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.