Firmilian, Bishop of Cappadocia

Firmilian (c. 200–268) served as bishop of Caesarea for over 30 years. He was one of the most popular and respected bishops of his day. As an eminent leader of proto-Orthodox Christianity, Firmilian led several church councils. Church historian Eusebius recognized him as a “well-known” and “most distinguished” leader of the Church, ranking the Cappadocian bishop among the bishops of Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome, and Caesarea in Palestine (CH 7.13).


Firmilian maintained strong friendships with the defining figures of third-century Christianity, such as Origen, Cyprian of Carthage, Dionysus of Alexandria, and Alexander of Jerusalem. In light of his influential episcopate and friendships with leading church figures, Firmilian was arguably “the most conspicuous figure of his time.”

Three sources describe Firmilian’s life and thought: a personal letter to Cyprian of Carthage (Cyprian, Letters 75), mentions in Eusebius’ Church History (6.27, 46; 7.5, 14, 27–30), and two passing remarks by Basil of Caesarea (Letter 188, On the Holy Spirit 29).


Only a few details are known about Firmilian’s early life. Born around AD 200, he was raised as a Christian in a noble Cappadocian family. In the 220s, Firmilian had become bishop of Cappadocia, following Alexander (of Jerusalem), the former bishop of Cappadocia (c. 200–215).


Firmilian was a lifelong admirer and friend of Origen. Firmilian’s successor, Alexander, was a fellow student and friend of Origen and likely introduced Firmilian to the famous theologian-teacher.


As bishop of Cappadocia, Firmilian had “sought a visit from him [Origen], and entertained him for a long while” (Jerome, On Illustrious Men, 54). In 230, Origen escaped persecution in Alexandria and relocated to Palestine. Around 232–35, Origen came to Cappadocia “to assist the churches in the region” (CE 6.27). Twenty years earlier, Origen’s mentor, Clement of Alexandria, had likewise sought refuge in Cappadocia. Origen’s international fame likely attracted many students to Cappadocia, thus further establishing the region as a theological center. Firmilian may have been the bishop who (controversially) ordained Origen.


Firmilian could invite Origen to Cappadocia because Caesarea was already a metropolitan see. Early Christian documents mention “the bishop of Caesarea [Firmilian], with all the Cappadocian bishops” (Jerome) and “Firmilian with all Cappadocia” (Dionysius’s Letter to Stephen of Rome, c. 258, in Eusebius CH 7.5). Such statements imply a broad episcopal jurisdiction and capacity for hosting prominent theologians.


Gregory Thaumaturgus (b. 210), a young pagan man who completed his secular education, came under Firmilian’s influence. Gregory and Firmilian traveled together to Palestine and studied with Origen at the school of Caesarea Maritime. As bishop, Firmilian sought to study with Origen “in order to improve his own theology” (CE 6.27) and “was instructed at length by Origen in the Holy Scriptures” (Jerome).


Gregory Thaumaturgus became a Christian while learning from Origen. Then he returned to his native Pontus and converted most of Pontus to Christianity. As a result of their connections, the three third-century Cappadocians—Alexander, Firmilian, and Gregory—studied under Origen and championed his theology.

Firmilian’s learning under Origen occurred once he was already bishop of Cappadocia, not while he was young.


Firmilian also took a pilgrimage journey to the holy places of Jerusalem. By this point, Alexander, the former bishop of Cappadocia and first recorded pilgrim to Jerusalem, was bishop of Jerusalem. Alexander likely invited, hosted, and escorted Firmilian around the various holy sites. The Cappadocian bishops were among the earliest Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem, thus developing the popular early Christian practice.


Theological training was a priority for Firmilian—and was, perhaps, his greatest legacy. He hosted an annual assembly in Cappadocia for elders and bishops to discuss theological matters. These training efforts cultivated a strong, active Cappadocian church in the mid-200s. Firmilian transmitted Origenic thought to Cappadocia, paving the way for the Cappadocian Fathers, a century later, to expand upon Origen in the Christological controversies of the fourth century.


As bishop, Firmilian led the Christians of Cappadocia through seasons of persecution. In 234, the Roman governor of Caesarea persecuted Christians after several devastating earthquakes. The governor blamed Christians for angering the pagans gods, as Christians did not offer sacrifices. Church buildings were burned and many people fled from Cappadocia to other regions. Firmilian does not mention that Christians fled to the troglodyte settlements of volcanic Cappadocia.


