Pope of the Month: St Pontian (230-235)

Apologies for being remiss with my monthly popes! I’m still in recovery from learning, as posted here, that St Hippolytus was probably not anti-pope to Callistus I, Urban I, Pontian, and Anterus. My first step of recovery was to go earlier than Hippolytus to St Victor I; today, I give you one of Hippolytus’ contemporaries, Pope Pontian, whom tradition says was martyred alongside Hippolytus.

Not a lot is actually known about Pope Pontian. During his tenure as Bishop of Rome, Origen was condemned in Egypt by Demetrius of Alexandria, but whether Pontian corroborated the Egyptian synods’ rulings or not is mere conjecture. Indeed, so little is known about him that I feel no guilt in simply giving you our earliest source for him, Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History. First, Book 6.23.3:

3. While these things were in progress, Urbanus,who had been for eight years bishop of the Roman church, was succeeded by Pontianus, and Zebinus succeeded Philetus in Antioch.

Later, 6.28-29:

Chapter XXVIII.—The Persecution under Maximinus.

The Roman emperor, Alexander, having finished his reign in thirteen years, was succeeded by Maximinus Cæsar. On account of his hatred toward the household of Alexander, which contained many believers, he began a persecution, commanding that only the rulers of the churches should be put to death, as responsible for the Gospel teaching. Thereupon Origen composed his work On Martyrdom, and dedicated it to Ambrose and Protoctetus, a presbyter of the parish of Cæsarea, because in the persecution there had come upon them both unusual hardships, in which it is reported that they were eminent in confession during the reign of Maximinus, which lasted but three years. Origen has noted this as the time of the persecution in the twenty-second book of his Commentaries on John, and in several epistles.

Chapter XXIX.—Fabianus, who was wonderfully designated Bishop of Rome by God.

1. Gordianus succeeded Maximinus as Roman emperor; and Pontianus, who had been bishop of the church at Rome for six years, was succeeded by Anteros. After he had held the office for a month, Fabianus succeeded him.

During Maximinus’ persecution, Pontian and Hippolytus were exiled to Sardinia where both of them died. Before dying, Pontian abdicated from the episcopate; the first Roman bishop to do so. This, according to J. N. D. Kelly, is our earliest secure date in papal history: 28 September 235, as recorded in the fourth-century Liberian Catalogue.

They were later interred at Rome — an excavation discovered Pontian’s grave in the catacomb of San Callisto in 1909.

Because of the dispelling of the old Anti-pope Hippolytus fable (still believed in Kelly’s A Dictionary of Popes), there is not much more to say about Pontian. He was Bishop of Rome for five years, and then died in exile during a persecution.

The few notes worth highlighting are that persecutions were rarely targeted at the entire Christian population — Maximinus Thrax’s persecution was directed at leaders, especially bishops. Note also to take Eusebius’ account of there being many Christians in Alexander Severus’ household and this being the reason for Maximinus’ persecution with caution. Finally, while not everyone buried in the catacombs was a martyr, some were.

Notes

This is largely based on J. N. D. Kelly and Michael J. Walsh, A Dictionary of Popes, 2nd ed. Oxford: 2010.

The translation of Eusebius is that of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2, Vol. 1; trans. Dr. Arthur C. McGiffert and Dr. Ernest C. Richardson.

The Rule of Faith

Throughout his works, Irenaeus of Lyons (born in Asia Minor, d. c. 200) has many statements that could be termed ‘credal’. For a discussion of many of them, check out JND Kelly, Early Christian Creeds, pp. 76 ff. Here’s the most famous:

For the Church, though dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: in one God, the Father Almighty, who made the heaven and the earth and the seas and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the incarnate ascension into heaven of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and his future manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father to sum up all things and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole huiman race in order that . . . he should execute just judgement towards all; that he may send spiritual wickednesses, and the angels who transgressed and came into a state of rebellion together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into the everlasting fire; but may, as an act of Grace, confer immortality on the righteous and holy, and those who have kept his commandments, and have persevered in his love, some from the beginning, and others from their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory. (Against the Heresies 1.10.1, in A New Eusebius, pp. 111-112)

