NAVIGATION: You are presently looking at Part 14.2
The attention this week in the extract from Tom Lee's manuscript turns from the conflicts between Novatus and Novatian to a series of conflicts that had far greater implications for the future of Christianity between Bishops Cyprian and Stephen with Stephen asserting a claim to primacy. This is a fascinating section in the early history of the Church.
Two Asps in One Basket– Part 14.2
A new theological bogey…
Thanks to their universal condemnation, Novatian and his supporters were no longer a problem and a new bishop of Rome, Stephen, was elected unopposed. He was well aware that the lull in persecution might only be a temporary measure and cautioned the Roman clergy not to wear ecclesiastical vestments except inside the churches, for fear of stirring up pagan anger. But the principal problem he had to deal with was a new theological bogey.
With the relaxation of the legal restraints on Christianity a number of good-time Christians who had previously apostatized wished to re-enter the Church, as well as a considerable number of converts from heretical sects. Cyprian of Carthage declared that they must be re-baptized. But Stephen held that one can't become unbaptized any more than one can unfry an egg. Cyprian held that the sacrament was only valid if the officiating minister was an orthodox presbyter, while Stephen held that the sacrament was valid so long as the action was carried out correctly, regardless of any demerit in the officiating minister.
Cyprian was at first conciliatory, trying to persuade Stephen to his opinion. But Cyprian had already angered Stephen by overturning his decision in another matter. Two Spanish bishops, Basilides and Martial, had been deposed for serious crimes. They (or one of them) went to Rome and were restored to communion and to their sees by Stephen. The Spanish Church appealed against this decision to Cyprian. Believing firmly in the collegiality of bishops, Cyprian convened a Council at Carthage and Stephen's decision was reversed. The published opinion of the Council condemned Basilides for adding the crimes of deception and fraud to his previous sins, but also reprimanded Stephen for allowing himself to be so gullibly taken-in by such an unscrupulous prelate.
The Spanish clergy were told that though some (of whom the Bishop of Rome was foremost) are found to think that discipline may be neglected, they shouldn't allow it to disturb their faith. Thus the African bishops in 254 repudiated and denounced the Roman decision as an unjustified interference in the internal affairs of another church, and instructed the Spanish church to pay no regard to it.
Pope Stephen's tongue grew thorns...
With Cyprian's divergence of opinion on the matter of rebaptism Pope Stephen's tongue grew thorns. He denounced Cyprian as Antichrist and for the first time ever known, appealed to the text "Thou art Peter..." in order to affirm his primatial position as Peter's successor. Cyprian did not share Stephen's view on this point either and convened another Council. In 256 seventy-one bishops met at Carthage and decreed firmly the necessity of re-baptism.
Cyprian wrote to Stephen on terms of complete equality, informing him of what had been decided and asserting its rightfulness and finality, hinting pretty plainly that if Stephen did not agree it was his own fault and he was free to go his own way. Stephen replied with a letter in which he excommunicated Cyprian and all the other bishops who had disagreed with his opinion. For Stephen, all men were not his brothers, but only those who thought as he did.
Cyprian met the Roman denunciation by calling together a larger Council of eighty-seven bishops where his opening speech was a model of restraint. He was a renowned orator and a former very successful lawyer. He declared:
"It remains that we declare our opinion on this subject, judging no one, nor depriving any one of the right of communion if he differs from us. For no one of us sets himself up as a Bishop of Bishops, or by tyrannical terror forces his colleagues to a necessity of obedience; as every bishop, in the free use of his liberty and power, has the right to form 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."
Under the influence of Cyprian's honeyed words, the Council pronounced for re-baptism, but when delegates were sent to Stephen he would not admit them to an interview and forbade them shelter and hospitality, ordering members of the Roman Church not to receive the African prelates in their houses.
This surly and uncharitable attitude provoked another big gun of the Church, Firmilian. He had been bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia from about 232, and was respected as one of the most eminent prelates of his time. He was principally incensed that Stephen was trying to interfere with the custom and practice of another church, just as Victor had tried to impose the Roman date for Easter on other churches. Thus he lectured Stephen:
"Consider with what ignorance you dare to blame those who strive for the truth against falsehood ... and what strifes and dissension's you have stirred up through the churches of the whole world! And how great a sin you have heaped up when you cut yourself off from so many flocks! For you did cut yourself off; don't deceive yourself; for he is truly the schismatic who has made himself an apostate from the community of the unity of the Church. For while you think that you may excommunicate all, you have excommunicated yourself from all."
A new threat from the Romans...
The disagreement dragged on for three years until an alarming change of attitude by the emperor. Continuing insurrections along the frontiers, including major inroads by the Persians in the Eastern provinces, seriously depleted the imperial coffers, and under the influence of the priests of Isis, who enjoyed more favor at court, Valerian began to look covetously at the growing wealth of the Christian Church at Rome. He forbade gatherings of Christians, and bishops and clergy were ordered, once more, under pain of death or exile, to sacrifice to the pagan gods. Bishop Stephen perished in exile.
Stephen's successor Sixtus II, a Greek, swiftly reconciled the Roman Church with Cyprian of Carthage, without giving up the Roman practice of accepting those baptized by heretics as having truly received the sacrament. In time the Roman attitude prevailed, despite the many Councils that had been held on the matter. It was an outcome Cyprian didn't live to see. One of the earliest victims of the new persecution, he was beheaded, having first given a gift to the executioner. But the persecution in North Africa was decidedly selective. His congregation and clergy accompanied Cyprian to the place of execution without any action being taken against them.
In Rome, the alarmed Sixtus II directed that the remains of Saints Peter and Paul should be removed from their tombs and hidden in the catacombs. They are believed to have remained hidden for over forty years.
The transfer was apparently effected just in time.
Banning of Christian burials in the catacombs...
In 258 Valerian forbade Christian burials in the catacombs and his soldiers walled up two Christians they found in a secret gallery. A satirical representation of the crucifixion in the catacombs dates from this time; it shows a man with a donkey's head fixed to the cross.
Bishop Sixtus was captured and beheaded, according to an unlikely tradition, while seated on his chair of office. Two of the seven Roman deacons, Felicissimus and Agapitus died with him on the sixth of August 258. Four days later, another of the deacons, Lawrence, when ordered by the city prefect to hand over the Church's valuables, assembled the poor and sick and presented them to the prefect, saying: "Here is the church's treasure". Traditionally he was put to death by being roasted on a grid, but many scholars are convinced that he was beheaded.
As in previous persecutions the defections were wholesale, as the faithful, caught like defenseless birds in a cage of fear, fluttered about in anguish, unable to elect a successor to Sixtus for almost a year. Many turned traitor, betraying their former friends, concluding that if someone died on their account they'd mourn them sorely, but if they had to die on someone else's account they'd hate their guts. They sweated not with the fear of death but with the fear of being transformed in a flash from conscious human beings to screaming imbeciles by some insupportable agony of pain. The pious martyrs were more than outweighed by the venal and the weak.
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