Monday, July 23, 2007

Pope Victor - So Much For the Concept of "First Among Equals"

Eusebius records for us yet another reminder of the authority even the earliest popes had. Of Pope Victor (late second century) regarding the East/West controversy over the celebration day for Easter he writes the following:

Thereupon Victor, who presided over the church at Rome, immediately attempted to cut off from the common unity the parishes of all Asia, with the churches that agreed with them, as heterodox; and he wrote letters and declared all the brethren there wholly excommunicate.

But this did not please all the bishops. And they besought him to consider the things of peace, and of neighborly unity and love. Words of theirs are extant, sharply rebuking Victor.

Among them was Irenæus, who, sending letters in the name of the brethren in Gaul over whom he presided, maintained that the mystery of the resurrection of the Lord should be observed only on the Lord's day. 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...
How is it that the bishop of Rome could even presume to hold that kind of authority were the papacy not widely accepted to some degree throughout the Christian world? If Protestant and Eastern Orthodox claims are true - the papacy developed much later and there was nothing but an 'honorary' esteem held for the bishop of Rome - then what can we make of this incident? The power to excommunicate an entire region of Churches is not something that just any old bishop could presume to have.

Not only does he presume to have it, but St. Irenaeus assumes he has it as well and pleads with him not to do it. If he had no such authority, Irenaeus and other bishops would have simply ignored the gesture as meaningless. But instead, they took it very seriously.

5 comments:

Tiber Jumper said...

Good post but this is one area where "romish receptive aphasia" really kicks in overtime. People will read this post and still insist that the early church didn't recognize the central authority of the vicar of Christ, even when spelled out, as you have done.

Dave Gudeman said...

There may be more to this than you posted, but what you posted doesn't convince me even that Irenaeus agreed that the bishop of Rome had that power. First of all, that Irenaeus didn't want him to "cut off" whole churches may just mean that he didn't want the communion between Victor's church and these others broken. It doesn't necessarily imply that Victor actually had the power to cut these believers off from God. Second, even if that was Eusebius's meaning, then we don't know that Eusebius's account is an accurate of Irenaeus's position. Third, even if that was Irenaeus's position that doesn't meant that this was the common opinion.

And now I'll turn this story around on you:

15 “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 “You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? 17 “So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 “A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. 19 “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 “So then, you will know them by their fruits. Mathew 7:15-19.

What kind of fruit did Victor bear, who created a church schism over something as unimportant as the date for celebrating Easter, and then sought to condemn thousands of his own brethren in Christ to eternal torment for disagreeing with him? And if Victor bore bad fruit, what does Jesus say about Victor's claim of speaking for God?

By the way, you've been tagged over at Doc Rampage.

TheGodFearinFiddler said...

TJ - you must have the gift of prophecy.

Dave - I just posted an excerpt from Eusebius' Church History Book V, I recommend reading the whole thing in context. Eusebius pays special attention to the episcopacies of several cities of great importance in the early Church - Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria and of course - Rome. His Roman succession owes much to St. Irenaeus himself who had the most detailed second century succession of Roman bishops starting from St. Peter himself...

Even assuming that Eusebius' history was inaccurate (which is far fetched), he wrote as a bishop in the 4th century when the papacy was in full blown glory - still much earlier than I've heard some non-Catholics claim the papacy originated.

Regarding St. Irenaeus if I can't convince you that Irenaeus held to Roman primacy then maybe a fellow Protestant scholar can:

"What church can compare with Rome? She is the life-work of the two greatest Apostles, known of all and knowing all, she is a supreme witness to the unified voice of the Church. If it is necessary for each and all to consent to the voice of the whole Church, how necessary is it for all to consent to Rome? To St. Irenaeus Rome was most certainly an authority none must question, as she cannot be imagined as ever in error. The word ‘infallible’ to some extent begs the question, for the use of it imports into the discussion the results of later definition. It is nevertheless a word which is difficult to do without. With this proviso we may say that Irenaeus regarded Rome as the very corner-stone and typification of a whole structure of ecclesiastical infallibility."

