Augustine, De bapt I, xviii:28)

part 1

part 2

St. Vincent on St. Cyprian and the Bishop of Rome

St. Vincent of Lerins takes the orthodox view:

"The custom has ever flourished in the Church, that the more religious a man is the more he opposes novel inventions. Examples are very numerous. But to be brief, let us take but one, and that one especially from the Apostolic See [at Rome]; that all may see more clearly than daylight with what power, with what energy, with what perseverance the integrity of the Religion once received has always been defended by the blessed succession of the Blessed Apostles."

"Once upon a time, Agrippinus of venerable memory, bishop of Carthage, first of all men, against the divine Canon of Scripture, against the rule of the universal Church....thought rebaptism ought to be practised....Then Pope Stephen of blessed memory, Prelate of the Apostolic See, together with his colleagues, indeed, but yet beyond the others, resisted; thinking it fit, I deem, that he should surpass all others as much by the devotion of his faith as by the authority of his rank...."

** “What was the end? What force was there in the African council? By God’s gift, none at all. All, as a dream or a tale, was abolished, forgotten.”**

"Et, o rerum mira conuersio! Auctores eiusdem opinionis catholici, consectatores haeretici, iudicantur; absoluuntur magistri, condemnantur discipuli; conscriptores librorum filii regni erunt, adsertores uero gehenna suscipiet?"

"For who is so mad to doubt that blessed Cyprian, that light of all saints and martyrs, with his colleagues shall reign for eternity with Christ? Or who, on the contrary, so sacrilegious as to deny that the Donatists and the other plagues, who boast that it is by the authority of that Council that they rebaptize, shall burn with the devil for ever?" (Commonitorium I:6)

In the East there were others in the fourth century besides St. Basil who thought it might be well sometimes to rebaptize heretics; but such peculiarities were apparently only put in practice in rare cases. It was certainly not the custom anywhere to rebaptize Arians or Semi-Arians. From the fifth century onwards the East is absolutely in line with the West, and St. Basil’s theoretical opinion remains a dead letter. All St. Cyprian’s torrents of argument, eloquence, invective against the teaching of Rome were in vain

concluding part.

and one last interesting point from aforementioned article.

Cyprian and Firmilian

The contrast with Firmilian is amusing. The Cappadocian does not run down tradition, he meets the Roman tradition with an Asiatic tradition – this is to argue like a Churchman. He accepts Cyprian’s arguments against Stephen, but he rationally concludes: “Thou art worse than all the heretics!” At the threat of excommunication Cyprian apparently determined not to break with Rome, even if Rome broke with him; but Firmilian has no such scruples, Stephen has excommunicated himself, he is a schismatic as well as a heretic – here again we hear an ecclesiastic speaking. In contrast to this great Eastern bishop, the martyr of Carthage is a recent convert who has mastered but few Church principles and has exaggerated those few. He knows that he is supreme in his diocese as bishop, and his autocratic ways arouse a fierce opposition, in spite of his holiness, his eloquence and the generosity with which he distributes his wealth.

Opposition makes him cling the more to his authority, he makes the unity of the diocese and the monarchy of the bishop the same as the unity of the whole Church, and contempt of the bishop’s power is the root of all heresy and schism! Novatianism throws the Church into a turmoil, and this confirms his theory, for at its rise the Novation schism was simply a question of rival popes, not of rival views about penance.

He had defended himself against the encroachments of the confessors, of the five opposing priests, of the deacon Felicissimus, and of the rival bishop Fortunatus, when he was yet more rudely disturbed by the edict of Stephen. It is another attack on his rights as a bishop – that is all he sees. His main argument is that Stephen is illogical, and wrong, but he adds that the very idea of uniformity in such a matter is shocking, for its interferes with episcopal rights!

This is very remarkable. We know from Cyprian that Stephen issued an edict which ordered obedience under pain of excommunication. We learn from Firmilian that Stephen based his edict on an appeal to his succession from Peter. As to both these points Firmilian has, of course, an answer ready: the excommunication recoils upon Stephen, and his edict shows him to be no true successor to Peter. But Cyprian has nothing to say on either point. He is angry at the threat, but remains passive; it never strikes him that he is in the same case as Privatus of Lambese when branded by the letters of Donatus of Carthage and Fabian of Rome, or as Marcianus of Arles when denounced to Stephen by Cyprian himself! And he does not deal with the Pope’s claim to give a binding decision; his reply is simply that no one can interfere – he never adds, “not even the successor of Peter.” This omission is so very astonishing that I always understand it to mean that Cyprian never quite took in the situation; he never realized, as Firmilian realized at once, that here was a command from one who meant to be obeyed, or he would have denied his credentials. I think he is quite convinced that the Pope has some undefined sphere of authority, but he must not interfere with the rights of bishops as exercised at Carthage!

But it is a practical matter, based on no large theory; for he holds that, though a large number of bishops agreed with Novation about the penance of the lapsed, they have no right to their view, they are heretics! If the bishops of Southern Gaul cannot get rid of their colleague at Arles, the bishop of Rome is the person to notify them of their duty. Why should not Marcianus of Arles be as free as Faustinus of Lyons to act as he pleased about the lapsed? There is no answer, except that Cyprian happened to agree with Stephen about the lapsed and to disagree with him about rebaptism.

Correct, as can be seen with the Novatian bishops.

Whenever St. Cyprian is mentioned, I am always reminded of the Simpsons’ episode where Homer in a dream is back in time and he is Homer the Thief at the time of Moses.

The episode goes something like this. Moses comes down from the mountain and is stating the ten commandments. Every commandment he says puts someone out of business, the adulterer is out of a job, as is the idol maker, and one whose has made a career out of bearing false witness has to stop.

At this point Homer the Thief has not been affected, so he yells: “keep 'em coming Moses.” Then of course Moses says: “Thou shalt not steal.” Now it is Homer who is mad. He was fine with the commandments, until they affected him.

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