Christian Pacifists: Cyprian

After two heavy posts, we have a nice, lighter post. Well, lighter in content and quotes, but the narrative is quite heavy indeed. I really had a desire to write on Cyprian, but there just isn’t much there for our purposes. I sat at the computer several times trying to come up with a way of putting this post together, but I came up empty each time. Then one late bus ride home it all fell into my lap. With the other posts I wrote mainly about the teachings of the featured Christian. Cyprian frankly didn’t write a whole lot about war, and when he did, it wasn’t as much of an explicit call against violence as much as some passing comments on its horrors or some encouragement for those suffering. I found what struck me most about Cyprian was not his writings as much as his life. So this post will mostly be a short biography of his life as a Christian before a brief explanation of his pacifist views.


Cyprian was born in Carthage c. 200 where he received a classical education. He converted to Christianity later in his life in 245. He wrote a letter to his friend Donatus shortly after his conversion discussing his change of heart. In it he describes his disgust it the incredibly brutal nature of the world around him. He said that if his friend were to imagine himself high on a mountain, far away from the world, that he would look down and feel compassion for it. At the same time though, he would be glad that he was high above and not mingling in the events of the world for:

To Donatus, Chapters 6-7

the roads blocked up by robbers, the seas beset with pirates, wars scattered all over the earth with the bloody horror of camps. The whole world is wet with mutual blood; and murder, which in the case of an individual is admitted to be a crime, is called a virtue when it is committed wholesale. Impunity is claimed for the wicked deeds, not on the plea that they are guiltless, but because the cruelty is perpetrated on a grand scale.

And now, if you turn your eyes and your regards to the cities themselves, you will behold a concourse more fraught with sadness than any solitude. The gladiatorial games are prepared, that blood may gladden the lust of cruel eyes. The body is fed up with stronger food, and the vigorous mass of limbs is enriched with brawn and muscle, that the wretch fattened for punishment may die a harder death. Man is slaughtered that man may be gratified, and the skill that is best able to kill is an exercise and an art.  Crime is not only committed, but it is taught. What can be said more inhuman,—what more repulsive? Training is undergone to acquire the power to murder, and the achievement of murder is its glory.1

Shortly after converting to Christianity he became a priest and two years later a bishop, though against his will. His rule as a bishop was not easy and not without controversy. In 250, the new Emperor Decius issued an imperial edict which required that all “inhabitants of the empire sacrifice before the magistrates of their community ‘for the safety of the empire’ by a certain day.”2 Christians were then faced with a dilemma: Should they sacrifice to the Emperor and publicly deny their faith? Or refuse and risk torture and even death? Many Christians sacrificed (claiming that it was *on behalf of* the Emperor, not *for* him) and many faced death for their refusal. Cyprian did neither, but instead fled for safety. He was criticized by some for being a coward, but he defended himself with scripture and claimed that it was better for him to continue to shepherd his flock, even if only from afar.3

The persecutions died down after a few years and Cyprian was able to safely return. Persecution was especially severe in Carthage and large numbers of Christians had given in to fear and sacrificed. Now that the persecutions had died down they wanted to be accepted back into the church. Some priests were accepting the apostates back with no penance while another group refused to readmit any apostates. Cyprian sought to find a middle ground. He proposed that the apostates only be allowed back with varying degrees of public penance. The worst offenders, who had actually sacrificed and not just bought a forged certificate claiming they had done so, were only to receive Communion at the hour of their death if they had continued life long penance.

During this time, a horrific plague, now often referred to as The Plague of Cyprian due to his detailed description of it, ravaged Rome. This was a particularly difficult time for Christians because, in addition to being blamed for the plague, they were troubled by the indiscriminate nature of the disease. They were given no special protection by God for being Christians. *On the Mortality* was a letter of encouragement to the Christians enduring such trials. He also encouraged Christians during the plague to give aid not only to fellow Christians, but even to non-Christians because *what credit was it to them if they only helped those who help them, but not their enemies as well* (Matt 5:43-48)?4 This, of course, included those persecuting and blaming Christians.

The Life and Passion of Cyprian, Chapter 9

It becomes us to answer to our birth; and it is not fitting that those who are evidently born of God should be degenerate, but rather that the propagation of a good Father should be proved in His offspring by the emulation of His goodness.

Only a few years later in 256, the new Emperor Valerian began persecuting the Christians once again. But whereas Decius wasn’t specifically targeting Christians, Valerian was.5 Christian bishops in particular were being targeted which resulted in many more Christian deaths, including two popes and Cyprian himself.