Dr. John Lawson: "The Biblical Theology of Saint Irenaeus" (c. 1948) cited in The Church and Infallibility by B.C. Butler pgs. 136-137 (c. 1954)

Now it wasnt just Irenaeus' opinion, he was just the most well known bishop - but there were many who petitioned the pope not to excommunicate them. This whole event followed several synods at the request of Pope Victor. He asked the bishops to gather in the East & West and the presbyters of Rome also gathered. There were at least 3 synods but probably several more. All of the West agreed with Pope Victor (including Irenaeus) but some of the Asian bishops differed because their tradition had been to celebrate Easter on whatever day of the week it fell on.

The objections you raised are conceivable possibilities, but I dont think they are reasonable ones. I think the simplest solution that explains all the evidence is usually the best (Occam's Razor). I think the simplest solution is that the Roman Bishop was already widely perceived as having the same kind of authority that we say he has today (not a dictator, king or CEO). Note - I'm not denying any of the developmental aspect of the Church itself - 'the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed which is the smallest seed you plant yet when planted it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants'. The kingdom (Church) started as a mustard seed (upper room) and grew into a large tree (today).

As for Pope St. Victor's fruits - it's important to remember that a pope then (just like now) is human and can make mistakes and can sin. If we talk about Pope Leo X (pope during Martin Luther's day) even Catholics wont have anything good to say about him. This is no surprise for Catholic theology. We don't believe that popes are perfect or super-human. There have been some bad popes (like Leo X). Victor made a mistake, he was wrong to try and excommunicate those Churches - which is why when St. Irenaeus and the other bishops petitioned him, he retracted his letter and did not excommunicate them.

He had the mind to produce bad fruit, but under godly council he did the right thing instead. Think of all the Saints (or Prophets) of the old testament in similar situations or even worse. David killed Bathsheba's husband and committed adultery with her. Surely that is much worse fruit, yet we would never consider David a false prophet. Falling into sin doesn't prove that someone is a false prophet. (And again Pope St. Victor didn't even do it)

We really don't know much else about his character historically. This is one of the few incidents regarding his life that have been preserved.

This episode does shed light on some early roots for East - West tension that brewed for a century before the great Schism. That schism can still be repaired though and we pray that it one day will.

But thats neither here nor there - I accept your tag.. Now I just gotta think of 8 interesting things to say about myself :P

Phil S. said...

I've been thinking about this post over the last few days and, in many ways, it neatly defines the Catholic-Protestant divide because at the heart of the issue is not really papal power, but rather visions of how the early church operated. The reason why Protestants (including myself whince at the logic of this post) is that it presumes a power for the Bishops of Rome that seems anachoronistics to Protestant sensibilities as well presumes a more hierarchical ecclesiastical authority than the evidence may bear. Let me set out my reading and, then, decide what works.

First, let me preface this discussion with noting the importance of the Bishop of Rome and the Roman church particularly. There is no doubt from the patristic evidence that Rome had a level of moral authority even in the second century which made it a major player in determining doctrine and ecclesial disputes. This is clear from Clement onwards. Furthermore, this moral authority grew over time as Rome time and again backed the orthodox cause even against imperial opposition. No one, except the most rabid anti-Catholic, can miss this.

Yet, is this necessarily evidence that this moral authority in the patristic age translated into ecclesiastical jurisdiction? That is rather harder to come by, but is a notoriously difficult thing to determine. Was Clement's letter to the Corinthians an admonition and/attempted mediation or an intervention in the affairs of a far off church?

Second, on Pope Victor's actions. God Fearin' takes the remonstances of Irenaeus et al as evidence of the authority of Victor over other churches in the East. Yes, there is some truth to this because he clearly had the power to condemn and anathemize churches outside his jurisdiction. The interesting questions is whether other churches also had that power. It seems the great patriarchates could, if the evidence of the mutual excommunications of Rome and Constantinople in the Photian and 1054 schism have any bearing on earlier periods. In this case, the fact that Irenaeus protests, but doesn't command suggests that the Bishop of Rome has this power. Still, who else does? I would suggest most regional bishops did because they led the communities under them and could decide with whom they were in communion.

That brings me to a third point. The remonstrances of Irenaeus et al aren't merely a recognition of (here) papal power, but also that other churches could and did challenge the conclusions of Rome. That suggests a more collegial vision of the church than suggested in this post.

Okay, must run.

TheGodFearinFiddler said...

Phil, I responded here.

Sorry it took me so long. My computer crashed and I have been spending the last week getting back up and running and trying to recover data.