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Hippolytus and his Feud with Callistus

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Hippolytus (c.170-236) is one of the most enigmatic personalities in the early church, because so little is know about the details of his life. What is known, was his prominence in the church in Rome during the first half of the third century, and his feud with Bishop Callistus. Nothing is known about his family, place of birth, or early life, except that he became an outstanding pupil of Irenaeus.

Hippolytus was a prolific writer and a distinguished theologian. He was extremely rigorous in his moral discipline, particularly by opposing leniency to sinners in the church. This was one of the issues over which he had conflict with Callistus, who permitted people who had committed the most serious offences to be restored to the fellowship of the church. He was also most stringent over which occupations Christians could pursue. Totally forbidden was serving in the Roman Army because it involved bearing arms, taking oaths and having a master other than Christ. He also believed that it was inconceivable for a member of the church to be a civic magistrate, so that he insisted that they resigned their position before joining the church. He also forbade Christians from attending or being involved in public entertainment, such as chariot races.

He also opposed the teaching of modalistic monarchianism, which had gained support from Bishop Zephyrinus (198-217), and then from Callistus (217-222). The concern of those holding this view was to uphold the divine unity, as well as the full deity of Christ. They taught that the Son and the Spirit were modes of expression of the Father, so that the Father was born as Jesus Christ and suffered on the cross. This idea is known as ‘patripassianism’. Hippolytus strongly opposed this view, and emphasised the role of the Logos, so much so that Callistus accused him of believing in two gods.

His quarrel with Callistus was largely caused by his personal ambition, as well as differences in their theology and view of discipline in the church. When Zephyrinus died, Hippolytus was furious that Callistus was elected Pope instead of himself. He refused to recognise Callistus as bishop, but instead he probably became the first rival bishop of Rome, or anti-Pope. This is because he referred to himself as Bishop of Rome, but there is no record of him ever holding that position. However, there are records of him being a presbyter in the church in Rome.

Hippolytus is particularly remembered for his writings, especially his ‘Apostolic Tradition’, in which he describes church order in the early second century. In it he wrote about baptism and the Eucharist. He said that following baptism, the candidates had hands laid on them by the bishop, who prayed for the reception of the Holy Spirit, which was an early form of confirmation. He also wrote that following baptism, the candidates were given their first Eucharist of bread, followed by three cups, of water, milk mixed with honey to represent the Promised Land, and then wine. He was the last writer in the Roman church to write in Greek, which helped to preserve the Logos doctrine in the Roman church. He also wrote commentaries on the Bible, including a commentary on the Book of Daniel, which is the earliest commentary which still exists. He also wrote books to counter heresies, as well as apologies addressed to Jews and to Greeks.

He died in the mines in Sardinia, where he had been banished during the persecution by emperor Maximin the Tracian (235-238). There, he is supposed to have been reconciled with Callistus, who was also sent there. He is recognised by the Roman Church as a saint and martyr.