Originally posted on Jan. 19, 2015
Third Century Opposition to Claims of Primacy by Stephen (d. 257) especially by Cyprian (d. 258)
On Catholic Answers, episode #6796, Dr. David Anders argued that in the third century Pope Stephen asserted the primacy of the Roman see and suggested that there was no contemporary opposition to this assertion of primacy, specifically claiming that those in the East never opposed Stephen’s assertion. That’s wrong.
Stephen (d. 257 – referred to as Pope Stephen I by the RCC today) was a bishop of Rome from 254 until his death. Thus, Stephen was a bishop of Rome during the aftermath of Decian persecution of 250-51. The lapse of certain people during the persecution raised questions about whether they should be permitted back into the church. Likewise, divisions over the issue of how to treat lapsed people itself lead to questions about whether schismatic baptisms were proper baptisms, because those who were very strict with the lapsed and those who were lax with the lapsed divided communion with one another. Stephen favored permitting the people back into communion and accepting schismatic or heretical baptisms, the positions that ultimately won the day.
As I mentioned, Stephen’s role as bishop took place after the Decian persecution. One of the victims of the Decian persecution was Fabian, bishop of Rome (aka Pope Fabianus), who was killed January 20, 250. The Roman church did not replace him during the next year of persecution (one of a myriad of breaks in the supposedly unbroken succession of bishops in Rome).
Upon the death of Emperor Decius in March of 251, there was a struggle for control of the Roman church. Cornelius and Novatian were the two competing claimants for the position of bishop, each claiming to have been chosen as the bishop by the Roman church. The main point of difference between Novatian and Cornelius was over whether the lapsed should be permitted to rejoin communion. Novatian was more rigorous and would have excluded such people.
Cornelius called a council in Italy that apparently excommunicated Novatian in October of 251, while other councils including a council in Carthage in May of 251, seem to have reached similar conclusions. Nevertheless, Novatian evidently continued to have a cadre of supporters.
Cornelius died in 253. Lucius I was chosen by those supporting Cornelius to be Cornelius’ replacement. Lucius died in 254. Stephen I was then chosen as bishop of Rome by those who had supported Cornelius and Lucius I.
Meanwhile, Novatian apparently continued living in Rome and being treated as the bishop of Rome by his supporters. Thus, he and other bishops who were in agreement with him were baptizing people during this period. This lead to a question about whether such baptisms were legitimate.
Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258) was critical of Novatian and supportive of Cornelius and Lucius and Stephen, with respect to viewing Novatian’s position as heretical. However, Cyprian did not view Novatian’s baptisms as legitimate. By contrast, Stephen viewed such baptisms as legitimate.
Stephen died in 257 and Novatian and Cyprian died in 258, apparently all under the persecution under Emperor Valerian I.
Firmilian was the Bishop of Caesarea (Caesarea Mazaca in Turkey) from about 232 to 269 AD. Firmilian was another opponent of Novatian and his strict treatment of the lapsed. He agreed with Cyprian and against Stephen regarding the validity these baptisms.
In order to persuade Cyprian to accept his views on baptism, Stephen apparently attempted to pull rank. While Carthage (Cyprian’s city) was an important imperial city, Rome was even more important. Stephen seems to have thought of himself as a sort of emperor of Christianity, although unfortunately we do not have Stephen’s own words on this subject. Instead, we have Cyprian’s response, together with the other African bishops in council. It should be noted that these are the words of the council, but they are the words of Cyprian, who was in charge of the council.
It remains that we severally declare our opinion on this same subject, judging no one, nor depriving any one of his right of communion, if he differ from us. For no one setteth himself up as a Bishop of Bishops, or by tyrannical terror forceth his Colleagues to a necessity of obeying; inasmuch as every Bishop, in the free use of his liberty and power, has the right of forming his own judgment, and can no more be judged by another than he can himself judge another. But we must all await the judgment of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who alone has the power both of setting us in the government of His Church, and of judging of our acts therein.
(A Library of the Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church (Oxford: Parker, 1844), The Epistles of St. Cyprian, The Judgments of Eighty-Seven Bishops in the Council of Carthage on the Question of Baptizing Heretics, pp. 286-287).
Here’s another translation of the same thing:
It remains, that upon this same matter each of us should bring forward what we think, judging no man, nor rejecting any one from the right of communion, if he should think differently from us. For neither does any one of us set himself up as a bishop of bishops, nor by tyrannical terror does any compel his colleague to the necessity of obedience; since every bishop, according to the allowance of his liberty and power, has his own proper right of judgment, and can no more be judged by another than he himself can judge another. But let all of us wait for the judgment of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the only one that has the power both of preferring us in the government of His Church, and of judging us in our conduct there.
(Ante-Nicene Fathers (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1995), The Seventh Council of Carthage Under Cyprian, p. 565).
Those references to “bishop of bishops” is a reference to Stephen’s apparent claim of authority over other bishops, including Cyprian and other African bishops. Cyprian and his colleagues roundly rejected such a position.
Cyprian’s reasons can be seen in part in his “On the Unity of Church”:
The Lord saith unto Peter, I say unto thee, (saith He,) that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven (Matt. 16:18-19). To him again, after His resurrection, He says, Feed My sheep. Upon him being one He builds His Church; and although He gives to all the Apostles an equal power, and says, As My Father sent Me, even so I send you; receive ye the Holy Ghost: whosoever sins ye remit, they shall be remitted to him, and whosoever sins ye shall retain, they shall be retained (John 20:21);—yet in order to manifest unity, He has by His own authority so placed the source of the same unity, as to begin from one. Certainly the other Apostles also were what Peter was, endued with an equal fellowship both of honour and power; but a commencement is made from unity, that the Church may be set before as one; which one Church, in the Son of Songs, doth the Holy Spirit design and name in the Person of our Lord: My dove, My spotless one, is but one; she is the only one of her mother, elect of her that bare her (Cant. 9:6).
