Looking at Church history, say the wags, gives apologists a lot to apologize for. How can such a crackpot collection of miscreants call itself God’s holy Catholic Church? After all, on the bark of Peter we find not just Augustine, Aquinas, Newman’s “majestic Leo,” and Newman himself, but also the Borgias, the popes who helped give the “Dark Ages” their popular name, and types like the Renaissance archbishop who was hired as a hit man by the Republic of Venice. If apologists sweep the second group under the rug, they can be sure their opponents will lift that rug up. The problem is in Church history, but the solution is as well, as the Catholic sees time and time again how God works his purposes with even the unwilling cooperation of the unlikeliest sinful men.
Apologists will encounter the even knottier problem of how we are to explain and stand for dogmas, such as the Trinity and the Incarnation, that are beyond rational understanding. A look at how the Church’s understanding of these truths unfolded in history can open doors to their defense. The Church’s sinfulness and holiness, three Persons and yet one nature, one Person and two natures — all these paradoxes can be approached, if not fully comprehended, in the history of our ecclesiastical forefathers’ own struggles with them. All these questions come into play in the story of Sabellianism, an obscure third-century heresy that became the arena for a struggle among saints that was so fierce it would do the National Catholic Reporter proud. It was bloody, but instructive.
The facts about Sabellius and his heresy can be stated succinctly, since there are so few of them. Sabellius seems to have been a Libyan, either by birth or ecclesiastical appointment, who flourished at the beginning of the third century. Of his life nothing at all is known. He taught that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one, but not in the orthodox sense. Rather than signifying three Persons, said Sabellius, the names “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit” merely distinguish different actions of the one God. Sabellian shibboleths attributed suffering and dying on the cross to the Father; hence, the heresy is also known as Patripassianism. The Patripassians are sometimes reckoned as the Western group corresponding to the Eastern Sabellians.
Sabellianism was condemned by Pope Callistus I, whose pontificate lasted from 217 to 222. It was refuted ably by Pope Dionysius in a letter written less than fifty years later. The condemnation was repeated by a council of Rome under Pope Damasus I in 382, in the teeth of Arian charges that the Nicene party’s insistence on the divinity of the Son was Sabellian. Sabellianism subsequently became one of a list of heresies to be condemned as a matter of course by those professing orthodoxy, such as the Easterners returning to Catholic unity at the fifteenth?century Council of Florence. Despite that, it does not seem to have shared in the underground popularity and intermittently resurgent power enjoyed by other heresies of the same era, notably Gnosticism and Manichaeanism.
There was no significant Sabellian or Patripassian recrudescence in the Middle Ages or in recent times. Nevertheless, Sabellianism’s central tenet always has been attractive to those who cannot be comfortable with any doctrine, such as the Trinity, that is beyond the grasp of the rational mind. The Unitarianism that emerged out of Calvinism might have borne Sabellian traces, although these were more likely the results of accidental intellectual agreement than of a bubbling?up of the Sabellian underground. In my Evangelical Protestant days I found a few casual Patripassians in the unitarian United Pentecostal Church and elsewhere among people who denigrate theology as an intellectual distraction from the truth of Scripture, but these are, of course, not influential enough to be able to overturn the judgment of Christendom on their unacknowledged spiritual father.
The question of why the passion and death of the Son cannot be attributed to the Father is important philosophically and theologically. Making the Creator subject to change, even short of death, places him within time. If he changes, he is not perfect, for a perfect being has no need to change. Scripture tells us that God is not like men, “that he should change his mind” (Num. 23:19). Then did the Incarnation make the God the Son imperfect? In a sense, it did: not morally or intellectually, but in terms of the physical limitations of his body. Because of the Incarnation it became possible for our Lord to be spoken of as being “made perfect through suffering” (Heb. 2:10). But if God is eternal as well as perfect, he must be outside time and changeless, for change requires at least two moments: one before the change and one after.