Cyprian was heavily influenced by Tertullian and it’s evident in his arguments against using violence. In his letter to Demetrian, a persecutor of Christians, he urges Demetrian to “cease to hurt the servants of God and of Christ with your persecutions, since when they are injured the divine vengeance defends them.”(Ch. 16) In the next chapter he says that Christians refuse to retaliate against violence because “our certainty of vengeance makes us patient.” He gives sources for this reasoning in Testimonies Against Jews referencing Leviticus 19:18, Deuteronomy 32:35 and Zephaniah 3:8. Like Origen combating Celsus, Cyprian made it clear to Demetrian that, though Christians don’t participate in armies, they do pray for the Emperor.

Chapter 20

Only when we go to God will we receive the promised rewards. Nevertheless, we always pray that enemies be kept at bay, that rains be granted, and that adversities either be taken away or mitigated; day and night we pour out our supplications beseeching and placating God, earnestly and continually pleading with him for your safety and peace.

In Testimonies Against Jews he quotes Luke 6:32 and Matthew 5:44-45 to support the fact that Christians love their enemies. Earlier in the same treatise he quotes Proverbs 16:32 and 12:16 as well as Ephesians 4:26 and Matthew 5:21-22 to show that we should not even be angry with others.

His On the Advantage of Patience makes it very clear that he did not believe that Christians should kill, even in self defense. Instead, growing from his experience of persecution and disease, he told his readers to maintain a patience in God that he would avenge those who harm them and that he would take them away from the pain of this world.6

Chapter 14

Adultery, fraud, manslaughter, are mortal crimes. Let patience be strong and stedfast in the heart; and neither is the sanctified body and temple of God polluted by adultery, nor is the innocence dedicated to righteousness stained with the contagion of fraud; nor, after the Eucharist carried in it, is the hand spotted with the sword and blood.

Chapter 16

What beyond;—that you should not swear nor curse; that you should not seek again your goods when taken from you; that, when you receive a buffet, you should give your other cheek to the smiter (Matt 5:33-42); that you should forgive a brother who sins against you, not only seven times, but seventy times seven times (Matt 18:22) but, moreover, all his sins altogether; that you should love your enemies (Luke 6:27); that you should offer prayer for your adversaries and persecutors? (Luke 6:28) Can you accomplish these things unless you maintain the stedfastness of patience and endurance? And this we see done in the case of Stephen, who, when he was slain by the Jews with violence and stoning, did not ask for vengeance for himself, but for pardon for his murderers, saying, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge…” (Acts 7:60)

What shall I say of anger, of discord, of strife, which things ought not to be found in a Christian? Let there be patience in the breast, and these things cannot have place there; or should they try to enter, they are quickly excluded and depart, that a peaceful abode may continue in the heart, where it delights the God of peace to dwell. Finally, the apostle warns us, and teaches, saying:  “Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God, in whom ye are sealed unto the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, and anger, and wrath, and clamour, and blasphemy, be put away from you.” (Eph 4:20-31) For if the Christian have departed from rage and carnal contention as if from the hurricanes of the sea, and have already begun to be tranquil and meek in the harbour of Christ, he ought to admit neither anger nor discord within his breast, since he must neither return evil for evil, nor bear hatred.

He says much about martyrdoms, but I think the following is particularly relevant to our topic. He saw the martyrs, in their refusal to hurt another human being, as battling with Christ against the executers, with their worldly weapons. Though the martyr died and the executor lived, he saw it as a spiritual battle in which the martyr, wielding the weapons of faith, actually won.

In an epistle addressed to martyrs he said

The multitude of those who were present saw [the martyrdoms] with admiration the heavenly contest,—the contest of God, the spiritual contest, the battle of Christ,—saw that His servants stood with free voice, with unyielding mind, with divine virtue—bare, indeed, of weapons of this world, but believing and armed with the weapons of faith.


Leviticus 19:18; Deuteronomy 32:35; Proverbs 12:16, 16:32; Zephaniah 3:8; Matthew 5:21-22, 33-45, 18:22; Luke 6:27-28,32; Acts 7:60; Ephesians 4:20-32, 6:10-18


1 This is clearly talking about gladiatorial games and not specifically war.

2 This wikipedia article cites The Roman Empire at Bay AD 180–395 by David Potter as the source.

3 On the Lapsed, Chapter 10. This was also argued Pontius in The Life and Passion of Cyprian at the end of chapter 2.

4 The Life and Passion of Cyprian, Chapter 9


6 On the Mortality discusses the idea of being rescued from the plight of this world more extensively.

Further Reading

Cyprian’s Writings

To Demetrius Chapters 16, 17, 20; To Donatus Chapters 6-7,Testimonies Against Jews Book III Chapters 8, 49, 106; On the Advantage of Patience, Epistle VIII To Martyrs and Confessors, On the Lapsed Chapter 10

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