(A Library of the Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church (Oxford: Parker, 1842), Cyprian, On the Unity of the Church 3-4, pp. 133-135).
For Cyprian, therefore, while there was a unifying principle in the apostle Peter, all the apostles were of the same authority. Thus, not even Peter himself would have been considered a “bishop of bishops” by Cyprian, and he did firmly oppose the idea that he had to do what Stephen said, simply by virtue of Stephen being the bishop of Rome.
Firmilian’s Response to Cyprian
Cyprian and the north African bishops were not the only ones who responded to Stephen. The Cappocian bishop, Firmillian, provided a response after receiving the proceedings of the council, referred to above. Firmilian’s response to Cyprian is provided in the collection of Cyprian’s correspondence:
17. But how great his error, how exceeding his blindness, who says, that remission of sins can be given in the synagogues of heretics, and abideth not on the foundation of the one Church which was once fixed by Christ on a rock, may be hence learnt, that Christ said to Peter alone, Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven: and again in the Gospel, when Christ breathed on the Apostles only, saying, Receive ye the Holy Ghost: whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained. The power then of remitting sins was given to the Apostles, and the Churches which they, sent by Christ, established, and to the Bishops who succeeded them by vicarious ordination. But the enemies of the one Catholic Church in which we are, and the adversaries of us who have succeeded the Apostles, claiming to themselves against us unlawful priesthoods, and setting up profane altars, what other are they than Corah, Dathan, and Abiram, guilty of like sacrilege, and, with those who consent to them, to meet the same punishment, as then also their partners and abettors perished by the like death?
18. And herein I am justly indignant at such open and manifest folly in Stephen, that he who boasts of the seat of his episcopate, and contends that he holds the succession from Peter, on whom the foundations of the Church were laid, introduces many other rocks, and buildeth anew many Churches, in that by his authority he maintains baptism among them. For they who are baptized, without doubt fill up the number of the Church. But whoso approves their baptism, must needs also maintain of those baptized, that the Church also is with them. Nor does he perceive that he who thus betrays and abandons unity, casts into the shade, and in a manner effaces, the truth of the Christian Rock. Yet the Apostle acknowledges that the Jews, though blind through ignorance and bound through that most dreadful sin, have yet a zeal of God. Stephen, who proclaims that he occupies by succession the chair of Peter, is roused by no zeal against heretics, conceding to them no small but the very greatest power of grace, so far as to say and assert that through the Sacrament of Baptism they wash off the defilement of the old man, pardon the old deadly sins, make sons to God by heavenly regeneration, renew to eternal life by the sanctification of the Divine laver. He who concedes and assigns to heretics such great and heavenly privileges of the Church, what else does he than hold communion with them, for whom he maintains and claims so much grace? And in vain doth he any longer hesitate to consent and be partaker with them in the rest, to join in their assemblies, and mingle his prayers with them, and set up a common Altar and Sacrifice.
19. “But,” he saith, “the Name of Christ availeth much to faith and the sanctification of Baptism, so that whosoever is wheresoever baptized in the Name of Christ, forthwith obtains the grace of Christ;” whereas this argument may be briefly met and answered, that if baptism in the Name of Christ out of the Church could avail to cleanse a man, laying on of hands in the Name of the Same Christ could avail there also to receiving the Holy Ghost. And the rest also, which is done by heretics, will come to be accounted right and lawful, since they are done in the Name of Christ; as you have developed in your letter, that the Name of Christ can only avail in the Church, to which alone Christ has granted the power of heavenly grace.
20. But as to the refutation of the argument from custom, which they seem to oppose to the truth, who so foolish as to prefer custom to truth, or not to leave the darkness, when he sees the light? Unless indeed custom the most ancient, in any respect aid the Jews, that, when Christ, that is, the Truth, came, disregarding the new way of truth, they abode by what was old. And this you of Africa may say in answer to Stephen, that on discovering the truth you abandoned the error of custom. But we join custom to truth, and to the custom of the Romans we oppose custom, but that of truth; from the beginning holding that which was delivered by Christ and by His Apostles. Nor do we remember, that this ever had a beginning among us, since it has ever been observed here, that we know of none but the one Church of God, and account Holy Baptism to be of none but the Holy Church. Only, since some doubted of the baptism of those, who, though they receive the new Prophets, yet appear to acknowledge the same Father and Son with us, very many of us, meeting together at Iconium, examined the question most diligently; and we ratified, that every baptism whatsoever, which is set up without the Church, should be repudiated.
(A Library of the Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church (Oxford: Parker, 1844), The Epistles of St. Cyprian, Epistle LXXV. 17-20, pp. 279-281).
Firmilian’s scorching response shows that Stephen’s authority claim was not immediately accepted in Turkey, just as it was not accepted in Africa, even though Firmilian does not directly address the expression “bishop of bishops.”
William Webster has been kind of enough to demonstrate that this taken on Cyprian and Firmilian is one that is endorsed by a wide array of historians, not just “Protestant” or “Reformed” folks. The following selections are in some cases expanded compared to what Webster provided, and in perhaps one case reduced:
Comments by Historians and Patrologists
Various historians and Patrologists have commented on the Cyprian vs. Stephen battle, including Roman Catholics, such as Robert Eno, Michael Winter, Johannes Quasten, and William Jurgens. As you can see from these selections, the understanding that Cyprian resisted Stephen’s authority claim comes across very clearly.
