Many have heard the story about Pope St. Victor I and his confrontation with some Eastern churches on the proper dating of the celebration of Easter, but many of the details and surrounding history are left omitted, and so it is often thought that this scenario could be used as evidence against the Papal theory of Church government. Let’s review the sequence of events, with some added details.
During the short 11 or 12 year pontificate of Victor I ( 189-199), the variance between churches over the celebration date of Easter became a grave controversy. The difference in practice between Rome and some Eastern churches already existed as is evidenced by the record of St. Irenaeus of St. Polycarp’s meeting with Pope St. Anicetus. St. Polycarp held the celebration of Easter to be observed on the 14th day of Nisan, also known as Quartodeciman (the fourteenth) practice. Neither of them were able to persuade each other of the which was day was the correct day to celebrate. Despite this, they were able to maintain peace with each other, and Pope St. Anicetus allowed St. Polycarp to celebrate the Eucharist on the Lord’s Day. That was in AD 154/5. About 11/12 years later, the debate over the date of Easter occurred in Laodicea (a city of Asia) between Asiatics themselves, requiring some of their own to attempt to defend the Quartodeciman practice (Bishop Melito of Sardis). A contemporary bishop of Hierapolis, Claudius Apolinarius, wrote in protest to the Quartodeciman practice likely in response to this Eastern complication in Laodicea:
“There are some now who, from ignorance, love to raise strife about these things, being guilty in this of a pardonable offence; for ignorance does not so much deserve blame as need instruction. And they say that on the fourteenth [of Nisan] the Lord ate the paschal lamb with his disciples, but that He himself suffered on the great day of unleavened bread [i.e. the fifteenth of Nisan]; and they interpret Matthew as favoring their view from which it appears that their view does not agree with the law, and that the Gospels seem, according to them, to be at variance” (Chronicon Paschale)
By year 190, Pope St. Victor obviously knew about the variance between Asia and the consensus of the churches, and so requested synods to be held everywhere concerning the question. There was a synod held in Palestine under Theophilus of Caesarea, Narcissus of Jerusalem, a synod in Pontus under Palmas, another in Gaul under St. Irenaeus. Other bishops involved were the pastor of the church in Osrhoene, Bacchylus of Corinth, Cassius of Tyre, Clarus of Ptolemais, and our historical witness Eusebius of Caesarea also notes that there were “letters from many others who expressed the same opinion and judgement and cast the same vote. And the view [Roman tradition] which has been described above was accepted by them all” (Historia Ecclesiastica, V, 23-25). Also, St. Clement, head of the school at Alexandria, published a summation of traditions that he collected and they all agreed with the position of Rome.
All these churches across East and West ruled in favor of celebrating Eastern on Sunday, the Lord’s day. Except the synod in Asia Minor under St. Polycrates of Ephesus. Rather than suggesting that the tradition was open to disagreement, Polycrates insisted in his letter to Pope Victor that the clerics that preceded him in Ephesus and in surrounding Asia all had “kept the fourteenth day of the Passover according to the to the gospel, never departing from it but obeying the rule of faith“ (ibid 24). Notice here that the Synod of Asia understood that the Quartodeciman practice to be part of the “rule of faith“, even though so many other churches around the world thought opposite. To suggest that the rest of the churches were deviant from the regula fidei was a mighty claim. Often times readers of this historical event find themselves directing their disgust with Pope Victor, not realizing this implication from Asia. In the same letter, Polycrates adds “I, therefore, brethren, who have lived sixty-five years in the Lord and have communed with brethren from all the world have examined every sacred scripture, am not daunted by terrifying words. For those greater than I have said : ‘We ought to obey God rather than man'”. Now, according to our historian Eusebius, the Asian synod had written this letter in response to Pope Victor who himself had requested Asia to hold a synod on the question. The letter states “I could name the bishops who are here assembled whom you requested me to summon and I did summon“. It is likely that the synods that were held elsewhere we also summoned by Victor himself as well. This requesting of the summoning of synods reveals a hint at how Rome understood her responsibility in ensuring ecclesial unity. On what grounds, we aren’t really told. But I want to point out here that when the Asian synod said “We must obey God rather than man” in protest against changing their quartodeciman rule, it is likely that they are not responding to Victor alone, but to Victor and all the synods of the Christian churches, since it was not until receiving this letter that “thereupon Victor, who was head of the Church at Rome, immediately undertook to cut off from the common unity the parishes of all Asia and such churches as agreed with them as heterdox and he wrote letters pronouncing all the brethren there totally excommunicate“. It was only after receiving this note of nonconformity that the excommunications were sent. We might think a bit differently if we realize that this initial response of Asia is not merely an act of papal rejection but also a rejection of the consensus of the rest of the world. But even so, the staunch anti-Papalist Edward Denny’s Papalism (page 252-3) seems to only notate that if Asia believed in a Roman Pontiff with an infallible teaching authority and universal jurisdiction would never write “We must obey God rather than man” in response to this Pope. But, as pointed out, this was in response to the entirety of the synods held in both East & West. If Denny’s point is conceded, it will have to equally concede on behalf of the Monophysites who didn’t accept Chalcedon, since they didn’t find the wider Church via Chalcedon to be of any authority for them to obey, and so on. For Denny, then, the churches should never allow any mode of ecumenical authority with any the ability to enforce binds. This, of course, cuts through the Ecumenical Synods. But as an Anglican, how hard was it to deny the authority of Synods? Given the current climate in England, no such feat is thought difficult.
