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Cyprian and the Bishops of Rome: Questions of Papal Primacy in the Early Church.

CYPRIAN AND THE BISHOPS OF ROME: QUESTIONS OF PAPAL PRIMACY IN THE EARLY CHURCH. By Geoffrey D. Dunn. Early Christian Studies 11. Strathfield, NSW, Australia: St. Paul's, 2007. Pp. ix + 227. AU$42.

To understand how the church in third-century North Africa regarded the extent of the jurisdictional authority of Rome's bishops, Australian Catholic patristic scholar Geoffrey Dunn analyzes letters to Rome by Cyprian who served as bishop of Carthage from AD 249 until his martyrdom in 258. During that period Cyprian interacted with five Roman bishops, some of whom held their office for only months. Following the death of Pope Fabian, and during the Decian persecution, there was a 14-month gap (as well as an antipope named Novatian) before Cornelius was elected.

D. is eminently familiar with the topic as witnessed by some 17 scholarly articles about Cyprian published in the last six years. He had at his disposal the new Corpus Christianorum critical edition, some 22 years in the making, and he also made use of his countryman G. W. Clarke's fine four-volume English translation of the epistulae, with its massive array of footnotes.

D. carefully clarifies procedures surrounding the election of bishops, Rome's authority over other churches, and variances in baptismal practices. Contrary to assertions that in those days the laity "chose" their own bishops, he demonstrates how the choice was a multilayered procedure including suffragium (consultation, verdict) of the laity, testimonium (evaluation) by the clergy, and consensus (decision) by the majority of other bishops, which, taken together, were seen to point to God's iudicium. The laity played a key consultative role of scrutiny and discernment but their role was not the last word.

To assist modern ecumenical discussions on papal primacy, D. shows the difference between what was meant in Cyprian's time by being "in communion with the Church of Rome" and the present-day concept of papal jurisdiction. To be sure, Rome was regularly informed by letters regarding appointments and decisions reached in North African churches and elsewhere, but this was not regarded as seeking its permission or official confirmation. Rather, it was a gesture of courtesy and solidarity with the largest and most influential apostolic see of the western Mediterranean. "While there was deference, respect and even imitation of what happened in the Roman Church, Cyprian was never subservient nor beholden to it" (111).

D. detects in Cyprian's letters indications for the first time by a Roman bishop, Pope Stephen (254-257), of a claim to an expanding papal authority in ministerial matters. In the dispute about the need for "rebaptism" in the event that persons might have presented themselves for baptism to a schismatic priest, Cyprian's church was convinced that such schismatic rituals were totally invalid, and these persons needed subsequently to be really baptized in the one true church. However, for the Roman church, Stephen argued, even baptisms administered by a schismatic were valid. Stephen expected conformity to Rome's view and reasoned that its accepted custom should be practiced elsewhere. In a letter to Pompeius, Cyprian replied rather testily to Stephen's argument, saying, "consuetudo sine veritate vetustas erroris est" (a custom without truth is but error grown old) (ep.73.9). Whether Stephen ever followed through with his threat of excommunication of those, including Cyprian, who did not follow Roman customary practice remains undocumented.

In his reconstruction of the Carthaginian scene, D. is not afraid to disagree even with widely accepted conclusions put forth years ago by the then dean of Cyprian scholars, Maurice Bevenot, S.J., regarding the reason for Cyprian's revision (in chapter four of the De ecclesiae catholicae unitate) of the so-called "Primacy Text" to the "Received Text" (the former containing what seems to support a more primatial role for the Roman bishop, the latter text more reserved in associating "primatus" with the pope). After a painstakingly thorough review of the various theories, D. rejects Bevenot's explanation and modestly asks that his own original interpretation be scrutinized as a sustainable theory.

The author's scholarship is impeccable, his argumentation admirably cautious, and his bibliography comprehensive. Regrettably, low-budget printing has resulted in a visually unattractive product, and the work lacks careful copy editing. A revised, more elegant edition would be highly desirable.


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Author:Fahey, Michael A.
Publication:Theological Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2008
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