On Catholic Answers, episode #6796, Dr. David Anders makes it sound as though the issue of supremacy of the Roman bishop came up for the first time in the third century, as though “Pope Stephen” asserted the primacy of the Roman see, and as though the East acquiesced in silence.

As explained in more detail at the link (link to more detailed explanation), the issue of Stephen’s authority was raised by Stephen in the third century. It was raised in the context of a debate over whether the baptisms of the Novatianists should be accepted. Stephen tried to appeal to his own authority to settle the debate, but Cyprian of Carthage and a council of North African bishops strongly disagreed with Stephen’s authority claim. Moreover, in the east, Firmilian of Caesarea (in Cappadocia, Turkey) agreed with Cyprian against Stephen, despite being aware of Stephen’s claims.

While only Cyprian (and the council of bishops with him) dealt explicitly with Stephen’s authority claim, Firmilian’s rejection of Stephen’s position on the baptism issue reflects the fact that Stephen’s authority claims were not somehow silently acknowledged as true in the East. If Firmilian thought Stephen had authority, he could hardly have mocked positions as Firmilian did. The reason for the absence of eastern response on the authority claim issue is better attributed to the fact that the baptism issue was the central issue. The authority claim was a mere tangent at that time. Furthermore, it’s not clear how widely Stephen’s letters to Cyprian were circulated. Although Cyprian’s letters remain, it seems that Stephen’s letters have been lost.

In short, Dr. Anders’ argument from silence was wrong – both because the churches were not entirely silent, and because the absence of additional debate on the subject at that time is more easily explained as the issue being a tangent in a hotter debate. I understand that Dr. Anders contributes to the so-called “Called to Communion” site, but perhaps he should consider being “Called to Cyprian” to learn a bit more about church history.


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