Eusebius also inserts a quotation from a letter from the Palestinian synod mentioned above, whose addressee [most likely Victor] is unknown but which content is entirely relevant to the contemporary controversy. It says, “Do you endeavor to send copies of our letter to every parish, that we may not be blamable for those who carelessly deceived their own souls. And we assure you that in Alexandria also they keep the same day that we do. For letters are carried from us to them and from them to us, so that with one accord and at the same time we keep the sacred day” . It would not seem as though these Eastern folks thought it was such a light issue, either.
We don’t know exactly how this ordeal ended with Pope Victor. Some have tended to believe that he relented from his act of excommunication, but I’ve not come across any good evidence to support this. Victor’s name is in the Roman Calendar as a Martyr, so we may suspect that he died in good faith. Some historians have the following to comment on this Pope and his actions:
“At no point in its history is this pre-eminence [primacy] so evident as under Pope Victor, 189-90: when ‘from Gaul to Osrhoene [on the Euphrates]” his invitation for the summoning of councils to effect a settlement of the Paschal controversy was everywhere accepted. ‘This initiative of Pope Victor alone, an initiative proved to be effective, suffices to show how evident in those ancient times was the exceptional situation and the ecumenical authority of the Roman church'” (Dr. Beresford Kidd, The Roman Primacy to AD 461, page 18-19)
“Pope Victor initiates a movement in favor of unity of observance. Councils are simultaneously held at his request throughout Christendom, and all publish decisions that Easter must be celebrated only on Sunday. The Asiatic churches alone resist this decision. St. Victor ‘tries to cut them off from the common unity’. Some other bishops think this too harsh, for the Bishop of Ephesus had pleaded a tradition received from the Apostle St. John, and they ‘took Victor to task somewhat sharply’. Amongst these St. Irenaeus ‘becomingly’ urged Victor to consider that the difference in the custom of the fast only brought the unity of faith more clearly into relief….However this may be, we find in this incomplete story of a Pope conscious that it is he who is to see the uniformity in the Christian churches. We see councils assembled everywhere at his demand. We see him claim to have the right to excommunicate not, as before, merely individual heresiarchs, but numerous and populous churches of Apostolic foundation .His action ‘did not please all the bishops’, so we see that many were, in fact, satisfied….There is no trace of any denial of the right, but only of the justice of its exercise” (Dom John Chapman, Bishop Gore and Catholic Claims, page 66-67)
“Victor, who was bishop of Rome, contemporary and friend of Ireaeus, was penetrated with care for all the churches; to this his conduct in the Paschal controversy bears sufficient witness, for his action extended to all the churches of the East, from Egypt to Asia, which he made it his business to rally to the same date for Easter — and was sufficiently energetic for Renan to be able to say of it ‘The Papacy is already born and well born'” (Monsignor Pierre Battifol, Catholicism and Papacy, page 111)
“There is no trace of a protest against Victor’s action on grounds of princ
iple. No one suggested that he had not the right to act as he had done.” (Trevor Jalland, Church and Papacy, page 121)
What we do know is that the Quartodeciman problem persisted, and was continually addressed as time goes forward. For example, at the Council of Arles (314), the bishops wrote their canons in address to newly elected Pope Sylvester I, and the 1st canon reads: “In the first place, as regards the observance of the Lord’s Easter, it was resolved that we should observe it on the same day and at the same time throughout the world and that you should send out letters, according to custom, to everyone” . Arles intended Pope Sylvester to transmit these canons to the wider network of churches, perhaps like the Synod of Palestine sought from Victor [see above]. We know this by the preface of the already quoted letter which states, “…the assembly of bishops gathered in the city of Arles to their most holy lord and brother, Sylvester. What we in common council have decreed we report to your charity, so that everyone may know what ought to be observed in the future”. While this Council met without the Pope since, according to the bishops present, Sylvester “was not able to to leave the place where the Apostles to this day have their seats [place of judge] and where their blood without ceasing witnesses to the glory of God..” , they clearly intended to get their canons ratified by the authority of the Roman see. (Synodical letter to Sylvester, Sylloge Optatiana, Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, XXVI, 206-208). They acknowledge to the Pope that were it that he thought it “wise to attend this great assemblage, we firmly believe that a more severe verdict would then have been passed against them [Donatists] and if you had been judging here with us, we should all have rejoiced with deeper joy… and we resolved to write first of all to you, who hold the greater dioceses, that through you preferably our resolutions should be made known to everyone.” (Ibid). On a side note, the 8th canon, the bishops of Arles condemned the Cyprianic position of re-baptism, confirming the position of Pope Stephen (250).
