History of the 3rd Century Church: Part 6
Nov 06, 2007
Whereas the second century Church focused most of its attention upon heresies, the third century Church began to see open corruption in the Church, particularly beginning with the Church in Rome. Interestingly enough, this corruption manifested immediately after Bishop Victor put the Roman Church on the path toward its claim of sovereignty over the other bishops in the Church.
And here it is apparent that I have to make a correction on what I wrote earlier (Oct. 5, 2007). Earlier, if you recall, I had followed Philip Schaff's view that the Papacy had evolved in three steps represented by Ignatius, Irenaeus, and Cyprian. But upon further study, I have found that Schaff and I simply fell for the Catholic viewpoint, which tries to make Cyprian an authority on Papal sovereignty. While there may be some truth to this, the view breaks down in that Cyprian himself was a vocal critic of the Roman bishops and died out of communion with them.
Joseph McCabe presents a little different view. McCabe went to seminary to become a Roman Catholic priest back in the 1890's, but soon was so disillusioned that he not only left the seminary and the Church, but also became an avowed atheist. He could not take the hypocrisy and immorality at the school. Anyway, he wrote many books opposing Catholicism, including A History of the Popes in 1939.
I have found that it is always helpful to read opposing viewpoints, because each side digs out facts that the other side would rather suppress. In reading both sides, we tend to get more of the truth, even if each side uses the facts according to their own particular biases. Anyway, McCabe writes on p. 39,
"The Bishop of Carthage and head of the African Church at the time was Cyprian, one of the most esteemed of the Latin Fathers. Because he somewhere acknowledges that the Roman is 'the principle Church' and 'the source of sacerdotal unity,' Catholic apologists unanimously quote him as one who recognized the Pope's supremacy. Yet we still have the lengthy letters which Cyprian wrote to Cornelius and his successor, and in these Cyprian, from first to last, scornfully repudiates the Roman claim to have any sort of authority in Africa."
You see, Zephyrinus and especially his successor, Callistus (218-222), had lowered the moral standards for fellowship in the Church. This steady decline was greatly resisted by the other bishops, including Cyprian. Cyprian excommunicated certain corrupt priests under him, and refused to allow them to be reinstated in the ministry. But those priests then went to Rome to appeal their case to the Roman bishop. Cyprian writes to the Bishop of Rome to give his side of the story. McCabe writes of this on page 40,
"He assures [Roman Bishop] Cornelius that the priests who have appealed to him are 'a band of desperadoes' whom he had very properly excommunicated. He describes 'the pseudo-bishop' who accompanies them as 'an embezzler of money entrusted to him, the violator of virgins, the destroyer and corruptor of many marriages.' They have appealed to Rome only because, since the days of Callistus, absolution is cheap there, and the Pope had no right to listen to them. 'For,' he says, (Ep. 14), 'it is decreed by all of us, and is equally fair and just, that the case of every man should be judged where the crime was committed'.
"A few years later Cyprian sent a contemptuous letter (Ep. LXVII) to the successor of Cornelius, Pope Stephen. The Bishop of Arles has joined the Novatianists, and the other bishops of Gaul have appealed to the Pope to condemn him. Another proof of recognition of Papal supremacy, says the apologist. Yet it is plainly stated in Cyprian's letter that the bishops of Gaul have appealed equally to Carthage and Rome, and Cyprian is scolding the Pope because he has not done his part. 'We who hold the balance in governing the Church' is Cyprian's description of himself and the Roman Bishop. Pope Stephen, another pompous mediocrity, threatens anathemas, and Cyprian gathers his eighty African bishops in council; and they sent (Ep. LXXII) as disdainful a reply to the Pope's claim as any Protestant would make today. They wrote:--
" 'We judge no man, and we cut off no man for differing from us. None of us regards himself as the Bishop of Bishops or seeks by tyrannical threats to compel his colleagues to obey him.'
"Cyprian, the greatest Christian leader of the third century, head of one of the chief branches of the Church and more famous for learning and piety than any Pope in four centuries, wrote pages in this vein; and Rome retorted by calling him 'a false Christ' and 'false Apostle' and refused hospitality to his envoys. Yet I do not know a single Catholic writer who does not claim that Cyprian recognized the supremacy of the Pope!"
That is quite an indictment. It is no wonder that many have sought to conceal these Cyprian epistles. So we ought to alter our thinking here. The Papacy was not locked in by the recognition of Cyprian, but rather by Pope Victor in 192 A.D., who excommunicated the Eastern bishops over the Passover-dating controversy. This is really where the Papacy began. It was at the end of the second century, and it only increased with Victor's successors. Even so, this claim to be "Bishop of Bishops" was strongly refuted by Cyprian, and the fact that the bishops of Gaul appealed equally to both Carthage and Rome in their controversy shows that they had not yet discovered the idea of Roman supremacy. Instead, Roman supremacy was in the process of being forced upon them.
So the rise of Papal supremacy began in 192 with Pope Victor. It reached its culmination point in 606 A.D. with Pope Boniface III, who claimed exclusive right to the title, "Universal Bishop," even though his predecessor, Gregory I (590-604) wrote, "whosoever calls himself universal priest or desires to be called so, was the forerunner of Antichrist." Gregory proved to be the last Roman bishop to resist the power grab.
I find it very significant that from 192 to 606 A.D. is precisely 414 years, a prophetic time cycle known as Cursed Time. (See my book, Secrets of Time.)
Philip Schaff writes in Vol. IV of his History of the Christian Church, p. 220,
"Boniface III (606-607) did not scruple to assume the title of 'universal bishop,' against which Gregory, in proud humility, had so indignantly protested as a blasphemous antichristian assumption."
This 414-year time frame saw the rise of the "Little Horn" of Daniel's prophecy (Dan. 7:8), having the mouth "speaking great things," which John describes as "blasphemy" (Rev. 13:6). Perhaps Pope Gregory understood this, but if so, his view was buried in the cemetery of history. From a biblical perspective, this assumption of power was "antichrist," in that it usurped the position of Christ. I think that H. G. Wells said it best on page 650 of his Outline of History:
"But it is the universal weakness of mankind that what we are given to administer we presently imagine we own."
King Saul was given a throne to administer under God, but in his rebellion against God, he soon imagined that he owned the throne. So it was with the Bishopric of Rome.
Three years after Boniface III fully usurped power over the Church as an antichrist, God called Mohammed to bring judgment upon the Church. Mohammed then began to preach publicly a few years later in 612 A.D. And we are still feeling the effects of that judgment today. For a fuller study of this, see FFI's #174 and 175, which are part of my series on the Book of Revelation.
This is the sixth part of a series titled "History of the 3rd Century Church." To view all parts, click the link below.
Dr. Stephen Jones