Bishops of History Response, Catholicism, Fractionation

Paradigmatic Bishops of History- Allen Brent


The altar belongs to us

b. Allen Brent

In this section I  utilize Allen Brent’s work on fractionation and provide a summary of his article on the dispute between Hippolytus and Callistus. In attempting to provide a definition of schism from Eusebius, Allen Brent explains that a functional definition of schism according to Cyprian and Eusebius is, “if we manage to get the altar and Church building and get you out, then you are the schismatics, but if you alternatively get our buildings and our altar, then it is we who are the schismatics.” Footnote #87 carries the citations for this information, but perhaps this was too limited. In response, BOH says

Brandon then offers some unsubstantiated speculative claims about the conception of schism in the third century, claiming both that it applied to whoever did not have the buildings and altar, and that schism was “quite impossible.

To provide a bit more context and show why the summary is not “unsubstantiated,” Brent notes that according to Cyprian schism is not simply one group breaking away from another on grounds of discipline or false doctrine. Instead, schism required a break-away group obtaining consecration for their bishop,  like Novatus (cf. Cyprian and Eusebius). Afterward, a provincial council must meet and determine the true bishop. If there is dissension, however, eventually the civil power intervenes (as in Paul of Samosata and Gallienus) awarding communal property to the winning party. Brent provides an operational definition of schism because he is not attempting to draw a theological definition of schism. Instead, he is trying to take the definition of schism as defined by Eusebius and apply it the early third century.

Based on what we know of Rome’s social situation, it is unlikely, since the church did not possess any corporate property into the third century but rather meet in house churches (Brent cites Lampe’s pages 15-17 & 310-313). Brent explains what this says of the social situation in Rome,

The presiding presbyter or presbyters would thus find it very difficult to cut off from access to a Eucharist or an agape meal those of whose theology or doctrine they disapproved when the right of invitation was that of the house owner. Schism in the later sense was under these conditions quite impossible.

Very precise social situations made “schism” functionally different at the beginning of the third century (and back into the first and second century) than the middle of the third century.

Brent’s second focuses on sanctions against aberrant teachers; what recourse would the church have? Eusebius reports that Victor in the Quartodeciman controversy threatened to excommunicate all the parishes of Asia along with the adjacent churches. More likely, according to Brent, is that Victor was dealing with Asiatic “parishes” within Rome, and not external “parishes” in Asia Minor. This proposal, however, disagrees with the statements of Eusebius.

As noted above, Eusebius’s reliability is suspect at variouspoints, and scholars generally agree that Eusebius is exagerating the scope of the conflict (Bernard Green concurs with this opinion as well). Eusebius is guilty in at least two occasions of similar embellishment when he cites the letter of Polycrates of Ephesus to Victor. Instead of presenting it as a personal letter, Eusebius characterizes it is a synodical encyclical (H.E. V. 24:8). Similar problems arise in Eusebius’s reporting of the Beryllus & Origen affair. Eusebius reports a synod of bishops and deacons oversaw the trial of Beryllus. The only source Eusebius uses, however, is a conversation between Origen and Beryllus. Origen was a lay catechist or presbyter, depending on the date, and not a bishop, deacon, or himself a synod of bishops and deacons. Moreover, the encounter was open-ended, with Beryllus, a bishop, eventually recanting. Instead of appealing to episcopal councils, Brent suggests that Hermas provides greater insight into resolution process of first and second century churches: the assembled presbyter-bishops. The assembly’s collective pressure might be brought to bear against a recalcitrant presbyter or even against a house-owner harboring heretics.

Thirdly, there was little beyond persuasion that the presbyter-bishops could actually do since the church did not own any property. Instead, as the case of Origen and Beryllus illustrates, formal disciplinary actions were open-ended and were more like a debate in a philosophical school than what would later occur at formal ecclesiastical trials. This fact accounts for most gnostic sects simply leaving the Church without formal trial or censure—they were unable to persuade the presbyters and decided to leave. Brent’s overarching point is that the definition of schism found in Cyprian and Eusebius cannot be extended back into the first and second century.

