Tertullian and Cyprian


This essay seeks to compare and contrast the contributions of Tertullian and Cyprian to the life and thought of the church. It is difficult to overestimate the influence that both men have had, both upon the church of their own day, and upon the church in the centuries afterwards, to the present day.

Tertullian (c160–c220) and Cyprian (c200–c258) were from the North African city of Carthage. North Africa was an important province to the Roman Empire as one of its principal sources of grain, and Carthage probably ranked third only to Rome itself and Alexandria.

According to Lietzmann, in ancient days Tertullian’s writings were eagerly read by young and old, and they were preserved in several manuscripts throughout the Middle Ages, so great was the influence of his personality. Kearsley has said that Tertullian produced not only an invaluable compendium of 2nd-century thought, but many original formulations which justify his celebrated position in the history of Christian doctrine.

Renwick says that Cyprian is important not only for his strong emphasis on tradition, in which he resembled Tertullian, but because he brought forward far-reaching claims for the episcopate, and also introduced sacerdotal conceptions which brought about revolutionary changes in the worship of the church.

Cyprian’s writings are less varied than Tertullian’s, but are still an important source for our knowledge of his period. Cyprian’s lasting importance for theology lies in his ‘high’ view of the church, which he probably developed to combat schism in the Church of North Africa.


According to Frend, both men held to a high moral standard in daily living for Christians of their day. Tertullian hated the Romano-African pagan society of his day, and his warfare against it is reflected throughout his active career. As a great lawyer he bought out with crushing effect points never dealt with by other Christian Apologists of his time. For example, in his De Idolatria he discusses questions such as: What should a Christian do when invited by a pagan neighbour to a wedding or other social event where some pagan rite may be performed?

Tertullian’s demands for moral purity, which later found greater expression in Montanism, led him to forbid his fellow Christians to serve in the army, and conscientious objection thereby had its founding roots.

Tertullian was already opposed to second marriages before he became a Montanist. Strong in Carthage, the Montanists utterly condemned second marriages, and Tertullian adopted their extreme puritanical and uncompromising strand in his later theology. By doing so, he provided the church in Carthage, and in the West, in general, with directions it never lost, according to Frend. Issues of law and grace were already polarising Christians, and would continue to do so down through the centuries.

A long peace from persecution had produced disorders in the Church in Cyprian’s time. Many bishops were surrendered to worldliness and personal gain, and it seemed that not only was the Church in the world, but that the world was in the Church. Until he was strengthened and illuminated by the grace of God, Cyprian saw conquering vice as impossible. He was disgusted with the prevailing immorality of public and private life, in which he felt himself entangled. He was disgusted with the ostentation of the wealthy, the falseness of politics, the corruption of justice, and with all things bloodthirsty and cruel. For him, Christianity meant moral liberation.


The Church and its unity and government were issues that occupied both Tertullian and Cyprian. Tertullian insisted that only the churches founded by the apostles had the deposit of truth. They, and they alone, had the correct tradition.

“Since the Lord Jesus Christ sent the apostles to preach, (our rule is) that no others ought to be received as preachers than those whom Christ appointed; for ‘no man knows the Father save the Son, and he to whom the Son will reveal Him’. Nor does the Son seem to have revealed Him to any other than the apostles, whom He sent forth to preach–that, of course, which He revealed to them.”

In his Apology, Tertullian spoke of the transmission of the ‘apostolic seed’, and churches which wanted to be recognised as genuine had to produce records which proved apostolic succession. This high view of the Church was taken up and taken further by Cyprian.

Cyprian’s insistence on the high place of the episcopate perhaps originated in the considerable opposition from schismatics that he faced. In Carthage, Novatus and others set up a rival bishop because this party wanted a relaxation in ecclesiastical discipline, and to receive back into the church lapsed believers who had denied Christ in the day of trial. Novatian, who was a rival bishop at Rome, stood for extreme severity in discipline and insisted that no-one who had denied the faith or had been guilty of a ‘deadly’ sin should ever be restored again to church membership. Cyprian encountered strong opposition from both sides.

