The Quartodeciman Controversy

One reads St. John Henry Newman’s writings or the writings of Fr. Adrian Fortescue and one finds profound knowledge of and interest in the history of the Church, especially the Apostolic and Patristic periods. And this knowledge was not merely quaint antiquarian diversion, the way someone might know about small-gauge railroads in a given county at the turn of the century. These figures brought Church history to bear on questions of doctrine and practice that were live controversies in their days. Of course, their historical works are hugely entertaining and erudite as literary monuments, too.

By contrast—and let me say at the outset that I am as guilty of it as the next fellow—today we seem not to have the same interest in the history of the Church or the precedents of the Apostolic or Patristic eras. To be sure, their theology is often referred to. But one hardly sees discussions of Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History with the same frequency one sees discussions of Augustine’s Confessions or City of God. This is too bad. In a 2007 general audience, Pope Benedict XVI praised Eusebius’s history as a source of “fundamental importance.” Benedict went on to make a startling statement, considering the lack of interest one sees in Eusebius, even among educated Christians:

Thus, Eusebius strongly challenges believers of all times on their approach to the events of history and of the Church in particular. He also challenges us: what is our attitude with regard to the Church’s experiences? Is it the attitude of those who are interested in it merely out of curiosity, or even in search of something sensational or shocking at all costs? Or is it an attitude full of love and open to the mystery of those who know – through faith – that they can trace in the history of the Church those signs of God’s love and the great works of salvation wrought by him?

Given the weight that a theologian and churchman like Benedict gave to the Ecclesiastical History, one feels compelled to crack open the dusty old Loeb (or Penguin) and cast around for scenes of interest. One such scene comes at the very end of Book 5 (5.23-5.25), where Eusebius recounts the Quartodeciman Controversy. One of the reasons why Benedict considered the Ecclesiastical History of such importance is because Eusebius preserved primary sources in his history for which he is the sole source. A particularly good example of this is found in his treatment of the Quartodeciman Controversy.

The dioceses of Asia held that Easter should be celebrated on the 14th of Nisan, following the definition of Passover and the preparation for Passover given in Leviticus 23. Naturally this may or may not be a Sunday, but regardless of whether or not it was a Sunday, that’s when the Lenten fast ended and Easter began. The opinion elsewhere was that one should not end the fast except on a Sunday—the day of the Lord’s Resurrection. The latter opinion, Eusebius tells us, was universal and was handed down by the Apostles themselves.

This matter became a live controversy toward the end of the Second Century. Synods were held in Rome, Palestine, Pontus, Gaul, and Osrhoene. Pope St. Victor presided over the Roman synod and St. Irenaeus presided over the synod in Gaul. (This will be relevant in a little while.) All of these councils reached the unanimous conclusion based upon the apostolic tradition: Easter is celebrated and the fast ends on a Sunday, not the 14th of Nisan.

The Quartodeciman bishops were, needless to say, unhappy that the judgment of Christendom had gone against them. Bishop Polycrates of Ephesus wrote to Victor, arguing in favor of their tradition. Eusebius quotes his letter at some length. In sum, he argues that the churches of Asia are decorated by saints asleep in the Lord, like St. John and St. Polycarp, all of whom maintained that Easter began on the 14th of Nisan, regardless of the day. Polycrates’s letter concluded in a manner perhaps not unfamiliar even today: he was not scared of threats and it is better to obey God rather than men.

Pope Victor was not altogether amused by Polycrates’s response, nor, insofar as we can tell, was he impressed by Polycrates’s stand on principle. He either excommunicated all the churches of Asia or threatened to do so on the ground of heterodoxy. Fortescue suggests that either he never actually published his decree excommunicating all the Christians in Asia or he withdrew the decree very quickly. We’ll come to that in a moment. What matters is that Victor’s initial reaction to Polycrates’s stand on tradition was to excommunicate not merely Polycrates but all the Christians in Asia.

