Sacramentum: Baptismal Practice & Theology Of Tertullian & Cyprian -- By: Rex Butler

Journal: Journal for Baptist Theology & Ministry
Volume: JBTM 06:1 (Spring 2009)
Article: Sacramentum: Baptismal Practice & Theology Of Tertullian & Cyprian
Author: Rex Butler


Sacramentum: Baptismal Practice & Theology Of Tertullian & Cyprian

Rex Butler1

Our introduction to the extant history of North African Christianity is the Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs, the court record of twelve Christians from an obscure village that was probably near Carthage.2 In their trial before the proconsul Vigellius Saturninus,3 the seven men and five women demonstrated obedience to authority, dedication to their faith, and readiness to die; in short, characteristics of milites Christi, soldiers of Christ.

From the beginning, militant Christianity was a hallmark of the early church in North Africa, and, in the literature of that time and setting, Christians were often described as soldiers.4 The military motif also was utilized through the reference to baptism as sacramentum. Although this term had been used to describe a military oath of allegiance, Tertullian, the prolific and rigorous Carthaginian teacher of the late second and early third centuries, appropriated it for ecclesiastical usage, making it part of the Latin theological lexicon.5 The other significant North African churchman and rigorist, Cyprian, also made use of the term in his writings concerning the baptismal issues of the mid-third century.

In another sense, sacramentum meant “something set apart as sacred,” and Tertullian used it to translate the Greek word μυστήριον for “mystery,” in such passages of the New

Testament as Eph. 1:9-10, 3:8-9, and 5:32.6 When Paul spoke of the “mystery of His will,” the “administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God,” and the fact that the “mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church,”7 he referred to God’s hidden plan of salvation through Christ for the church. For Tertullian, however, the saving work of Christ is revealed to the church through rites such as baptism, laying on of hands and anointing with oil, and the Eucharist. Therefore, he combined the ideas of the sacred act and the oath of allegiance to introduce to the church the concept of the sacrament.8

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