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§ 58. Church Schisms.


I. On the Schism of Hippolytus-. The Philosophumena of Hippol. lib. IX. (ed. Miller, Oxf. 1851, better by Duncker and Schneidewin, Gött. 1859), and the monographs on Hippolytus, by Bunsen, Döllinger, Wordsworth, Jacobi, and others (which will be noticed in chapter XIII. § 183).

II. On the Schism of Felicissimus: Cyprian: Epist. 38–40, 42, 55.

III. On the Novatian Schism: Hippol.: Philosoph. 1 IX. Cypr.: Epist. 41–52; and the Epistles of Cornelius of Rome, and Dionys. of Alex., in Euseb. H. E., VI. 43–45; VII. 8. Comp. Lit. in § 200.

IV. On the Meletian Schism: Documents in Latin translation in Maffei: Osservationi Letterarie, Verona, 1738, tom. III p. 11 sqq., and the Greek fragments from the Liber de poenitentia of Peter of Alexandria in Routh: Reliquicae Sacr. vol. II. pp. 21–51. Epiphan.: Haer. 68 (favorable to Meletius); Athanas.: Apol. contra Arianos, § 59; and after him, Socr, Sozom., and Theod. (very unfavorable to Meletius).


Out of this controversy on the restoration of the lapsed, proceeded four schisms during the third century; two in Rome, one in North Africa, and one in Egypt. Montanism, too, was in a measure connected with the question of penitential discipline, but extended also to several other points of Christian life, and will be discussed in a separate chapter.

I. The Roman schism of Hippolytus. This has recently been brought to the light by the discovery of his Philosophumena (1851). Hippolytus was a worthy disciple of Irenaeus, and the most learned and zealous divine in Rome, during the pontificates of Zephyrinus (202–217), and Callistus (217–222). He died a martyr in 235 or 236. He was an advocate of strict views on discipline in opposition to the latitudinarian practice which we have described in the previous section. He gives a most unfavorable account of the antecedents of Callistus, and charges him and his predecessor with the patripassian heresy. The difference, therefore, was doctrinal as well as disciplinarian. It seems to have led to mutual excommunication and a temporary schism, which lasted till a.d. 235. Hippolytus ranks himself with the successors of the apostles, and seems to have been bishop of Portus, the port of Rome (according to later Latin tradition), or bishop of Rome (according to Greek writers). If bishop of Rome, he was the first schismatic pope, and forerunner of Novatianus, who was ordained anti pope in 251.283283    See the particulars in § 183, and in Döllinger’s Hippol. and Call., Engl. transl. by A. Plummer (1876), p. 92 sqq.83 But the Roman Church must have forgotten or forgiven his schism, for she numbers him among her saints and martyrs, and celebrates his memory on the twenty-second of August. Prudentius, the spanish poet, represents him as a Roman presbyter, who first took part in the Novatian schism, then returned to the Catholic church, and was torn to pieces by wild horses at Ostia on account of his faith. The remembrance of the schism was lost in the glory of his supposed or real martyrdom. According to the chronological catalogue of Popes from a.d. 354, a "presbyter" Hippolytus, together with the Roman bishop Pontianus, the successor of Callistus, was banished from Rome in the reign of Alexander Severus (235), to the mines of Sardinia.284284    See Mommsen, Über den Chronographen vom Jahr 354 (1850), Lipsius, Chronologie der Röm. Bischöfe, p. 40 sqq.; Döllinger, I.c. p. 332 sqq.; Jacobi in Herzog2 VI. 142 sqq.84

II. The schism of Felicississimus, at Carthage, about the year 250, originated in the personal dissatisfaction of five presbyters with the hasty and irregular election of Cyprian to the bishopric, by the voice of the congregation, very soon after his baptism, a.d. 248. At the head of this opposition party stood the presbyter Novatus, an unprincipled ecclesiastical demagogue, of restless, insubordinate spirit and notorious character,285285    Cyprian charges him with terrible cruelties, such as robbing widows and orphans, gross abuse of his father, and of his wife even during her pregnancy; and says, that he was about to be arraigned for this and similar misconduct when the Decian persecution broke out. Ep. 49.85 and the deacon Felicissimus, whom Novatus ordained, without the permission or knowledge of Cyprian, therefore illegally, whether with his own hands or through those of foreign bishops. The controversy cannot, however, from this circumstance, be construed, as it is by Neander and others, into a presbyterial reaction against episcopal autocracy. For the opponents themselves afterwards chose a bishop in the person of Fortunatus. The Novatians and the Meletians likewise had the episcopal form of organization, though doubtless with many irregularities in the ordination.

