From 255 to 257 AD, several synods of the bishops of North Africa were called by Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, to rule on how to receive converts and those returning from schism.
Byzantine Chronicler John Zonaras (1074-1130 AD) writes of this synod: “This is the most ancient of all the synods. For that which was held at Antioch in Syria concerning Paul of Samosata was more ancient than the others, being holden in the time of the Roman Emperor Aurelius, but this one is still earlier. For the great Cyprian finished his martyr course in the time of the Emperor Decius: but there was a long interval between Aurelian and Decius. For many emperors reigned after the death of Decius, to whom at last Aurelian succeeded on the throne. Therefore this is by far the most ancient of all synods. In it moreover above eighty-four bishops were gathered together, and considered the question as to what was to be done about the baptism of those who came to the Church after abandoning their heresies, and of schismatics who returned to the Church.”
(Found in Beveridge, Synodicon, Tom. I., p. 365, and in Labbe and Cossart, Concilia, Tom. I., col. 786.)
When very many bishops were met together at Carthage on the Calends of September from the province of Africa, Numidia and Mauritania, with the presbyters and deacons (the greater part of the people being likewise present) and when the holy letters of Jubaianus to Cyprian had been read, and Cyprian’s answers to Jubaianus, concerning heretical baptisms, as well as what the same Jubaianus afterwards wrote to Cyprian.
Cyprian said: My dearly beloved colleagues, you have heard what our fellow bishop Jubaianus has written to me, taking counsel of my littleness concerning the illicit and profane baptisms of heretics, and the answer which I made him, being of the same opinion as we have been on former occasions: that heretics coming to the Church should be baptized and sanctified with the Church’s baptism.
Moreover there has been read to you also the other letter of Jubaianus – in which, answering for his sincere and pious devotion to our letter, not only does he agree with it, but offers thanks that he has been so instructed by it. It only remains therefore that we, each one of us, one by one, say what our mind is in this matter, without condemning any one or removing any one from the right of communion who does not agree with us.
For no one of us has set himself up to be bishop of bishops, or attempted with tyrannical dread to force his colleagues to obedience to him, since every bishop has, for the license of liberty and power, his own will, and as he cannot be judged by another, so neither can he judge another. But we await the judgment of our universal Lord, our Lord Jesus Christ, who one and alone has the power, both of advancing us in the governance of his Church, and of judging of our actions in that position.
The bishops then one by one declared against heretical baptism. Last of all:
Cyprian, the Confessor and Martyr of Carthage, said: The letter which was written to Jubaianus, my colleague, most fully set forth my opinion: that heretics who, according to the evangelical and apostolic witness, are called adversaries of Christ and anti-Christs, when they come to the Church, should be baptized with the one (unico) baptism of the Church, that they may become instead of adversaries friends, and Christians instead of Antichrists.
Related to this synod is Saint Cyprian’s letter [Epistle 70] to Januarius:
Cyprian, Liberalis, Caldonius, etc., to their brethren Januarius, etc. Greeting.
When we were together in council, dearest brethren, we read the letter which you addressed to us respecting those who are thought to be baptized by heretics and schismatics, whether, when they come to the one true catholic Church, they ought to be baptized. In this, although you yourselves also hold the catholic rule in its truth and fixedness, yet since, out of our mutual affection, you have thought good to consult us, we do not deliver our sentence as though new but, by a kindred harmony, we unite with you in that which was long since settled by our predecessors, and observed by us: that is, thinking and holding for certain that no one can be baptized without the Church, in that there is one Baptism appointed in the holy Church; and it is written, the Lord himself speaking, “They have forsaken me, the Fountain of living water, and hewed out broken cisterns that can hold no water.” Again, holy Scripture admonishes us, and says, “Keep yourselves from the strange water, and drink not from a fountain of strange water.” The water then must first be cleansed and sanctified by the priest, that it may be able, by Baptism therein, to wash away the sins of the baptized. For the Lord says by the prophet Ezekiel, “Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be cleansed from all your filthiness, and from all your idols will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you.” But how can he cleanse and sanctify the water, he who is himself unclean, and with whom the Spirit is not? Whereas the Lord says in Numbers, “And whatsoever the unclean person touches shall be unclean.” Or how can he that baptizes give remission of sins to another, who cannot himself free himself from his own sins, outside the Church?
Moreover, the very question which is put in Baptism, is a witness of the truth. For when we say, “Do you believe in eternal life, and remission of sins through the holy Church?” we mean that remission of sins is not given, except in the Church; but that, with heretics, where the Church is not, sins cannot be remitted. They, therefore, who claim that heretics can baptize, let them either change the question, or maintain the truth; unless indeed they ascribe a Church also to those who they contend have Baptism.
He who is baptized must also of necessity be anointed, that having received the chrism — that is, anointing — he may be the anointed of God, and have within him the grace of Christ. Moreover, it is the Eucharist through which the baptized are anointed, the oil sanctified on the altar. But he who has neither altar nor church cannot sanctify the creature of oil. Whence neither can the spiritual anointing be with heretics, since it is acknowledged that the oil cannot be sanctified nor the Eucharist celebrated among them. But we ought to know and remember that it is written, “Let not the oil of a sinner anoint my head;” which the Holy Spirit forewarned in the Psalms, lest any, quitting the track, and wandering out of the path of truth, be anointed by heretics and adversaries of Christ. Moreover, when baptized, what kind of prayer can a profane priest and a sinner offer? For it is written, “God hears not a sinner; but if any man be a worshipper of God, and does his will, him he hears.”
But who can give what himself does not have? Or how can he perform spiritual acts, who has himself lost the Holy Spirit? Wherefore he who comes uninitiated to the Church is to be baptized and received, that within he may be hallowed through the holy. For it is written, “Be ye holy, for I am holy, says the Lord.” So that he who has been seduced into error and washed without, should, in the true Baptism of the Church, put off this very thing also. That he, a man coming to God, while seeking for a priest, fell, through the deceit of error, upon one profane. But to acknowledge any case where they have baptized, is to approve the baptism of heretics and schismatics.
For neither can part of what they do be void and part be effective. If he could baptize, he could also give the Holy Spirit. But if he cannot give the Holy Spirit because, being outside, he is not with the Holy Spirit, neither can he baptize any that comes: for that there is both one Baptism, and one Holy Spirit, and one Church, founded by Christ the Lord upon Peter, through an original and principle of unity; so it results, that since all among them is void and false, nothing that they have done ought to be approved by us. For what can be ratified and confirmed by God which is done by them whom the Lord calls his enemies and adversaries, saying in his Gospel, “He that is not with me, is against me; and he that does not gather with me, scatters.”
And the blessed Apostle John also, keeping the commandments and precepts of the Lord, has written in his Epistle, “You have heard that Antichrist shall come; even now are there many Antichrists, whereby we know that it is the last time. They went out from us, but were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us.” Whence we, too, ought to infer and consider, whether they who are the adversaries of the Lord, and are called Antichrists, can give the grace of Christ. Wherefore we who are with the Lord, and who hold the unity of the Lord, and according to this stewardship administer his priesthood in the Church, ought to repudiate and reject and account as profane, whatever his adversaries and Antichrists do; and to those who, coming from error and wickedness, acknowledge the true faith of the one Church, we should impart the reality of unity and faith by all the sacraments of Divine grace.
We bid you, dearest brethren, ever heartily farewell.
* translated in full in the Oxford “Library of the Fathers,” Vol. 17. “St. Cyprian’s Epistles,” p. 286.