Archive Early Church Fathers Ecclesiastical Polity Steven Wedgeworth

The Leadership of the Catholic Church: Now vs. Then (Pt. 5)

As we move into the third century, the relevant body of Christian literature grows considerably. The episcopalian structure of government has become more universal, and all of the writers of this period reference a singular bishop as holding a place of authority. They also largely repeat Irenaeus’ argument about bishops succeeding from the apostles and preserving the tradition. There are also some important comments about how bishops are selected and what sort of authority they have, and there are a few interesting cases of historical dating which conflict with other early Christian claims. Thus again, we have a more or less consistent development with some disagreement. And, just as we have said in previous points, essential Roman Catholic claims are not only not present but actually undermined by a few important pieces of evidence.


Tertullian writes around the turn of the third century and puts out an enormous body of literature. Commonly known for falling into the “New Prophecy” schismatic movement (usually called Montanism), it is not always easy to decide which features of Tertullian’s thought reflect a “catholic” and “orthodox” outlook and which do not. In fact, some of Tertullian’s post-Montanist theological work was still received by subsequent “catholic” theologians, and it is nearly impossible to demonstrate whether any later theologians could have agreed upon which parts of Tertullian’s work was orthodox and which were not.

Tradition and Apostolicity 

Tertullian talks at some length about the succession of bishops from the apostles, the necessity to pass down the original apostolic tradition, and the need to follow these bishops and avoid schismatics. Chapters 14-38 (at least) of The Prescription Against Heretics discuss this theme. In those chapters, one can see Tertullian is not always equally committed to the power of persuasion. Consistent with his later disciplinarianism, he prefers authority and discipline to extended debate. Unlike Irenaeus, Tertullian does not seem to want to answer heretics with Scripture at all. Instead he says that they should not be “admitted to the use” of Scripture because they “have not title at all to the privilege” (Prescription 15). Instead, Tertullian argues that it should be demonstrated who has the “rule” (ibid, 19). Whoever has this “rule,” can then claim appropriate teaching authority.

The rule, for Tertullian, is originality. He explains that Christ sent out the apostles to found churches, which they did, and that all of those churches proclaimed and held to the same faith. He writes:

…they obtained the promised power of the Holy Ghost for the gift of miracles and of utterance; and after first bearing witness to the faith in Jesus Christ throughout Judæa, and founding churches (there), they next went forth into the world and preached the same doctrine of the same faith to the nations. They then in like manner founded churches in every city, from which all the other churches, one after another, derived the tradition of the faith, and the seeds of doctrine, and are every day deriving them, that they may become churches. Indeed, it is on this account only that they will be able to deem themselves apostolic, as being the offspring of apostolic churches.  Every sort of thing must necessarily revert to its original for its classification. Therefore the churches, although they are so many and so great, comprise but the one primitive church, (founded) by the apostles, from which they all (spring).  In this way all are primitive, and all are apostolic, whilst they are all proved to be one, in (unbroken) unity, by their peaceful communion, and title of brotherhood, and bond of hospitality,—privileges which no other rule directs than the one tradition of the selfsame mystery. (Prescription, 20)

The rule, we might say, is “apostolicity,” but that apostolicity consists in both history and unity. There was a plurality of churches from the beginning, and these churches all agreed because they all shared the same faith. New churches can become “primitive” and “apostolic” by joining this communion of unity and brotherhood–by holding to the same faith.

He goes on to say that the way one may test any given church or teacher is to compare its doctrine to the original apostolic doctrine, as found in those churches which agree upon this original:

all doctrine which agrees with the apostolic churches—those moulds and original sources of the faith must be reckoned for truth, as undoubtedly containing that which the (said) churches received from the apostles, the apostles from Christ, Christ from God.  Whereas all doctrine must be prejudged as false which savours of contrariety to the truth of the churches and apostles of Christ and God. It remains, then, that we demonstrate whether this doctrine of ours, of which we have now given the rule, has its origin in the tradition of the apostles, and whether all other doctrines do not ipso facto proceed from falsehood. We hold communion with the apostolic churches because our doctrine is in no respect different from theirs. This is our witness of truth. (21)

Purely as a matter of logic, there is a danger of petitio principii in Tertullian’s argument. There would need to first be an agreed-upon group of churches which qualify as properly apostolic–both in their history and their unity. Thus, in order for Tertullian’s argument to be persuasive, a consensus answer to this question would need to be at least widely held. Tertullian appeals to the apostles, and particularly Peter, John, and Paul. He does not emphasize Peter holding a singular position of authority above the others. Indeed, Tertullian has to answer an argument that Peter held an inferior position to Paul. He responds by defending their equality, “It is a happy fact that Peter is on the same level with Paul in the very glory of martyrdom” (chapt. 24).