Cyprian makes considerable use of the image of Peter’s cathedra or chair. Note however that it is important in his theology of the local church: “God is one and Christ is one: there is one Church and one chair founded, by the Lord’s authority, upon Peter. It is not possible that another altar can be set up, or that a new priesthood can be appointed, over and above this one altar and this one priesthood” (Ep. 43.5).
The cathedri Petri symbolism has been the source of much misunderstanding and dispute. Perhaps it can be understood more easily by looking at the special treatise he wrote to defend both his own position as sole lawful bishop of Carthage and that of Cornelius against Novatian, namely, the De unitate ecclesiae, or, as it was known in the Middle Ages, On the Simplicity of Prelates. The chapter of most interest is the fourth. Controversy has dogged this work because two versions of this chapter exist. Since the Reformation, acceptance of one version or the other has usually followed denominational lines.
Much of this has subsided in recent decades especially with the work of Fr. Maurice Bevenot, an English Jesuit, who devoted most of his scholarly life to this text. He championed the suggestion of the English Benedictine, John Chapman, that what we are dealing with here are two versions of a text, both of which were authored by Cyprian. This view has gained wide acceptance in recent decades. Not only did Cyprian write both but his theology of the Church is unchanged from the first to the second. He made textual changes because his earlier version was being misused.
The theology of the controverted passage sees in Peter the symbol of unity, not from his being given greater authority by Christ for, as he says in both versions, “…a like power is given to all the Apostles” and “…No doubt the others were all that Peter was.” Yet Peter was given the power first: “Thus it is made clear that there is but one Church and one chair.” The Chair of Peter then belongs to each lawful bishop in his own see. Cyprian holds the Chair of Peter in Carthage and Cornelius in Rome over against Novatian the would–be usurper. You must hold to this unity if you are to remain in the Church. “You cannot have God for your Father, if you no longer have the Church for your mother.” (6) Extra ecclesiam, salus non est (Ep. 73.21), “He(Christ) put unanimity first; He gave precedence to peace and concord” (12).
Cyprian wants unity in the local church around the lawful bishop and unity among the bishops of the world who are “glued together” (Ep. 66.8). “Whereas, in truth, the Church forms one single whole; it is neither rent nor broken apart but is everywhere linked and banded together by the glue of the bishops sticking firmly to each other.” (Utique conexa et cohaerentium sibi invicem sacerdotum glutino copulata.) He is concerned that he and the other bishops in Africa be in communion and communication with the lawful bishops in other parts of the Church (cf. e.g. Ep. 45 and Ep. 68.1, the case of Marcian of Arles). Yet it appears that this hoped for unity is inevitably undermined and contradicted by Cyprian’s principle that “each bishop is responsible to God alone” (e.g., Ep. 30.1).
The African tradition relied heavily on the calling of councils and Cyprian’s practice greatly enhanced that role. He presided over several councils of Carthage. What was the obligation of each bishop in relation to the conciliar decrees? One sometimes get the impression that if a bishop did not agree with Cyprian, the better part of wisdom for him would be not to attend the council. Cyprian’s theory (or should we call it hope?) for unity among the bishops seems to bear within itself an intrinsic contradiction, one that comes to sad fruition in his clash with Stephen of Rome.
Apart from his good relations and harmony with Bishop Cornelius over the matter of the lapsed, what was Cyprian’s basic view of the role, not of Peter as symbol of unity, but of Rome in the contemporary Church? Given what we have said above, it is clear that he did not see the bishop of Rome as his superior, except by way of honor, even though the lawful bishop of Rome also held the chair of Peter in an historical sense (Ep.52.2). Another term frequently used by the Africans in speaking of the Church was “the root” (radix). Cyprian sometimes used the term in connection with Rome, leading some to assert that he regarded the Roman church as the “root.” But in fact, in Cyprian’s teaching, the Catholic Church as a whole is the root. So when he bade farewell to some Catholics travelling to Rome, he instructed them to be very careful about which group of Christians they contacted after their arrival in Rome. They must avoid schismatic groups like that of Novatian. They should contact and join the Church presided over by Cornelius because it alone is the Catholic Church in Rome. In other words, Cyprian exhorted “…them to discern the womb and root (matrix et radix) of the Catholic Church and to cleave to it” (Ep. 48.3).
On the other hand, there is at least one place where the symbolic role of Peter seems to meet and merge with the role of the contemporary bishop of Rome in the Church. This is in Ep. 59.14 from the year 252. Here Cyprian once again speaks of African visitors to Rome, only this time he is indignant because the travellers in question are some of the very trouble-makers who have been causing so many difficulties for Cyprian in Carthage. He writes apologetically to Cornelius:
… On the top of that they now have the audacity to sail off carrying letters from schismatics and outcasts from religion even to the chair of Peter, to the primordial church (ecclesia principalis) the very source of episcopal unity; and they do not stop to consider that they are carrying them to those same Romans whose faith was so praised and proclaimed by the Apostle, into whose company men without faith (perfidia) can, therefore, find no entry (Ep. 59.14).
He ends with a reference to Paul’s comment in Romans but goes beyond the commonplace uttered by Paul. Is there really something out of the ordinary about the faith of the Roman Christians?
More significant is the apparent extension of the cathedra Petrisymbolism. As we have seen, from the oneness of Peter and his chair episcopal unity (as it does or should exist) is derived. Extrapolating from the symbolism, the historic see of Peter, Rome, becomes the Urkirche, the primordial church. The historical Peter, who is also the symbol of unity, is buried there and exercises his influence still. Where does the symbolism end? Does it end? Is the Roman see the symbolic embodiment of unity for the whole Church the way a bishop himself is for each local community? It is difficult to know what theological conclusions, if any, to draw from such musings.