This is why so much of the Church’s energy in the first millennium was consumed by questions about the Incarnation. A theological formula had to be found that would safeguard the integrity of two titanic truths, the eternal perfection of God and the reality that God the Son had died for all men’s sins on the cross. Heresies careened away from the wild truth of the Incarnation on both sides. Arians and Nestorians denied in various ways that Christ was really God, while Gnostics and Monophysites denied that he was really a man like other men “yet without sinning” (Heb. 4:15). The Sabellians innovated by acknowledging Christ’s divinity and humanity, but they attributed changeable qualities to the Father also. The controversy over their doctrine helped the Church formulate the truth about the Trinity.
Rummaging around the dustbin of history turns up another of Sabellius’s bequests to the Church, the record of an ugly fraternal battle, a quarrel among saints. In 1842 was discovered a document of undoubted authenticity that gives us a rare look into the Church of the early third century. In it Callistus, the pontiff who condemned Sabellianism, was accused of that very heresy, as well as of staggering immoralities, by (in all likelihood — the text itself is anonymous) another saint, Hippolytus. In the bargain Hippolytus charged a third saint, Callistus’s predecessor, Pope Zephyrinus, with amicability toward Sabellius and his heresy, incompetent neglect of his episcopal office, and more.
Immoral popes, inept popes, even possibly heretical popes — one of God’s holy elect casting vicious aspersions on two fellow exemplars and intercessors in the Church Triumphant. Should Catholics avert their eyes? Is such material beneath the notice of the children of God, who are to shine as lights amidst this wicked and perverse generation? Should a loyal son of the Church act as if he had never read or heard of Hippolytus’s charges? Does writing about them constitute a sin of detraction? Is this article just a piece of scandal?mongering, giving aid and comfort to the Church’s enemies?
Not to fear. The Church is the “pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). If the faith is true, the truth cannot hurt it. It is no defense of the Church to pretend that such popes never existed (if the charges are true) or that the charges were never made. In fact, to ignore them is to give opportunity to the Church’s enemies, who already have found and used them to attack the office of the papacy and the morals of Catholics. A Catholic who is unaware of the charges and others like them will be at a disadvantage as he tries to defend the Church. It has happened that naïve Catholics have had the entire foundations of their faith undermined by the discovery of this kind of record. Thus any effective apologist must be unafraid to look at the worst face the Church ever has or ever can turn to the world. If faith in God and his Church cannot survive such a look, it will not survive the mildest attack from without.
The offending document is a ten-book work called the Refutation of all Heresies. While it has been variously ascribed to Origen, the towering (and heretical) theol ogian of the pre-Augustinian period, to another heretic, Novatian, and to others, it is almost certainly the work of Hippolytus. Hippolytus is best known as the author of The Apostolic Tradition, a liturgical manual that includes the Mass text used by post-Vatican II liturgists to compose the current Second Eucharistic Prayer. He was also the first antipope and the only one ever to be recognized as a saint. This peculiar distinction stems from his rigorist refusal to allow serious but repentant sinners to continue in ecclesiastical office. When the popes of his day displayed the mercy of Christ to a point Hippolytus regarded as shamefully lax, his friends elected him sham pope. His “accession” was around 217, probably as a reaction to Callistus’s being chosen rightful bishop of Rome (following the death of Zephyrinus).
It was as an antipope that Hippolytus wrote Book IX of the Refutation, which contains his barbed attacks on Zephyrinus and Callistus. When we meet Pope Zephyrinus, who “imagines that he administers the affairs of the Church,” he is “an uninformed and shamefully corrupt man” and patron of the heretic Cleomenes. Cleomenes was in turn a disciple of Noetus, a Patripassian. Callistus is the Pope’s “adviser and a fellow?champion of these wicked tenets.” According to Hippolytus, “the school of these heretics, during the succession of such bishops, continued to acquire strength and augmentation, from the fact that Zephyrinus and Callistus helped them to prevail.” Hippolytus remonstrated with both Zephyrinus and Callistus. “We frequently have offered them opposition and have refuted them. And they, abashed and constrained by the truth, have confessed their errors for a short period but, after a little, wallow once again in the same mire.”