To answer the hypothetical problem of the churches being unfaithful in passing along the original tradition, Tertullian appeals to the Holy Spirit, who he calls “the Vicar of Christ” (chapt, 28), and then says that the widespread agreement of many churches proves that the tradition is accurate:

No casualty distributed among many men issues in one and the same result. Error of doctrine in the churches must necessarily have produced various issues.  When, however, that which is deposited among many is found to be one and the same, it is not the result of error, but of tradition. (chapt. 28).

Thus we have an argument from “catholicity.” If there is widespread agreement, and if this is between churches with a connection to the original church, then we can presume accuracy. Importantly though, this argument would also justify the reverse. If there is significant disagreement, it shows a lack of catholicity and, therefore, a lack of apostolicity.

Apostolic Succession

Tertullian strengthens his argument about consensus by moving towards an argument for succession. It is important to note that his succession relies upon two features, a literal connection with previously ordained bishops and an agreement with their doctrine. Both are necessary for Tertullian. His argument is worth quoting at length:

But if there be any (heresies) which are bold enough to plant themselves in the midst of the apostolic age, that they may thereby seem to have been handed down by the apostles, because they existed in the time of the apostles, we can say: Let them produce the original records of their churches; let them unfold the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that bishop [that first bishop of theirs] shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the apostles or of apostolic men,—a man, moreover, who continued stedfast with the apostles. For this is the manner in which the apostolic churches transmit their registers: as the church of Smyrna, which records that Polycarp was placed therein by John; as also the church of Rome, which makes Clement to have been ordained in like manner by Peter. In exactly the same way the other churches likewise exhibit (their several worthies), whom, as having been appointed to their episcopal places by apostles, they regard as transmitters of the apostolic seed. Let the heretics contrive something of the same kind. For after their blasphemy, what is there that is unlawful for them (to attempt)? But should they even effect the contrivance, they will not advance a step. For their very doctrine, after comparison with that of the apostles, will declare, by its own diversity and contrariety, that it had for its author neither an apostle nor an apostolic man; because, as the apostles would never have taught things which were self-contradictory, so the apostolic men would not have inculcated teaching different from the apostles, unless they who received their instruction from the apostles went and preached in a contrary manner. To this test, therefore will they be submitted for proof by those churches, who, although they derive not their founder from apostles or apostolic men (as being of much later date, for they are in fact being founded daily), yet, since they agree in the same faith, they are accounted as not less apostolic because they are akin in doctrine. Then let all the heresies, when challenged to these two tests by our apostolic church, offer their proof of how they deem themselves to be apostolic. (Prescription, 32)

Tertullian’s appeal to “registers” is impressive. He would seem to require all bishops to have an accurate “list,” after the manner of Hegesippus or Ireneaus. But towards the end of this section he hedges this demand a bit, qualifying it by saying that the list itself is not sufficient to prove apostolicity. One must retain the original tradition as well. Thus a validly ordained bishop who began to teach something new would cease being “apostolic” in Tertullian’s eyes.

It’s also important to notice the succession that Tertullian gives for the church at Rome. He begins with Peter, thus providing another testimony to Rome having a Petrine origin. But then Tertullian states that Peter ordained Clement as his successor. This contradicts the other common bishops lists of the early church, nearly all of which claim Linus was Peter’s immediate successor. Tertullian’s memory would, however, correspond to the findings of Ephiphanius which we mentioned in our previous post.

Roman Primacy?

Even though Tertullian states that Peter ordained Clement at Rome, he does not say that this gave Rome any jurisdictional authority over the other churches. When he speaks of “the thrones of the apostles” (chapt. 36), it is always in the plural. He points people to a wide variety of churches. It is the agreement of all of the ancient churches which is “proof” for Tertullian. Tertullian does say that Rome had a mark of distinction by association with Peter, but it is the association with his martyrdom which is most impressive. Indeed, it was not only an association with Peter, but also Paul and John:

How happy is its church, on which apostles poured forth all their doctrine along with their blood! where Peter endures a passion like his Lord’s! where Paul wins his crown in a death like John’s where the Apostle John was first plunged, unhurt, into boiling oil, and thence remitted to his island-exile! See what she has learned, what taught, what fellowship has had with even (our) churches in Africa! (chapt. 36)

A nearly identical argument for Rome’s authority is made in Against Marcion 4.5:

Let us see what milk the Corinthians drank from Paul; to what rule of faith the Galatians were brought for correction; what the Philippians, the Thessalonians, the Ephesians read by it; what utterance also the Romans give, so very near (to the apostles), to whom Peter and Paul conjointly bequeathed the gospel even sealed with their own blood. We have also St. John’s foster churches.

Rome is singled out for the distinction of being where Peter and Paul were martyred, but it is also one church mentioned alongside several other apostolic churches. Tertullian does not give Rome a jurisdictional primacy.

