Early Papacy Issues--Pope Stephen and Cyprian, etc

On another board an Eastern Orthodox poster says that Pope St. Stephen was wrong in his conflict with St. Cyprian regarding baptism by heretics. And that Pope Victor was wrong in his excommunicating of the the Churches of Asia Minor regarding the date of Easter.

He says that in both cases " the Church: opposed the Pope, thus showing that the early church did not believe in the Papacy.

How do I respond to this?

This relates to something I’ve never understood about the powers of excommunication. Given that Christ said “whatever you bind, etc, and whatever you loose on earth, will be loosed in heaven”, does that mean there is a sort of infallibility attached to excommunications? Does it mean that those who are excommunicated are hell-bound? If not, why not?



Excerpt from an old debate I did at Christian forums on the Stephen/Cyprian incident. It loses some of the formatting and bold, but you get the idea… ;)At the time Pope Stephen, then bishop of Rome, stated that the Spirit will flow even through a heretic if the proper form of baptism is enacted. Thus, a person who was the object of such a baptism would be validly baptized in the eyes of the Church.

There was much debate on this issue as evidenced in such sources as the writings of Firmilian, who sided with Cyprian at the time. Firmilian wrote a scathing critique of Stephen. Firmilian granted that his opponents included Stephen and “those who agree with him.” (Firmilian, letter to Cyprian, 8, 256 AD)

Among those with Cyprian and Firmilian opposed to so-called heretical baptism, were a number of bishops in Africa. It was these bishops for whom Cyprian spoke in the local Synod when he stated: “For neither does any of us set himself up as a bishop of bishops…” More on this in a moment… (At the bottom of Simon’s link to the Synod at Carthage, we read 16th century historian Binius’ comment that “Bishop of bishops” was a term that was a “custom” at the time for the Roman bishop.)

Firmilian, in his letter siding with Cyprian against Stephen, wrote the following:
[INDENT]But what is the greatness of his error, and what the depth of his blindness, who says that remission of sins can be granted in the synagogues of heretics, and does not abide on the foundation of the one Church which was once based by Christ upon the rock, may be perceived from this, that Christ said to Peter alone, Whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven…the power of remitting sins was given to the apostles, and to the churches which they, sent by Christ, established, and to the bishops who succeeded to them by vicarious ordination…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…Stephen, who announces that he holds by succession the throne of Peter, is stirred with no zeal against heretics…​

*]Firmilian claims that the power to forgive sins given to the apostles was passed on to their successors by ordination.
*]Firmilian says “Peter alone” was the foundation of the one Church, coupled with binding and loosing authority.
*]Firmilian does not disagree with the notion of Peter having left a “throne” filled by a successor.

Look beneath the issue of heretical baptism in Firmilian’s letter. What Firmilian is challenging is whether Stephen is validly filling the throne of Peter. His doubt is cast on Stephen personally because of “the greatness of his error.” Of course the valid successor of Peter could not teach error in issues of faith. He does not assert there is no throne nor that Peter’s special authority is not passed onto his successors. That there is a throne with Petrine authority passed through successors is a given in Firmilian’s discourse!

Getting back to Cyprians “no bishop of bishops” comment should be read in light of what I already quoted of Cyprian in my 3rd round: “the place of Peter and the degree of the sacerdotal throne…” and that the “origin of unity” in the Church is rooted in Peter.

After the Council at Carthage, Cyprian wrote to Stephen specifically regarding the agreement of the African bishops on the invalidity of any baptism by a heretic. He said:
We have brought these things, dearest brother, to your knowledge, for the sake of our mutual honour and sincere affection; believing that, according to the truth of your religion and faith, those things which are no less religious than true will be approved by you. (Cyprian, letter to Stephen, 3, 255 A.D.)​

Ultimately, on this issue, the authority of Rome’s bishop won out. Just as the debate in Acts 15 over the necessity of circumcision ended with Peter’s voice, so too did the Church preserve the Tradition of Pope Stephen. The monk Jerome and Vincent of Lerins both recognized Cyprian’s subservient view to the See of Peter.

As Augustine recounts the tale of Cyprian and heretical baptism, he points out how Cyprian later submitted to the authority of the Church:
Seek counsel from the blessed Cyprian himself. See how much he considered to depend upon the blessing of unity, from which he did not sever himself to avoid the communion of those who disagreed with him; how, though he considered that those who were baptized outside the communion of the Church had no true baptism, he was yet willing to believe that, by simple admission into the Church, they might, merely in virtue of the bond of unity, be admitted to a share in pardon. For thus he solved the question which he proposed to himself in writing as follows to Jubaianus: “But some will say, ‘What then will become of those who, in times past, coming to the Church from heresy, were admitted without baptism?’ The Lord is able of His mercy to grant pardon, and not to sever from the gifts of His Church those who, being out of simplicity admitted to the Church, have in the Church fallen asleep.” (Augustine, On Baptism, II.18)​

Thus we see more clearly when Cyprian spoke of unity through Peter, and sought “approval” from Stephen, and ended up submitting his own view to that of the Pope’s. Today, the Church recognizes him as a saint.

