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The Easter Controversy And The S

The Church grew up with only a loose form of organization. Each local
congregation was for a while autonomous, and it was the local constitution
that first took a definite and fixed form. In the first centuries local
customs naturally varied, and conflicts were sure to arise when various
hitherto isolated churches came into closer contact and the sense of
solidarity deepened. The first clash of opposing customs occurred over the
date of Easter, as to which marked differences existed between the
churches of Asia Minor, at that time the most flourishing part of the
Church, and the churches of the West, especially with the church of Rome,
the strongest local church of all. The course of the controversy is
sufficiently stated in the following selection from Eusebius. The outcome
was the practical isolation of the churches of Asia Minor for many years.
The controversy was not settled, and the churches of Asia Minor did not
again play a prominent part in the Church until the time of Constantine
and the Council of Nicaea, 325 (see 62, b), although a provisional
adjustment of the difficulty, so far as the West was concerned, took place
shortly before, at the Council of Arles (see 62, a, 2).

Eusebius, Hist. Ec., V, 23, 24. (MSG, 20:489.) Mirbt, n. 22, and in
Kirch, n. 78 ff.

A brief extract from the following may be found above in 3 in a
somewhat different connection.

Ch. 23. At this time a question of no small importance arose. For the
parishes [i.e., dioceses in the later sense of that word] of all Asia,
as from an older tradition, held that the fourteenth day of the moon,
being the day on which the Jews were commanded to sacrifice the lamb,
should be observed as the feast of the Saviour's passover, and that it was
necessary, therefore, to end their fast on that day, on whatever day of
the week it might happen to fall. It was not, however, the custom of the
churches elsewhere to end it at this time, but they observed the practice,
which from apostolic tradition has prevailed to the present time, of
ending the fast on no other day than that of the resurrection of the
Saviour. Synods and assemblies of bishops were held on this account, and
all with one consent, by means of letters addressed to all, drew up an
ecclesiastical decree that the mystery of the resurrection of the Lord
from the dead should be celebrated on no other day than on the Lord's Day,
and that we should observe the close of the paschal fast on that day only.
There is still extant a writing of those who were then assembled in
Palestine, over whom Theophilus, bishop of the parish of Caesarea, and
Narcissus, Bishop of Jerusalem, presided; also another of those who were
likewise assembled at Rome, on account of the same question, which bears
the name of Victor; also of the bishops in Pontus, over whom Palmas, as
the oldest, presided; and of the parishes in Gaul, of which Irenaeus was
bishop; and of those in Osrhoene and the cities there; and a personal
letter of Bacchylus, bishop of the church in Corinth, and of a great many
others who uttered one and the same opinion and judgment and cast the same
vote. Of these, there was one determination of the question which has been

Ch. 24. But the bishops of Asia, led by Polycrates, decided to hold fast
to the customs handed down to them. He himself, in a letter addressed to
Victor and the church of Rome, set forth the tradition which had come down
to him as follows: "We observe the exact day, neither adding nor taking
anything away. For in Asia, also, great lights have fallen asleep, which
shall rise again on the day of the Lord's coming, when He shall come with
glory from heaven and shall seek out all the saints. Of these were Philip,
one of the twelve Apostles, who fell asleep at Hierapolis, and his two
aged virgin daughters and his other daughter, who, having lived in the
Holy Spirit, rest at Ephesus; and, moreover, John, who reclined on the
Lord's bosom, and being a priest wore the sacerdotal mitre, who was both a
witness and a teacher; he fell asleep at Ephesus; and, further, Polycarp
in Smyrna, both a bishop and a martyr. All these observed the fourteenth
day of the passover, according to the Gospel, deviating in no respect, but
following the rule of faith. And I, Polycrates, do the same, the least of
you all, according to the tradition of my relatives, some of whom I have
closely followed. For seven of my relatives were bishops, and I am the
eighth. And my relatives always observed the day when the people put away
the leaven; I, therefore, am not affrighted by terrifying words. For those
greater than I have said, We ought to obey God rather than men."
Thereupon(57) Victor, who was over the church of Rome, immediately
attempted to cut off from the common unity the parishes of all Asia, with
the churches that agreed with them, as being heterodox. And he published
letters declaring that all the brethren there were wholly excommunicated.
But this did not please all the bishops, and they besought him to consider
the things of peace, of neighborly unity and love. Words of theirs are
still extant, rather sharply rebuking Victor. Among these were Irenaeus,
who sent letters in the name of the brethren in Gaul, over whom he
presided, and maintained that the mystery of the resurrection of the Lord
should be observed only on the Lord's Day, yet he fittingly admonishes
Victor that he should not cut off whole churches of God which observed the
tradition of an ancient custom, and after many other words he proceeds as
follows: "For the controversy is not merely concerning the day, but also
concerning the very manner of the fast. For some think that they should
fast one day, others two, yet others more; some, moreover, count their
days as consisting of forty hours day and night. And this variety of
observance has not originated in our times, but long before, in the days
of our ancestors. It is likely that they did not hold to strict accuracy,
and thus was formed a custom for their posterity, according to their own
simplicity and their peculiar method. Yet all these lived more or less in
peace, and we also live in peace with one another; and the disagreement in
regard to the fast confirms the agreement in the faith. Among these were
the elders [i.e., bishops of earlier date] before Soter, who presided
over the church which thou [Victor] now rulest. We mean Anicetus, and
Pius, and Hyginus, and Telesphorus, and Sixtus. They neither observed it
themselves nor did they permit others after them to do so. And yet, though
they did not observe it, they were none the less at peace with those who
came to them from the parishes in which it was observed, although this
observance was more opposed to those who did not observe it. But none were
ever cast out on account of this form, but the elders before thee, who did
not observe it, sent the eucharist to those of the other parishes
observing it. And when the blessed Polycarp was at Rome in the time of
Anicetus, and they disagreed a little about certain other things, they
immediately made peace with one another, not caring to quarrel over this
point. For neither could Anicetus persuade Polycarp not to observe what he
had always observed with John, the disciple of the Lord, and the other
Apostles with whom he had associated; neither could Polycarp persuade
Anicetus to observe it, as he said that he ought to follow the customs of
the elders who had preceded him. But though matters were thus, they
nevertheless communed together and Anicetus granted the eucharist in the
church to Polycarp, manifestly as a mark of respect.(58) And they parted
from each other in peace, maintaining the peace of the whole Church, both
of those who observed and those who did not." Thus Irenaeus, who was truly
well named, became a peace-maker in this matter, exhorting and negotiating
in this way for the peace of the churches. And he conferred by letter
about this disputed question, not only with Victor, but also with most of
the other rulers of the churches.

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