From what immediately follows in the same letter, however, it is clear that in Cyprian’s mind, one theological conclusion he does not draw is that the bishop of Rome has authority which is superior to that of the African bishops. He asks what such dissidents hope to accomplish by their voyage.
For it was a resolution enacted by us all and it is eminently right and just–that a man’s case should be heard in the place where his offence was committed; and besides, each individual shepherd has been assigned a portion of the flock to rule and govern, knowing that one day he will be called upon to render an account to the Lord for this action. It is, therefore, totally improper that these men over whom we have charge should be tearing about, seeking to break up the harmony and concord that prevails among the bishops…. It is possible, I suppose, that this handful of desperate outlaws fancies that the authority of the bishops who have been appointed here in Africa is too slight to deal with their case (Ep. 59.14).
In other words, the Africans can take care of their own problems.
(Robert Eno, The Rise of the Papacy (Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1990), pp. 57-61.)
There was an asymmetry in the reciprocal demands. With his views on episcopal authority, Cyprian was in no position to tell the Roman church that it must adopt the African practices, Stephen, on the other hand, very clearly told the African practices. Stephen, on the other hand, very clearly told the Africans to stop doing what they were doing. A letter from an outsider, a Greek bishop, Firmilian of Caesarea in Cappadocia, climaxed the angry exchange (Ep. 75). As mentioned above, Asia Minor agreed with the African position and Firmilian’s letter gives an indication that Stephen had turned his attention to them as well (Ep. 75.25), just as Victor had done in the Quartodeciman controversy nearly sixty years earlier. Firmilian, who had spent some time in exile and had taken in Origen’s lectures at Caesarea in Palestine, was bitter and sarcastic in his tone of rejection of Stephen’s views. He remarked, for instance, that Stephen’s unkindness had at least the good result of bringing Cyprian and himself together. Stephen is “bold and insolent,” “manifestly stupid,” “a disgrace to Peter and Paul,” with a “slippery, fickle and uncertain mind.” Like Cyprian, he accused Stephen of conceding the reality of other churches by accepting their baptism. He finds it ironic that:
He who so glories in the place of his episcopate and contends that he has the succession from Peter on whom the foundation of the Church was established, should introduce many other rocks and constitute new buildings of many churches while he maintains by his authority that baptism is there (Ep. 75.15).
Since we do not have Stephen’s own letters, such a comment, however sarcastic, is precious insofar as it indicates Stephen’s own view of the source of his authority, the authority by which he directs not only Carthage but far distant Cappadocia to change their basic customs and conform to Roman ways. This is the first known appeal of a Roman bishop to Peter’s authority, indeed to the classical Petrine Gospel texts. But we must note as well that Firmilian not only does not accept the claim, he seems never to have heard of it before. He notes for example that in many liturgical customs, Rome differs from Jerusalem. There are variations from one church to another, “And yet, on account of this, there has been no withdrawal at all from the peace and unity of the Catholic Church.” “How can you live in communion with such a person?” Rome insists on uniformity but other bishops, such as Irenaeus and Firmilian, note that all have gotten along well up until now with varying customs.
It has often been asked whether a break was made between Roman and Carthage over this issue before Stephen’s death in 257. Most people have been reluctant to grant it. Augustine always argued against the Dontatists that Cyprian was a lover of unity who refused to break that unity. Yet some of the language of Firmilian’s letter is very harsh. He reports that Stephen had called Cyprian “a false Christ, a false Apostle and a treacherous laborer.” To which Firmilian replied: You (Stephen) are the one who is these things. He reports further that when Cyprian sent representatives to Rome in the hope of calming the dispute, not only would Stephen not see them, he directed the Roman Christians not to allow them into their homes, a serious breach in the tradition of Christian hospitality. One final sarcastic comment of Firmilian on this: “Such humility of mind and meekness!” (Ep. 75.25).
Such a sad state of affairs certainly seems like a schism. But Stephen died; in the persecution of Valerian, Cyprian was exiled (257) and then executed (258). The practices of rebaptism in both North African and Asia Minor continued unchanged into the fourth century, so that once more Roman demands for uniformity do not seem to have accomplished their purpose. This early assertion of Roman authority does not appear to have moved Firmilian, and its stated basis was unknown to him. Even Cyprian the westerner who honored the Roman see did not admit Rome’s authority to demand a change in the African practice. The council he presided over in Carthage in September 256 agreed with him on this issue. His own opening remarks sum up his views on this question of a world leadership for the Church:
For neither does any of us set himself up as a bishop of bishops, nor by tyrannical terror force his colleagues to a necessity of obeying; inasmuch as every bishop, in the free use of his liberty and power, has the right of forming his own judgment, and can no more be judged by another than he himself can judge another. But we must all await the judgment of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who alone has the power both of setting us in the government of His Church, and of judging of our acts therein (Sententiae episcoporum).
(Robert Eno, The Rise of the Papacy (Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1990), pp. 63-65).
Luther Historians agree:
According to Cyprian’s interpretation of Matthew 16:18, Jesus first conferred upon Peter the authority with which he subsequently endowed all the apostles. This, according to Cyprian, was to make clear the unity of the power that was being conferred and of the church that was being established. Cyprian frequently speaks of Peter as the foundation of the church, and his meaning seems to be that it was in Peter that Jesus first established all the church–building powers and responsibilities that would subsequently also be given to the other apostles and to the bishops.
Peter is the source of the church’s unity only in an exemplary or symbolic way…Peter himself seems, in Cyprian’s thought, to have had no authority over the other apostles, and consequently the church of Peter cannot reasonably claim to have any authority over the other churches.