There is one place in Tertullian’s writings where he does explicitly address the question of a bishop’s power and its relationship to Peter. It just happens to be from a time when Tertullian was in direct conflict with a bishop who many believe to have been a bishop of Rome. In his On Modesty, Tertullian argues that bishops do not have the same power as Peter and that there are some sins they may not forgive. He writes:

For, as far as you are concerned, such as are chargeable with offence against you personally, you are commanded, in the person of Peter, to forgive even seventy times sevenfold. And so, if it were agreed that even the blessed apostles had granted any such indulgence (to any crime) the pardon of which (comes) from God, not from man, it would be competent (for them) to have done so, not in the exercise of discipline, but of power.  For they both raised the dead, which God alone (can do), and restored the debilitated to their integrity, which none but Christ (can do); nay, they inflicted plagues too, which Christ would not do…

Exhibit therefore even now to me, apostolic sir, prophetic evidences, that I may recognise your divine virtue, and vindicate to yourself the power of remitting such sins!  If, however, you have had the functions of discipline  alone allotted you, and (the duty) of presiding not imperially, but ministerially; who or how great are you, that you should grant indulgence, who, by exhibiting neither the prophetic nor the apostolic character, lack that virtue whose property it is to indulge? (On Modesty, chapt. 21)

Tertullian here is arguing for a sharp contrast in what an apostle can do and what their successors, the bishops, can do. According to Tertullian, at least in this stage of his life, bishops have ministerial power but not imperial power. They have the discipline of the keys. They do not have the power of the apostles.

Tertullian then fields an argument that looks somewhat like the catholic one. Does not the church have the full power of the keys because of Matthew 16 and Peter’s confession? He responds:

If, because the Lord has said to Peter, “Upon this rock will I build My Church,” “to thee have I given the keys of the heavenly kingdom;” or, “Whatsoever thou shalt have bound or loosed in earth, shall be bound or loosed in the heavens,” you therefore presume that the power of binding and loosing has derived to you, that is, to every Church akin to Peter, what sort of man are you, subverting and wholly changing the manifest intention of the Lord, conferring (as that intention did) this (gift) personally upon Peter? (ibid).

Tertullian goes on to explain that Peter was given certain rights as an individual apostle. These are not extended to subsequent bishops. In fact, Tertullian goes so far as to argue that the true church is simply the Holy Spirit Himself. Thus many would say that this is a Montanist argument and not a catholic one. But notice, the argument Tertullian is rejecting argues that Peter’s power has been given to “every  Church akin to Peter.” He goes on to argue against those who believe that all bishops have Peter’s power. And so the argument Tertullian is opposing here is not even the fully developed Roman Catholic one, that Peter’s power was given primarily to Rome, but that all bishops possess Peter’s power. In other words, Tertullian is opposing the kind of argument that Cyprian will make (and we will discuss below).

Summary of Tertullian

We can point out a few noteworthy features of Tertullian’s writings on church government and authority. He believes that the office of the bishops was established by the apostles and that it continued more or less faithfully until his day. Bishops standing in this line were presumed to have “tradition” on their side, though the content of their teaching must be examined and shown to correspond to the original. They were not allowed to teach new things. The point of unity was precisely the agreement of the whole body of apostolic churches.

The church at Rome is given a mark of distinction for having had Peter ordain Clement as bishop there and for being the city where Peter and Paul were martyred. No apostle stands out in Tertullian’s thought as having singular primacy, and in a later controversy, Tertullian rejects the argument that Peter conferred his full authority to subsequent bishops.

Hippolytus of Rome

Hippolytus of Rome is an interesting figure. Working as a clergyman in Rome at the end of the 2nd century, he shares the rigorist views of Tertullian. Many historians once believed that Hippolytus even became a schismatic bishop and even perhaps an antipope, though this understanding has recently been challenged. His Apostolic Tradition reflects at least one strand of ecclesiology in Rome at the end of the 2nd and beginning of the 3rd century. It is a polemical work, written against those who would introduce innovations into the church, and Hippolytus argues that he is presenting the traditional view, indeed the tradition that goes back to the apostles.

The prologue explains Hippolytus’ goal:

But now, moved by His love to all His saints, we pass on to our most important theme, “The Tradition”, our teacher. And we address the churches, so that they who have been well trained, may, by our instruction, hold fast that tradition which has continued up to now and, knowing it well, may be strengthened. This is needful, because of that lapse or error which recently occurred through ignorance, and because of ignorant men. And [the] Holy Spirit will supply perfect grace to those who believe aright, that they may know how all things should be transmitted and kept by them who rule the church. (Apostolic Tradition, prologue)

There are several themes which are very similar to Tertullian, as Hippolytus wants to preserve the original tradition for those who “rule the church.”