With these things in mind, Brent moves on to examine the dispute between Hippolytus and Callistus. In Hippolytus of Rome’s “Refutation of All Heresies,”[1] he describes the bishop of Rome, Callistus, as being a Sabellian and “a man cunning in wickedness, and subtle where deceit was concerned” (9.6). Hippolytus goes on to describe that Callistus established a “school of theology” and claimed that “all had their sins forgiven by [Callistus].” He then states,

For he who is in the habit of attending the congregation of anyone else, and is called a Christian, should he commit any transgression; the sin, they say, is not reckoned unto him, provided only he hurries off and attaches himself to the school of Callistus. And many persons were gratified with his regulation, as being stricken in conscience, and at the same time having been rejected by numerous sects; while also some of them, in accordance with our condemnatory sentence, had been by us forcibly ejected from the Church.

Brent notes that even two bishops after Victor, people in Rome are still in the habit of attending disparate congregations lead by different people. Hippolytus’s argument is not that his group alone formed the true Church and that anyone outside of his group was in schism. The reason for the dispute with Callistus is that he admitted those that Hippolytus had excommunicated, “some who had been expelled from the church by us at an examination attached themselves to [Callistus] and swelled into his school.” Hippolytus is thus *not* claiming that Callistus is a usurper of episcopal authority (as one would expect given the definition of schism provided by Eusebius and Cyprian), but rather that Callistus has abandoned orthodoxy and deference to communing congregations (lead by different “bishops”) in Rome.

Moreover, Brent notes that there is a differentiation between the heretics Callistus takes in. He describes a larger group “πολλοί” and a specific group that Hippolytus had excommunicated, “τίνες.” Brent explains the significance,

if there are also two groups in question, one in a schismatical relation to the other, where did the larger group of excommunicants (άποβληθέντες) come from? It would surely be unlikely that even that author of EL was being so egotistical here as to claim some special status for those (τίνες) condemned to excommunication by an ecclesiastical court (επί καταγνώσει) of which he simply happened that day to be a chairman? Clearly in the background to his words here there is more than one congregation with a πρεσβύτερος-επίσκοπος exercising jurisdiction over its members that other πρεσβύτεροι-επίσκοποι of other congregations are expected to respect and not to ignore as Callistus was now doing.

Brent goes on to enumerate other examples of clearly defined communities operating at this time—the clear separation and fellowship between Zephyrinus, Callistus, and Hippolytus, for example—but for the sake of space we won’t go into the further detail of his paper. The evidence adduced, however, is enough to show two important points and a conclusion:

  1. The Hippolytus affair indicates that the churches in Rome were still operating in separate communities (remaining in fellowship with one another) into the third century.
  2. Hippolytus opposed Callistus not because he was an usurper, but rather, because he admitted groups that had been excommunicated by the “presbyter-bishops” of Rome as well as the particular heretics excommunicated by Callistus.
  3. Therefore, schism as described in Eusebius and Cyprian is impossible in third century Rome—asking for an historical explanation.

Brent explains that Hippolytus was not a schismatic, at least not in the Cyprianic sense of the word. Instead, he was a presbyter-bishop, much like Callistus, and was actually an instrumental player in the final development “of the form of church order that made schism possible…hailing his work as an unmixed blessing.”.

Engaging Lampe’s work, Brent notes,

Lampe sought to use the emergence of the Roman episcopal succession list in Irenaeus as an index for the establishment of monarchial episcopacy not later than the episcopate of Victor (c. 190). But such an undated list is evidence for the quest for the establishment of continuity of teaching rather than of individual teachers, to which the author of Elenchos also subscribes at the same time as he provides evidence for the complete absence of an agreed figure of central authority.

One may dissent from Brent’s reconstruction (and many do), however, the disagreement between Lampe and Brent is focused on the extent of fractionation on third century Roman Christianity. Lampe, while not agreeing about the precise date of the monarchical episcopate, would agree with Brent that the remnants of fractionated Christianity remained into the 3rd century. Whether one identifies Hippolytus or Victor as the solidifier of the episcopate, Lampe and Brent agree that there were multiple ecclesial communities governed by various presbyter-bishops.

