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Callistus - Conservative or Innovator?

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Callistus (?-223) was bishop of Rome from 219 to 223, and was one of the more colourful and controversial figures in early church history. He started life as a slave, and his career is a good example of the church disregarding the social status of an individual in appointing leaders, recognising that in Christ there is no slave or free (Gal 3:28).

Callistus has been described as, ‘An innovator in church practice, a conservative in doctrine’. This quotation refers to the two different aspects of his feud with Hippolytus, other than the personal quarrel caused by their competing ambitions. He could be regarded as an innovator in church practice because of the toleration he showed towards repentant sinners. This was in contrast to the rigorous view propagated by Tertullian, Hippolytus, and other leaders in the church, as well as by the Montanists. It is likely that he believed that no sin was unforgivable if the sinner is genuinely repentant. He appealed to examples in Scripture to support this, including the prodigal son and the parable of the lost sheep. Callistus was innovative in that he set the trend within the Catholic Church towards the restoration to fellowship of repentant sinners. However, this view ultimately increased the power of the Pope, as the priest who had the power to declare that sins were forgiven. Also from this derived the idea that those who had suffered for their faith could also declare that sins were forgiven.

He was also opposed by Hippolytus for his support of marriages between slaves and well-born Christian women. He also allowed clergy to marry, and permitted clergy who had been married more than once to remain in clerical office. Hippolytus was shocked by this attitude, as he considered that Callistus was making too great a concession to the wickedness of men. However, in some ways he was centuries ahead of his time.

To a certain extent, his theology could be described as conservative. His concern was to safeguard the orthodox teaching of the unity of God and the deity of Christ against the newer teaching developed by the Greek apologists which described Christ as the ‘Logos’ or ‘Word’. He saw this teaching as a threat to the unity of the God-head because he considered that it implied, either that there were two gods, God the Father and Christ the Logos, or otherwise that Christ was not truly divine. In one statement Callistus declared that the Father and the Son were the same. Because of this, Hippolytus accused Callistus of holding a modalistic monarchic viewpoint. Although his views were probably not entirely orthodox because they had elements of modalistic teaching, it is unlikely that Callistus actually taught such an extreme view. It is frequently the case in such conflicts that the opposing parties accuse each other of holding a more extreme view than they actually do. This polarises the conflict and ignores the common ground between the two views. It is likely that Callistus’ intention was to remain faithful to what he understood to be the apostolic faith. However, in opposing the Logos doctrine, he over-reacted to the extent that his own teaching also became open to the accusation of being mildly heretical.