The very first topic Hippolytus addresses is the bishop and how he is to be ordained. He writes:

Let the bishop be ordained after he has been chosen by all the people. When he has been named and shall please all, let him, with the presbytery and such bishops as may be present, assemble with the people on a Sunday. While all give their consent, the bishops shall lay their hands upon him, and the presbytery shall stand by in silence. All indeed shall keep silent, praying in their heart for the descent of the Spirit. Then one of the bishops who are present shall, at the request of all, lay his hand on him who is ordained bishop, and shall pray as follows… (Apostolic Tradition part 1, section 2.1-5)

The claim that the bishop must be “chosen by all the people” is striking and highlights the fact that most earlier writers have not actually taken the time to explain how a bishop would be chosen. It is easy to assume that one bishop would simply select another, but 1 Clement had earlier given some indication of the necessity of popular consent (Clement writes, “…with the consent of the whole Church…”). For Hippolytus, the people chose the bishop and bring him to the presbytery. This presbytery seems to be made up of a collection of bishops, though it may also include presbyters (Hippolytus distinguishes these offices later), and the presbytery then also gives consent. Multiple bishops ordain the new bishop.

Hippolytus did come into conflict with other church authorities, and, as we said above, his status is often debated. The nature of his disagreements appear to be related to disagreement over discipline, with Hippolytus holding to the more rigorous position. While he may or may not have supported schismatic views, he does not present the selection of bishops as being controversial. There is no strong reason to think that this was an odd perspective on selecting bishops at this time in history.


The final historical figure we will consider is Cyprian, the famous third century bishop of Carthage. He makes many important claims about the authority of the bishop, including the famous “extra ecclesiam nulla salus.” Cyprian argued against schism and for the unity of the church under the authority of bishops, but Cyprian also, rather ironically, ended his career feuding with the bishop of Rome and (arguably) starting his own schismatic group.

Peter and the Bishops

Cyprian argues for a kind of apostolic succession and even a Petrine succession. But Cyprian believes that all bishops inherit Peter’s authority:

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 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.” 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. (Epistle 26.1 in the ANF set; also cited as Ep. 33.1).

Notice that Cyprian does invoke Matt. 16 for support, but he applies it to all bishops as such.

In On the Unity of the Church, Cyprian even appeals to the primacy of Peter to argue why their must be a singular bishop who holds authority over other clergy:

And although to all the apostles, after His resurrection, He gives an equal power, and says, “As the Father hath sent me, even so send I you: Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins ye remit, they shall be remitted unto him; and whose soever sins ye retain, they shall be retained;” yet, that He might set forth unity, He arranged by His authority the origin of that unity, as beginning from one. Assuredly the rest of the apostles were also the same as was Peter, endowed with a like partnership both of honour and power; but the beginning proceeds from unity. (On the Unity of the Church, 4)

Here we see the invocation of the primacy of Peter for the authority of a singular episcopal office. The other apostles are said to have “a like partnership” in “both… honour and power,” but Peter holds the point of origin. Importantly, Cyprian applies this to the office of the bishop rather any particular bishop, “that we may also prove the episcopate itself to be one and undivided” (ibid, 5). Though Cyprian highlights Peter over and against the other apostles, he does not then apply this to the bishop of Rome over and against other bishops.

Primacy of Rome?

There is one place where Cyprian ascribes a mark of special standing to the church at Rome, and it is often pointed to as evidence that Cyprian believed in the jurisdictional primacy of Rome. In a letter in the midst of controversy with schismatic rivals, Cyprian writes:

After such things as these, moreover, they still dare—a false bishop having been appointed for them by heretics—to set sail and to bear letters from schismatic and profane persons to the throne of Peter, and to the chief church whence priestly unity takes its source; and not to consider that these were the Romans whose faith was praised in the preaching of the apostle, to whom faithlessness could have no access. (Epistle 54.14; also cited as Ep. 59.14)

Here Cyprian appears to calls Rome “the chief church whence priestly unity takes its source.” It is very possible that the clause “whence priestly unity takes its source” is meant to modify “the throne of Peter,” which Cyprian identifies in many places as the bishop’s office in general. Still, he does say that Rome is “the chief church.” Does this mean that Cyprian believes the bishop of Rome is the head of all other churches? Does this mean that Cyprian believes that the bishop of Rome can settle disputes in Carthage?

As it happens, he goes on to address this question in the lines which immediately follow:

For, as it has been decreed by all of us—and is equally fair and just—that the case of every one should be heard there where the crime has been committed; and a portion of the flock has been assigned to each individual pastor, which he is to rule and govern, having to give account of his doing to the Lord; it certainly behoves those over whom we are placed not to run about nor to break up the harmonious agreement of the bishops with their crafty and deceitful rashness, but there to plead their cause, where they may be able to have both accusers and witnesses of their crime; unless perchance the authority of the bishops constituted in Africa seems to a few desperate and abandoned men to be too little, who have already judged concerning them, and have lately condemned, by the gravity of their judgment, their conscience bound in many bonds of sins. Already their case has been examined, already sentence concerning them has been pronounced; nor is it fitting for the dignity of priests to be blamed for the levity of a changeable and inconstant mind, when the Lord teaches and says, “Let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay.” (ibid)

Remember, Cyprian has said that the schismatics are sailing to Rome to present their letters to the bishop there. They are hoping to gain support from Rome against Cyprian himself. And Cyprian does not believe that it would be proper for a distant court to overturn the local court. He does not want “the authority of the bishops constituted in Africa” to be deemed “too little.”

