This episode follows how the Church resolved two of its controversies: the dating of Easter and iconoclasm. Despite the Church having resolved such issues, myths and misconceptions about how the events of history unfolded persist. Listen to this episode here or on spotify.
The following are some of the sources I used to create this episode. Feel free to check them out:
Andrew Louth, Greek East and Latin West.
An Article by Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick.
Eusebius, The History of the Church.
Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies.
Let me begin today’s episode with a short passage from Romans 15:5-6:
“Now may the God of patience and comfort grant you to be like-minded toward one another, according to Christ Jesus, that you may with one mind and one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
For today’s episode, we will talk about two ancient church controversies. One of them is the date of Easter and the other is iconoclasm. We will talk about what each controversy entailed, how the controversies were resolved, and whether the outcome made that big of a difference in the course of Church history. And a very important question is: Did the controversy ending automatically mean that everything was completely in order for the rest of history? These are some of the questions we will look at.
Date of Easter:
So let us begin with the date of Easter. I gotta state from now that I am providing here only an overly simplistic idea of what happened. The point of the episode is not to resolve or give a historical critical overview of the controversy. Rather, it is an attempt at looking at the way Church resolved issues in the past. So don’t worry. No complicated mathematical equations of how the date of Easter is calculated here. I haven’t done math in about seven years since I started studying theology so maybe I shouldn’t comment on math anyways.
The early Church always celebrated the feast of the resurrection of our Lord but for better or for worse, not everyone celebrated on the same day. Most Churches celebrated on Sunday while the Churches in Ephesus celebrated on the 14th of Nissan. Each Church had its logic for celebrating the way it did.
Most Churches thought that since each Sunday is a memorial of the resurrection of the Lord then it makes sense that we celebrate the feast of the resurrection on Sunday, the day of the week in which the Lord rose. Seeing that Sunday comes after Saturday which is the Sabbath, the Sunday of the resurrection is like the eighth day after the seven days of creation so God creates everything in six day, rests on the seventh and then the resurrection takes place on Sunday, or the eighth day, marking the new beginning. In their minds, eight signified a new beginning which makes sense if you keep in mind the fact the world was rebuilt after the flood through the family of Noah which consisted of eight people. So this was the logic of those who celebrated on Sunday.
Now let us turn to those who celebrated on the 14th of Nissan. Their logic was straight forward. We know Jesus was crucified on the 12th of Nissan and He rose on the 14th of Nissan so why should we celebrate on any other day. Whether it falls on a Friday or a Saturday shouldn’t matter. All days can be dedicated to the Lord and His glorious resurrection.
According to the Ecclesiastical history of Eusebius, this controversy entailed back and forth letters between bishops in the third century AD. They reached no definitive conclusion. Victor I of Rome wanted to settle the situation by force—Rome had something for flexing and trying to subdue all other bishops since day one it seems—but he failed. He contemplated excommunicating everyone who celebrated on the 14th of Nissan if they do not conform to the majority practice. Thank God for people like St. Irenaeus of Lyons who managed to put him in his place, no excommunications actually took place. Record shows that Irenaeus was all for the celebration of Easter on the day of the Lord i.e. Sunday. However, it was far more important for him, as any sensible person would, that church unity be preserved at all costs. My opinion matters less than the unity of the Church.
Approximately a century later, the Council of Nicaea settled the date and had a whole system for calculating the date of Easter which would always be on Sunday from then on. The Church of Alexandria was to determine the date per this complex system which I am not about to get into. I will tell you however that there are a few myths about the way Easter date is determined. One famous myth is that the Easter celebration must be after the Jewish Passover. In 2011 for example, Passover was April 18-26 but Easter was celebrate on the 24th. Passover is not a one-day celebration for Jews like Easter is for us. Interesting how myths and legends persist despite the first ecumenical council “settling” the debate making all Churches celebrate on the same day. Or so it thought! Why would I say that you might ask? Well, here is why. The Church of Rome revised its calendar changing it to what is now known as the Gregorian calendar or Gregorian paschalion if you wanna use the technical term. If you are hyperdox or too zealous, you might jump into the conclusion that this is because it is Rome and Rome is always wrong. Hold up, here is a list of Orthodox Churches that do not celebrate on the Julian calendar: first, the Eastern Orthodox Church of Finland. Second, the Armenian Apostolic Church is divided on that date so if you are in Armenia, you celebrate on the Gregorian calendar but if you are part of the Armenian patriarchate in Jerusalem, you are on the old calendar. The Malankara Orthodox Church in India celebrates according to the Gregorian calendar.
I do not see anyone distributing anathemas to those churches for celebrating on a different calendar from that which Nicaea dictated. And don’t get me wrong, I am not asking anyone to do that. I am simply saying that even though a matter might be settled whether by accepting the status quo which might entail accepting the diversity in practice or by dictating what should happen by an ecumenical council, the diversity in practice may well continue. And even when the situation is somewhat fixed, myths and legends will continue to be created around why we celebrate when we celebrate. This is simply the reality of the human condition.
