Tertullian and Cyprian 1


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.