Cyprian does, on another occasion, ask the bishop of Rome to exert influence over the church in Arles (Epistle 66, also cited as Ep. 68). In that letter Cyprian calls on Stephen to write against the Novatians there and persuade the churches not to accept a schismatic bishop. While this does show that the bishop of Rome held a significant influence, and indeed was looked to as a major influencer in the West, Cyprian does not actually mention the bishop of Rome having a necessary or absolute authority. He calls Stephen a “brother” throughout the letter, and when Cyprian makes an appeal to an authority, he does not say that Stephen holds a uniquely authoritative office. Instead, he appeals to both the past judgment of other bishops of Rome and the consensus of the other bishops, “this they attested by their letters, and we all everywhere and entirely have judged the same thing” (Ep. 66.5). Cyprian argues from collegiality and consensus.

As history would have it, Cyprian and this same Stephen came into bitter conflict over the topic of the baptism of heretics. There are a series of letters around this dispute, and they are quite revealing. One is a letter to Cyprian, from an eastern bishop named Firmillian. In it we read scorching criticisms of the bishop of Rome:

But that they who are at Rome do not observe those things in all cases which are handed down from the beginning, and vainly pretend the authority of the apostles; any one may know also from the fact, that concerning the celebration of Easter, and concerning many other sacraments of divine matters, he may see that there are some diversities among them, and that all things are not observed among them alike, which are observed at Jerusalem, just as in very many other provinces also many things are varied because of the difference of the places and names. And yet on this account there is no departure at all from the peace and unity of the Catholic Church, such as Stephen has now dared to make; breaking the peace against you, which his predecessors have always kept with you in mutual love and honour, even herein defaming Peter and Paul the blessed apostles, as if the very men delivered this who in their epistles execrated heretics, and warned us to avoid them. Whence it appears that this tradition is of men which maintains heretics, and asserts that they have baptism, which belongs to the Church alone. (Ep. 74.6, also cited as Ep. 75)

Firmilian makes mention of the older dispute over the date of Easter, but he says that Stephen has gone further by actually breaking peace with Cyprian. Firmillian believes that Stephen has left the apostolic tradition and is now offering the traditions of men. The argument has echoes of both Irenaeus and Tertullian, as Firmillian says the bishop of Rome has failed to hand down that which was from the beginning.

The letter continues, and it indicates that the bishop of Rome was claiming a position of prestige and authority over and against Cyprian:

And in this respect I am justly indignant at this so open and manifest folly of Stephen, that he who so boasts of the place of his episcopate, and contends that he holds the succession from Peter, on whom the foundations of the Church were laid, should introduce many other rocks and establish new buildings of many churches; maintaining that there is baptism in them by his authority. For they who are baptized, doubtless, fill up the number of the Church. But he who approves their baptism maintains, of those baptized, that the Church is also with them. Nor does he understand that the truth of the Christian Rock is overshadowed, and in some measure abolished, by him when he thus betrays and deserts unity (Ep. 74.17)

This is a rather remarkable paragraph. Firmillian notes that Stephen claims the lofty office of Peter, but he says that Stephen has actually contradicted that office by turning one rock into many. In doing this, “the truth of the Christian Rock is overshadowed,” and Stephen “betrays and deserts unity.” We should remember what we have read earlier about the connection between Peter and the episcopacy. In Cyprian’s mind, all bishops hold the place of Peter, and it is not clear, even in this letter, that the Roman bishop was making any sort of exclusive claim to Peter. He could have easily been making the same kind of argument as Cyprian but only in opposition to Cyprian. Firmillian, for his part, clearly thought that the bishop of Rome was bound to a higher demand of unity, unity with the consensus of earlier churches and bishops.

Indeed Firmillian became so exercised that he began to speak to Stephen directly, writing:

Moreover, how great sin have you heaped up for yourself, when you cut yourself off from so many flocks! For it is yourself that you have cut off. Do not deceive yourself, since he is really the schismatic who has made himself an apostate from the communion of ecclesiastical unity. For while you think that all may be excommunicated by you, you have excommunicated yourself alone from all; and not even the precepts of an apostle have been able to mould you to the rule of truth and peace… (Ep. 74.24)

The argument reflects the earlier logic of Tertullian, as Firmillian says the apostolic unity has greater authority than any one bishop, however great that bishop may be. Firmillian goes on to complain that Stephen has offended the Eastern bishops and will not receive bishops from North Africa. He seems to be responding to the way in which Stephen has rejected Cyprian’s appeals to the authority of councils (which we will discuss below).

