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History of the 3rd Century Church: Part 10

Nov 10, 2007

Stephen was the bishop of Rome from 253-257. He adopted the position that the baptism of heretics could be recognized as legitimate, no doubt based on the idea that salvation was a matter between the individual and Christ, rather than upon the witness of the bishop.

This, of course, ran contrary to the position established by Cyprian. How could an apostate heretic confer the gift of the Holy Spirit when he himself was possessed by the devil and had himself already lost the Holy Spirit? Thus, the root of the issue was whether or not the Holy Spirit came from the bishop or directly from God at the time of baptism.

Cyprian's position had been established by Tertullian, as well as an even earlier Council of 70 African bishops in Carthage during the bishopric of Agrippinus. But Stephen now decided to recognize not only baptism at the hand of heretics, but also the ordinations of Novatus, the first anti-pope, a policy designed to bring these back into the unified fold of the Roman bishop. Stephen could point to the reconciliation of Novatus with Pontian while working in the Sardinian mines, but Cyprian could see only that schismatics were a danger to the Church and needed to be permanently excluded.

Now it happened that in Spain, two bishops had been deposed by the other bishops for obtaining certificates of sacrifice (by bribing the government officials). The first was Basilicus, the bishop of Leon and Astorga; the second was Martial, bishop of Merida. In addition, they were accused of other enormous crimes (which may or may not have had validity).

At any rate, these bishops went to Rome and appealed their case to Stephen, who, without examining the case, took their side and re-instated them to their bishoprics. The other bishops of Spain, of course, were scandalized by this and sent emissaries to Cyprian in Carthage to appeal for support. Cyprian assembled a Council of 28 bishops, who confirmed the deposition of Basilieus and Martial.

Cyprian then sent two priests to Rome to inform Stephen of the Council's decision. Stephen would neither receive them nor speak with them, nor even to offer them hospitality. Instead, he excommunicated Cyprian and the bishops of Africa, writing a letter so arrogant that it scandalized the whole Church. Cormenin writes of this in his History of the Popes, Vol. I, p. 41,

"Firmilius, bishop of Caesarea, addressed a long letter to St. Cyprian, in which he testified the great esteem and profound affection he entertained for him; at the same time he exhibited his indignation against the pope [Stephen], and spoke of him in the following words: 'Can we believe that this man has a soul and a body? Apparently, his body is crooked, and his mind disordered. He does not fear to speak of his brother Cyprian as a false Christ, a false prophet, a fraudulent workman'. . ."

Cyprian responded to Stephen’s accusations by calling him "arrogant, obstinate—the enemy of Christians, the defender of heretics, and with preferring human traditions to divine inspiration." From an organizational standpoint, Stephen took the position of Papal Primacy for the first time since Victor's failed attempt in 192. Cyprian took the Episcopal position, saying, as von Campenhausen tells us,

"Every leader of a congregation has the right to decide for himself freely according to his own discretion; he will have to answer for his actions to the Lord alone (Ep. 72, 3)."

In other words, Cyprian essentially believed in multiple papacies who could differ but who would cooperate with each other and treat each other as equals. But this position would prove to be weak, for as the bishoprics grew in number, it became more and more difficult to maintain that very standard of unity that Cyprian desired for the Church. Thus, the Episcopal position was doomed from the start, for once the bishops were allowed to maintain differences of opinion and of doctrine, the disunity could only spread until the deficiencies of human nature and ambition would split the Church. At that point, to maintain Cyprian’s viewpoint, the Church would have to determine in which half of the divided Church salvation resided?

It is not that I would oppose an Episcopal system of Church government in favor of Roman primacy. I am simply saying that democratic forms of government work best with small groups or countries, but the two elements of size and moral corruption demands more laws and tighter controls to maintain governmental unity.

From a practical standpoint, this shows clearly why the government of "Saul" cannot endure but must at some point be replaced with "a man after God’s own heart," that is, the government of the overcomers. And, in fact, this is what Samuel prophesied to King Saul in 1 Samuel 13:14. The inevitable conclusion is that Pentecost, with its mere "earnest of the Spirit," is insufficient to bring righteous government into the earth. The Kingdom of God can only be established under "David," not "Saul," under the Feast of Tabernacles, not under Pentecost. And for this reason, Pentecost is given to us as a leavened feast (Lev. 23:17), to show us this great truth.

Decius died in 251 and was replaced by Gallus, who was killed in 253. Valerian then became Emperor and ruled from 253-259, when he was taken captive by the Persians. In the early part of Valerian's reign he was favorable toward the Christians. Eusebius tells us that he "filled his whole palace with godfearing people, making it a church" (Eccl. Hist. VII, x). But in the summer of 257 A.D. Valerian changed his mind and issued an edict ordering tighter restrictions on the Christians. He tried at first to restrict the growth of Christianity without bloodshed and simply banished leaders or put them under house arrest.

Cyprian was placed under house arrest and assigned to his own lodging. But later, Valerian ordered that the lives of the clergy should no longer be spared. Cyprian knew then that his days were numbered. Though he could have escaped, this time he was determined not to do so. He was brought into custody, sentenced, and taken to the place of execution. There he knelt to pray for the last time, and when he was ready, he paid his executioner 25 gold pieces for his labor and was beheaded.

There are differing accounts of how Pope Stephen died in Rome. He was apparently condemned to the wild beasts, but when a temple of Mars suddenly collapsed, the guards ran away, leaving him alone. He escaped into the cemetery, thinking he was safe, but soldiers caught up with him and beheaded him there.

Thus ended the life of both Stephen in Rome and Cyprian in Carthage. Their deaths brought an end to their disputes without really resolving the issue of Roman primacy or their differences in regard to heretical baptism. Insofar as heretical baptism is concerned, the issue would divide the Church during the Donatist controversies in the next century.


This is the tenth part of a series titled "History of the 3rd Century Church." To view all parts, click the link below.

History of the 3rd Century Church


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Dr. Stephen Jones


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