BOH responds that this is actually evidence against fractionation for multiple reasons,

[1]Hippolytus here speaks of “the episcopal throne,” singular, not plural, as something St. Callistus attained. But according to Hippolytus at the beginning of the story this throne belonged to “blessed Victor,” who was at that time a “bishop” of the Church…[2] If St. Victor had been bishop only of a house church, he could not have exiled St. Callistus out of the city of Rome, but only out of the parish in which that house church was located…[3] monepiscopacy that we see clearly in the second half of the second century could operate without the possession of Church property…[4] In other words, St. Hippolytus does not say that St. Callistus occupies some chair and Hippolytus occupies another chair. Rather, by saying “supposing that he had obtained,” Hippolytus indicates that he does not entirely accept that St. Callistus is the rightful occupant of the chair.

None of these four points is accurate. On the first point, Allen Brent notes in his article,

We do not have here so much a schismatic presbyter seeking power and pre-eminence by means of a puritanical ideology. Rather we have in Callistus one bishop of one of several communities seeking spiritual power and jurisdiction over excommunicate members of others by a policy of deliberate laxity. If the dispute had been between two contenders to a single episcopal chair, as in the case of later antipopes, it is curious that Hippolytus set out his account of the dispute in no such terms.

All that he says enigmatically is that Callistus νόμιζων τετυχηκέναι ου έθηράτο (“thought that he had achieved what he desired”), without further identifying this with Rome’s sole episcopal chair, although earlier Callistus is described as θηρώμενος τον της επισκοπής θρόνον (“yearning for the throne of oversight”) (IX, 11,1 cf. 12,15). Zephyrinus is not described as occupying that seat before him, nor indeed is anyone else. His words are perfectly consistent with a refusal to acknowledge the presbyter of any one group occupying such a position, even though the foreign secretary may have seemed potentially to occupy such a position.

What we know is that Callistus sought to make himself preeminent. Another subtle obfuscation is the claim that “this throne belong to Victor.” This is not in Hippolytus at all. Rather, BOH even quotes the text which reads that Victor was “*a* bishop” in the church. The absence of the article is unexpected if Victor were *the* bishop in Rome, but it is possible that Hippolytus was suggesting he was the singular bishop of Rome among the other universal bishops. The larger point, however, is that nowhere does the text indicate that Victor held an episcopal chair in Rome. That is an imposition on the text.  As a matter of fact, Hippolytus states of Zephryinus,

At that time, Zephyrinus imagines that he administers the affairs of the Church — an uninformed and shamefully corrupt man.

As Brent details, Hippolytus nowhere claims that he is the one who actually administers the affairs of the church. Hippolytus is content administering his congregation, but Zephryinus and Callistus are circumventing the catholicity of the church by admitting heretics that Hippolytus and others had placed under discipline in their individual churches. Hippolytus explains the case as follows,

During the episcopate of this one, second baptism was for the first time presumptuously attempted by them. These, then, (are the practices and opinions which) that most astonishing Callistus established, whose school continues, preserving its customs and tradition, not discerning with whom they ought to communicate, but indiscriminately offering communion to all.

We see that Callistus established second baptism, presumably not accepting the baptism from schools outside of his fellowship.  This practice is first instituted by Callistus—not by Victor or Zephryinus. This *school* perpetuates the problem Hippolytus has with it by indiscriminately communicating with and offering communion to all—even those that other presbyter-bishops have deemed aberrant.

BOH, however, seeks to argue that this language favors monarchical episcopacy. They say,

The story as described by Hippolytus thus indicates in multiple ways that there was a succession of monarchical bishops in Rome, from St. Victor, to St. Zephyrinus, to St. Callistus, and that this episcopal office gave its occupant the authority to exile an offending Christian from the city of Rome, and to excommunicate heretics.

After all, Hippolytus speaks of “the episcopate of this one” and also mentions the succession of Victor, Zephyrinus, and Callistus as a “succession of bishops.” To assume, however, that because Hippolytus grants these men the title of “bishop” and admits that these men succeeded one another, does not “indicate in multiple ways there was a succession of monarchical bishops.” Brent’s argument shows that such an interpretation cannot adequately explain the actual dispute between Callistus and Hippolytus.  That this *school* was dominant and had a succession of bishops is clear, that this school was *the* school was a notion the Hippolytus emphatically opposed. Thus, that there was a succession of bishops is agreed, that the existence of a bishop at this time meant that there were no other duly ordained presbyter-bishops is another question.