To meet the challenge, Cyprian steered a middle course and this commended his policy to the Church’s conscience. He insisted on the unity of the church and denounced the sin of not giving obedience to the bishop, who had direct authority from God. He made huge claims for the supremacy of the bishop as God-appointed ruler of the Church, and this claim was widely accepted and church government became almost completely autocratic. Cyprian believed strongly in the autonomy of each bishop in his own church, and this led him to oppose Bishop Stephen of Rome who had demanded submission from the other churches over the issue of the baptism of heretics.

Papal supremacy was a burning issue in Cyprian’s time. In his treatise On the Unity of the Catholic Church, Cyprian affirmed the primacy of Peter very strongly, even saying: “If a man does not hold fast to this oneness of Peter, does he imagine that he still holds the faith?” Cyprian clearly stated that to desert the Chair of Peter was to desert the Church.

In the second edition of his work, Cyprian modified his position and focused on the equality of the Apostles and the oneness of the Church. Perhaps the difference in the texts is explained by Cyprian’s quarrel with Pope Stephen, which caused him to modify his own allegiance to Rome while still maintaining the visible unity of the Church.

In Tertullian’s era, it was possible to think of the church existing wherever two or three believers were gathered together, but for Cyprian, such ideas were impossible. The church was an institution led by bishops who were the successors of the apostles and to whom absolute obedience was due. The church was in the bishop and the bishop was in the church. “The focus of unity is the bishop. To forsake the bishop is to forsake the Church, and ‘he cannot have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother’.”

For Cyprian, the Church and the authority of the Monarchical bishop were identical, and all claims of persons of charismatic eminence were repudiated totally by him. Many centuries later, John Calvin used the image of the Church as mother, and Cyprian’s quotation is very well known to the present day.

Cyprian held to the concept of the clergy as sacrificing priests, and was the first to give this idea real substance in the Christian Church. He saw the Lord’s Supper as offering up the very body and very blood of Christ as our sacrifice, this had enormous consequences for Eucharistic doctrine down through the centuries, and the doctrine of Transubstantiation was the logical end result of Cyprian’s belief.


Tertullian’s writings describe in great detail the life of the Church and he wrote volumes addressing issues facing Christians of his day. Tertullian was an advocate whose sole focus was to win his case, and he fought all the harder because it was his case.

Tertullian’s constant claim in his writings (Specifically: Against PraxeasPrescription of Heretics and Veiling of Virgins) was that he defended the regula fidei (rule of faith) which he saw as universally held by churches in the apostolic tradition. He defended his faith passionately against any persecutors, and as a consequence he was always prepared to take up any movement which seemed to promise an increase of moral strenuousness, itself a divine commandment. Thus his embracing of Montanism probably had more to do with observed behaviour than received theology.

Tertullian’s most influential work was the definition of the Logos Christology, to which his legal mind gave a clearness in explanation such as had not before existed. He was the first to use the term ‘Trinity’ in writing of the Godhead as he did in his Logos Christology, and his chief work was Against Praxeas in which he defined the Godhead in terms which almost anticipated the Nicene result of more than a century later: “All are of One, by unity of substance; while the mystery of the dispensation is still guarded, which distributes the Unity into a Trinity, placing in their order the three Persons–the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost: three, however, not in condition, but in degree; not in substance, but in form; not in power, but in aspect; yet of one substance, and of one condition, and of one power, inasmuch as He is one God, from whom these degrees and forms and aspects are reckoned, under the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”

Many turns of phrase and uses of terminology from Against Praxeas came to form a permanent part of the Western vocabulary for discussing the doctrines of the Trinity and the person of Christ.

Tertullian has been called the creator of ecclesiastical Latin, and appropriately so. He was the first who wrote fluently in Latin, and in a stylish manner, on Christian subjects; and he himself created an appropriate religious and ecclesiastical terminology without previous examples. Moreover, the terminology he created remained to a large extent normative; it was after taken over by Cyprian and carried further, and was later regarded without question as the accepted terminology of the West. Tertullian is the first instance of a Christian author who rose, even on formal grounds, far above his contemporaries, and proved himself a master of his own language and style.