…And the Church to this day recognizes the validity of proper Trinitarian baptism, even if administered by someone outside the faith. (CCC#1256) [/INDENT]

And these are my study notes on the Easter Controversy and the Papacy from an exam:Easter controversy – Eusebius records for us the episode of the Easter controversy that occurred between Asian churches and the greater rest of Christianity under Rome. The Asian churches desired to celebrate Easter on the 14th day of the moon as did the Jews for Passover. Pope Victor (d. 199) surveyed other churches (from Rome to Jerusalem to Gaul) and determined that the Christian tradition had unanimity celebrating on the Sunday following that moon. Polycrates, an Asian bishop, wrote to Victor, insisting that the tradition of celebrating Easter on the 14th day of the moon came even from the Apostles John and Phillip. Victor responded by declaring all in league with Polycrates as excommunicated. Irenaeus appealed to Victor to lift the excommunications on account of this issue not dividing the Church previously. The Palestinian and Alexandrian tradition also backed Rome at this time, claiming their tradition also came in succession of the apostles. Thus, ultimately, Rome’s authority carried the day. Ireneaus didn’t deny that the Pope had the authority, rather, he tried to convince the Pope to do otherwise.:wink:

The guy is absolutely correct. If you would invest in at least the First Volume of Jurgen’s Faith of the Early Fathers and made use of the doctrinal index, you could see for yourself that the idea of the validity of Baptism by heretics was almost universally opposed by the Early Fathers. Before teaching upon this subject in his capacity as Pope, Stehen initiated discussion in his capacity as a theologian (which is typical practice, and continues to this day).

St. Cyprian of Carthage (my favorite Early Father, BTW) would not even use the word “baptize” in relation to heretics. He referred to those “made wet by heretics.” I think that’s funny. Almost ALL Early Fathers agreed.

But, then, Pope Stephen declared that Baptism by heretics was valid, provided they used water and the Trinitarian form. But, the thing is - we don’t have any original record of that teaching. Not ONE WORD of Pope Stephen’s teaching has survived. So how do we know he taught it? Because his opposition said so, and his opposition absolutely ceased. Look at Jurgen’s doctrinal index. It goes from everybody teaching AGAINST the validity of Baptism by heretics, to suddenly everybody teaching IN FAVOR of it (there was NO opposition afterward). And, if I’m not mistaken, even the modern Orthodox accept the validity of Baptism by heretics using water and the Trinitarian form.

If the Early Church was some sort of democracy (as the Orthodox contend) then Pope Stephen could have not shut down all opposition. His position as a theologian was made clear (and was mocked by Cyprian and Firmillian). But when he expressed himself as Supreme Pontiff, those guys simply shut up.

So, even before 1054, all the Eastern Churches who celebrated Easter differently from Rome were already excommunicated? Wouldn’t that mean that the excommunication of Cerularius was unnecessary as he would have already been excommunicated for celebrating Easter according to Polycrates?

No, because the same pope, Pope Victor, also lifted the excommunication when St. Irenaeus pointed out that this was a matter of discipline and not of doctrine.

Thanks everyone, that’s helpful.

And I would like to have a copy of the three-volume Jurgens set, but don’t have the money, and also have some troubles reading (especially in large amounts).

But I also still don’t understand the excommunication issue. If excommunication is included in the powers given to Simon Rock in Mt 16:17-19, then wouldn’t any excommunication be bound in heaven?

In other words, when Victor excommunicated the churches of Asia Minor, was he essentially damning them, unless they repented?

Do you folllow me?



I don’t think your Eastern friend is allowed to disagree with Pope St. Stephen on this matter, because his Church solemnly accepts the decisions of the first seven ecumenical councils, and more than one of them affirmed Pope St. Stephen’s position in their canons.

For example, the Second Ecumenical Council said this: “Arians, and Macedonians, and Sabbatians, and Novatians…and Quarto-decimans or Tetradites, and Apollinarians, we receive, upon their giving a written renunciation [of their errors] and anathematize every heresy which is not in accordance with the Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church of God. Thereupon, they are first sealed or anointed with the holy oil upon the forehead, eyes, nostrils, mouth, and ears; and when we seal them, we say, The Seal of the gift of the Holy Ghost.” (Second Ecumenical Council Canon 5) Notice that these heretics were not rebaptized, as St. Cyprian had believed they should be. The Canon says that only Eunomians, Montanists, and Sabellians were to be rebaptized (and the First Ecumenical Council had also said the Paulianists should be rabaptized), while the majority of heretical groups had acceptable forms of baptism. The Second Ecumenical Council affirmed Pope St. Stephen’s position, without naming him explicitly, by accepting the baptisms of (most) heretical groups. I think your Orthodox friend is required by his religion to accept the Council’s decision.

