In the third century there was a controversy throughout the Christian world pertaining to whether those baptized among heretical sects, such as Gnostics, and amongst the schismatics, such as Novatians, would need to be rebaptized upon reentering the Catholic Church. The crux of the debate was between saints Cyprian, Pope Stephen I, Firmilian, and Dionysus of Alexandria. Several early fathers after the controversy appear to think that Cyprian and Firmilian were gadflies and that Stephen I had the support of Dionysus of Alexandria and nearly the whole world. Saint Vincent de Lerins (Commonitorium, Chapter 6) and Saint Augustine (On Baptism, Against the Donatists; Book 3), and the historian Eusebius appear to take this for granted.
In this article, I will be focusing on Eusebius’ recounting of the events and compare them to Saint Dionysius of Alexandria’s extant letters. My conclusion is that there was some sort of florilegium containing quotes from those involved that had certain errors. The origins of such a source, speculatory as this is, are unknown simply because Eusebius wrote in Greek and presumably he would have had to rely on translations of Latin letters from the west into Greek. In any event, the sources on the baptism episode that reached Eusebius must have been corrupted.
Proof of Eusebius’ Corrupted Sources. This is not going to be a fancy analysis. In short, we are going to compare what Eusebius said was written versus the actual letters of Dinonysius.
Book VII, Chapter 5 of Ecclesiastical History:
[Eusebius:] But Stephen, having filled his office two years, was succeeded by Xystus. Dionysius wrote him a second epistle on baptism, in which he shows him at the same time the opinion and judgment of Stephen and the other bishops, and speaks in this manner of Stephen:
He [Pope Stephen] therefore had written previously concerning Helenus and Firmilianus, and all those in Cilicia and Cappadocia and Galatia and the neighboring nations, saying that he would not commune with them for this same cause; namely, that they re-baptized heretics. But consider the importance of the matter. For truly in the largest synods of the bishops [Iconium in approx 230 AD, the recent North African synod, etc], as I [Dinoysus] learn, decrees have been passed on this subject, that those coming over from heresies should be instructed, and then should be washed and cleansed from the filth of the old and impure leaven. And I wrote entreating him concerning all these things.
As we can see, Eusebius preserves for us a letter where Dionysius literally says that “those coming over from heresies should be…washed and cleansed.” This is a clearly a reference to baptism and proof that Dionysius disagreed with Stephen. Interestingly, the findings of “the largest synods” are implied to be a superior authority to the Pope.
What follows later in Book VII, Chapter 5 is something allegedly found in the same letter. However, it appears that the letter is in fact from Pope Sixtus II and not from Dionysius of Alexandria. Eusebius’ reading demands the following inference next to “I”:
I [Dinonysus] wrote also, at first in few words, recently in many, to our beloved fellow presbyters, Dionysius and Philemon, who formerly had held the same opinion as Stephen, and had written to me on the same matters.
Eusebius takes this as proof that Dionysus had the same opinion and judgement as Pope Stephen. However, if Eusebius is misreading a florilegium on the subject, it is more likely that the extract is in fact from Pope Sixtus II. What’s my proof for this speculation?
First, the letter itself supposedly speaks of Dionysius writing to someone who happens to have the same name–and that this “other” Dionysius was famous enough to not be identified in any special way, such as a place indicator. This would be a strange detail given that very few people with that name would be famous enough simply to be identified as “Dionysius.” Further, the letter mentions a “Philemon.” Philemon also coincidentally is the name of a known confidante of Dionysius of Rome.
Second, this allegedly later part of the same letter just so happens to contradict the content of the letter Eusebius recounts earlier. We explicitly see Dionysius contradicting Stephen’s view that Marcionites did not require rebaptism! In fact, the letter states that he entreated Stephen concerning decrees of councils, presumably because they would be viewed as earlier, authoritative precedents that would give reason to contradict any real or pretended authority Stephen claimed.
