See how these Christians love one another

by J. Warren Smith

How Carthage in North Africa gave the early Western church its emphasis on unity.

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue 105 in 2013 ]

IN ANTIQUITY “North Africa” was a province of the Roman Empire where today we find Tunisia. Its capital was Carthage. We may think of Rome as the center of the Roman Empire. But while many roads of culture and society met in Rome, many also ran through Carthage as a major center of imperial trade. Destroyed but then rebuilt by the Romans, Carthage was called “the granary of the empire.” Carthaginians made beautiful pottery and traded figs, grapes, olive oil, and beans with the interior of the African continent and much of the rest of the known world. And along with all this, Carthage was the cradle of Latin theology. 

on the offensive

The first great North African theologian was Tertullian (ca. 160–220). Raised in a pagan family, he was educated in Latin grammar, rhetoric, and philosophy—the standard curriculum for boys who wished to become lawyers or civil servants in the Roman government. Sometime in middle age he converted to Christianity and was ordained a presbyter (i.e., priest or elder) in Carthage. 

Tertullian is now called the “Father of Latin Theology,” but he was not the first theologian of the West. Justin Martyr (ca. 100–ca. 165) and Irenaeus (flourished second century), bishop of Lyons, preceded Tertullian, but they wrote in Greek—the primary language of commerce and philosophy in the eastern part of the empire. 

Tertullian was the first major theologian who wrote extensively in Latin—bringing new challenges to the theological enterprise. His earliest works defended Christian beliefs and practices that pagans often misunderstood. 

Ever the lawyer, Tertullian the apologist subscribed to the view that the best defense is a good offense. His treatises To the Gentiles and Apology directly attacked pagan beliefs and practices as superstitious and immoral, and argued that the Christian life as taught in Scripture and practiced in the church was morally superior. He imagined pagans looking at Christians and saying, “Look . . .  how they love one another (for they themselves [pagans] hate one another); and how they are ready to die for each other (for they themselves are readier to kill each other).” 

blood of the martyrs

Tertullian believed that Christianity would unavoidably conflict with pagan society, leading to resentment and persecution. In the face of persecution, Christians should imitate Jesus and accept martyrdom; to Tertullian we owe the oft-quoted line that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

Stressing the moral superiority of Christianity led Tertullian to advocate moral rigor and a strict ethical code, which included not wearing jewelry, remarrying, or attending the theater (since pagan rites were practiced there). He also encouraged virgins to keep themselves veiled. 

He had no patience for laxity; certain moral lapses after baptism, especially adultery and murder, were for him the same as rejecting and abandoning the Christian faith, or apostatizing. They could not be forgiven except through enduring a martyr’s death.

Tertullian was also suspicious of any Christian theology that seemed to rely too much on pagan philosophy, famously writing, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” (Mixing the two was, he said, like mixing cheese with chalk.) Our knowledge of God, he insisted, comes from God’s special revelation to Israel, from the teachings of Moses and the prophets, and ultimately from the Incarnation. Pagan reason had nothing to do with it. 

Pagan philosophy was filled with errors and at odds with the Gospel—how could it be used to explain the logic of Christian faith? He wrote, “The Son of God was crucified: I am not ashamed—because it is shameful. The Son of God died: it is immediately credible—because it is silly. He was buried, and rose again: it is certain—because it is impossible.” 

Tertullian did not ignore philosophy. He employed elements of Stoicism in his theological arguments and wrote in his treatise On Repentance, “There is nothing which God . . . has not foreseen, arranged and determined by reason; moreover, there is nothing he does not wish to be investigated and understood by reason.” But he felt philosophy could never be used as the foundation of Christian faith. The truth of the Gospel and the faith of the believer could not rest upon philosophical proofs. 

shall we let them back in?

The second great North African theologian in this era was Cyprian of Carthage (200–258). He, like Tertullian, was not born into a Christian home; he converted from paganism sometime in his mid-forties and distributed some of his money to the poor. 

