CH101 - The Third Century
The Expansion of the Church, 202 - 303 A.D.
Cyprian of Carthage, Bishops, and the Pope
Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage
Cyprian had gone into exile during the persecution, encouraging the believers through private correspondence. He returned to find that the "confessors," believers who had been imprisoned, had been given authority by the lay people to pray for, and grant forgiveness to the lapsed. Cyprian issued On the Lapsed which spoke definitively on the subject of how to deal with lapsed believers - this document was roundly accepted. In addition to the lapsed believers, a rival group in the church of Carthage selected a bishop to represent them in opposition to Cyprian. In Rome, meanwhile, there was something of a competition for the bishopric and two rival bishops (Cornelius and Novatian) were elected. Bishops in the surrounding areas, led by Cyprian, confirmed Cornelius with a majority vote. Novatian received only a minority vote and soon thereafter he defected from the church in Rome taking many followers with him. Cyprian responded with another tract, On the Unity of the Church where he speaks of the Petrine authority resting in Rome. He also emphasizes the unity of having one bishop, stating that one "cannot have God for his Father who has not the Church as his mother." This statement was obviously directed at Novatian for his defection.
In 254 the leadership in Rome elected a new bishop, Stephen. Almost immediately Cyprian found himself at odds with Stephen over the issue of baptism for the Novatian believers who wanted to come back to the "true" church. Cyprian had made it clear that these defectors could not be recognized - their Novatian baptism could not be accepted as legitimate or reversed by an orthodox rebaptism. Stephen held a much more conciliatory position. We have copies of at least two letters written by Cyprian to Stephen, both fairly aggressive in his disagreement. Unfortunately we do not have copies of Stephen's responses which, according to Eusebius, were every bit as stubborn. Cyprian admitted that the Novatianists baptized with the trinitarian formula, but that they were not in "the" Church. Stephen insisted on the primacy of the Roman bishopric, even calling Cyprian the "AntiChrist" for resisting him.
The Council of Carthage
Cyprian's response was to call a major council of 86 bishops (including Cyprian), the first Council of Carthage in 256. Cyprian opened the council with a speech criticizing those who would attempt to hold "tyrannical" power over the college of bishops, a clear reference to Stephen's attack on him. The attending 86 bishops, all from the North African region, expressed their support of Cyprian one by one, some even referring to the Novatians as "heretics."
Stephen began to threaten bishops in the eastern provinces with excommunication if they sided with Cyprian. The situation was quickly escalating into a major problem when, in August of 257, Stephen's unexpected death brought instant relief. Stephen's successor, Sixtus II, was far less strident and far more cooperative.
Bishops and the Pope
What becomes clear from the letters and writings of Cyprian is that the regional college of bishops was normative. The bishop of Rome was an important position, holding the seat of Peter, but it appears that Cyprian only used this expression as a tactic against his theological opponents. When he disagreed with Rome, the bishop there did not have primacy. The Roman bishop had already been referred to as "popa," the "father" of the Italian bishops, but the 86 African bishops at Carthage made it clear that the concept of a "Pope" holding supreme leadership had not yet been settled.
We saw the clear emergence of monoepiscopacy (a single bishop residing over a large city or region) in The Letters of Ignatius around the year 112-120 A.D. Now, in the 250's, we see that bishops worked together in a "college" format, meeting in regional councils to discuss, debate, and give verdict on important issues. From these letters of Cyprian, and from other documents, it seems that these regional colleges of bishops tended to stick together - representing their region even if it meant taking a position against a different region of bishops.
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go to - The New Testament Canon, Part V
The Novatian Controversy
Novatian was a very learned presbyter and teacher in Rome prior to being "elected" as a bishop. Following Tertullian, he took a strict view on the issue of second repentance
(what to do with "lapsed" believers who wanted to be readmitted to fellowship after having "sinned" during times of persecution). Around 252, shortly after most of the bishops in the western european/northern african region failed to support Novatian to lead the church in Rome, he led many of his followers away from the "catholic" church. For this he was branded a trouble-maker.
The Novatian controversy did not revolve around theology, but was an issue of church polity and leadership. The issue did not end here, however. As believers ventured to return to the true "church" another controversy erupted - should these Novatians be rebaptized in order to fully enter the life of the church again? This issue brought tension between Cyprian and Stephen, the new bishop in Rome.