Third, we have another manuscript of an actual letter from Dionysus to Sixtus II and it does not have anything in common with the “latter part of the same letter” allegedly from Dionysius that Eusebius asserts agreed with Stephen. In Dionysius’ letter to Sixtus II, we can see that Dionysius diplomatically disagrees with Pope Stephen’s doctrine inasmuch as it disallows for baptisms without the correct form. Allow me to parse Dionysius’ letter in full:
Inasmuch as you [Sixtus II] have written thus, setting forth the pious legislation, which we continually read and now have in remembrance—namely that it shall suffice only to lay hands on those who shall have made profession in baptism, whether in pretence or in truth, of God Almighty and of Christ and of the Holy Spirit
Here, Pope Sixtus II surely interpreted “we continually read…” to mean that Dionysius was agreeing with him in the interest of restoring communion–that those who were baptized with questionable faith outside the communion of the Church should be accepted without a canonical baptism. This would have been a long sought-after “win” for Rome, especially considering that we know that the whole world opposed Stephen.
So, was it a “win?” No. Typical of Oriental diplomacy, the letter starts with flattery and a nominal concession, but afterwards gives its real opinion:
but those over whom there has not been invoked the name either of Father or of Son or of the Holy Spirit, these we must baptise, but not rebaptise. This is the sure and immovable teaching and tradition, begun by our Lord after his resurrection from the dead, when he gave his apostles the command: Go ye, make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. This then was preserved and fulfilled by his successors, the blessed apostles, and by all the bishops prior to ourselves who have died in the holy church and shared in its life; and it has lasted down to us, because it is firmer than the whole world. For, he said, heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.
In more or less words, Dionysius is asserting that a surer custom than Pope Stephen I’s, which was to accept the baptism of heretics, is to reject the baptism of heretics–as indicated by their form being faulty. Now, this is more than an imperfect criteria. Marcionite baptism probably followed a correct form if we can trust Saint Augustine writing centuries after the fact. Nevertheless, decrying the baptism of heretics because of improper form would have covered a lot of other heretics, who purposely altered the form of baptism to reflect their deficient Christology. This includes followers of Paul of Samosata, the Eumonians, and Montanists:
But Eunomians, who are baptized with only one immersion, and Montanists, who are here called Phrygians, and Sabellians, who teach the identity of Father and Son, and do sundry other mischievous things…all these, when they desire to turn to orthodoxy, we receive as heathen (Canon 7 of Constantinople I).
But concerning the Paulianists it has been determined by the Catholic Church that they shall by all means be rebaptized. The Eunomeans also, who baptize with one immersion; and the Montanists, who here are called Phrygians; and the Sabellians…we receive as Gentiles. And on the first day we make them Christians, on the second Catechumens, then on the third day we exorcise them…then we baptize them. And the Manichæans, and Valentinians and Marcionites and all of similar heresies must give certificates and anathematize each his own heresy, and also Nestorius, Eutyches, Dioscorus, Severus, and the other chiefs of such heresies, and those who think with them, and all the aforesaid heresies; and so they become partakers of the holy Communion (Canon 95 of Trullo).
Interestingly enough, Trullo appears to allow for Marcionites not to be rebaptized (similar to Stephen) and no reason can be imagined other than the fact that their form was not deficient. Nevertheless, Saint Dionysius’ teaching is either the conciliar teaching of the ecumenical councils, that being, baptisms outside of the Church (no matter the schism and its doctrines) were accepted provided they had correct form–or, it rejected the baptism of heretics more broadly (perhaps presuming they all had incorrect form) and thereby was a tic more conservative than the later conciliar view.
Either way, this was (at least perceived as) a contradiction of Pope Stephen I’s teaching. Being that we lack Stephen’s letter, from what can be reconstituted in fragments we know that he named Marcion by name, said that he accepted Marcionite baptisms just as Marcionites accepted Catholic baptisms, and elsewhere wrote:
the heretics themselves, in their own proper character, do not baptize such as come to them from one another, but only admit them to communion (Cyprian, Letter 73:1).
Now, surely this is not explicit enough for us to know whether Pope Stephen I was allowing for deficient form as well. It is left unsaid. All that is said is that he accepts heretical baptisms. However, Firmilian clearly interpreted this to mean that it included baptisms from those with improper form such as the Montanists (Cyprian, Letter 74:7), whose baptism he and (later) the ecumenical councils rejected. It should be noted that Montanists used a single immersion.