(Papal Primacy and the Universal Church, Edited by Paul Empie and Austin Murphy (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1974), Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue V, pp. 68-69)
Cyprian used the Petrine text of Matthew to defend episcopal authority, but many later theologians, influenced by the papal connexions of the text, have interpreted Cyprian in a pro-papal sense which was alien to his thought. It is in a sense unfortunate that the schism should have started in Rome. Cyprian would have used Matthew 16 to defend the authority of any bishop, but since he happened to employ it for the sake of the Bishop of Rome, it created the impression that he understood it as referring to papal authority. In Cyprian’s ecclesiology the unity of the church is secured by two means, the authority of the bishops, and the role of Peter at the beginning. With scriptural passages, among which is Matthew 16, he defends the one-ness of government in the local church. Since the local church is the microcosm of the universal church, the safegaurding of unity in the one will ensure it for the other.
The precise role which Peter played in securing the unity of the church even now disputed. Catholics as well as Protestants are now generally agreed that Cyprian did not attribute a superior authority to Peter. However, there is an almost equal division of opinion as to whether he saw Peter merely as a model of unity, or also as some kind of source of the unity which he exemplified. The ‘exemplar’ theory was defended consistently by H. Koch and has been followed by many eminent scholars, including the Catholics Batiffol and Bardy. Advocates of this opinion point out that Cyprian himself on more than one occasion says explicitly that the unity of the church is modelled on Peter. In the fourth chapter of De Unitate he enunciates the principle clearly ‘a primacy is given to Peter, and it is [thus] made clear (monstratur) that there is but one church and one chair’. Moreover it is alleged that for Cyprian a foundation is merely the first in a chronological series. Examples of this are seen in his other writings. Abraham is said to be the foundation of faith that is to say, he was the first believer. In much the same sense Cyprian speaks of the fear of God as the origin of religion, allegedly because it is the initial attitude of the soul to God.
This interpretation of Cyprian was challenged by Chapman, particularly on account of the reduction of a ‘foundation’ to the role of chronological priority. Indeed, it seems that there is much to commend Poschmann’s theory of Peter as the causal source of unity as well as the exemplar. Its principal merit is that it gives an adequate meaning to a series of expressions in Cyprian’s writings which describe Peter as being the model of unity, and something more. For example, in Letter 33 quoted above Cyprian cites Matthew 16 as the origin of episcopal authority, and then adds: ‘Thence through the passage of time, and the episcopal succession, the election of bishops and the external form of the church persevere, so that the church is built upon the bishops, and every item of its government is regulated by those same rulers.’ The same theory is to be seen in many of his other letters and it represents his definitive judgement on the matter.
(Michael Winter, St. Peter and the Popes (Baltimore: Helikon, 1960), pp. 47-48 – pp. 42-43 in the 1979 edition).
(p. 13) Cyprian understood him as symbolizing the unity of all bishops, the privileged officers of penance.[n28]
[n28]… Cyprian frequently used the phrase, “Petrus super quem aedificavit ecclesiam”; for him, the one Peter, the first to receive the penitential keys which all other bishops also exercise, was the biblical type of the one episcopate, which in turn guaranteed the unity of the church. The one Peter equalled the one body of bishops … .
(p. 36)Cyprian, of course, understood the biblical Peter as representative of the unified episcopate, not of the bishop of Rome.
(Karlfried Froehlich, Saint Peter, Papal Primacy, and the Exegetical Tradition, 1150-1300, pp. 13 and 36. Taken from The Religious Roles of the Papacy: Ideals and Realities, 1150-1300, ed. Christopher Ryan, Papers in Medieval Studies 8 (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1989).
If many Byzantine ecclesiastical writers writers follow Origen in recognizing this succession in each believer, others have a less individualistic view of Christianity; they understand that the faith can be fully realized only in the sacramental community, where the bishop fulfills, in a very particular way, Christ’s ministry of teaching and, thus, preserves the faith. In this sense, there is a definite relationship between Peter, called by Christ to “strengthen his brethren” (Lk 22:32), and the bishop, as guardian of the faith in his local church. The early Christian concept, best expressed in the third century by Cyprian of Carthage, according to which the “see of Peter” belongs, in each local church, to the bishop, remains the longstanding and obvious pattern for the Byzantines. Gregory of Nyssa, for example, can write that Jesus “through Peter gave to the bishops the keys of heavenly honors.” Pseudo–Dionysius when he mentions the “hierarchs”–i.e., the bishops of the early Church–refers immediately to the image of Peter. Examples taken from the later period, and quite independent of anti-Latin polemics, can easily be multiplied. Peter’s succession is seen wherever the right faith is preserved, and, as such, it cannot be localized geographically or monopolized by a single church or individual. It is only natural, therefore, that the Byzantine will fail to understand the developed medieval concept of Roman primacy. Thus, in the thirteenth century, shortly after the capture of Constantinople by the Crusaders (1204), we can read Nicholas Mesarites, addressing the Latins:
You try to present Peter as the teacher of Rome alone. While the divine Fathers spoke of the promise made to him by the Savior as having a catholic meaning and as referring to all those who believed and believe, you force yourself into a narrow and false interpretation, ascribing it to Rome alone. If this were true, it would be impossible for every church of the faithful, and not only that of Rome, to possess the Savior properly, and for each church to be founded on the rock, i.e., on the doctrine of Peter, in conformity with the promise.
(John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology (New York: Fordham University, 1974), pp. 98-99).