Thereafter, the Council of Nicaea (325) confronted the issue head on and wrote in the concluding section of the Council’s letter to the Eyptians:
“We also send you the good news of the settlement concerning the holy pasch, namely that in answer to your prayers this question also has been resolved. All the brethren in the East who have hitherto followed the Jewish practice will henceforth observe the custom of the Romans and of yourselves and of all of us who from ancient times have kept Easter together with you. Rejoicing then in these successes and in the common peace and harmony and in the cutting off of all heresy, welcome our fellow minister, your bishop Alexander, with all the greater honour and love. He has made us happy by his presence, and despite his advanced age has undertaken such great labour in order that you too may enjoy peace.”
The Council of Nicaea implicitly recognizes the priority that Rome placed upon the right celebration of Easter, and even rules that future observance will be in according to the Roman and wider Eastern practice. But it is worth pointing out here that St. Irenaeus’ letter, while it may have come into play with Pope Victor, did not factor in to mitigate the decision of Nicaea. Many of the Papal detractors who have utilized the Victorian pontificate as an evidence against the Papal theory have commented on how much of an overreach Victor made when cutting off the Asian churches. Well, what do we conclude about Nicaea?
But did Quartodecimanism cease because the great and almighty council of Nicaea ruled against it? No, for the Constantinpolitan historian Socrates Scholasticus from the 5th century speaks of St. John Chrysostom having deprived the Quartodecimans of their churches since he ordained Heraclides of Ephesus. (, Historia ecclesiastica, 6.11 (NPNF2 2, pp. 145–147). St. John Chrysostom was born in 354 AD, about 25 years after Nicaea. By the time John was ordained 381 AD, Nicaea had already been passed by more than 50 years. So the existence of Quartodecimans out-lived Nicaea despite the Councils decision. Does that mean that the Council of Nicaea did not have any authority to intrude upon the disciplinary practice of churches all over the world? I can’t seem to think how the Eastern Orthodox or, perhaps, the Anglo-Catholics would be able to deny this. I would expect it from the post-Reformed Protestant historians.
So what typically gets gleaned from the scenario between Victor vs Asia is that the Pope is disobeyed, and ergo, the Pope held no jurisdiction over the universal Church. Whatever we might say in response to this, one would have to ask just what the person who believes this first sentence would constitute as evidence of authority? Surely, Victor himself thought it his right, and surely, his position would eventually become the norm of all. No bishops at the time protested his right to excommunicate. Moreover, as we saw, the Asian synod who flaunted their orthodoxy to Victor claimed their Quartodeciman practice to be the only one which was consistent with the “rule of faith”, in contradistinction to all the synods of East & West. This was not Asia vs Rome, this was Asia vs East/West. So those who find themselves fanning on the side of Asia, for whatever sake, have to maintain consistency and assert that the synodal processes of the universal church likewise have no authority to make binding enforcement on the universal church. Even more so since Quartodeciman practice out-lived the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea. I would suggest, in contradiction to those who would merely cite that the Asian synod didn’t heed Pope Victor, that at this point in history (180AD) we have a witness to the Roman primacy in act, rather than any stated theory. And that is most likely due to the fact that we don’t have many of the survived documents.