Word got around. One doubts that this is something that happened all that often in those days. And other bishops offered Victor their views on the matter. By and large they did not think Victor was doing the right thing. Indeed, Eusebius says that they thought Victor ought not to do what he had in mind. In fact, the bishops asked Victor to turn his mind toward peace and unity and love, suggesting that they thought his plan to excommunicate the churches of Asia was contrary to peace and unity and love. Among the bishops who suggested that Victor had perhaps gone a little too far was St. Irenaeus.

Irenaeus was in a unique position in the controversy. Born in Smyrna to a Christian family, Irenaeus grew up around Polycarp, who had been cited by Polycrates as an authority in support of the Quartodecimans. And of course Polycarp himself was a disciple of St. John. By the time of the controversy, Irenaeus was bishop of Lyon in Gaul. However, one would be surprised if he did not have some insight into the Asian practice and the controversy. For his part, he reached the conclusion that Easter had to be celebrated on a Sunday notwithstanding the timing of Passover given in Leviticus.

Nevertheless, Irenaeus wrote Victor, urging him not to excommunicate all Asia. Irenaeus’s claim was that Victor ought not to excommunicate all these Christians merely for following their fathers’ tradition, which was, after all, itself unbroken. He observed that the dating was not the sole controversy, the fast was part of it. And there was much variation about the fast. But even if dating were the sole controversy, there was still insufficient ground to excommunicate them. Victor’s predecessors Anicetus, Pius, Hyginus, Telesphorus, and Xystus had all rejected the Quartodeciman position and kept the Roman Church free from error. But they had lived in peace with the Quartodecimans. Indeed, it was never suggested that this difference in calculation was a matter of heterodoxy rising to the level of severing communion.

Irenaeus made a particularly interesting point about the fast. It is worth dwelling on for a moment. Some kept the fast for a day, some for two days, others for forty hours. It appears—from Irenaeus and Tertullian—that the Lenten fast observed in those days was not universally the forty-day fast we know today. Within a couple of hundred years, the Lenten fast we know had emerged. At any rate, Irenaeus claimed that the variation in how the fast was kept demonstrated the unity of the Church, because all the people who kept the fast in various ways lived in peace with one another. In other words, diversity in practice among people who are at peace with one another is testimony to the essential unanimity of the faith.

Turning back to the date question, Irenaeus was particularly interested in Pope Anicetus’s conduct, which had a significant bearing on this question. Polycarp came to Rome during Anicetus’s reign. The matter of the dating of Easter came up. Anicetus and Polycarp simply could not agree on it. Anicetus could not get Polycarp to budge an inch: Polycarp stood on the tradition he received from St. John and other apostles. Polycarp could not get Anicetus to budge an inch, either: Anicetus had received a tradition from his fathers in the faith just like Polycarp did. However, this dispute did not result in a breach of communion between Anicetus and Polycarp, much less the sort of excommunication Victor had in mind. In fact, Anicetus made way for Polycarp to celebrate the Eucharist according to his tradition.

Victor seems to have changed his mind: either he never issued the excommunication he threatened or he withdrew it at once. And as is the case of so many heresies in the history of the Church, the Quartodeciman position died out. Two bishops, Narcissus of Jerusalem and Theophilus of Caesarea, prepared a brief for the apostolic tradition of celebrating Easter on a Sunday and observed that the Church of Alexandria had maintained the same practice, with an exchange of letters annually to ensure that everyone kept the same date. In the way of this, Eusebius tells us, the Quartodecimans were rebutted and unanimity achieved.

The Quartodeciman Controversy is an interesting moment in the life of the Church. Two practices existed side by side for a period of time. Suddenly, it becomes a doctrinal controversy. Eusebius does not quite explain what set off the explosion. Something had to, but it is not clear what it was. The various churches held councils and arrived at an opinion founded upon the teaching of the Apostles. Except for some holdouts. The holdouts informed Pope Victor that they stood on the tradition of the Apostles and saints and martyrs of Asia and were ultimately responsible to God, threats or no threats.