Cyprian’s view of Peter’s ‘chair’ (cathedri Petri) was that it belonged not only to the bishop of Rome but to every bishop within each community. Thus Cyprian used not the argument of Roman primacy but that of his own authority as ‘successor of Peter’ in Carthage…For Cyprian, the ‘chair of Peter’, was a sacramental concept, necessarily present in each local church: Peter was the example and model of each local bishop, who, within his community, presides over the Eucharist and possesses ‘the power of the keys’ to remit sins. And since the model is unique, unique also is the episcopate (episcopatus unus est) shared, in equal fullness (in solidum) by all bishops.
(John Meyendorff, Imperial Unity and Christian Divisions (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s, 1989), pp. 61, 152, as quoted by William Webster).
For the whole patristic tradition, accepted also by the Byzantines, the succession of Peter depends on the confession of the true faith. The confession is entrusted to each Christian at his baptism, but a particular responsibility belongs, according to the doctrine of St. Irenaeus of Lyons, to those who occupy in each local church the very throne of Christ in apostolic succession, i.e. to the bishops. The responsibility belongs to every one of them, since each local church has the same fullness of grace. Thus the teaching of the Byzantine theologians agrees perfectly with the ecclesiology of St. Cyprian on the ‘Cathedri Petri’: there is no plurality of episcopal sees, there is but one, the chair of Peter, and all the bishops, within the communities of which they are presidents, are seated, each one for his part, on this very chair…Such is the essential notion of the succession of Peter in the Church in Orthodox ecclesiology.
(John Meyendorff, St. Peter in Byzantine Theology. Taken from The Primacy of Peter (London: Faith, 1963), quoted by William Webster, citing pp. 7-29).
5. Cyprian’s conception of the church embraces the following: …
(b) According to Matt. xvi. 18 f., the church is founded upon the bishop and its direction devolves upon him: “Hence through the changes of times and dynasties the ordination of bishops and the order of the church moves on, so that the church is constituted of bishops, and every act of the church is controlled by these leaders” ([Epistle] 33.1) “One in the church is for the time priest and for the time judge, in the stead of Christ” (ep. 59. 5.). How seriously these principles were accepted is evident from the controversy above noted. The bishop decides who belongs to the church and who shall be restored to her fellowship (16. 1; 41. 2; de laps. 18, 22, 29). He conducts the worship as the priest of God, who offers the sacrifice upon the altar (67. 1; Cyprian is the first to assert an actual priesthood of the clergy, based upon the sacrifice offered by them, vid. sub, p. 196), and cares for the poor. He defends the pure tradition against errorists (ep. 63. 17, 19; 74. 10). Cf. O. Ritschl, l. c., 216 ff. He is the leader (praepositus), whose office it is to rule the laity (laici, or plebs) by virtue of divine authority.
(c) The bishops constitute a college (collegium), the episcopate (episcopatus). The councils developed this conception. In them the bishops practically represented the unity of the church, as Cyprian now theoretically formulated it. Upon their unity rests the unity of the church. “The episcopate is one, a part of which taken separately is regarded as the whole: the church is one, which is ever more widely extended into a multitude by the increase of reproductive energy” (de unit. eccl. 5). “The church, which is one and catholic, is in a manner connected and joined together by the glue of the mutually cohering priests” (ep. 66. 8). In this connection it is said: “These are the church united (adunata) to the priest and the flock adhering to the pastor. Whence thou shouldst know that the bishop is in the church and the church in the bishop, and he who is not with the bishop is not in the church, and they flatter themselves in vain who, not having peace with the priests of God, deceive themselves and think that they may secretly hold fellowship with any persons whatsoever” (ib.). This unity of the episcopate rests upon the divine election and endowment which the bishops have in common as successors of the apostles, and finds expression in the same sense (e.g., 75. 3) in their united conferences and mutual recognition (cf. ep. 19. 2; 20. 3; 55. 1, 6, 7, 24, 30; cf. 75. 4, 45, etc.). This unity is manifest in the fact that the Lord in the first instance bestowed apostolic authority upon Peter: “Here the other apostles were also, to a certain extent, what Peter was, endowed with an equal share of both honor and power; but the beginning proceeds from unity, in order that the church of Christ may be shown to be one” (de un. eccl. 4). Accordingly, the Roman church is the “mother and root of the catholic church” (ep. 48. 3; cf. 59.14, etc.). The Roman bishop made practical application of these ideas (ep. 67. 5; esp. 68. 1-3; cf. also ep. 8; 71. 3; 75. 17; de aleatoribus I, as well as the ideas of Callistus, supra, p. 177). As understood by Cyprian, no higher significance was attached to them than by Irenaeus (supra, p. 137). In reality all the bishops—regarded dogmatically—stand upon the same level, and hence he maintained, in opposition to Stephanus of Rome, his right of independent opinion and action, and flatly repelled the latter’s appeal to his primacy (ep. 71. 3; 74; cf. Firmilian’s keen criticism, ep. 75. 2, 3, 17, 24 f.; see also 59. 2, 14; 67. 5). The bond which holds the church to unity is thus the episcopate.
(Reinhold Seeberg, Text-Book of the History of Doctrines (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1952), Volume I, p. 180 & 182-183 – same pagination in 1904 edition published by Lutheran Publication Society, Philadelphia, PA).
