This week we will finish reading Origen and begin reading Hippolytus of Rome (c. 170–236). With Hippolytus we begin the fifth volume of the Ante Nicene Fathers, and as it happens, Hippolytus will take us to the end of the first year of reading down to the day.
A statue discovered in Rome in 1551 and identified as Hippolytus
Hippolytus flourished at the beginning of the third century. Some date his birth to around 170, though this detail like so many others in his life is uncertain. Hippolytus wrote in Greek, not Latin, and he may have been lived for a time in Alexandria or Asia Minor. It is possible that he was a disciple of Irenaeus, with whom he shares a theological affinity. Hippolytus was most likely a presbyter—that is, a priest, but also a leader tasked with the governance of the church under the authority of the bishop—in Rome under Popes Victor I (r. 189–199), Zephyrinus (r. 199–217), and Callixtus I (r. 217–222/23). Some ancient but not contemporary sources refer to Hippolytus as a bishop, variously of Rome, Porta, Bostra, or of an unidentified place.
But it is likely that Hippolytus was not actually a bishop, but an anti-pope. Beginning during the reign of Zephyrinus, Hippolytus become involved in controversies over Christology and church discipline, taking the side against the bishop of Rome and most of the church. He was a particularly bitter opponent of the deacon Callixtus, whom he later described as “a man cunning in wickedness, and subtle where deceit was concerned, (and) who was impelled by restless ambition to mount the episcopal throne” (Refutation of All Heresies, 9.6–7). Hippolytus accused Callistus of bribing, flattering, and manipulating Zephyrinus during his life, then succeeding him as bishop of Rome after his death. It is possible, though uncertain, that Hippolytus allowed himself to be elected as a bishop of the opponents of Callixtus and so set himself up as an anti-pope.
The grounds of the dispute between Callixtus and Hippolytus were many. Callixtus was willing to restore lapsed Christians, even those guilty of grave sins, to clerical office; Hippolytus favored a rigorous church discipline with little room for restoration (in this respect, not unlike the Donatists later). Callixtus was accused of allowing re-married Christians to be priests or deacons; Hippolytus thought this scandalous. Hippolytus writes that during Callixtus’s episcopate, “second baptism was for the first time presumptuously attempted by them,” a charge perhaps related to disputes over who could be readmitted to the church. Callixtus apparently permitted marriages between slaves and free Christians; Hippolytus regarded these unions between social unequals, which did not have the sanction of civil law, as mere concubinage. Of course, since we have only Hippolytus’s side of these accusations, they must be viewed critically and with uncertainty.
By 235, Hippolytus had been exiled to Sardinia by the emperor of Rome, where he died. The legendary account that comes down to us from Prudentius that he died by being drawn between horses is certainly untrue, and is probably based on the mythical Greek figure Hippolytus, about whom Euripedes wrote a play. At some point he must have been reconciled to the bishop of Rome and the Catholic Church, because his body was returned to Rome and buried by the Christians. He was honored as a saint by the Western church, but because his writings were in Greek rather than Latin, he was primarily remembered by the Eastern church.
The controversy between Hippolytus and Callixtus was highly theological. As the writings of all early Christians attest, heresies and schisms were everywhere in the third century, and one problem that was troubling the church at Rome was the problem of accurately stating the doctrine of the Trinity. Hippolytus accused Zephyrinus of being soft on, and Callixtus of holding outright, the heresy of modalism, which emphasizes the unity of the Godhead to the exclusion of distinguishing between the Father and the Son. For this reason, the heresy is sometimes called patripassianism, since it makes the impassible Father suffer on the cross with Christ. Callixtus in turn accused Hippolytus of being a bi-theist, that is, of making so firm a distinction between the persons of the Trinity as to render the unity of God meaningless.
Hippolytus held to a theology of the Logos, like that of Irenaeus, Justin, and other authors that we have read, though he tended to disdain pagan philosophy. Hippolytus distinguished between the Word as the rational principle in the mind of God, and the Word as the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. Hippolytus thought of the Father and Word as distinct to the point that he thought of the Word as subordinate to the Father. By the standards of clarity possible a century and a half later after the Councils of Nicea (325) and Constantinople (381), his method of distinguishing between the Word and the Father must be regarded as inadequately precise and at various points misguided. But his writings on this topic are chiefly useful for demonstrating how the church over several centuries came to clearly teach the doctrine of the Trinity.
The legendary martyrdom of Hippolytus
We will primarily be reading Hippolytus’s book Refutation of All Heresies, with some fragments from his biblical commentaries and other apologetic works. Hippolytus wrote many works, some of which survive only in fragments or in translations into languages other than Greek, and for many of these texts the attribution is contested.
The Refutation of All Heresies is a work in ten books, of which book 1 and books 4–10 survive. The work is a systematic refutation of different heretics, beginning with the Greek and Egyptian philosophers, then continuing through to the Gnostics in the bulk of the book. This book is important to historians of philosophy because Hippolytus preserves fragments of works that would not otherwise be known. The book is important for our purposes as an apologetic text, as one answer to the recurring question of the relationship between the church and philosophy, and also for its positive statement of Christian doctrine in book 10. The central argument of the work is that heretics owe more to pagan philosophy than they do to the revelation that is in Jesus Christ. In taking this position Hippolytus is much closer to Tertullian in his opposition to philosophers than Justin, who was a himself a philosopher, or Clement of Alexandria, who thought the Christian was the true gnostic.
An especially intriguing work—though the authorship is disputed—is The Apostolic Tradition, written around 215 and not re-discovered until the nineteenth-century. This work describes the liturgy as it functioned in Rome, including prayers offered during the sacraments. The work also describes the three-fold offices of the church: bishop, presbyter, and deacon. Because of Hippolytus’s association with this work, other canons of church law have also been attributed to him, often wrongly. We will not be reading The Apostolic Tradition at this juncture, because the document was discovered too late for our nineteenth-century editors, but interested can easily find a copy of the text online.
Hippolytus has been neglected by scholars compared to the other fathers that we have read. Alistair Stewart-Sykes has edited a text with commentary of the Apostolic Tradition for the excellent Popular Patristics Series from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. The text of a different edition of the Apostolic Tradition is also available online. For the difficult problem of the authorship of Hippolytus, see J. A. Cerrato, Hippolytus Between East and West (Oxford, 2002).