Hostility also struck from outside the empire. As the Roman Empire weakened, Goths from Germany raided Cappadocia and captured Christians in the 250s. They enslaved and resettled many Christians from Cappadocia, including the parents of Ulfias (c. 310–380), who became the apostle and first bishop of the Goths. Through the tragic circumstances of barbaric raids, the Cappadocian Greeks brought Christianity to Germanic tribes.


Firmilian was a theological leader who guided the proto-Orthodox response to various third-century heresies, such as Montanists, Paul of Samosata, and the Novatian controversy. He was an ardent defender and networked leader of proto-Orthodox Christianity. Firmilian helped the Church address various heretical teachings in the third-century.


Because of Firmilian’s theological leadership, other bishops sought his counsel. Around 256 AD, the bishops of Rome (Stephen) and Carthage (Cyprian) debated whether baptisms performed by unrecognized Church leaders were valid. Stephen argued that anyone baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was a true Christian; the formula and ritual of baptism carried legitimacy. Cyprian of Carthage disagreed, stating that without the Holy Spirit, heretics could not confer the Holy Spirit and salvation via baptism. Stephen of Rome denounced Cyprian and refused to fellowship with churches in the East, including Cappadocia. As a result, Cyprian wrote a letter to Firmilian of Cappadocia, seeking support and wisdom. The geographical distance from Carthage (modern Tunisia) to Cappadocia indicates the importance of Firmilian’s voice. Firmilian’s response letter to Cyprian (Letter 75, c. 256), translated into Latin and kept in Cyprian’s library, is the first historical document from any Cappadocian Christian. Firmilian agreed with Cyprian of Carthage that baptisms performed by heretics were not legitimate. For him, people without the Holy Spirit could not initiate people into the true church. The churches of Carthage and Cappadocia rebaptized people from heretical groups.


In a letter to Cyprian of Carthage, Firmilian mentions the Synod of Iconium (AD 256). The divisive issue required a great number of bishops to meet and consider the issue. Dionysus, in his letter to Stephen’s successor in Rome, refers to this event as among “the largest synods of bishops” (CH 7.5). In Firmilian’s words, the council “decided that every baptism was altogether to be rejected which is arranged for without the Church.” Dionysus explains their decision in positive terms—“those [who] come over from heresies are first instructed, then washed and purified again from the filth of old leaven” (CH 7.5). As a neighboring metropolitan see, Firmilian played a leading role in hosting the gathering and in communicating the resolutions to the broader church. In the end, the churches were reunited once Stephen, the pope of Rome, recanted his excommunication.


Firmilian presided over the councils of Antioch (264) to determine the orthodoxy of Paul of Samosata, the bishop of Antioch who taught that Jesus was not God incarnate but, rather, only a human person who became divine (i.e., Monarchianism). Firmilian condemned Paul’s novel ideas but adjourned the second gathering without any official declaration because Paul of Samosata promised to change. Firmilian desired to unify the Church and settle the matter without causing offense to God’s Word. However, Paul continued his heretical teaching, so Firmilian departed for Antioch for a third counsel to excommunicate Paul of Samosata. En route to Antioch, in 268, the bishop of Cappadocia died in the city of Tarsus. After Firmilian, the next known bishop of Cappadocia was Dianius (d. 362), the person who baptized Basil the Great into the faith.


Firmilian’s greatest legacy was the theological framework he endowed to future generations of Orthodox leaders. In AD 347, his successor, St. Basil of Caesarea, answered an elder’s inquiry about the baptism of Novatians (Letter 188). When discussing various Christians factions, Basil mentions that the “ancient authorities, “Cyprian and our own Firmilian,” rejected the baptism of heretics altogether. St. Basil refers to his predecessor as “our own.” Basil and his interlocutor, Amphilochius, identified themselves as the ecclesiastical heirs of Firmilian, whose canons were authoritative in the fourth century. “ We must fall back upon custom,” Basil explains in the subsequent paragraph, “and follow the fathers who have ordered what course we are to pursue.” He was referring to the teachings of Firmilian.


Firmilian also endowed the Cappadocian church with his writings. Basil’s Letter 188 links Firmilian to Cyprian of Carthage. Here, Basil references Firmilian’s correspondence with Cyprian. Only Cyprian’s version has survived in Latin, though Basil was reading the copy preserved in the library of the Cappadocian church. (In antiquity authors retained copies of their own letters.) In another writing, Basil explicitly mentions “the writings which [our Firmilian] has left behind” (On the Holy Spirit24.74). The church library of Cappadocia preserved Firmilian’s letters and writings. As the Cappadocian Fathers led the church through the pastoral and theological challenges of the fourth century, they built upon the foundation that Firmilian had established in Cappadocia.

© 2019 Jason Borges

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