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The Odd Couple

Though this year it’s trumped by a Sunday, today’s memorial is certainly one of the strangest items on the Church’s calendar. It is the feast of a martyr pope and a martyr antipope — a third-century hero of unity and his schismatic counterpart — Pontian and Hippolytus. Now, sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, based in part on the discussions in the old Catholic Encyclopedia, supplemented a bit by the works of Gregory Dix and Burton Scott Easton.

Hippolytus was a priest of the Church of Rome at the beginning of the third century. According to a late but plausible account, he was a student of St. Irenaeus. Quite early, he became a teacher himself. It is likely that Origen heard him when the famous Alexandrian made his pilgrimage to Rome around 212-215. Hippolytus came into conflict with Pope Zephyrinus (reigned 198-217) — and with the majority of the Church of Rome — during the doctrinal controversies of his age. There was, at the time, a variety of aberrant notions circulating about the Trinity. Most of them emphasized the unity of God too one-sidedly and held that the “Father” and “Son” were merely different manifestations (or modes) of the one Divine Nature. Thus, these heresies are often lumped together under the category “modalism.”

Against these men, Hippolytus stood uncompromisingly for a real difference between the Son and the Father. But in his language he tended to overcorrect his opponents’ errors, and so his own doctrine seemed to represent the Son as a Divine Person almost completely separate from God (the error of ditheism) and also utterly subordinate to the Father (subordinationism). What really got Hippolytus in trouble, however, was his impatience. Pope Zephyrinus declined to render a swift decision on the trinitarian controversies, and this infuriated Hippolytus, who gravely censured the pontiff and called him incompetent — unworthy to rule the Church of Rome. He went on to say that Zephyrinus was really nothing but a tool in the hands of the ambitious and intriguing deacon Callistus.

Well, guess who was elected pope upon the death of Zephyrinus? That’s right: Callistus. (He’s SAINT Callistus to you and me — though not, just then, to Hippolytus.)

Hippolytus immediately left the communion of the Roman Church and had himself elected antipope by his small band of followers. These he called “the Catholic Church” and himself successor to the Apostles, terming the great majority of Roman Christians the “School of Callistus.” By more than a millennium and a half, he anticipated the British comedians who recounted the Anglican schism as the time when “the Pope and all his minions seceded from the Church of England.”

Hippolytus railed against Callistus and the two subsequent popes, Urban and Pontian, accusing them all of laxity in the discipline of sinners and heretics. Meanwhile, he tended his defiant little “true church” — and wrote great works of biblical commentary, liturgical scholarship, and theology. His Apostolic Tradition was enormously influential in the Catholic liturgical movement of the 20th century; it is the source of the second Eucharistic Prayer, promulgated after the Second Vatican Council.

As such a brilliant and imposing public figure, Hippolytus must have been an easy target during the persecutions that brought down one legitimate pope after another. It says something about the legitimacy of all those men that they were martyred while their contender was not.

At length, though, Hippolytus was indeed arrested, tried, and banished to the unhealthful island of Sardinia. Providentially, he was sent away at the same time and to the same place as Pope Pontian. Shortly before this, or soon afterward, the wayward would-be pope became reconciled with the legitimate bishop and Church of Rome.

After both exiles had died on the island of Sardinia, their mortal remains were brought back to Rome on the same day, August 13, probably in the year 236. And they were laid to rest, aptly enough, in the Catacomb of St. Callistus!

Hippolytus is fascinating because of his eccentricity. But we mustn’t neglect his erstwhile opponent, with whom he shares a grave and a feast day. Pontian was made pope July 21, 230, and reigned until 235. He played an important role in the early controversies surrounding Origen of Alexandria. Pontian upheld the decisions of the Egyptian bishops against Origen. In 235, the emperor Maximinus the Thracian began one of Rome’s periodic persecutions directed chiefly against the heads of the Church. One of its first victims was Pontian. In 1909 the original epitaph was found in the crypt of St. Cecilia, near the papal crypt. The epitaph, agreeing with the other known epitaphs of the papal crypt, reads: PONTIANOS, EPISK. MARTUR (Pontianus, Bishop, Martyr).

14 thoughts on “The Odd Couple

  1. I just read about these saints yesterday in a new book called (I think) Saints Behaving Badly … it was one of the few times I was actually shocked, both by Callistus’ election at pope and then at Hippolytus becoming a saint. Truly facts that are stranger than fiction!

  2. What we think we know about Callistus comes from Hippolytus and Tertullian, two schismatics who were also rigorists. Both were known for rhetorical overkill. I don’t doubt that their complaints contained a kernel of fact. (Callistus certainly took on ambitious projects. If one tanked, it could have lost a fotune or two.) But I’ll bet Tertullian and Hippolytus were only too happy to receive and believe the most damning (and perhaps untrue) gossip about their most well-placed enemy. H eventually saw the error of his ways, repented, and was reconciled. We’ll probably never know about Tertullian, this side of the grave.

  3. I had forgotten that Pontian was the first pope (and one of only two in history) to resign his office. Father Z gives more gory details on our saints of the day…

  4. I wonder if modern schismatics could learn a lesson from this story, and reconcile with the Church before it’s too late. Like the Church of Rome being in Schism from the Anglican Church, so too is Rome in schism from the SSPX, which is loudly waiting for Rome to repent. History seems to keep happening.

  5. Keep in mind that Tertullian died in full communion with the Church, Montanism not having been declared a heresy during his lifetime. There is also no explicit evidence for Tertullian having “joined” the Montanists, only that some very few of his positions were sympathetic.