This heated epistle was written after Stephen had apparently excommunicated Cyprian. There are a few epistles from Cyprian related to this conflict, and Cyprian exhibits a more respectful tone than Firmillian, though he still makes his disagreement with Stephen plain. In Epistle 71 (also cited as Ep. 72), Cyprian writes to Stephen and calls for a counsel of bishops to resolve their dispute. In Epistle 73 (74), Cyprian writes to Pompey and says that Stephen is the innovator. In this letter it is clear that both Stephen and Cyprian are claiming the apostolic tradition. Cyprian certainly does not defer to Stephen’s interpretation of the tradition.

Cyprian the Conciliarist 

While Cyprian doe speak of the singularity of the episcopacy, he does not believe that this singularity is found in an actual monarchical bishop who sits above other bishops. Instead, Cyprian believes a council of bishops is the appropriate way to maintain the unity of the episcopacy. There are several places where Cyprian makes this case.

In an earlier letter, when Cornelius was bishop of Rome, Cyprian explained himself this way:

But I put off deciding what was to be arranged about the case of the lapsed, so that when quiet and tranquillity should be granted, and the divine indulgence should allow the bishops to assemble into one place, then the advice gathered from the comparison of all opinions being communicated and weighed, we might determine what was necessary to be done. But if any one, before our council, and before the opinion decided upon by the advice of all, should rashly wish to communicate with the lapsed, he himself should be withheld from communion. (Ep. 51.4, also cited as Ep. 55)

Cyprian points out that he wrote to the church of the Rome on an earlier occasion and they also called for a council:

…in their letter they wrote thus: “However, what you have yourself also declared in so important a matter is satisfactory to us, that the peace of the Church must first be maintained; then, that an assembly for counsel being gathered together, with bishop, presbyters, deacons, and confessors, as well as with the laity who stand fast, we should deal with the case of the lapsed.” (Ep. 51.5)

We actually have access to that letter from the church of Rome, and in it we read:

…we have wished that we should be found not so much judges of, as sharers in, your counsels, so that we might find praise with you in your doings while we approve them… In the same way we are all thought to have laboured in that in which we are all regarded as allied in the same agreement of censure and discipline. (Ep. 30.1)

In fact, conciliar agreement is so important to Cyprian that he can say, “he cannot have the ordination of the Church who does not hold the unity of the Church” (Ep. 51. 8). Cyprian even connects the agreement of a plurality of bishops to the grounds of a proper ordination:

I come now, dearest brother, to the character of Cornelius our colleague, that with us you may more justly know Cornelius, not from the lies of malignants and detractors, but from the judgment of the Lord God, who made him a bishop, and from the testimony of his fellow-bishops, the whole number of whom has agreed with an absolute unanimity throughout the whole world. (ibid)

It should be remembered that this Cornelius is a bishop of Rome. And according to Cyprian, this bishop was selected by the agreement of all, even the “suffrage of the people.” Cyprian is demonstrating that Hippolytus’ view about the involvement of the people in the ordination of the bishop was commonly held at this time. Cyprian writes:

Moreover, Cornelius was made bishop by the judgment of God and of His Christ, by the testimony of almost all the clergy, by the suffrage of the people who were then present, and by the assembly of ancient priests and good men, when no one had been made so before him, when the place of Fabian, that is, when the place of Peter and the degree of the sacerdotal throne was vacant… (ibid)

Cornelius was being ordained to an episcopal seat that had previously been vacant, but Cyprian gives the same sort of instruction for the ordination of other bishops elsewhere. He says it is a “divine tradition and apostolic observance”:

For which reason you must diligently observe and keep the practice delivered from divine tradition and apostolic observance, which is also maintained among us, and almost throughout all the provinces; that for the proper celebration of ordinations all the neighbouring bishops of the same province should assemble with that people for which a prelate is ordained. And the bishop should be chosen in the presence of the people, who have most fully known the life of each one, and have looked into the doings of each one as respects his habitual conduct. And this also, we see, was done by you in the ordination of our colleague Sabinus; so that, by the suffrage of the whole brotherhood, and by the sentence of the bishops who had assembled in their presence, and who had written letters to you concerning him, the episcopate was conferred upon him, and hands were imposed on him in the place of Basilides. (Ep. 67.5)

Here we see that the consent of the neighboring bishops is required for a new bishop to be ordained. Further, the people who “have looked into the doings of each one as respects his habitual conduct” should give approval. Cyprian’s bishop can claim to unify the whole church because he has a sort of representational character. He stands in the line of Peter, by way of the office of the bishop, but he can also claim to have the support of the people who know him and testify to his character.

It is no wonder then that Cyprian would reject Stephen’s exertion of singular episcopal authority. In Cyprian’s mind, every bishop stands in relation to every other bishop. The unity of the bishops collectively provides the highest authority. If anyone believed that the bishop of Rome could overturn the consensus of the other bishops, it was not Cyprian but his opponent.

Cyprian’s Legacy and Augustinian Conciliarism

Throughout the controversy between Cyprian and Stephen, it becomes clear that it is Stephen who believes that the bishop of Rome can pass judgment upon other bishops and impose his rulings on churches in other regions. Many would say that this is then proof that something like the modern Roman Catholic understanding of the papacy was present in the third century. It’s just that it was held by Stephen, the bishop of Rome at the time, and not Cyprian.