The basic outline of the creeds, Apostles‘ and Nicene, is here, as Irenaeus combines the old baptismal-type formulae of, say, the Didache with 1 Corinthians 8:6:

But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him. (KJV)

Irenaeus proclaims that the whole church throughout the world believes this regula fidei, or ‘rule of faith’ (the Greek is lost). A regula is a rule as in a straight line or a ruler. The regula is a guide to the content of the faith. His multiple statements vary in wording and in how much Irenaeus puts in, but they never differ. This, for Irenaeus, is Apostolic orthodoxy, handed down to the churches through the Apostolic Succession (we looked at this here); it runs counter to his great opponents, the Marcionites and the Gnostics.

Some may wonder how widespread Irenaeus’ orthodoxy really was; I would wager it was common enough in Gaul (France) for him to be elected bishop of Lyons, common enough in Asia Minor for him to think it traditional. It was common enough in Rome for Justin’s regula to be about the same, as well as for Tertullian’s Carthaginian regula. It looks like earlier and contemporaneous eastern baptismal formulae as well.

What this means, friends, is that something that looks very much like orthodoxy pre-dates Constantine. It may not be as precise as Nicene orthodoxy, but it is part of the journey that leads through Nicaea to Chalcedon. Yes, there were competing ‘orthodoxies’ or ‘Christianities’ such as the various forms of ‘Gnosticism’ and the Montanists of last week and the Marcionites and the ‘Judaising’ elements (‘Ebionites’ and ‘Quartodecimans’) and, later on, Donatists and Meletians and Paul of Samosata.

It also reminds us that the Church has ever sought to keep itself aligned with Scripture and that lenses such as Creeds exist to help us read the Bible well. Some claim, ‘No Creed but Christ!’ But the Gnostics read many of the same Scriptures as us, as did the Arians, and they came to very different conclusions. How can we know what is the true deposit of the faith, how can we know our reading of Scripture is faithful?

Irenaeus, with his rule of faith, shows us. If we believe these things, we are on the right path. If you remain unconvinced, I recommend works by Baptist scholar DH Williams; the introduction to Scripture, Tradition, and Interpretation is the quickest, accessible route to his thought.

If you are convinced, I hope you will not discard the creeds and their content, even if you tire of their exact wording. They help preserve an unbroken line of teaching that brings us to the very feet of the Apostles who walked with our Lord Christ.

The next step …

In “This Week in Patristics” for May 30 – June 4, Phil Snider ponders, “It does make me wonder what the next step is, now that we have so many competant introductions.” This is a good question. I, myself, have read a few good introductions of various types, such as Thomas C. Oden’s The Rebirth of Orthodoxy which is a call for mainline Protestants to rediscover the Church Fathers, Christopher A. Hall’s three volumes from IVP, Robert E. Webber’s Ancient-Future Faith, and Boniface Ramsey’s Beginning to Read the Fathers.

One answer, of course (and I’m pretty sure Phil thought of this), is to read more and more of the Fathers. The Age of the Fathers contains an enormous volume of content, much of which is worth reading more than once, spanning the Mediterranean world and beyond, covering a multitude of genres both prose and poetic, and providing wisdom for many different aspects of our lives.

If the bigness of the Patristic world overwhelms you, I recommend working through something like Ramsey’s “Patristic Reading Program” as at the back of Beginning to Read the Fathers. I also recommend, if you’ve read a lot about the Fathers but not much from the Fathers, that you get Henry Chadwick’s translation of St. Augustine’s Confessions, the SVS translation of St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, and the Penguin Classics edition, by Maxwell Staniforth and Andrew Louth, of the Apostolic Fathers called Early Christian Writings. These will give you a variety of different writings from East and West in different genres. You can move on from there based on what you found of interest.

