Pope of the Month: St Victor I (also episcopal monarchy & dating Easter)

Two years ago, I decided to include a montly pope in with the Saints of the Week, but only managed three, St Peter, St Clement, and then alleged Anti-pope St Hippolytus, who I later learned wasn’t an anti-pope at all! Since the Saint of the Week returned the first week of November, enjoy the Pope of the Month on the last!

This month, we go back to the days before St Hippolytus to St Victor (Bp of Rome c. 189-198) — a contender for being the first ‘Bishop’ of Rome. One of the most important developments in church organization was that of the monarchical episcopacy, which emerged in the years following the deaths of the Apostles or leaders of the apostolic age in different places at different rates. The letters of St Ignatius of Antioch (d. 117) reveal that Antioch at the time had an episcopacy that seems to have presided over a board of presbyters. Ignatius as bishop had a liturgical function, a role in protecting orthodoxy, and a prophetic role in leading the church. His letters also show us that many churches in Asia Minor had men called bishops at their heads as well.

The story of the church at Rome is not uncomplicated in this regard. Was Clement the bishop the way we think of them, or one bishop among several? The Roman church was a large body of believers from early days and also relatively wealthy — wealth that was used by the church functionaries to feed the poor and support the ministers. They seem by the time of Clement to see themselves as a united church, not a varied selection of different communities.

1 Clement and The Shepherd of Hermas reveal a church structure that had a group of officials at its head whose titles were, in the last first and early second centuries, still fluid; is there much difference between a presbyter who presides and the episkopoi? By the middle of the second century, the various churches of the cities of the Mediterranean world were in increasing contact, and this necessitated mutual recognition of leadership. This was the time of proto-orthodoxy seeing various risks to its integrity and the doctrinal soundness of the church in the various groups labelled ‘Gnostic’ as well as the divergent Roman teacher Marcion.

Shortly before Victor’s episcopate in Rome, St Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, gives his famous Apostolic Succession (about which I’ve blogged here) of the city of Rome in Against the Heresies 3.3. Irenaeus finishes with Eleutherius, Victor’s predecessor. This strongly suggests that some form of episcopal monarchy was already established in Rome by the time of Eleutherus’ episcopate. The shape of the episcopacy was yet to be fully determined, however — was he a president over his fellow presbyters or what?

Yes, that Commodus

Victor comes onto the scene around 189 upon Eleutherus’ death. Victor exercised episcopal authority in a variety of ways. According to the Refutation of All Heresies, Book 9, Chapter VII, Victor used influence at the court of the Emperor Commodus to secure the release of Christian prisoners who were working in the mines of Sardinia. We learn from Eusebius (5.28.6) that he also excommunicated one Theodotus the Tanner for denying Christ’s divinity. Victor is using the office of bishop, that much is clear.

He is most famous, however, for his involvement in the Quartodeciman Controversy — a debate on the date of Easter. In this controversy, we see the international role that bishops play in each other’s churches, as well as the fact that the ancient, ‘primitive’ church was an international community that sought unity in all things.

Quartodecimans were Christians who celebrated Easter on 14 Nisan, at the same time as Jewish Passover. The primarily lived in Asia Minor. It seems to me that their tradition is probably as old as the accepted celebration of Easter on a Sunday. They included in their ranks the celebrated Bishop of Smyrna, St Polycarp. In the days of Anicetus, one of Victor’s predecessors, Polycarp visited Rome, and Anicetus received him warmly, despite their difference over the date of Easter.

In the mid- to late 100s, however, the debate heated up. The date of Easter is a big deal throughout Church history, cropping up here, then again around the time of the Council of Nicaea, then again in the 400s, and then famously at the Synod of Whitby in the 600s (my thoughts on that here). Many of today’s Christians probably wonder what the big deal is — who cares which day people celebrate Easter?

Well, two immediate thoughts. One is an official reason: Traditionally, people fast before Easter. To have some feasting while others are still fasting is just in appropriate. Second, Easter is the chief feast of the Christian year. It is the reason we are Christians. Jesus rose from the dead. To fail to celebrate Easter at the same time is to compromise Christian unity that is visible in the feasts.

When the issue of the divergent Asian celebration of Easter heated up, Eusebius says:

synods and conferences of bishops were convened, and without a dissentient voice, drew up a decree of the Church, in the form of letters addressed to Christians everywhere, that never on any day other than the Lord’s Day should the mystery of the Lord’s resurrection from the dead be celebrated, and that on that day alone we should observe the end of the Paschal fast. (Ecclesiastical History, 5.23, trans. Williamson)

The Asian bishops protested, and wrote in their defence that long custom and luminaries such as the Apostles Philip and John and the martyr Polycarp were on their side. Victor responded harshly and, to quote Eusebius, ‘pilloried them in letters in which he announced the total excommunication of all his fellow-Christians there.’ (5.24; this is no doubt why some consider him Rome’s first true bishop)

Other bishops felt that Victor had gone too far by breaking communion with every single Asian Christian, especially since they seemed to be pretty much orthodox. Amongst the more easygoing bishops were Irenaeus who pointed out that cutting churches off because they follow tradition is a bad idea. As Eusebius says, Irenaeus lived up to his name, peacemaker, and corresponded with Victor and other bishops to find a peaceful resolution to the issue.

I guess it seemed to work, since Eusebius does not return to the issue — however, pockets of Quartodecimans continued to exist in Asia Minor for centuries, tradition being on their side.

There is not much more to say about Victor. The Oxford Dictionary of Popes by J. N. D. Kelly simply closes:

According to St Jerome, he was the author of Latin works of moderate quality. Reports that he was a martyr and was buried near St Peter are routine and should be rejected. Feast 28 July.

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