So, it seems safest to read Dionysius’ in light of a contemporary writing at the same time (Firmilian specifically), the claims of Saint Jerome, and the Council of Constantinople I which would view the Montanist baptisms as deficient in form. Therefore, Dionysius would have viewed Stephen’s letters as attacks on the Egyptian custom, which explains why his letter of “acceptance” to Sixtus II letter reads more like a diatribe against wrong form then, “Yeah, we agreed with Stephen about everything the whole time.”
My last comment on this letter would be to point out the significance of the statement where Dionysius asserts that the Egyptian custom “is firmer than the whole world.” This must be read as a rejection of something from Pope Stephen I. Let’s be honest. He would not write a letter to Pope Sixtus II, start with something he agrees about, and then talk about a totally different topic in such forceful words if he was not disagreeing with someone. Cyprian would have agreed not to accept the wrong form. Firmilian would have agreed not to. The councils in Iconium and Carthage would have agreed not to. The, it begs the question: who could have disagreed? The only possible option is Pope Stephen I.
So, being that we have Dionysius’ actual letter to Sixtus II and it does not match what Eusebius records, it appears that historical context dictates that Dionysius did not write Pope Sixtus II about another Dionysius, but rather what Eusebius records from a faulty source what is in fact Sixtus II’s letter to Dionysus. This is why the letter Eusebius should be read as follows:
I [Sixtus II] wrote also, at first in few words, recently in many, to our beloved fellow presbyters, Dionysius [of Alexandria] and Philemon [the priest who converted Dionysus to Christianity who lived in Egypt?], who formerly had held the same opinion as Stephen.
Sixtus obviously chose to interpret that Dionysius’ letter was being continually read as agreement with Stephen and took the long discussion about baptismal form as a qualified acceptance of accepting the baptism of Gnostics and schismatics (which, in some limited sense, it really was). In doing so, he purposely looked past that Saint Dionysius of Alexandria was explicitly rejecting the baptism of heretics under the proviso they had wrong form. Sixtus II wrote this off as a minor disagreement and that the main meat of the matter was conceded to.
What do we make of the earlier part of the letter in chapter 5 of Eusebius’ history which so forcefully disagrees with Pope Stephen, but does not match any manuscript we have? The best I can say is that it is impossible to tell whether it is in fact there was a second letter to Sixtus II which was authentic, which is now lost and only preserved in Eusebius.
It appears historically unforgivable that Eusebius would uncritically report of a contents of what is said to be a single letter where the contents of “both” parts disagree. It is even more unforgivable that he would use such confusing and conflicting “evidence” as proof that Dionysius agreed with Pope Stephen over and against Cyprian. We can only lament that he did and then confused historians for centuries afterwards.
Dionysius’ Letter to Pope Stephen. Am I off my rocker and reading too much into Dionysius’ letter to Sixtus II? This may be so if it were not for the fact that we have an extant letter from Dionysius to Stephen himself.
F.C. Conybeare (Old Catholic), the original English translator of Dionysius of Alexandria’s extant letters, believes that they were all critical of Pope Stephen I. I must concur when we parse Dionysus’ letter to Stephen:
For as the wisdom [which is] according to the gentiles, by changing them into holy persons, constitutes them friends of God and prophets ; so, conversely, the wickedness by transmuting into unholy persons, manifests them to be enemies of God and false prophets. What one custom ever included these?
This is how the letter begins and only a most ignorant reader would not immediately identify that this is a critical letter. Dionysius is accusing Stephen of falsely citing custom–no custom allowed for taking “gentiles” (defined by Constanintople I and Trullo as those who require baptism) and bringing them into the Church without baptism. Being that we know from fragments that Stephen’s letter emphatically cited custom, clearly Dionysius is rebutting Stephen’s appeal to said custom.
Men, however, when they have beforehand discerned something, and when they have first formed ideas of certain events, then and not before lay down laws, or make a beginning of customs. If then it was from the apostles, as we said above, that this custom took its beginning, we must adjust ourselves thereto, whatsoever may have been their reasons and the grounds on which they acted; to the end that we too may observe the same in accordance with their practice. For as to things which were written afterwards and which are until now still found, they are ignored by us ; and let them be ignored, no matter what they are.
In short, Dionysius is accusing Stephen of inventing a custom. There is no way, if Dionysius was agreeing with Stephen, he would at such length warn Stephen about the institution of false customs.