If you are already reading the Fathers but are looking for guides, a good idea is to get a book of essays on Patristic themes. One of my first introductions to the secondary material on the Church Fathers was Ancient and Postmodern Christianity: Paleo-orthodoxy in the 21st Century, ed. Kenneth Tanner and Christopher A. Hall, a collection of essays about patristic themes and the question of orthodoxy in today’s Church. A similar volume, also from IVP, was Ancient Faith for the Church’s Future, a collection of conference papers on Patristic questions and their application to today’s situations.

Another, similar, idea is to find authors of series of books on Patristic questions, such as Robert E. Webber’s series that began with Ancient-Future Faith but also includes Ancient-Future Evangelism and Ancient-Future Worship. These books tend to point you towards others, both primary material and secondary sources, that may interest you.

I have a friend who is a missionary in Cyprus, and because St. John Chrysostom is such a big deal in the Greek Orthodox world, he got his hands on J.N.D. Kelly’s book Goldenmouth. If you are a Jerome enthusiast, Kelly also has Jerome.

Along similar lines to a modern biography/study of an ancient Christian figure is the Routledge series The Early Church Fathers. Who has caught your eye, but the bibliography seems too big? St. Leo? No problem! Or Severus of Antioch? Or Evagrius Ponticus? Or Ambrose of Milan? Or Cyril of Alexandria? Or Athanasius? No problem!

Alternatively, browse through a handbook to see what material there is. I realise that non-specialists with not a lot of time on their hands will be less excited by Daniel Hombergen’s The Second Origenist Controversy than I am, but handbooks also point you less weighty, more readable material along the way; there is Quasten’s multi-volume Patrology as well as Hubertus Drobner’s single-volume The Fathers of the Church. If a book looks like it will kill you from boredom, don’t be ashamed to put it down! The whole point of Patristics is edification and drawing nearer to Christ. We only have so many hours in our lives, so wasting time with boring or excessively long books that will profit us little is not to be recommended.

Finally, why not take your daily Bible readings and the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture and read along that way? And if a passage is particularly striking, see if you can find it in context and find more Church Fathers and connexions that way. You will learn more about Scripture at the same time! To save time, for those who use the Revised Common Lectionary, the companion volumes Ancient Christian Devotional (Year A doesn’t specify the year, Year C is out, and I hope to see Year B by Advent) are aligned with the Lectionary. Also interesting may be Hendrickson’s Day by Day with the Early Church Fathers.

This is all for now, but even if you choose a single one of these, you will have taken an important step beyond reading introduction to the Fathers after introduction!

Eustathios

The Council of Nikaia, St. Sozomen's Church, Galata, Cyprus. My photo.

Re-post from 2008.

Eustathios (in the middle of the left cluster) raised his eyebrows in surprise. He hoped he did not audibly gasp. He and Makarios had been disappointed in Eusebios of Kaisareia’s support of Arios, but now Eusebios was advocating a formula of belief that called Jesus “God of God” and “begotten of the Father before all the ages.”

Eusebios concluded the formulary of Kaisareia, “. . . who was made flesh for our salvation and lived among men, and suffered, and rose again on the third day, and ascended to the Father, and shall come again in glory to judge the living and dead; we believe also in one Holy Spirit.”

“Well,” said Makarios quietly from his right, “the Lord still performs marvels.”

“Or Eusebios still plays at politics,” responded Eustathios.

“Let us be charitable, brother,” chided Makarios gently, a smile playing on his lips.

“We need something stronger. Shall I recommend the formula of Antiokheia or Aelia?”

“Whichever you like, Eustathios.”