I want to conclude our chat about this controversy with a rather lengthy quote from “Synaxis” which is the name of a blog of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. It is a really nice blog. This particular post is titled “Unity in Diversity: The Opportunities and the Challenges” just in case you wanna go back to it. I strongly recommend you do that after this episode. For now, let us read the following quote together:
“The Church’s diversity-in-unity was also articulated in a striking way in the second century. In the midst of a heated crisis in the Church concerning the date on which Easter should be celebrated, St Irenaeus of Lyons considered the various practices and dates and said: ‘The difference in practice confirms the unity in faith.’ Yes, you read that correctly. The differences confirm the unity. They testify to it. They strengthen it. This pronouncement challenges our logic: wouldn’t you have thought that it’s unity in practice that confirms unity in faith? Well that can happen too. But what is being said here is also true, and deeply important: the very fact that we can embody diversity, yet agree in the matters of the greatest significance, confirms and deepens our unity…
St Irenaeus’s saying confirms the principle of ‘unity in diversity,’ or perhaps ‘diversity in unity.’ Unity in the most important sense, unity concerning the things that really matter, is not threatened but enriched by diversity. For St Irenaeus, the different dates of the Paschal celebration did not threaten but even enriched what really mattered, namely the fact and the life-giving content of the Lord’s Pascha itself.”
So enough about the date of Easter and let us turn to a greater and a more recent controversy (by more recently here I mean eighth century) and this would be iconoclasm. I won’t spend much time on that controversy, but I am bringing it forward to show that the overly simplistic narrative we are often spoon fed does not reflect the complexity of the issue. Usually the narrative goes like this:
There were two camps. People who loved icons known as iconodoules or iconophiles and people who saw them as idolatrous and they are called iconoclasts. Iconoclasts killed many iconophiles and after much debate the iconophiles won the day on the seventh ecumenical council and that is why the vespers celebrating this council is called the Triumph of Orthodoxy.
Here is the stuff you won’t hear in the average Sunday school class:
The iconophiles were divided into two groups. One was indeed Orthodox and had a proper understanding of what it meant to venerate an icon. They knew that we are not venerating wood and paint but rather venerating those who are represented through wood and paint by venerating their image. They also knew the difference between worship on the one hand and veneration on the other hand. They knew worship and adoration belong to God alone whereas veneration belongs to icons and the saints they represent. However, the other group was not so sober minded. They began having indeed idolatrous ideas about the elements that go into producing the icons having intrinsic holiness to themselves. Their piety took such a bad turn that they began scraping paint off the icons in the Church and pouring the powder into the chalice with communion. You might have your eyebrows raised at hearing this now. Back then, people raised the sword when they saw these actions and much blood was shed at that time. Of course, real saints were killed for the protection of icons and more importantly the protection of the doctrine of the incarnation which closely relates to theology of icons. An Orthodox confession of the theology of icons and an Orthodox confession of the doctrine of the incarnation very much inform one another.
Now let us look at the iconoclast. We often assume they were people who hated and destroyed icons. The matter was not so simple either. Some did indeed hate and destroyed icons and killed people who owned and venerated icons. However, there were more moderate but still heretical iconoclasts who did not mind the presence of icons for decorative purposes so long as they are high up and are not being venerated by the faithful. Of course, this is still not acceptable for theological reasons. But let us look for now at the way the situation was actually settled.
Multiple councils took place. Each council came to a different conclusion. An iconoclastic council was in fact considered the seventh ecumenical council until what is now celebrated as the seventh ecumenical council was convened. This council was not simply an iconophile council. It was more than that. First, it was a council convened by the orders of a woman of questionable understanding of power and authority, namely Empress Irene or Emperor Irene as she liked to call herself. She was so obsessed with power that when she felt her son was trying to take the throne, she ordered his eyes to be gouged and he died as a result. History has mixed views on her reputation and morals depending on who you read but I won’t get into that. She also appointed a lay person to become patriarch just because she knew he would support her in exonerating the iconophile position. This was of course in direct opposition to canons that stated that no one should be ordained a patriarch after having been a lay person right away. These canons were very much affirmed in ecumenical councils such as the sixth ecumenical council which took place only a century earlier. So it is not like she didn’t know what she was doing and if she didn’t, it is not like the clergymen who ordained him didn’t know that they were breaking canons to ordain the man which Irene wanted to be the patriarch. It could be that they though ends justify the means or it could be that they were aware of how much Irene could turn into a bully who would order them to be punished, exiled or even killed. The council exonerated the Orthodox camp within the iconophile camp. So the council rejected all extremes including scraping icon paint and mixing it with communion elements, destroying icons, and preventing the veneration of icons. Even after this council took place, its decrees were translated from Greek to Latin and sent to the pope of Rome. Sadly, the translation was so poor that the word ‘venerate’ came to be translated as ‘adore’ or ‘worship’ in Latin. This of course gave the pope in Rome the wrong idea. It was not till later that this was clarified.
The point of sharing this particular controversy with you is to show you that the way debates were settled wasn’t always the prettiest. Different camps on each side, bad translations, questionable application of church canons, and the list goes on.
And again with the date of Easter, you saw how there were threats of excommunication and St. Irenaeus having to step in to preserve church unity and even when Nicaea settles the debate, the diversity in practice persists, and the legends continue to be created and believed by many.
And yes guys, these are the controversies that were actually settled. Now until the next episode, I want you to imagine how unresolved controversies might have looked like.
Let us conclude today’s episode with a quote from St. Irenaeus of Lyons’ book Against The Heresies since we already talked a lot about him:
“But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shines everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth. Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from those (for no one is greater than the Master [that is Christ]); nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on Tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it.” –St. Irenaeus of Lyons.
If this episode worried you about how controversies have been resolved, I hope this quote gives you peace as it reassures that we have our faith protected by He who gave it, Christ Himself, and preserved in Tradition, the deposit of our faith. Until the next episode, Christ is Risen.