On points, however, of prime importance and great weight we must insist. For if anyone utters any impiety about God, as do those who say he is without mercy; or if anyone introduces the worship of strange gods, such an one the law has commanded to stone. But we with the vigorous words of our faith will stone them unless they approach the mystery of Christ; or [if] anyone alter or destroy [it], or [say] that he was either not God or not man, or that he did not die or rise again, or that he is not coming again to judge the quick and the dead ; or if he preach any other gospel than we have preached, let him be accursed, says Paul. But if anyone despises the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, let such an one be at once ranked with the dead.
It is not said directly, but it appears Dionysius’ point is that those who are heretics (“strange god,” idolaters, denying the ressurrection, etc) are “ranked with the dead.” This implies that they do not have valid baptisms. After all, the occasion for the writing of this letter is the baptism question. Further, one would be hard pressed to find how heretics are “accursed” and “ranked with the dead” but their baptisms are valid!
For these reasons, that we may be in accord, church with church and bishop with bishop and elder with elder, let us be careful in our utterances.
This is clearly a scolding in response to Cyprian’s excommunication.
Moreover in judging of and dealing with particular cases,—as to how it is proper to admit those who come to us from without, and how to supervise those who are within,—we give instructions to the local primates who under divine imposition of hands were appointed to discharge these duties ; for they shall give a summary account to the Lord of whatsoever they do.
Dionysius is doing two things–something more scholars should take notice of.
First, he is clearly saying he has given a judgement and he leaves it to each of Egypt’s bishops to voluntarily follow his lead, as they will have to give an account to God. This is clearly a swipe at Stephen who apparently was demanding obedience from the world’s bishops. Stephen was recently accused of styling himself a “bishop of bishops” and using “tyrannical terror” according to the Council of Carthage. Further, this part of the letter in its content concurs with the former part of the letter quoted by Eusebius in chapter 5, because it showed that Dionysius was familiar with conciliar documents on the issue.
Second, and more importantly, Dionysius is citing Saint Cyprian! Not coincidentally, Saint Cyprian ends his 75th letter saying:
…prescribing to no one, so as to prevent any prelate from determining what he thinks right, as he shall give an account of his own doings to the Lord.
The Council of Carthage in 258 reiterated this point:
For neither does any of us set himself up as a bishop of bishops, nor by tyrannical terror does any compel his colleague to the necessity of obedience; since every bishop, according to the allowance of his liberty and power, has his own proper right of judgment, and can no more be judged by another than he himself can judge another. But let us all wait for the judgment of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the only one that has the power both of preferring us in the government of His Church, and of judging us in our conduct there.
Which passage Dionysius had in mind is not for certain, but clearly he had one (or both) of them in mind. And so, he is clearly placing himself tentatively in Cyprian’s camp over and against Stephen and is correcting Stephen for excommunicating Cyprian.
Conclusion. In summation, we see that we have overwhelming evidence that Eusebius misapprehended the rebaptism controversy, specifically because he misunderstood the content of a letter which obviously was not written by Dionysius. It is embarrassing that he thought that Dionysius wrote the letter, chiefly because Dionysius and his confidante Philemon are mentioned in the same letter! This disputable letter almost certainly was written by Pope Sixtus II, who receiving Dionysius’ barely-conciliatory letter (quoted in the beginning of chapter 5), took its polite overture in the beginning as a statement accepting Rome’s teaching on the issue, chiefly because Dionysius on paper accepted the baptism of heretics with proper form. Whether in practice Dionysius accepted the baptism of any of the “dead” is still an open question, as the custom of heretics in the east was to alter the form of baptism in all the cases we are aware of. In addition, we have a scathing letter from Dionysius written to Stephen and in it he clearly rejects heretical baptisms, paraphrasing Cyprian very closely when asking Stephen to stay out of Egyptian bishops’ business.
The preceding evidence forces any reasonable reader to concede that Eusebius cannot be cited as proof in favor of Pope Stephen I’s position on baptism being the majority custom of the third century Church.
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A question out of ignorance, do we have evidence besides Eusebius that indicates Pope Stephen I refusing to commune with those who rebaptized heretics? I find that notion strange.
Yes. You can check out his letter I wrote an article on it. Everything is in Cyprian letters 72-75