Pope Victor responded by declaring the practice of the Quartodecimans heterodox and threatening to excommunicate all the Christians of Asia. A drastic measure, to say the least. Such a peremptory action even today would be a sweeping exercise of papal jurisdiction. It’s rare enough for the pope to excommunicate anyone, much less everyone in a province, even on grounds much more certain than the grounds offered by the Quartodecimans. Victor’s brothers in the episcopate urged him to reconsider, to abandon the course of excommunication in favor of other means of preserving the unity and peace of the Church. Irenaeus in particular wrote him about the practice of the Church of Rome, which had been to tolerate the diversity in this discipline, even as it held, from apostolic origin, another discipline, in which the other churches of the world concurred. And in the end Victor reconsidered his approach.

There is perhaps a lesson here. Indeed, there must be. Benedict, in his 2007 address of Eusebius says, “Historical analysis is never an end in itself; it is not made solely with a view to knowing the past; rather, it focuses decisively on conversion and on an authentic witness of Christian life on the part of the faithful. It is a guide for us, too.” The Quartodeciman Controversy as presented by Eusebius is not merely an interesting historical highlight, made notable because the players in it are important for other reasons. His analysis of the situation serves therefore as a guide for us and ought to be approached as such.

One lesson is a lesson, as I said, that one finds written in the histories of many heresies that have afflicted the Church. Patient argument and the passage of time often resolve controversies more effectively than peremptory action. Narcissus and Theophilus analyzed the question relying on the apostolic traditions of their churches and came up with the case for the practice approved by the councils of the other churches, including Rome. Victor’s excommunication of Asia was ultimately not necessary. Once Narcissus and Theophilus had made their case, the Quartodecimans’ days were numbered. And today no one is a Quartodeciman.

Of course, the Quartodeciman Controversy has featured in various polemics between the protestants and the Church of Rome. In his splendid little book The Early Papacy, Fr. Adrian Fortescue makes some observations about this affair. Notably, no one suggests that Victor had not jurisdiction over the Quartodecimans. Second, Irenaeus does not say that Victor had not the power to excommunicate the Quartodecimans. Fortescue notes that Irenaeus (and the other bishops who wrote to Victor) merely holds that Victor should not excommunicate the Quartodecimans.

The question of the pope’s jurisdiction had been settled much earlier, when Pope St. Clement wrote to the Corinthians and commanded them to submit once again to their bishops. No one suggested then that Clement, who, as Fortescue drolly observes, was early enough that his name appears in the New Testament, had not the authority to command the Corinthians to do or not to do something. And no one, least of all Irenaeus, suggested that Victor had not the authority to declare the Quartodeciman opinion wrong. Irenaeus in fact thought it was wrong.

Nevertheless Irenaeus took Polycrates’s point and urged Victor to do likewise. The churches of Asia stood on a tradition no less venerable than the tradition of Rome. Victor’s predecessors, most notably Anicetus, had disagreed with the tradition, but had maintained peace with Polycarp, who held the position firmly and claimed to have received it from St. John himself. Ultimately the Quartodecimans were defeated not by a peremptory excommunication of the Christians of Asia but by the careful argument of Narcissus and Theophilus (and some others).

Fortescue points out that Irenaeus’s point is merely that Victor had better not excommunicate the Quartodecimans. It was not how this matter had been handled by his predecessors, who had, in fact, had occasion to consider it. However, Fortescue does not dwell on Irenaeus’s point about diversity in practice revealing unity in faith. Pope Victor was not wrong about the merits of the case nor was he acting ultra vires. Irenaeus simply pointed out that he was looking at it wrong. It was not a sign of heterodoxy for the churches of Asia to follow the practice of their fathers, a practice that stretched back through Polycarp to St. John. That Anicetus and Polycarp could be at peace was instead a testimony to the unity of the faith.

One finds in a few short chapters of one book of Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History matter for much thought. Indeed, the passage throws some light on many modern controversies. How ought the pope to exercise his unquestionable jurisdiction? How ought one to relate to the pope when one thinks he’s making a mistake? What is the connection between doctrine and practice? Is there room in the Church for more than one practice? Obviously the answers these questions require more than one source, but, as Benedict says, Eusebius’s history is a source (and contains itself sources) of fundamental importance to begin to answer those questions.