Pope Stephen I: Defender of Papal Authority & Proto Reformer

Saint Pope Stephen I

On this day, May 12, in the year 254 Pope Stephen I succeeded Pope Lucius I as the 23rd Bishop of Rome. Stephen (or Stephanus in Latin) was almost certainly Pope Stephen’s birth name. It did not become customary for Popes to take new names until the sixth century and still was not routinely expected until sometime around the 10th century. As such Pope Stephen I, is the second Stephen to be officially canonized as a Saint by the Church. The first was Saint Stephen who is said to have been the very first Christian martyr, stoned to death by the Sanhedrin (as recorded in Acts 7).

Church tradition has long held that Pope Stephen I held a similar fate, martyred – beheaded in fact – while seated on his Papal chair presiding over a celebration of the Eucharist. Modern historians seriously doubt this account since the earliest written record we have of Pope Stephen’s life, contained in the  Depositio episcoporum makes no mention of him as a martyr.

But many things about Stephen’s life find universal agreement. He was Bishop or Pope of Rome during the time of one of the first antipopes, Novatian. From 251-258 Novatian was a rival Pope who challenged the the short lived Papal  authority of Popes Cornelius, Lucius I, Stephen I, and Sixtus II. That alone might give us some historical empathy as to why Pope Stephen I is the first Bishop of Rome with a surviving written record explicitly claiming primacy of the Roman Bishop’s seat. But there is so much more that might give thoughtful Reformed Christians pause and ample reason to see an ally in Stephen, perhaps even a Proto-Reformer or to use an even stronger anachronism, a Proto-Calvinist. But first some history.


By the beginning of the third century, an elaborate penance system and liturgical rites for readmission to good standing within the church had developed for people accused of sins considered to be egregiously bad, such as murder, adultery or apostasy. This led to great problems when in 250, the Roman Emperor Decius issued an edict that all citizens of the empire would be required to make sacrifices to the traditional Roman gods and consume the blood. On behalf of the people they led, Christian bishops were ordered to make sacrifices for the Emperor and the Empire’s well-being or face torture and possible execution. All of a sudden apostates were multiplying exponentially.

According to his rivals, Novatian denied his priesthood and hid during the time of persecution. It is documented that once the intensity of the persecution died down, our now antipope, Novatian wrote letters to Saint Cyprian of Carthage claiming the authority of the Roman seat and demanding that Lapsi (Christians who denied their faith during persecution) be readmitted to the church without so much as making penance. This did not sit well with Cyprian and others who stood their ground firm, refusing to sacrifice to the Emperor, even in Carthage where persecution was especially intense.

However, by the time Stephen became Novatian’s Papal rival in 254, Novatian had reversed his position and taken and even harder stance against the Lapsi than Cyprian. Novatian and his Katharoi (Greek: καθαροι meaning Purists) movement which survived him allowed for no admittance for the Lapsi into the church, under any circumstances. Why Novatian had a sudden change of heart or became so stringently opposed to the Lapsi he once pleaded with Cyprian to go easy on nobody really knows.  While I am prone to take history with a grain of salt when it is written by the winners, especially somebody’s enemies, Novatian’s documented, drastic change of heart is one thing that gives some credence to his detractor’s claims that he once denied his faith and his priesthood and was perhaps among the Lapsi himself. We often (sometimes unwittingly) stigmatize others for what we feel to be secretly inadequate, insignificant or iniquitous about ourselves.

Cyprian on the other hand is a different story. In Carthage, Cyprian only readmitted on their deathbeds, people who had made sacrifices to the Emperor and who had come back repentant, longing to be in communion with the church again. While this stance was severely lacking in grace, perhaps even more problematic theologically was the fact that Cyprian’s community insisted on re-baptism for folks who were baptized by Lapsi or heretical bishops. Cyprian is responsible for a lot of one-liners that still stick out in my mind from my church history textbooks in seminary: “No man can have God as his Father who has not the church as his Mother;” “Outside the church there is no salvation;” and “Therefore you must know that the bishop is in the church and the church is in the bishop and that if somebody is not with the bishop, he is not in the church.” For Cyprian baptism performed by priests who were in error only inducted people into a church that was apostate and in error, which for Cyprian was no church at all.


Like I said we have to be careful when reading history through the eyes of the winners. Cyprian while losing the immediate theological struggle, turned out to be more significant figure in the development of Roman Catholic doctrine in the long run. And somehow, all of Stephen’s letters have been lost while Cyprian’s and his allies were preserved. However, time has been a bit more kind to Stephen than to Novatian. After all, Stephan was canonized a Saint. And a Feast Day was held in his name on August 2 until 1839, when Stephen was eclipsed by then recent canonization of Saint Alphonsus. Even then Saint Stephen was still remembered in the Feast Day prayers for August 2. That is until the Vatican II liturgical revisions dropped his name altogether.

However, giving Stephen a charitable read, even through the eyes of his detractors, it seems to me that he had an acute sense of God’s grace and a firm notion that this grace permeates all of life. He believed that it can reconcile repentant Lapsi to the sacramental life of the Church. And he argued against Cyprian that God could even work through the hands of wayward or schismatic priests. In 256, Firmilian, Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, wrote a letter to Cyprian’s, quoting Stephen extensively and with much consternation: “The name of Christ is of great advantage to faith and the sanctification of baptism; so that whosoever is anywhere so-ever baptized in the name of Christ, immediately obtains the grace of Christ,” Stephen reportedly had written to Firmilian. Firmilian countered that if this were true “the other things also which are done among heretics will begin to seem just and lawful when they are done in the name of Christ.” He then defaults to Cyprian’s ecclesiology (doctrine of the church), saying, “As you have maintained in your letter that the name of Christ could be of no avail except in the Church alone, to which alone Christ has conceded the power of heavenly grace.”