Stephen had condemned Cyprian as ‘false Christ, false apostle, and practicer of deceit,’ because he advocated re–baptism; and the Bishop of Carthage reciprocated in kind. Since the headship which Stephen claimed was unwarranted, by the example of St. Peter, he could not force his brethren to accept his views. Even worse, his judgment opposed the authentic tradition of the Church. The bishop of Rome, wrote Cyprian, had confounded human tradition and divine precepts; he insisted on a practice which was mere custom, and ‘custom without truth is the antiquity of error.’ Whence came the ‘tradition’ on which Stephen insisted? Cyprian answered that it came from human presumption. Subverting the Church from within, Stephen wished the Church to follow the practices of heretics by accepting their baptisms, and to hold that those who were not born in the Church could be sons of God. And finally, Cyprian urged that bishops (Stephen was meant) lay aside the love of presumption and obstinacy which had led them to prefer custom to tradition and, abandoning their evil and false arguments, return to the divine precepts, to evangelical and apostolic tradition, whence arose their order and their very origin.
In a letter to Cyprian, Firmilian endorsed everything the bishop of Carthage had said and added a few strokes of his own…Recalling the earlier dispute about the date of Easter, he upheld the practice of Asia Minor by commenting that, in the celebration of Easter and in many other matters, the Romans did not observe the practices established in the age of the Apostles, though they vainly claimed apostolic authority for their aberrant forms. The decree of Stephen was the most recent instance of such audacity, an instance so grave that Firmilian ranked Stephen among heretics and blasphemers and compared his doctrines and discipline with the perfidy of Judas. The Apostles did not command as Stephen commanded, Firmilian wrote, nor did Christ establish the primacy which he claimed…To the Roman custom, Firmilian, like Cyprian, opposed the custom of truth, ‘holding from the beginning that which was delivered by Christ and the Apostles.’ And, Firmilian argued, by his violence and obstinacy, Stephen had apostacized from the communion of ecclesiastical unity; far from cutting heretics off from his communion, he had cut himself off from the orthodox and made himself ‘a stranger in all respects from his brethren, rebelling against the sacrament and the faith with the madness of contumacious discord. With such a man can there be one Spirit and one Body, in whom perhaps there is not even one mind, slippery, shifting, and uncertain as it is?’
(Karl Morrison, Tradition and Authority in the Western Church (Princeton: Princeton University, 1969), pp. 31-32, as quoted by William Webster).
Although Cyprian was on excellent terms with Pope St. Cornelius (regn. A.D. 251-253), he fell out sharply with Cornelius’ successor, Pope St. Stephen (regn. A.D. 254-256), on the question of the re-baptizing of converted heretics. It was the immemorial custom of the African Church to regard Baptism conferred by heretics as invalid, and in spite of Stephen’s severe warnings, Cyprian never yielded. His attitude was simply that every bishop is responsible for his own actions, answerable to God alone.
(William Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers (Collegeville: Liturgical, 1970), Volume I, p. 216-217)
A variant reading of certain manuscripts makes the phrase read as a bishop of bishops. Probably it is not the technically correct reading, but it is clearly the sense of the passage: no bishop sets himself up as a bishop with authority over other bishops. The term episcopus episcoporum, as in the variant, is known as a title of grandeur occasionally accorded to various persons of authority as early as the 4th century; and according to Lucifer and Calaris, it was given by the Arians to Constantius. Except for the manuscript variant in question, we have not seen it in the third century. It was not at this time a special title assigned to the Bishop of Rome; and the attitude expressed in regard to the jurisdictional autonomy of individual bishops is Cyprian’s constant attitude, not much stronger in expression here than in certain passages of his letters as early as the year 250 A.D. Yet, in the context of the present question of opposition between Rome and Carthage, it is impossible to believe that in committing himself to the words of the present address, Cyprian did not have Stephen in mind.
(William Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers (Collegeville: Liturgical, 1970), Volume I, p. 241).
W. H. C. Frend:
Meantime (the precise date of Firmilian’s letter is unknown), Cyprian had received support from the church in Cappadocia, for Firmilian had acted similarly towards converted Montanists and had been supported by councils at Synnada and Iconium in Phrygia. He had little patience with Stephen and his follies. Custom was no answer to truth. Stephen, too, had been actively threatening excommunication to bishops in the East if they listened to Cyprian. There was general alarm. The Alexandrian church tried to mediate, and its task was made easier by Stephen’s death on 2 August 257. His successor, Sixtus II, was more equable character. Schism was averted. From Dionysius’s letter to Sixtus, it is clear that, like Cyprian, he regarded the sacrament as an indissoluble unity and the acceptance of heretical baptism as heinous. Nonetheless, Dionysius’s predecessor Heracles had received heretics with laying on of hands, and degrees in heresy might be allowed for. One had at times to temper the strict law. What of someone who had accepted such baptism years ago in a moment of folly? Was he to be regarded as forever outside? For Dionysius baptism was illumination, the gateway to further progress towards perfection (rather than the exclusive connotation implied in the term “seal”), and there could accordingly be greater and lesser degrees of defect. The Council of Nicaea was to agree. Dionysius inclined towards Sixtus’s and the Roman view that Novatianist baptism having being given in the name of the Trinity need not be repeated. Reintegration into the church could be through penance followed by laying on of hands. His mediation was interupted by the Valerianic persecution. It shows, however, how the worldwide character of the church was allowing opinions to be sounded among those not directly involved in a dispute between two major communities. In the informality of this procedure lay its strength. By 260 the Christian leaders were showing powers of statesmanship as well as of survival.
For the next forty years Rome and Carthage remained at peace. Their bishops were relatively obscure men who left little mark on history, but neither see abandoned its position.
(W.H.C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity (Philadelphia: Augsburg, 1984), pp. 356-57).
To defend ecclesiastical unity, when it was threatened by schisms, Cyprian wrote De unitate ecclesiae and many of his letters, founding it, so far as the members of the Church are concerned, on adherence to the bishop. ‘You should understand that the bishop is in the Church and the Church in the bishop and that whoever is not with the bishop is not in the Church’ (Epist. 66.8). Thus the ordinary is the visible authority around which the congregation is centered.