He began as an orator and teacher of rhetoric; a priest in Carthage recognized his talents and encouraged him to enter the priesthood, which he did shortly after his baptism. Not long after his ordination, he was elected bishop of Carthage. 

Cyprian had just been consecrated when a great crisis arose. The emperor Decius (249–251), seeking to restore Rome’s pagan religion, issued a decree in 250 that all citizens must perform public sacrifice to the gods of the Roman pantheon. 

But for Christians, to offer sacrifices—sprinkling incense before a statue of the god or goddess—was idolatry. In fact, it was apostasy, the denial or betrayal of Christ. Some Christians refused to perform the sacrifice and were imprisoned or executed.

Instead of facing martyrdom, Cyprian went into hiding and directed church affairs in secret through letters. The great pastoral question he faced was what to do with “lapsed” Christians who had performed sacrifices but now sought to be readmitted to the Christian community. 

Some priests believed that performing sacrifices could never be forgiven. Others were willing to accept their repentance and take the lapsed back into communion. One priest, Novatus, who had refused to sacrifice and was therefore imprisoned, claimed that his endurance of persecution had gained him authority to forgive the lapsed. 

the quest for unity

Cyprian, though, decided to wait for a council of all the North African bishops to discuss the question. Novatus and his fellow confessors refused to wait for Cyprian and began issuing letters of pardon to the lapsed. This threatened to divide the North African church. 

In the Easter season of 251, a council finally met at Carthage. Cyprian’s address to the council, though, did not focus on the lapsed, but on the division Novatus created in the church. This speech survives and is known as On the Unity of the Catholic Church

Cyprian argued that, although the devil wages external war on the church through persecution, the more dangerous threat comes from the deceptive war he wages through heresy and schism. The question of forgiveness for the lapsed must take a back seat to the greater problem of division. 

Although made up of many individual congregations, the church is one, and Cyprian compared it to many beams of light from one sun: “The Church, bathed in the light of the Lord, spreads her rays throughout the world, yet the light everywhere diffused is one light and the unity of the body is not broken.” 

For Cyprian this unity was not merely an ideal, but a concrete reality: the church catholic—universal and comprehensive of all true Christians and overseen by the bishops. How could one identify the one true church? 

The answer for Cyprian was the doctrine of apostolic succession. Cyprian argued that the authority to forgive sins, preach the Gospel, and govern the church given to a bishop at ordination was ultimately derived from Christ and the apostles. 

Since Christ gave the authority to forgive sins to Peter and the other apostles, the only bishops who had that authority were those who received it in a line of succession passed from the apostles. Those people who claimed to be bishops but did not receive this authority do not in fact have the power to forgive sins. 

Cyprian thus famously declared, “There is no salvation outside of the Catholic Church,” for he saw the church as comprehensive of all Christians. He added, “If you leave the Church of Christ you will not come to Christ’s rewards; you will be an alien, an outcast, an enemy. You cannot have God for your father unless you have the Church for your mother. If you could escape outside Noah’s ark, you could escape outside the Church.” 

Since Novatus and his fellow presbyters had set themselves up in authority rather than being consecrated as bishops at the hands of other bishops, they did not have true episcopal authority: “Nor can he be reckoned as a bishop, who, succeeding to no one, and despising the evangelical and apostolic tradition, sprang from himself. For he who has not been ordained in the Church can neither have nor hold to the Church in any way.” 

martyred in the end

Ultimately the North African bishops sided with Cyprian. The lapsed were to be allowed back into communion if they sincerely repented, though at first those who had participated in heathen sacrifices were only allowed back at the point of death, and lapsed clergy were not allowed to resume their functions. Novatus’s fate is actually unknown.

In 257 the persecution resumed. This time Cyprian did not go into hiding. By month’s end, he was arrested. When he and other clergy refused to sacrifice, the emperor Valerian threatened them with execution. Cyprian would not submit to the emperor’s demand and was martyred. When the proconsul read out the sentence of beheading, Cyprian responded, “Thanks be to God.” 