After the outbreak of the Decian persecution this personal rivalry received fresh nourishment and new importance from the question of discipline. Cyprian originally held Tertullian’s principles, and utterly opposed the restoration of the lapsed, till further examination changed his views. Yet, so great was the multitude of the fallen, that he allowed an exception in periculo mortis. His opponents still saw even in this position an unchristian severity, least of all becoming him, who, as they misrepresented him, fled from his post for fear of death. They gained the powerful voice of the confessors, who in the face of their own martyrdom freely gave their peace-bills to the lapsed. A regular trade was carried on in these indulgences. An arrogant confessor, Lucian, wrote to Cyprian in the name of the rest, that he granted restoration to all apostates, and begged him to make this known to the other bishops. We can easily understand how this lenity from those who stood in the fire, might take more with the people than the strictness of the bishop, who had secured himself. The church of Novatus and Felicissimus was a resort of all the careless lapsi. Felicissimus set himself also against a visitation of churches and a collection for the poor, which Cyprian ordered during his exile.

When the bishop returned, after Easter, 251, he held a council at Carthage, which, though it condemned the party of Felicissimus, took a middle course on the point in dispute. It sought to preserve the integrity of discipline, yet at the same time to secure the fallen against despair. It therefore decided for the restoration of those who proved themselves truly penitent, but against restoring the careless, who asked the communion merely from fear of death. Cyprian afterwards, when the persecution was renewed, under Gallus, abolished even this limitation. He was thus, of course, not entirely consistent, but gradually accommodated his principles to circumstances and to the practice of the Roman church.286286    In Ep. 52, Ad Antonianum, he tried to justify himself in regard to this change in his views.86 His antagonists elected their bishop, indeed, but were shortly compelled to yield to the united force of the African and Roman churches, especially as they had no moral earnestness at the bottom of their cause.

His conflict with this schismatical movement strengthened Cyprian’s episcopal authority, and led him in his doctrine of the unity of the church to the principle of absolute exclusiveness.

III. The Novatian schism in Rome was prepared by the controversy already alluded to between Hippolytus and Callistus. It broke out soon after the African schism, and, like it, in consequence of an election of bishop. But in this case the opposition advocated the strict discipline against the lenient practice of the dominant church. The Novatianists287287    Novatiani, Novatianenses.87 considered themselves the only pure communion,288288    Καθαροί.88 and unchurched all churches which defiled themselves by re-admitting the lapsed, or any other gross offenders. They went much farther than Cyprian, even as far as the later Donatists. They admitted the possibility of mercy for a mortal sinner, but denied the power and the right of the church to decide upon it, and to prevent, by absolution, the judgment of God upon such offenders. They also, like Cyprian, rejected heretical baptism, and baptized all who came over to them from other communions not just so rigid as themselves.

At the head of this party stood the Roman presbyter Novatian,289289    Eusebius and the Greeks call him Νοουάτος, and confound him with Novatus of Carthage. Dionysius of Alex., however, calls him Νοουατιανός.89 an earnest, learned, but gloomy man, who had come to faith through severe demoniacal disease and inward struggles. He fell out with Cornelius, who, after the Decian persecution in 251, was nominated bishop of Rome, and at once, to the grief of many, showed great indulgence towards the lapsed. Among his adherents the above-named Novatus of Carthage was particularly busy, either from a mere spirit of opposition to existing authority, or from having changed his former lax principles on his removal to Rome. Novatian, against his will, was chosen bishop by the opposition. Cornelius excommunicated him. Both parties courted the recognition of the churches abroad. Fabian, bishop of Antioch, sympathized with the rigorists. Dionysius of Alexandria, on the contrary, accused them of blaspheming the most gracious Lord Jesus Christ, by calling him unmerciful. And especially Cyprian, from his zeal for ecclesiastical unity and his aversion to Novatus, took sides with Cornelius, whom he regarded the legitimate bishop of Rome.

In spite of this strong opposition the Novatian sect, by virtue of its moral earnestness, propagated itself in various provinces of the West and the East down to the sixth century. In Phrygia it combined with the remnants of the Montanists. The council of Nicaea recognized its ordination, and endeavored, without success, to reconcile it with the Catholic church. Constantine, at first dealt mildly with the Novatians, but afterwards prohibited them to worship in public and ordered their books to be burnt.

IV. The Meletian schism in Egypt arose in the Diocletian persecution, about 305, and lasted more than a century, but, owing to the contradictory character of our accounts, it is not so well understood. It was occasioned by Meletius, bishop of Lycopolis in Thebais, who, according to one statement, from zeal for strict discipline, according to another, from sheer arrogance, rebelled against his metropolitan, Peter of Alexandria (martyred in 311), and during his absence encroached upon his diocese with ordinations, excommunications, and the like. Peter warned his people against him, and, on returning from his flight, deposed him as a disturber of the peace of the church. But the controversy continued, and spread over all Egypt. The council of Nicaea endeavored, by recognizing the ordination of the twenty-nine Meletian bishops, and by other compromise measures, to heal the division; but to no purpose. The Meletians afterwards made common cause with the Arians.

The Donatist schism, which was more formidable than any of those mentioned, likewise grew out of the Diocletian persecution, but belongs more to the next period.



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