Similarly, the Fourth Ecumenical Council said this: [T]hose who have already begotten children of [an unlawful] marriage, if they have already had their children baptized among the heretics, must bring them into the communion of the Catholic Church; but if they have not had them baptized, they may not hereafter baptize them among heretics. (Fourth Ecumenical Council Canon 14) Notice, it does not say that their children are to be rebaptized, only that in the future no one ought not to have their children baptized among the heretics. That was the position of Pope St. Stephen, although the Council does not name him.

I would make several responses. First, I would ask your friend if he at least admits that the popes in question thought they had a right to obedience from St. Cyprian and the other church leaders. I think it is obvious that both popes thought they had authority to command these other bishops and be obeyed, and that helps us show that our doctrine is not something we’ve invented.

Second, your friend has pointed out two cases where some Church Fathers explicitly disagreed with the popes. But those two issues were the rebaptism of heretics and the date of Easter. Now, on both of these issues, the disagreement of these particular Fathers does not automatically imply that they denied the pope’s authority. There are many issues of theological opinion and church governance where the bishops can disagree with the pope or adopt a different policy than he does. At least in St. Cyprian’s case, I think there is good evidence that he believed in the pope’s supremacy and perhaps ended up siding with the pope. But he held on to his own position for as long as he thought the faith permitted him to.

Other posters have posted some of the evidence re: St. Cyprian’s position. I would add three other points to help show that he believed in the pope’s authority and infallibility:

(A) St. Cyprian defended the pope’s authority in the book On the Unity of the Catholic Church: “If someone does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he [should] desert the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that he is in the Church?” (The Unity of the Catholic Church 4)

(B) St. Cyprian appealed to the pope’s authority to depose a bishop in Spain: “[The bishop] Marcianus, who abides at Aries, has associated himself with Novatian, and has departed from the unity of the Catholic Church… Wherefore it behooves you to write a very copious letter to our fellow bishops appointed in Gaul, not to suffer any longer that Marcian… [Afterwards,] intimate plainly to us who has been substituted at Arles in the place of Marcian, that we may know to whom to direct our brethren, and to whom we ought to write.” (Epistle 66)

© St. Cyprian supported papal infallibility: “Would the heretics dare to come to the very seat of Peter whence apostolic faith is derived and whither no errors can come?” (Letters 59 [55], 14).

In light of these passages, and others quoted by other posters, I think we should interpret St. Cyprian’s disagreement with Pope St. Stephen in a generous manner: he appears to have thought that it was only a matter of theological opinion about which the pope had no right to decree anything. But there is some evidence that he fell in line after the pope continued to insist and invoked his apostolic authority.

This relates to something I’ve never understood about the powers of excommunication. Given that Christ said “whatever you bind, etc, and whatever you loose on earth, will be loosed in heaven”, does that mean there is a sort of infallibility attached to excommunications? Does it mean that those who are excommunicated are hell-bound? If not, why not?

First, it does not automatically mean that the excommunicated are hell-bound. It means that the ordinary means of grace are taken away from them, i.e. the Sacraments. An excommunicated person could still be saved by being received back into the Church, or by a final and sincere repentance. Moreover, if he or she was invincibly ignorant of the truth, they could receive extraordinary graces apart from the Sacraments and still theoretically be saved. But apart from the sacraments, saving graces are extraordinary, not ordinary, so unless I’ve missed something we cannot presuppose that any heretic has been given them.

Second, I think that infallibility does not automatically attach to excommunications and anathemas. In an ecumenical council, it seems there are cases where they do, because it seems traditional for ecumenical councils to attach anathemas to their solemn definitions of faith. But perhaps not always, because anathemas also appear to be attached to some disciplinary canons.

Please let me know if that helps.

You’re talking about (re)baptism OF heretics, and the OP is talking about baptism BY heretics.

From your post, I infer that you think the Councils weren’t discussing the same thing as Pope St. Stephen. Am I understanding you correctly? Because I think there is evidence that they were.

For example, take the Novatians. If the Councils had thought their form of baptism was invalid, they would have said to rebaptize at least some of their members. Since the Councils forbade that, it seems to follow that the Councils accepted the validity of Novatianist baptism. But that was the same position that Pope St. Cyprian had taken regarding the heretics of his day. Therefore, the Council took the same position that Pope St. Stephen did: they implied that baptism BY Novatians was valid by forbidding the rebaptism of ANY Novatians. (And the same goes for the Macedonians, Sabbatians, Quarto-decimans, and Apollinarians.)

I hope that makes sense. Am I missing something?

Excommunication doesn’t make a definitive judgement on any soul. If you break down the word, ex-commun, means out of communion. Such a declaration should be intended to move the offender back within formal communion.

Yes, that helps a lot, Dmar. I also went to you website–Historyandapologetics.com – and am glad to have another resource. You are going to be a good teacher.



Right. I see that now. Thanks, MarcoPolo. --Pat

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