Second, Brent and Lampe argue that Victor was the minister of external affairs, so it would not be uncommon for Victor to act at the behest of the presbytery—or even in the place of the presbytery as the office developed. Moreover, if Callistus was part of the (growing) community that Victor oversaw, then Victor would certainly have the authority to remove Callistus from the fellowship or send him to various regions.

Thirdly, the Church did not own the Catacomb of Callistus in the early third century, as Lampe argues in detail in his chapters 36 & 37. Zephyrinus owned the property himself and opened it up for other Christians to be buried at his catacomb on the Via Appia. Callistus administered the graveyard, but it happened to be the private property of Zephyrinus. It was not unusual for a private individual to deputize another to administer affairs on their behalf.

Fourthly, while it has already been addressed under the first issue, it is not the case that Hippolytus believes he ought to occupy the chair of oversight. Brent’s whole article shows that the point of contention is *not* a dispute over Callistus’s episcopal governance, but his extension of that governance in ways that alienated other church’s bishops. Yet, BOH, midjudges the case and concludes,

Hippolytus was the first antipope in Church history,213 having set himself up as a rival to St. Callistus after St. Callistus received the episcopal throne in AD 217. Brandon’s mistake here is treating an historical condition in which there is an antipope, as described from the point of view of that antipope, as though it is evidence that at that time there was not yet a monepiscopacy in Rome.

Brent’s article suggests that Hippolytus was *not* an anti-pope, contrary to later characterizations of the event. One may disagree with that assessment, but BOH’s historical understanding of these events is lacking.  Again, it may be because I was too brief in this area that allowed for ambiguity. If BOH would have consulted Brent’s article, however, they would have recognized that their response to Brent does not actually interact with his arguments.

At this point it is worthwhile for me to comment on why I would include Brent, since I argued for the monarchical episcopate developing c. 150 AD in my article and Brent is arguing that it is not solidified as late as 220 AD. The reason I included it in the article is because it showed that there were those in the academy—even a recent Roman Catholic convert!—who thought Lampe did not go far enough. For Lampe, it was under Victor (c.190) that the monarchical episcopate was formed. The reason I dated c. 150 is because I was attempting to indicate a time after the first half of the second century.  I wasn’t sure exactly when and where I thought that time frame was, so I dated it c. 150 because I was still measuring where exactly in the second half of the century I came down on the date of the monarchical episcopate. I figured that because of my uncertainty it was better to give an earlier date than a later date. I was attempting to demonstrate that Lampe was being relatively conservative in dating the episcopate to Victor instead of into the third century.

Upon reflection, however, I believe that moving closer to the third century is probably the best option, and I find Brent’s argument persuasive for at least demonstrating that fractionation continued to exert pressure on the development of the monarchical episcopate into the third century. i generally favor Lampe’s timeline, but Brent demonstrates that the monarchical episcopate of Victor was not the only orthodox ecclesial body in Rome even if it was the largest and most influential.

[1] Brent identifies the writer of the Refutation of All Heresies as a composition of the “Hippolytian” community. Brent goes into detailed analysis of the author, but for the sake of simplicity I simply associate Hippolytus as the author.


2 thoughts on “Paradigmatic Bishops of History- Allen Brent

  1. Brandon,
    Thanks for all of your hard and diligent work to bring us your response to BOH. Have you already, or are you going to address the development of the priesthood more directly (I haven’t read everything, just a few of the posts)? I find that to be the most interesting aspect of RC ecclesiology due to the sacrificial aspects they associate with it. So much of their theology and worship centers on an “Alter Christus” and if can be demonstrated to be a development, something post-apostolic, not originating in the NT, then their understanding and practice of the Christian faith falters.

    1. Hi Swruf!

      I think there are multiple ways of approaching this particular topic, but I don’t plan on addressing it directly in the review. It may be something worthy of discussion later, though!

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