Fathers of the Church
Epistle LXXI: to Stephen, Concerning a Council
by Cyprian of Carthage in 256 A.D. | translated by Unknown
1. Cyprian and others, to Stephen their brother, greeting. We have thought it necessary for the arranging of certain matters, dearest brother, and for their investigation by the examination of a common council, to gather together and to hold a council, at which many priests were assembled at once; at which, moreover, many things were brought forward and transacted. But the subject in regard to which we had chiefly to write to you, and to confer with your gravity and wisdom, is one that more especially pertains both to the priestly authority and to the unity, as well as the dignity, of the Catholic Church, arising as these do from the ordination of the divine appointment; to wit, that those who have been dipped abroad outside the Church, and have been stained among heretics and schismatics with the taint of profane water, when they come to us and to the Church which is one, ought to be baptized, for the reason that it is a small matter to "lay hands on them that they may receive the Holy Ghost," unless they receive also the baptism of the Church. For then finally can they be fully sanctified, and be the sons of God, if they be born of each sacrament; since it is written, "Except a man be born again of water, and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." For we find also, in the Acts of the Apostles, that this is maintained by the apostles, and kept in the truth of the saving faith, so that when, in the house of Cornelius the centurion, the Holy Ghost had descended upon the Gentiles who were there, fervent in the warmth of their faith, and believing in the Lord with their whole heart; and when, filled with the Spirit, they blessed God in divers tongues, still none the less the blessed Apostle Peter, mindful of the divine precept and the Gospel, commanded that those same men should be baptized who had already been filled with the Holy Spirit, that nothing might seem to be neglected to the observance by the apostolic instruction in all things of the law of the divine precept and Gospel. But that that is not baptism which the heretics use; and that none of those who oppose Christ can profit by the grace of Christ; has lately been set forth with care in the letter which was written on that subject to Quintus, our colleague, established in Mauritania; as also in a letter which our colleagues previously wrote to our fellow-bishops presiding in Numidia, of both which letters I have subjoined copies.
2. We add, however, and connect with what we have said, dearest brother, with common consent and authority, that if, again, any presbyters or deacons, who either have been before ordained in the Catholic Church, and have subsequently stood forth as traitors and rebels against the Church, or who have been promoted among the heretics by a profane ordination by the hands of false bishops and antichrists contrary to the appointment of Christ, and have attempted to offer; in opposition to the one and divine altar, false and sacrilegious sacrifices without, that these also be received when they return, on this condition, that they communicate as laymen, and hold it to be enough that they should be received to peace, after having stood forth as enemies of peace; and that they ought not, on returning, to retain those arms of ordination and honour with which they rebelled against us. For it behoves priests and ministers, who wait upon the altar and sacrifices, to be sound and stainless; since the Lord God speaks in Leviticus, and says, "No man that hath a stain or a blemish shall come nigh to offer gifts to the Lord." Moreover, in Exodus, He prescribes this same thing, and says, "And let the priests which come near to the Lord God sanctify themselves, lest the Lord forsake them." And again: "And when they come near to minister at the altar of the holy place, they shall not bear iniquity upon them, lest they die." But what can be greater iniquity, or what stain can be more odious, than to have stood in opposition to Christ; than to have scattered His Church, which He purchased and founded with His blood; than, unmindful of evangelical peace and love, to have fought with the madness of hostile discord against the unanimous and accordant people of God? Such as these, although they themselves return to the Church, still cannot restore and recall with them those who, seduced by them, and forestalled by death without, have perished outside the Church without communion and peace; whose souls in the day of judgment shall be required at the hands of those who have stood forth as the authors and leaders of their ruin. And therefore to such, when they return, it is sufficient that pardon should be granted; since perfidy ought certainly not to receive promotion in the household of faith. For what do we reserve for the good and innocent, and those who do not depart from the Church, if we honour those who have departed from us, and stood in opposition to the Church?
3. We have brought these things, dearest brother, to your knowledge, for the sake of our mutual honour and sincere affection; believing that, according to the truth of your religion and faith, those things which are no less religious than true will be approved by you. But we know that some will not lay aside what they have once imbibed, and do not easily change their purpose; but, keeping fast the bond of peace and concord among their colleagues, retain certain things peculiar to themselves, which have once been adopted among them. In which behalf we neither do violence to, nor impose a law upon, any one, since each prelate has in the administration of the Church the exercise of his will free, as he shall give an account of his conduct to the Lord. We bid you, dearest brother, ever heartily farewell.
Taken from "The Early Church Fathers and Other Works" originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. in English in Edinburgh, Scotland beginning in 1867. (ANF 5, Roberts and Donaldson). The digital version is by The Electronic Bible Society, P.O. Box 701356, Dallas, TX 75370, 214-407-WORD.