The solidarity of the universal Church rests in turn on that of the bishops, who act as a sort of senate. They are the successors of the apostles and the apostles were the bishops of old. ‘The Lord chose the apostles, that is, the bishops and rulers’ (Epist. 3.3). The Church is built upon them. Thus Cyprian interprets the Tu es Petrus (You are Peter) as follows:
“Our Lord, whose precepts and admonitions we ought to observe, describing the honour of a bishop and the order of His Church, speaks in the Gospel, and says to Peter: ‘I say unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock will I build my Church; and the gates of hell shall not preval against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’ Thence, through the changes of times and successions, the ordering of bishops and the plan of the Church flow onwards; so that the Church is founded upon the bishops, and every act of the Church is controlled by these same rulers. Since then this order has been established by divine decree, I am amazed that some individuals have had the bold effrontery to write me and send letters in the name of the Church, seeing that the Church is composed of the bishop and the clergy and all who are steadfast’ (Cyprian, Epistle XXXIII, 1).
Thus he understands Matth. 16:18 of the whole episcopate, the various members of which, attached to one another by the laws of charity and concord (Epist. 54.1; 68.5), thus render the Church universal a single body. ‘The Church, which is catholic and one, is not split asunder nor divided but is truly bound and joined together by the cement of its priests, who hold fast one to another’ (Epist. 66.8).
The Primacy of Rome
Cyprian is convinced that the bishop answers to God alone. ‘So long as the bond of friendship is maintained and the sacred unity of the Catholic Church is preserved, each bishop is master of his own conduct, conscious that he must one day render an account of himself to the Lord’ (Epist. 55.21). In his controversy with Pope Stephen on the rebaptism of heretics he voices as the president of the African synod of September 256 his opinion as follows:
“No one among us sets himself up as a bishop of bishops, or by tyranny and terror forces his colleagues to compulsory obedience, seeing that every bishop in the freedom of his liberty and power possesses the right to his own mind and can no more be judged by another than he himself can judge another. We must all await the judgment of our Lord Jesus Chirst, who singly and alone has power both to appoint us to the government of his Church and to judge our acts therein’ (CSEL 3, 1, 436).
From these words it is evident that Cyprian does not recognize a primacy of jurisdiction of the bishop of Rome over his colleagues. Nor does he think Peter was given power over the other apostles because he states: hoc erant et ceteri apostoli quod fuit Petrus, pari consortio praediti et honoris et potestatis (De unit. 4). No more did Peter claim it: ‘Even Peter, whom the Lord first chose and upon whom He built His Church, when Paul later disputed with him over circumcision, did not claim insolently any prerogative for himself, nor make any arrogant assumptions nor say that he had the primacy and ought to be obeyed’ (Epist. 71, 3).”
On the other hand, it is the same Cyprian who gives the highest praise to the church of Rome on account of its importance for ecclesiastical unity and faith, when he complains of heretics ‘who dare to set sail and carry letters from schismatic and blasphemous persons to the see of Peter and the leading church, whence the unity of the priesthood took its rise, not realizing that the Romans, whose faith was proclaimed and praised by the apostle, are men into whose company no perversion of faith can enter’ (Epist. 59, 14). Thus the cathedra Petri is to him the ecclesia principalis and the point of origin of the unitas sacerdotalis. However, even in this letter he makes it quite clear that he does not concede to Rome any higher right to legislate for other sees because he expects her not to interfere in his own diocese ‘since to each separate shepherd has been assigned one portion of the flock to direct and govern and render hereafter an account of his ministry to the Lord’ (Epist. 59, 14)…If he refuses to the bishop of Rome any higher power to maintain by legislation the solidarity of which he is the centre, it must be because he regards the primacy as one of honor and the bishop of Rome as primus inter pares.
(Johannes Quasten, Patrology (Westminster: Christian Classics, 1983), Volume II, pp. 374-378).
Returning to Anders’ Claim
Around 17:30 in the program linked above, Anders claims “As soon as the question of Rome’s bishop is raised explicitly, say like Pope Stephen in the 250s, who explicitly claims to derive his authority from Petrine succession, you don’t get a hint of opposition to that idea in the east.” At best, this is misleading. There was immediate western opposition to his claim, as explained above and that western opposition was supported in Cappadocia in the east.
And why would the east react beyond that? Was Stephen fighting with them? We don’t have evidence of letters from Stephen making similar claims of authority with respect to eastern bishops.
It’s hard to see any reason for Anders’ apparent expectation that in the midst of a time of persecution, Eastern bishops would be focused on correcting things that Cyprian had already corrected, particularly when the central issue was the (re?)baptism of heretics and schismatics. That Stephen’s authority claim was not accepted can most clearly be seen from the fact that the baptismal customs continued despite Stephen’s opposition to them.
William Webster previously discussed this issue with Steve Ray, and his more detailed articles are available at the linked pages (Part 1 (see especially the “third misrepresentation” and “sixth misrepresentation” sections), Part 2, Part 3 – see page for subparts, Part 4).
[ Irrelevant section deleted. If you want to see that discussion, go to the original article. I did not see the relevance of that section to the issue of Cyprian.]
By way of caveat, I would note that you can see from the selections above that those who favored rebaptizing those who had been baptized by schismatics and/or heretics justified this on a seeming belief that baptism itself remitted sins. We can rightly reject that position, even while also rejecting Stephen’s authority claims for the reasons they give on that point. In other words, just because we agree with them that Stephen was not a “bishop of bishops” does not mean we have to agree with them about the nature of baptism.