There’s something to this argument. Stephen certainly was claiming a higher authority than his peers, and if he truly did excommunicate Cyprian, he would have had to claim a jurisdictional power to do so. It is certainly ironic that Cyprian became the great catholic hero, but it could still be the case that Stephen staked out a papal claim at this early date. The relevant question is whether these claims were accepted by anyone else.

Obviously Cyprian did not accept claims of this sort, nor did Firmillian, who said that he  spoke for the eastern mindset. Additionally, the particular question debated by Cyprian and Stephen continued to be debated for nearly a century. Stephen’s position eventually won out, but it is important to notice the grounds on which it won. To see those grounds, we turn to Augustine treatise On Baptism, Against the Donatists.

In the second chapter of that work, Augustine has to respond the fact that he seems to be in opposition to the great Cyprian. Augustine answers this charge by quoting Cyprian himself. Indeed, he quotes a selection from Cyprian on the authority of Peter. Augustine writes:

The authority of Cyprian does not alarm me, because I am reassured by his humility.  We know, indeed, the great merit of the bishop and martyr Cyprian; but is it in any way greater than that of the apostle and martyr Peter, of whom the said Cyprian speaks as follows in his epistle to Quintus?  “For neither did Peter, whom the Lord chose first, and on whom He built His Church, when Paul afterwards disputed with him about circumcision, claim or assume anything insolently and arrogantly to himself, so as to say that he held the primacy, and should rather be obeyed of those who were late and newly come.  Nor did he despise Paul because he had before been a persecutor of the Church, but he admitted the counsel of truth, and readily assented to the legitimate grounds which Paul maintained; giving us thereby a pattern of concord and patience, that we should not pertinaciously love our own opinions, but should rather account as our own any true and rightful suggestions of our brethren and colleagues for the common health and weal.” Here is a passage in which Cyprian records what we also learn in holy Scripture, that the Apostle Peter, in whom the primacy of the apostles shines with such exceeding grace, was corrected by the later Apostle Paul, when he adopted a custom in the matter of circumcision at variance with the demands of truth.  If it was therefore possible for Peter in some point to walk not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel… (On Baptism, 2.1.2)

Augustine says that Peter was greater than Cyprian. He even says that Peter had “primacy” over the other apostles, something that Cyprian had also said. And yet this does not mean that it was impossible to correct Peter. Instead, Cyprian had maintained that Paul was justified in correcting Peter because Peter had “adopted a custom in the matter of circumcision at variance with the demands of truth.” If Peter could be corrected, Augustine argues, then so also can Cyprian be corrected. “If Peter, I say, could compel the Gentiles to live after the manner of the Jews, contrary to the rule of truth which the Church afterwards held, why might not Cyprian, in opposition to the rule of faith which the whole Church afterwards held, compel heretics and schismatics to be baptized afresh?” (ibid).

In this same passage, Augustine says that “the primacy of his [Peter’s] apostleship is to be preferred to any episcopate whatever.” But he does not then apply this to the current authority of the bishop of Rome. Instead, Augustine argues that the highest authority is the collective “rule that has been established by… the universal Church.” He writes:

…if Peter, on doing this, is corrected by his later colleague Paul, and is yet preserved by the bond of peace and unity till he is promoted to martyrdom, how much more readily and constantly should we prefer, either to the authority of a single bishop, or to the Council of a single province, the rule that has been established by the statutes of the universal Church? (ibid)

Importantly, Augustine then quotes Cyprian on this universal rule. He shows that Cyprian believed in resolving controversies through councils. Augustine quotes Cyprian directly, stating:

It remains that we severally declare our opinion on this subject, judging no one, nor depriving any one of the right of communion if he differ 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 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. (ibid, 2.2.3)

In fact, Augustine goes on to argue that even “plenary Councils” can stand in need of correction. They are to be corrected by subsequent councils as they consult the Scriptures and compare the truth and wisdom of the later arguments:

But who can fail to be aware that the sacred canon of Scripture, both of the Old and New Testament, is confined within its own limits, and that it stands so absolutely in a superior position to all later letters of the bishops, that about it we can hold no manner of doubt or disputation whether what is confessedly contained in it is right and true; but that all the letters of bishops which have been written, or are being written, since the closing of the canon, are liable to be refuted if there be anything contained in them which strays from the truth, either by the discourse of some one who happens to be wiser in the matter than themselves, or by the weightier authority and more learned experience of other bishops, by the authority of Councils; and further, that the Councils themselves, which are held in the several districts and provinces, must yield, beyond all possibility of doubt, to the authority of plenary Councils which are formed for the whole Christian world; and that even of the plenary Councils, the earlier are often corrected by those which follow them, when, by some actual experiment, things are brought to light which were before concealed, and that is known which previously lay hid, and this without any whirlwind of sacrilegious pride, without any puffing of the neck through arrogance, without any strife of envious hatred, simply with holy humility, catholic peace, and Christian charity? (ibid, 2.3.4)

