St. Cyprian of Carthage and the College of Bishops

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Benjamin Safranski
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , September
     250 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Similar to the way in which Paul's occasional letters on controversial issues have been used by generations to forge a theology, Cyprian’s extensive correspondence and occasional treatises—written during times of internal controversy and external persecution—have been mined for an overarching theology of church  and communion within it.

In St. Cyprian of Carthage and the College of Bishops, Benjamin Safranski begins by asking the question—which Cyprian seems at times to offer such contradictory answers for—“Why and how could episcopal authority be exercised beyond the bounds of the local church?” (xii). This is an important question for ecclesiology within the context of episcopal churches and the translocal function of  bishops. There is no question that Cyprian had a theological vision, but he was also engaged in the daily issues of the church, so applying his views to contemporary questions—such as Roman primacy, or more acutely the legitimacy of the Ecumenical Patriarch’s actions regarding the Ukraine—is problematic. Nonetheless, Safranski encourages us to do this by considering Nicholas Afasaniev’s treatment of Cyprian.

For the greater part of the book Safranski deals with Cyprian, and enunciates a “Bensonian” vision of him as fundamentally concerned to uphold the local episcopate and the completeness of the church in the local bishop (although the author notes the work done since Edward White Benson on the issue of the “Petrine” chapters in De Unitate). However, Safranski’s picture of Cyprian begins to unravel in the third chapter as he examines Cyprian’s correspondence regarding issues caused by the rigorist views of Marcianus of Arles. Ep. 68 seems to request Stephen to involve himself. Is this because Rome had some direct control over the Arlesian church, or simply because Cyprian felt that Stephen’s intervention might give support to Marcianus’s opponents? The latter option would be consistent with a Bensonian view of Cyprian (and is the view now adopted by Geoffrey D. Dunn, who has changed his mind on this point), and Safranski rightly emphasizes the rhetorical tone by which Cyprian seeks to encourage Stephen by appealing to his amour propre, but ultimately concedes that in Cyprian’s mind there is some particular authority which Rome carries. This is reminiscent of Maurice Bévenot’s view that Cyprian had a “blind spot” when it came to Roman authority. Perhaps consideration of the work of James Rives and his view of the growing importance of the province, as opposed to the Diocese, might be helpful. This is admittedly a technical point, but a solution to the problems posed by this letter is central to any treatment of Cyprian’s ecclesiology, and Safranski does not satisfy on this point. 

In the final chapter Safranski leaves the ancient world and introduces the reader to the figure of Nicholas Afasaniev. Safranski seeks to defend Cyprian from Afasaniev’s allegation that he (Cyprian) is the originator of “universal ecclesiology.” Unfortunately, an extended introduction to Afasaniev’s thought—which might have been included at an earlier point in the work—obscures the connection with the preceding chapters. Safranski laudably intends to defend Cyprian from Afasaniev’s allegations, yet his own treatment of Ep. 68 makes this difficult. Safranski’s strongest argument comes from his earlier observation that Cyprian’s ecclesiology had a eucharistic element (56-58), and Safranski finally returns to this idea when noting that Cyprian’s ecclesiology is not as inimical to Afasaniev’s view of the church as eucharistic as Afasaniev himself had thought (192-94).

The topic is important, the basic question is interesting, and the greater part of the book is clear and well-argued, if not of startling originality. However, one wonders whether the author has been well-served by his publisher. Much discussion is found in the extensive annotation, which the publisher has hidden as endnotes, and has also obfuscated through a somewhat jejune index, and the sudden irruption of Afasaniev into what had theretofore been a fairly standard discussion of early Christianity is somewhat jarring; an editor might have encouraged some re-arrangement here.

If the workleads to a wider awareness of Afasaniev among students of early Christianity, and a closer reading of Cyprian by modern ecclesiologists, then the author’s efforts will have proved worthwhile. It is not, however, a book for a novice in either field.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Alistar C. Stewart is Team Vicar in Upton-cum-Chalvey in the United Kingdom.

Date of Review: 
February 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Benjamin Safranski is Professor of Theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville


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