Saturday, January 17, 2009

Book Review: Cyprian the Bishop by J. Patout Burns

The persecution under Decius in the mid 3rd century and subsequent controversies in Italy & Northern Africa is, for me, the most confusing period of ante-Nicene Church history. So much writing has survived that we are able to bring a lot of characters into play (some have similar sounding names & all seem to disagree on various issues for the same reasons or the same issues for various reasons). One confusing issue is that Eusebius refers to Novatian as Novatus which is the same name as a laxist priest in Carthage!

I've read many accounts of this historical narrative (and most of Cyprian's writings) and besides conflicting information, I get the impression that many of those writing these accounts don't have such a strong command of this time period themselves. For this reason, I was particularly excited to read J. Patout Burn's "Cyprian the Bishop". As I understand it, Burns has devoted a large portion of his professional career solely to the study of Cyprian of Carthage and the surrounding controversies.

The first chapter is a chronological narrative of Cyprian's Christian life from baptism to martyrdom which I found particularly helpful. Oddly enough, I might now command a stronger understanding of the whole thing if I had stopped there (and I may well re-read that first part just for the sake of clarity).

Burns' style is clear and accessible but not terribly interesting. He never confuses (which I appreciate) but seems a bit repetitive. Though, the confusing nature of this time period may warrant the repetition and I don't think it detracted too much from the book. He is even handed through most of the book and appears to represent all sides fairly but on page 165, (just 11 pages before the end), he makes this surprising blunder:
"The primacy of the papal system which emerged in the medieval period would have been puzzling to the African bishops of the third century: they firmly grasped Peter as a symbol of unity but understood the Petrine office only at the local level."
I do not object, of course, that Cyprian would be comfortable with the direction that the development of papal primacy was headed as he would not; I object that the development had "emerged" long ago and was already well along its way (which is made explicit in Cyprian's conflict with Stephen). Burns here makes it sound as if there were no concept of papal primacy at this time and it would only emerge much later in the middle ages. I'm not sure where he stands personally on this and I'll leave him the benefit of the doubt that it was merely a poor choice of words rather than a blind eye to history.

While I do appreciate the work of a historian to see the world through the eyes of the subject studied, in the final chapter, "Cyprian's African Heritage", it seems that Burns becomes too fond of Cyprian's arguments and uses them as a standard to judge the Catholic Church. It seems that Burns begins to argue (not as from the mouth of Cyprian but from his own) that the Pope was wrong on re-baptism. Beginning on page 169, he abruptly declares:
"The Roman practice of accepting baptism performed in schism or heresy came without a theoretical justification; it was based upon customary practice alone."
Which is odd not only because it's flatly wrong, but also because on page 109 he himself admits that there were arguments being made for the Roman case and not only from Italy (Bishop Jubianus for example):
"Jubianus suggested and Stephen charged that Cyprian and his colleagues were following Novatian's innovative practice of rebaptizing schismatics rather than the established tradition of both the church and most heretics: receiving baptized converts by the imposition of hands". (Emphasis added)
Burns is not careful to appreciate St. Cyprian's legacy through the eyes of the Church and as a result, it appears that he ends up siding on Cyprian on those uniquely Cyprianic ideas which were preserved most faithfully by schismatics rather than by the Catholic Church. It was the Donatists in Northern Africa that adopted the stand of Cyprian & the African bishops, not the Catholics. St. Cyprian was certainly a great Church father to whom we likely owe more than we realize, but he was wrong on a few issues and they do need to be recognized.

Overall, I would recommend the book to those interested in developing a greater understanding of Cyprian & his controversies.

1 comment:

Giovanni A. Cattaneo said...

Viewing anything apart from the Church will always bring and individual to only two things confusion and herecy.