Eustathios stood. Assembled were many, many overseers. The council was drawing to a close. The proposed formula would set a standard for the Assembly; if one disagreed, then one was not following the true and right teaching handed down from the apostles. Nikolaos, Spyridon, Alexandros of Alexandreia, Aurelianos, Vitos and Vikentios the legates from Roma, Hosios of Cordoba, an elderly woman who always caught his eye, someone who looked suspiciously like Metrophanes of Byzantion (Eustathios had heard that Metrophanes was too ill to travel, like Father Silvester), Arios himself, and Konstantinos all looked at him. Konstantinos nodded.

“I feel that the word-twisting logic games of the Arian philosophers would find a way around Kaisareia’s formula. I would like to recommend one that Makarios, Overseer of Aelia Capitolina,” Makarios raised his right hand in a little wave, “and I have put together. It is based largely on that of Antiokheia, but with additions from Aelia and our own prayerfully considered thoughts. It is as follows:

“I believe in one only true God, the Father almighty, creator of all creatures visible and invisible; and in our Lord Jesus Christ, His only-begotten Son and first-begotten of all creation, born from Him before all ages and not made, true God from true God, of one substance with the Father, through Whom also the ages were framed and all things were made, Who because of us came and was born from the Virgin Mary, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and was buried, and one the third day rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended to heaven, and will come again to judge living and dead; and in one Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, Who spoke in the prophets, and in one baptism of repentance to the remission of sins, and in one holy Catholic church, and in the resurrection of the flesh, and in the life everlasting.**

“Thank you,” Eustathios sat back down. The Metrophanes-like man was clapping quietly in the corner.

“Let us go with that of Overseer Eustathios,” stated Spyridon.

Alexandros of Alexandreia stood, “I feel that Kaisareia’s is more elegant, but that the one proposed by Brother Eustathios has important phrases we need to combat the dark teachings of Arios.”

“We must use the powerful words of Antiokheia,” proclaimed Nikolaos. “To say that Jesus was not made is an important statement; this holy mystery of God’s Incarnation and the knowledge of Jesus as the uncreated light of the world are what set us apart!”

“I would like to recommend,” said Konstantinos, glimmering from his throne, “that we keep Eusebios’ baptismal formula as the basis for the statement to be produced here. However, I agree with Alexandros that certain phrases are important in settling this dispute and establishing peace throughout the Anointed’s Assembly. Let us be sure, therefore, to count Jesus as of one substance with the Father, as well as what Nikolaos says about him being begotten, not made.”

The debate moved on, phrases being added here and there, and then, at the instigation of men such as Nikolaos and Spyridon, anathemas added to the end, dealing specifically with Arios. After some thirty days of gathering for prayer and discussion, the largest gathering of overseers the world had ever seen produced the following:

We believe in one God the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, only-begotten, that is, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things were made, things in heaven and things on the earth; who for us men and for our salvation came down and was made flesh, and became man, suffered, and rose on the third day, ascended into the heavens, is coming to judge living and dead.

And in the Holy Spirit.

And those that say, “There was when he was not,” and “Before he was begotten he was not,” and that, “He came into being from what-is-not,” or those that allege, that the son of God is “Of another substance or essence” or “created” or “changeable” or “alterable,” these the Universal and Apostolic Assembly anathematizes.

Some stayed in Nikaia for Konstantinos’ twentieth anniversary celebrations. The more monkish went home immediately. Many thought it was over, that Arios and falsehood had been cleansed from the Assembly. It was only just beginning.

*Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963, pp. 24-25.

**J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds, 2nd ed. London: Longmans, 1960, pp. 184-185. The creed is the creed of Antioch as quoted by John Cassian up to “living and dead.” After that, it is the creed of Jerusalem. Kelly notes that Cassian’s creed, quoted in 430/31, has had Nicene phraseology added to it (185). The creed of Jerusalem, however, is “of fairly early date” (183). All three creeds are ancient baptismal formulas, just like the West’s “Apostle’s Creed.” That Sts. Macarius and Eustathius were working together in creedal formulation behind the scenes, see The Catholic Encyclopedia.