Yes, Stephen did put into writing an argument for the primacy of the Roman Bishop. But his life’s work betrays the splendid fact that he regarded the supremacy of Christ above all other seats of authority, even above the rites of the church whether perfectly or erroneously administered. In another fragment of Stephen’s letters preserved in Cyprian’s letter to Pompey against Stephen, we read, “If any one, therefore, come to you from any heresy whatever, let nothing be innovated which has not been handed down, to wit, that hands be imposed on him for repentance.” Yes the reminder of “what has been handed down” is a reminder of the developing belief that the Bishop of Rome was a successor of Peter and ties to Stephen’s argument for Papal authority. However, if we continue reading Stephen, even through the lens of Cyprian’s hostile glare, we will see that for Stephen the efficacy all lies in the Majesty of the living Christ, who confers the Holy Spirit upon those baptized. Cyprian chides, “They attribute the effect of baptism to the majesty of the name, so that they who are baptized anywhere and anyhow, in the name of Jesus Christ, are judged to be renewed and sanctified.” I do not believe that Stephan’s primary objective (as it is often argued to day by Oneness Pentecostals and a few other sectarian groups) was to uphold baptism in Jesus’ name only over and against baptism in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). No, he was arguing for the majesty of Christ and that it is Christ himself who confers grace upon us in the Sacraments and not the officers of the church.

I think Stephen was arguing as Augustine would argue more eloquently a little over a hundred years later against the Donatists, “It is one thing to be without a sacrament, another thing to be in possession of it wrongly, and to usurp it unlawfully. Therefore they do not cease to be sacraments of Christ and the Church, merely because they are unlawfully used, not only by heretics, but by all kinds of wicked and impious persons. These, indeed, ought to be corrected and punished, but the sacraments should be acknowledged and revered.” In strikingly similar language, John Calvin argued in Book IV of the Institutes,

“Moreover, if we have rightly determined that a sacrament is not to be estimated by the hand of him by whom it is administered, but is to be received as from the hand of God himself, from whom it undoubtedly proceeded, we may hence infer that its dignity neither gains nor loses by the administrator. And, just as among men, when a letter has been sent, if the hand and seal is recognized, it is not of the least consequence who or what the messenger was; so it ought to be sufficient for us to recognize the hand and seal of our Lord in his sacraments, let the administrator be who he may.”

Calvin goes on to to directly mention the errors of the Donatists that Augustine wrangled with. Moreover, in Book IV, chapter 1 in a section called, “Answer to the ancient and modern Cathari, and to the Novatians, concerning the forgiveness of sins” Calvin declares, “Refusing to acknowledge any church that is not pure from the minutest blemish, they take offense at sound teachers for exhorting believers to make progress, and so teaching them to groan during their whole lives under the burden of sin, and flee for pardon.”

But Stephen, Augustine and Calvin they all get this stuff from the Pauline school of thought. In Ephesians 1, we read,

“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”

This is why I am in part so astonished at the schismatic spirit running rampant today, especially in Reformed churches. Now, Protestants in general and Reformed Christians in particular have long struggled with a spirit of divisiveness. Every few years it seems some group likes to claim that they have recaptured the essence of pure apostolic faith. But it seems divides over gender complementarianism and egalitarianism and over the inclusion of gays, lesbians, trans and other queer folks in the church have greatly exacerbated the schismatic spirit. And the rate at which “exploration teams” are forming and “break away” proposals are flying or being threatened one would think maybe someone has been baptizing babies in goats blood in the name of Baal. But no, we’re just ordaining women and offering full communion to gay Christians.

One would hope that folks wishing to break away from Reformed bodies like the Reformed Church in America, the Christian Reformed Church or the Presbyterian Church, USA to join a more hardline and sectarian body like the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, might give pause and take a cue from Pope Stephen I (or Augustine or Calvin). But I am convinced that those who would break away are most often of a much different frame of mind.  They often seem to me to take the Reformation moto Solo Christo to mean Christ subsists in the church alone, much like my Contemporary Roman Catholic sisters and brothers. Yet often, they would give a less generous interpretation of what that means than my Catholic friends, they often (but not always) despise the church of Rome, and almost without fail have an extremely narrow definition of what constitutes the true church where Christ is free to move, the church that they control, or at least wish to control.

The good news is that Christ is not bound!!! God has revealed a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth. If to my surprise the more cantankerous and conservative voices are right and I am wrong about the ordination of women and the viability of monogamous committed gay partnerships then really it is me and a relatively small group (when compared to the size of our congregations) of pastors and other leaders who will be found wanting and in error. And if I am right, it will be slightly larger – I think anyway (but still small compared to the amount of people they are leading)- group of pastors who will be found wanting and lacking in grace. I am not willing to say that the vast majority of the good God and neighbor loving people that I know at either  “conservative” or “liberal” churches are not living lives marked by the Holy Spirit. But it often seems that those on either “side” of the gender or human sexuality debates would have us all think much differently: Only their “side” has the true teachings of Christ, and the true manifestation of the Holy Spirit. It amounts to a gospel of “works” intellectual works, believing the right things. And exhibits a lack of trust in the supremacy of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.


One thought on “Pope Stephen I: Defender of Papal Authority & Proto Reformer

  1. Seems like some folks missed the fact that Jesus commanded us to love one another. Period. He didn’t say love one another but only if you can agree 100% with everything they think or say.

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