The claims in this section are worth listing:

1 “The sacred canon of Scripture… stands so absolutely in a superior position to all later letters of the bishops, that about it we can hold no manner of doubt or disputation whether what is confessedly contained in it is right and true”

2 ” all the letters of bishops which have been written, or are being written, since the closing of the canon, are liable to be refuted if there be anything contained in them which strays from the truth”

3 The writings of individual bishops are judged “by the weightier authority and more learned experience of other bishops, by the authority of Councils”

4 “the Councils themselves, which are held in the several districts and provinces, must yield, beyond all possibility of doubt, to the authority of plenary Councils which are formed for the whole Christian world”

5 “even of the plenary Councils, the earlier are often corrected by those which follow them”

Augustine then concludes that Cyprian would have submitted to “the unanimous authority of the whole Church… if at that time the truth of this question had been placed beyond dispute by the investigation and decree of a plenary Council” (ibid, 2.4.5). This is the same standard which Augustine, writing around AD 400, holds out as the highest authority. He says that until a plenary council is held for a disputed matter, the various sides ought to disagree in unity by remaining in communion with one another.

Augustine goes on for several more chapters explaining how Cyprian could be in error on the question of baptizing heretics and yet still a pious defender of tradition. In these chapters, Augustine appeals to “universal custom” but ultimately to the power of a plenary council to decide between competing customs. This might take place over the process of many years. He writes, “For both later Councils are preferred among later generations to those of earlier date; and the whole is always, with good reason, looked upon as superior to the parts” (ibid, 2.9.14).

In this argument, Augustine is actually solving a problem caused the earlier notion of tradition. Irenaeus and Tertullian had emphasized the need for the bishops to “pass down” the original tradition, and they assumed that this could be easily determined by seeing bishops stood in the apostolic succession. But in the Donatist controversy, both sides could make strong appeals to the customs of bishops who unquestionably stood in this succession. Augustine grants that it may not always be easy to discern which tradition is original. Indeed, Augustine allows that new customs might be adopted by certain influential bishops without therefore causing those bishops to lose their own standing (something that did not seem possible for Tertullian, and perhaps not for Cyprian either). The resolution to this problem, according to Augustine, is a plenary council.

Augustine does not appeal to the primacy of Rome, nor does he claim that the bishop of Rome had a universal or more authoritative jurisdiction. This is important because Augustine is ultimately defending the position that Stephen, the earlier bishop of Rome, had maintained. Thus, we could say that Augustine is arguing for the Roman view. Yet Augustine appeals to the Cyprianic ground of unity and authority, the collective judgment of the whole church. And Augustine says that this is achieved through a council. In fact, Augustine explicitly denies that “a mere epistolary correspondence” is sufficient to command a bishop (ibid, 3.2.2). Whose “epistolary  correspondence” was it that tried to subordinate Cyprian’s judgment? It was Stephen’s. In other words, Augustine says that the letter of a pope is not enough to cause another bishop to change his practice. A council is necessary. If a truly papal view of the bishop of Rome were present in the third century, it was somehow repressed by the late fourth century.

This Augustinian reception of Cyprian demonstrates that, even though Cyprian’s particular view on church discipline had not found an abiding status as “catholic,” his belief in the authority of councils had. As late as the beginning of the fifth century, no less of a catholic theologian and churchman than Augustine of Hippo believed that a worldwide council of bishops was the highest authority in the church.

Concluding Historical Thoughts

We have moved from the New Testament writings themselves through the first three centuries of the Christian Church. We have seen how the earliest sources show a collegium of local church officers governing together with a gradual development from a plurality of elder-bishops to an arrangement where the bishop stands over the elders but is still ordained by them after being selected by the people. This episcopal office did begin to assert greater authority, even attempting to interfere with the judgment of other bishops, and thus controversy arose.

As the various theories about the office of the bishop began to be worked out in detail, we also see a larger philosophy of “apostolic authority.” By the time of the third century, the bishops are thought to be essential to the church, but they are also thought to be subordinate to the larger universal tradition, a tradition believed to be original to the apostles themselves. As disagreements arise over which customs are truly traditional, an appeal is then made to councils. While certain bishops in Rome may have thought they could stand over these councils, the larger tradition, at least by the fifth century, disagreed. The great “ecumenical councils” which would begin in 325 and continue until the 8th century were all held in the East, called by emperors (that is civil magistrates), and presided over by bishops, none of whom were from Rome.

I will bring this series to a conclusion with one final installment. In it, I will again summarize the current claims that the Roman Catholic Church makes about the founding of the church and the authority of the bishop of Rome. I will highlight the ways in which these are contradicted by the actual evidence. Finally, I will explain why this contradiction matters to people in real life and why they should therefore not allow the Roman Catholic Church to hold their consciences captive.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.