It is impossible to tell now whether Zephyrinus and Callistus really acted improperly toward Cleomenes and the Patripassians, but the assertion of indulgence of heresy is not singular in Church history. Popes by their negligence have been guilty of “helping heresies to prevail.” Honorius I must be deemed responsible for the growth of Monothelitism after his unintended endorsement in 638 of its central tenet that Christ had only one will, not complete divine and human wills as would befit the God-man. The heretics meant that he had no human will at all. Honorius used their words, without knowing their heretical interpretation, to mean that Jesus’ human will always agreed with the Father’s will. Regardless of his intentions, Honorius was on record seemingly saying that there was but one will in Christ, and the heretics were able to claim him as their own.
Aside from Honorius, popes have been negligent or even unorthodox. In the fourteenth century John XXII taught — explicitly as a private doctor, not in his capacity as bishop of Rome — that the souls of the just do not enjoy the Beatific Vision after death until the Last Judgment. The opposite position was defined as a dogma by John’s successor, Benedict XII, in 1336. Historians have speculated that the long delay between the publication of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses (1517) and the convening of the Council of Trent (1545) is to be explained at least in part by the reluctance of corrupt churchmen to reform themselves or consent to reform. Whether or not the popes of the period shared in the corruption, they were one way or another prevailed upon not to move against it. Our own day is just as rife with speculation.
In short, the charge made by Hippolytus against Zephyrinus and Callistus was not unique and did not deal with an area defined to be within the scope of papal infallibility. This point is important to make since opponents of papal prerogatives have used and will use Hippolytus’s charges to impugn Catholic doctrine. Defenders of the Church would do well to know enough about the case to be able to rebut anti-papal statements made on the basis of these allegations. It can be a great disaster for the Church when p opes do not do all within their power to fight error. Papal negligence remains possible, and Catholic apologists do themselves no good by acting as if it isn’t.
Nor was this the only complaint Hippolytus had about Zephyrinus and Callistus. His second major charge was one that actually reflects well upon his targets: They were too free with the Savior’s mercy for Hippolytus’s tastes. Callistus seems to have received back into communion some who, “in accordance with our condemnatory sentence, had been by us forcibly ejected from the Church.” Hippolytus was appalled that Callistus invoked the parable of the wheat and tares to “let those who in the Church are guilty of sin remain in it.” But what was inexcusable laxity to Hippolytus seems to have amounted to nothing more than the unfolding of the Church’s understanding of penance and reconciliation. Hippolytus fumed that Callistus “first invented the device of conniving with men in regard of their indulgence in sensual pleasures, saying that all had their sins forgiven by himself.” Could Callistus here simply have been acting as a priest, hearing confessions and assigning penances in the manner today practiced in the Church, at a time when confessions often were made publicly in front of the entire congregation and penances not infrequently took years to complete?
The most distasteful aspect of this charge is Hippolytus’s claim that it led to the worst kinds of immorality. In a difficult passage, where he seems to accuse Callistus of condoning fornication, he declares that Callistus’ laxity led some women to procure abortions. This may represent nothing more than the depth of Hippolytus’s distaste for what he regarded as Callistus’s scandalously wide understanding of his Lord’s mercy, but Hippolytus has more. He spends considerable time detailing Callistus’s defrauding of one Carpophorus, whom the pontiff evidently had served as a slave. It is difficult to read these ancient argumenta ad hominem without a sense of moral embarrassment. One is reminded that life is fleeting and should not be wasted in clamor, envy, and detraction. Moreover, that both Hippolytus and Callistus are saints and martyrs opens a poignant view into the Lord’s mercy that was so much at issue between them. Whether Hippolytus’s moral charges were true or not, here is a bracing reminder for the modern apologist: Popes, bishops, and even saints can be sinners. The anti-Catholic knows this and takes advantage of it. Ex-priest Joseph Zacchello writes in Secrets of Romanism that “the Church of Rome cannot call itself holy because it allows as members in good standing adulterers, drunkards, and corrupt politicians. . . . Many leaders of the Roman Church, its popes, bishops, and priests have been wicked men. How can such a church be called holy?”