Tertullian possessed a doctrine of original sin, even if it was not clearly worked out; likewise, his understanding of salvation by grace rather than works was not fully developed. He opened the way for a doctrine of salvation by ‘good works’, at least in part, and he introduced the legal terms of ‘merit’ and ‘satisfaction’ into the Church, and thus laid the foundations on which the doctrine of penance was built.

Tertullian asserted that, though God forgives previous sins at baptism, satisfaction must be made for those committed thereafter by voluntary sacrifices, chiefly ascetic. The more a man punishes himself, the less God will punish him.

Although not regarded as great a theologian as Tertullian, Cyprian was held in great esteem and honour by the Church of his time, and also by later generations. The death of Cornelius enhanced Cyprian’s position as the most experienced bishop of the Western Church. He was often sought for advice, and his answer was regarded as authoritative.


Baptism was very important to the Church of Tertullian and Cyprian, and, believer’s baptism is still a central part of being a believer and member of the Church today. Also very much a part of the Church today is infant baptism.

The first reference to infant baptism is that made by Irenaeus about 180 when he speaks of ‘all through Christ are born again God, infants and children and boys and youths and old men’. Tertullian attacked the practice of infant baptism, which appeared to be a relatively new practice, and considered that baptism should be held for later years.

Cyprian was ‘an important witness to infant baptism, whose necessity he linked to original sin’. He paralleled infant baptism with circumcision and the practice of infant baptism has continued through to the present day. Perhaps the greatest motive for infant baptism was not theological – but practical. There was a high mortality rate among infants, and graveyard inscriptions from that time attest to infant baptism, which was administered when the child was near to death. The practice seemed to come first, and the theological justification followed on behind.

By the fifth century infant baptism had become general practice in the Church with only a few isolated communities challenging the rite. Augustine of Hippo first gave infant baptism a systemic theological basis, and cemented into the life of the Church the practice which Cyprian had nurtured carefully, even if he hadn’t actually given birth to it.

Tertullian’s emphasis on believer’s baptism has been a feature of Church life through to the present day, and so too has the Cyprian practice of infant baptism. Two lasting ordinances from two men who were very influential in their own day, and still today.


Tertullian and Cyprian made major and lasting contributions to the life and thought of the Church. Their emphasis on a very high moral code for Christians is still a predominant feature of some churches and denominations, while the danger of legalism always lurks near those who try to live by it.

Tertullian’s writings, which he often authored to combat heresy, have become foundational theology for the Church in the centuries that followed, and much of Christian language today owes it existence to him. It was d’Aubigné who said that, if the Church in England has witnessed the development of a powerful evangelical life in its bosom, it must not forget the cause, but understand, with Tertullian, that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.

Tertullian’s introduction of merit and satisfaction surely created the Church environment in which Christianity seemed more to do with what man could achieve in order to earn salvation than what God has already done for man in Christ, and his idea of man punishing himself to save God the need is shot all through the theology of the Church at large.

A high view of the Church was owned by Tertullian and grew to maturity under Cyprian, and the latter’s insistence on the absolute authority of the bishop is still a widespread reality; in theory, if not always in practice. The autonomy of the bishop in his own church as taught by Cyprian surely laid the foundation stone on which the ‘one-man’ ministry view of church has been built ever since.

Cyprian’s view of the Church as an institution has become so much a part of what church is today, that it is sometimes hard to imagine what else it could, or should, be like. His views on the priestly role of the bishops and the development of Transubstantiation are the cornerstones of church for millions of people, and the papacy is alive and well.

From Tertullian and Cyprian much theology has been formulated, but perhaps we need to remember that these men taught and acted as they saw fit in their own time. With the benefit of hindsight, it is all too easy to shake a theological fist at them. Rest in peace