  6. Kevin,

    I wish what you’re saying could be true. It’s what I’d want to believe. But both Quasten and Drobner use strong language to describe Tertullian’s change of allegiance (“went over to … a sect” in the former; “severed his ties with the Catholic Church” in the latter). Altaner says Tertullian “broke with the Church.” According to Von Campenhausen, Tertullian remained with the Montanists after the Pope, the bishop of Carthage, and then all the bishops of Africa declared the Montanists to be in schism. F.L. Cross uses similar language. I think all of these guys would want to find Tertullian a loophole if they could.

    Now, I’ll grant that the manuals don’t cite sources for the assertion (they rarely cite anything), but to find it stated so strongly so universally — and by such varied and judicious men — makes me tend to believe it, even if I’d rather find the contrary to be true.

  7. Mike, all of that started showing up in the late nineteenth century, and became an entrenched and unexamined scholarly dogma. The facts remain: 1.) There’s nothing in Tertullian’s writings themselves which are unequivocally Montanist; 2.) He makes no mention at all of joining with them; and 3.) The Montanists were not universally anathematized until Nicea. I’m not saying the man is or should be a saint, but nor should he be accused of something of which he’s not guilty. All of the elaboration of the Montanist Tertullian is based solely in the secondary and tertiary literature, like so much of the junk Biblical Studies literature today: repeat it in enough footnotes and it becomes truth. It’s simply not so. There’s not a lick of it in the ancients or in his own writings, which are still the primary sources.

  8. Well, a Google search brought me a lick from Augustine, and he’s an ancient (though a later ancient) who lived in Tertullian’s backyard: “Therefore, the reason Tertullian became a heretic was not for this, but because in joining the Cataphrygians, whom he had earlier demolished, he also began to condemn, contrary to Apostolic teaching, second marriage as debauchery. Later, having separated from them too, he established congregations of his own” (from De Haeresibus 86).

    Again, I want to take the boat your way, Kevin. But the current seems strong in this stretch of the river.

  9. And this is from Jerome’s De Viris 53: “Tertullian was a priest of the church until middle age, but then, because of the envy and insults of the clergy of the church of Rome, he lapsed into Montanism and refers to the New Prophecy in many treatises. In particular, he directed against the church discussions of modesty, of persecution, of fasting, of monogamy, and of divine possession (in six books, with a seventh against Apollonius).”

  10. The Gelasian Decree also seems to deep-six the works of Tertullian, though that does not necessarily mean he was himself a heretic.

    Help thou my unbelief.

  11. Right, but all of those are much later, as much as we do respect both Augustine and Jerome! We don’t have anything from close enough to Tertullian’s time that actually says he was a Montanist. Even with examination of his writings, there’s no clear set of Montanist and pre-Montanist ones. It may have been the case that he did turn Montanist and anti-Church, but that would be anachronistic for one thing, as the Montanists themselves weren’t quite anti-Church, but considered themselves a kind of revivalist movement within the Church, and that mostly in the East. We have no evidence for Montanism in Africa at all aside from these odd sayings about Tertullian. It just doesn’t wash. Mostly for the reason that no one would ever think Tertullian was a Montanist simply from reading his writings, if they had never heard the idea already from others. I find it more likely tha it could very well be the case that because Tertullian’s rigorous morality was somewhat akin to the Montanists, his writings were co-opted by some later group of them and reworked into something anti-Great Church. Such happened all the time, and caused problems for many. Anyhow, within the body of writings that we have from Tertullian, there’s nothing determinedly heretical. The assumption is that he was a heretic either permanently or temporarily at some point, but his writings don’t indicate anything outré, so why should we think that? I’ve only read about half of them myself, but what I’ve seen is typical of African Christianity in general: rigorously moral, highly ascetic, almost sere in discipline, but vibrantly faithful and devoted to the Church. There’s nothing of the freewheeling Montanists there. Drop that unbelief! Convert!

  12. Yes, but … there is an odd circumstance brought up by most of the modern commentators. Tertullian is widely quoted by the early Fathers, but almost always without attribution. Cyprian — the bishop in Tertullian’s hometown in the very next generation — does this consistently. Eusebius mentions Tertullian, but only once and in a kind of hit-and-run. Others do the same thing as Cyprian. It’s almost as if they find his prose irresistible, but they fear the taint of his name. He’s an elephant in the ecclesiastical kitchen.

    (The Jerome passage I quoted earlier is interesting because Jerome seems to see Tertullian as a kindred spirit. All that complaining about how Tertullian suffered from the envy of Roman clerics — it sounds more like the life of Jerome than the life of our lawyer friend!)

    For all those who are watching and waiting for Kevin to draw his scimitar: There’s abundant material on Tertullian and his life and afterlife at It’s there that I learned about T’s prodigious production of neologisms. Get this, from Altaner: in Tertullian’s known works we find that he “formed 509 new nouns, 284 adjectives, 28 adverbs and 161 verbs, i. e. together 982 new words.”

  13. Goodness, I’ve no scimitar, you can be assured, and even if I did, I wouldn’t pull it on you! All I want to ensure is that, yes, one may misconstrue the evidence to say that Tertullian was a heretic, but that I don’t think that’s right. There’s nothing there in his own writings which absolutely and unequivocally requires that conclusion, and if that’s the case, then what’s going on? There are equally plausible explanations otherwise. For instance, Cyprian simply need not have identified his recent and well-known precursor as he was so well-known still and especially there. So, something other than what we have so readily assumed is proven may actually be so. It’s easy enough to not call a man a heretic for that reason alone. Cranky yes, but heretical no.

  14. That’s very true. And magnanimous.

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