Despite the legacy left to us by Cyprian and Tertullian, perhaps no North African Christian influenced the church, at least in the West, more than Augustine of Hippo (354–430)—second only, perhaps, to Paul. Just like Tertullian and Cyprian, Augustine had to confront disputes about the purity and unity of the church. The controversy rocking the church of his era was the Donatist schism. 

By 391 Catholic Christianity was the minority church in North Africa. In the majority was a faction called the Donatists. Under the Great Persecution (303–305), Emperor Diocletian (244–311) had ordered clergy to hand over Bibles and other sacred books to be burned. Some priests did and so were called traditores, meaning “the ones who handed over the book” (hence our modern word traitor). 

Then the persecution ended, and the traditores wished to continue functioning as priests. The church now faced a troubling question: Does a priest’s apostasy render his sacraments invalid? Does the effect of the sacraments depend on the moral purity of the priest?

The North African church split. Some followed the priest Donatus, from whom the movement took its name. He insisted that the purity of the church depended on the purity of its priests and bishops. He considered baptism or Eucharist performed by a morally impure priest invalid, and he included apostasy in that impurity.

Augustine shared Cyprian’s convictions about unity. He was appalled by the Donatists’ division of the church and the grounds they based it on. He even went so far as to sanction measures by the state to suppress the Donatists (particularly a violent sect known as the Circumcellians).  

god’s holiness or ours?

Beginning in 400, Augustine also launched a theological attack on the Donatists. The power of the church’s sacraments, he insisted, does not come from the priest, but from God. It is the Spirit who confers Christ’s forgiveness in baptism and who grants the healing and sanctifying grace of Eucharist. 

The priest was only the Spirit’s instrument, an earthen vessel dispensing the grace of Christ. Therefore, sacraments performed in the name of the Trinity and using the proper form are valid regardless of the character of the presider. God’s holiness, not ours, is the source of our sanctification. 

Ironically, the very act of schism was, for Augustine, a sign of the absence of the Holy Spirit from the Donatists. He argued that God binds Christians to himself and one another by “the love of God poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 5:5). For Augustine, schism was completely antithetical to the love of God, and the Donatists were anti-Christs who undermined the church by promoting division. 

Since the Spirit unites us in Christ’s love, whatever differences exist—even in doctrine—should not divide Christians. Rather Christians must remain united and love one another in spite of their differences until the differences are resolved. Thus the love of the Spirit would preserve harmony within the community of believers. 

breaking the bonds of love

Little practical difference existed between Donatists and Catholics. They made the same confession of faith in Christ and the Trinity. They had the same sacraments and read the same Scriptures. So why, Augustine asked, should they separate? He claimed that the Donatists must have lacked a patient and forbearing love for those who did not conform to their ideal of holiness. 

And in lacking love for fellow sinners, they showed that they lacked the love given by the Holy Spirit. Augustine claimed that true believers and followers of Christ would not leave the church. If love was the sign of being born of God by the Spirit in baptism, the Donatists’ failure to love indicated that they were never born of God. Augustine derived this claim from his interpretation of two verses in 1 John: “He who has been born of God does not sin” (3:9) and “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1:8). 

How can we be born of God so as to be without sin, and yet be lying if we claim to have no sin? Augustine said that, although Christians fall into minor sins, there is one sin that no true Christian can commit: hatred for a brother or sister. 

Ultimately in June 411 a council of 284 bishops met at Carthage to resolve the controversy. The verdict: the Catholic Church was the only true church. The Donatists were forced into union with the Catholics. 

Controversies over church unity in North Africa almost two millennia ago may feel alien to modern Christians who live in a church broken and divided between Protestants, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox Churches (see “Did you know?” inside the front cover). 

Yet Augustine and his North African brethren remind us that the early Christians saw the church as intended by God to be one. Its unity comes from a common confession of faith, maintained by a mutual love. The ideal of being the church is about a way of loving God and neighbor that resists, even in the face of great difference, the willful impulse of schism. CH

J. Warren Smith is associate professor of historical theology at Duke Divinity School and the author of Passion and Paradise (on Gregory of Nyssa) and Christian Grace and Pagan Virtue (on Ambrose).

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