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The Episcopate In The Church

The greatest name connected with the development of the hierarchical
conception of the Church in the third century is without question Cyprian
(see 49). He developed the conception of the episcopate beyond the point
it had reached in the hands of Tertullian, to whom the institution was
important primarily as a guardian of the deposit of faith and a pledge of
the continuity of the Church. In the hands of Cyprian the episcopate
became the essential foundation of the Church. According to his theory of
the office, every bishop was the peer of every other bishop and had the
same duties to his diocese and to the Church as a whole as every other
bishop. No bishop had any more than a moral authority over any other. Only
the whole body of bishops, or the council, could bring anything more than
moral authority to bear upon an offending prelate. The constitution of the
council was not as yet defined. In several points the ecclesiastical
theories of Cyprian were not followed by the Church as a whole, notably
his opinion regarding heretical baptism (see 47), but his main
contention as to the importance of the episcopate for the very existence
(esse), and not the mere welfare (bene esse), of the Church was
universally accepted. His theory of the equality of all bishops was a
survival of an earlier period, and represented little more than his
personal ideal. The following sections should also be consulted in this

Additional source material: Cyprian deals with the hierarchical
constitution in almost every epistle; see, however, especially the
following: 26:1 [33:1], 51:24 [55:24], 54:5 [59:5], 64:3 [3:3],
72:21 [73:21], 74:16 [75:16] (important for the testimony of
Firmilian as to the hierarchical ideas in the East). Serapion's
Prayer Book, trans. by J. Wordsworth, 1899.

(a) Cyprian, Epistula 68, 8 [=66]. (MSL, 4:418.)

Although a rebellious and arrogant multitude of those who will not obey
depart, yet the Church does not depart from Christ; and they are the
Church who are a people united to the priest, and the flock which adheres
to its pastor. Whence you ought to know that the bishop is in the Church
and the Church in the bishop; and that if any one be not with the bishop,
he is not in the Church, and that those flatter themselves in vain who
creep in, not having peace with God's priests, and think that they
communicate secretly with some; while the Church, which is Catholic and
one, is not cut nor divided, but is indeed connected and bound together by
the cement of the priests who cohere with one another.

(b) Council of Carthage, A. D. 256. (MSL, 3:1092.)

The council of Carthage, in 256, was held, under the presidency of
Cyprian, to act on the question of baptism by heretics. See 52.
Eighty-seven bishops were present. The full report of proceedings
is to be found in the works of Cyprian. See ANF, V, 565, and
Hefele, 6. The theory of Cyprian which is here expressed is that
all bishops are equal and independent, as opposed to the Roman
position taken by Stephen, and that the individual bishop is
responsible only to God.

Cyprian said: It remains that upon this matter each of us should bring
forward what he thinks, judging no man, nor rejecting from the right of
communion, if he should think differently. For neither does any one of us
set himself up as a bishop of bishops, nor by tyrannical terrors does any
one compel his colleagues to the necessity of obedience; since every
bishop, according to the allowance of his liberty and power, has his own
proper right of judgment, and can no more be judged by another than he
himself can judge another. But let us all wait for the judgment of our
Lord Jesus Christ, who alone has the power of advancing us in the
government of His Church, and of judging us in our conduct here.

(c) Cyprian, Epistula 67:5. (MSL, 3:1064.)

The following epistle was written to clergy and people in Spain,
i.e., at Leon, Astorga, and Merida, in regard to the ordination
of two bishops, Sabinus and Felix, in place of Basilides and
Martial, who had lapsed in the persecution and had been deprived
of their sees. The passage illustrates the methods of election and
ordination of bishops, and the failure of Cyprian, with his theory
of the episcopate, to recognize in the see of Rome any
jurisdiction over other bishops. Its date appears to be about 257.

You must diligently observe and keep the practice delivered from divine
tradition and apostolic observance, which is also maintained among us, and
throughout almost all the provinces: that for the proper celebration of
ordinations all the neighboring bishops of the same province should
assemble with that people for which a prelate is ordained. And the bishops
should be chosen in the presence of the people, who have most fully known
the life of each one, and have looked into the doings of each one as
respects his manner of life. And this also, we see, was done by you in the
ordination of our colleague Sabinus; so that, by the suffrage of the whole
brotherhood, and by the sentence of the bishops who had assembled in their
presence, and who had written letters to you concerning him, the
episcopate was conferred upon him, and hands were imposed on him in the
place of Basilides. Neither can an ordination properly completed be
annulled, so that Basilides, after his crimes had been discovered and his
conscience made bare, even by his own confession, might go to Rome and
deceive Stephen, our colleague, who was placed at a distance and was
ignorant of what had been done, so as to bring it about that he might be
replaced unjustly in the episcopate from which he had been justly deposed.

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