How indeed? Primarily because the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ, who is holy. Our Lord established the sacraments as means of grace, and so in them the Church possesses the indispensable building-blocks of holiness. How and to what degree this holiness will be manifest in each of her members, even those entrusted with responsibility for the Lord’s flock, is impossible to determine. C. S. Lewis has pointed out that the critic of the Church should, instead of citing Christian misbehavior as evidence of the Church’s untruth, consider how much worse the misbehavior might be if the miscreant were not Christian at all.
The sacraments, moreover, by the immense mercy of God work ex opere operato — that is, their efficacy does not depend upon the holiness (or lack thereof) of the minister. How little is this crucial point understood! How often have people invoked the sinfulness of the priest to excuse their absence at confession? Although the agency of the priest is necessary to forgive sins, it is God who forgives through him. The priest who has spent the day savaging reputations for his own self-aggrandizement is no less able to absolve than his brother priest who has passed the same hou rs in fr ont of the Blessed Sacrament. This is not to say that savaging reputations for self-aggrandizement was necessarily what Hippolytus was up to. Certainly Callistus, as the true bishop of Rome, was his chief rival, but Hippolytus seems to have had the welfare of the Church in mind when he wrote the Refutation of All Heresies. The book is extraordinarily valuable for us as a compendium of challenges that the early Church had to face and that she may have to face again in other forms. In its day it aided those in the thick of the battles. With the sound priorities of an orthodox believer, Hippolytus was most angry at Callistus because, he thought, Callistus was a Sabellian. Hippolytus’s invective is rather strained on this point, for he could not gloss over the fact that when Callistus became pope, “he excommunicated Sabellius, as not entertaining orthodox opinions.” Even here, though, his nemesis did nothing right. “He acted thus from apprehension of me, imaging that he could in this manner obliterate the charges against him among the churches, as if he did not entertain strange opinions.”
Hippolytus tried to strengthen his contention that Callistus was a Sabellian by quoting him, but he just couldn’t drive his charge home. Callistus declared that “the Father and Son must be styled one God,” but there is certainly no smoking gun there. Hippolytus got a bit entangled. “And in this way Callistus contends that the Father suffered along with the Son,” said the accuser, but in the same breath he complained that Callistus “does not wish to assert that the Father suffered” and “improvises blasphemies in every direction, only that he may not seem to speak in violation of the truth.”
Hippolytus’s reader has two choices. He can believe that Callistus was orthodox only for appearance’s sake or that the Pope was sincere and Hippolytus was speaking out of wounded pride and rivalry. Either way the essential truths of the faith are unscathed, and God has worked a miracle. The miracle may be that the teaching office of the papacy was protected from error by Callistus’s own knavery, in that he wanted to appear to be all things to all men and to hide his heresy under a veneer of orthodoxy. That there might have been a pope who did not believe what he taught may be shocking, but it would be evidence of the Holy Spirit brooding over the bent world, for the reluctant Callistus in any case taught the truth, and that is all that matters in the end.
If Callistus was sincere and Hippolytus thus to be doubted, there is still a miracle, but in a different place. It would move from Rome to Sardinia, where Hippolytus and Pontian, who was by then (around 235) the authentic pope, were exiled. On that desolate island, in a manner known only to God, the proud antipope was reconciled to the true Church, in whose bosom he died a martyr along with Pontian. Saints Pontian and Hippolytus share the same feast day, August 13. That Hippolytus would abandon his savage indignation at what he regarded as the Callistian party is the miracle of softening an embittered heart, a miracle of the kind that may be the most dazzling ever deployed by our Lord. When faced with an especially hostile opponent, apologists may pray to Hippolytus and Callistus that by their intercession the opponent one day will be standing with God’s holy Church instead of against her. In the mysterious economy of salvation history, stranger things have happened.