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Dissonantia Iuiunii: An Early Church Defense of Communal Unity Without Papal Primacy

For many in the Christian world, adiaphora, a liturgical practice that is neither commanded nor forbidden in Holy Scripture, may be a term that is not too familiar. In the sanctuary should the altar be in front of, or against the wall? Does the entire church need to celebrate one uniform liturgy? On which day should the Christian church gather? The problem of non-conscience binding church practices has not been unique to the modern church.

In this paper, the concept of differing church traditions whilst still allowing ecumenical communion to remain intact will be discussed through the proposals of several church bodies. In particular we will discuss how the Lutheran and Roman churches intersect on their understanding of adiaphora. Through common citations from the Catechism of the Catholic Church as well as The Solid Declaration of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, it will be shown how adiaphora has historically been handled, and what that means for inter-church communion today.

On Catholic and Lutheran Diversity

Diversity in worship has always existed in the church. There is such a great consensus to attest to this fact that both the Catechism of the Catholic Church as well as the Lutheran Book of Concord have sections dedicated to this very topic. However, this apparent unity in recognition of the reality of adiaphoric practices has a peculiar splinter jetting out from an otherwise hearty unity. The dual confessional texts on similarly cite a singular example from Eusebius (c. 260 A.D), a bishop of Caesarea and church historian, in order to explain their view on communal fellowship despite apparent diversity. But the Catholic party, however, has a unique addition to their understanding of this citation that is not present in Lutheranism.

In the historian’s account there is a dispute between two parties in the early church on which day the Christian churches are to fast and on which day they are to gather. This dispute concludes with the Bishop of Rome excommunicating an entire communion of churches for their apparent difference with his own practice. Within the context of this account, both Rome and Lutheran’s alike cite the famous words of Irenaeus, saying that “dissimilarity in fasting is not dissimilarity in unity”.[1] But are these words of unity truly shared between the pair? Or is there still a basic difference in their understanding of this story?

According to the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, the bonds of unity which binds the entire church together are visible in three facets: “…the unity of the pilgrim Church is also assured by visible bonds of communion: the profession of one faith received from the Apostles; common celebration of divine worship, especially of the sacraments; [and] apostolic succession through the sacrament of Holy Orders…”[2] [emphasis mine] Along with these first two criterium a confessing Lutheran should have no disagreement. In fact, this is expressed in both the Epitome and Solid Declaration of the formula of Concord.[3] These two requisites are both, in truth, supported by an identical citation from Eusebius’ Church Histories. And yet the Catholic prerequisite contains an additional third requirement for ecumenical communion in the fidelity to hierarchal communion, or in laymen’s terms, loyalty to the Pope. But why is this not present in the Lutheran requirements, despite the exact same citation?

The Eusebian Citation

The common citation for both parties finds its authorship from Eusebius of Caesarea in arguably his most influential work, Historia Ecclesiae, or Church Histories (c. 4th century) wherein he compiles events from the first two hundred years of the early church. In the fifth volume of this collection he recounts a dispute that arose between the Bishop of Rome, Victor I (died c. 199 A.D), a position that will posthumously be declared as “Pope”[4][5], and the churches of Asia.

The Bishop of Rome attempted to cut off all their sister churches in Asia, as well as any churches that agreed with them, removing them from the common unity of the church catholic on account of their heterodox practices.[6] Pope Victor even issued letters with the declaration that these churches were wholly excommunicate. However, many fellow Bishops from different cities were displeased with his excommunication, seeking the Roman Pope to reconsider in the name of “neighborly love, unity, and to consider the things of peace”.[7] In fact, the historian recounts that the words used by these other Bishops, who included the likes of Irenaeus (c. 130 – 220 A.D), a Bishop of Gaul and who was ordained by Polycarp (c. 69 – 155 A.D), were “extant, sharply rebuking Victor”. But what dispute could possibly have arisen to cause the Bishop of Rome at that time to excommunicate a massive portion of the Christian church? And what was this argument from the other Bishops that lead to such sharp rebuking of the Roman Pope?

The Eusebian account denotes an event so traumatic to the early church that it was worth devoting nine precious paragraphs of text to its debate. According to the text, the dispute in question came down to something as rudimentary as the church calendar, and to be more specific, which day was the Lord’s Supper properly to be celebrated? Now in the original account Eusebius does not directly record the opinion of Victor, only that a view that was antithetical to his own was to be condemned and excommunicated. But the great historian does in fact include what the antithetical argument was, which would give us an understanding for what was in dispute in these passages.

Eusebius records that among the dissenting party,

“Among them was Irenaeus, 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…”[8] [emphasis mine]

Clearly, the words of the party rebuking the Bishop of Rome was the idea that indeed the “mystery of the resurrection of the Lord”, which we would call the eucharist, is only to be celebrated on the Lord’s day (Sunday). But he then continues in his rebuke that the day in which the mystery is celebrated in Asia is different than Rome. This understanding is reaffirmed in section thirteen when he states, “And this variety in its observance has not originated in our time; but long before in that of our ancestors. It is likely that they did not hold to strict accuracy, and thus formed a custom for their posterity according to their own simplicity and peculiar mode.”

This clarification from Irenaeus details that the Asian churches did not possess a strict Sunday celebration, as was the tradition now in Rome.[9] This difference in liturgical observance is one of the earliest and most duly noted in the church’s history, and for good reason. This clearly shows that from the beginning the church has wrestled with questions of what, in fact, makes a Christian divine service? Does a uniformity in the practices of worship, be it the day of the week in which it occurs, or by which method of liturgy is utilized, indeed constitute a reason for a break in communion; a break in unity?

Concluding his thirteenth section of article twenty-four we see the summation of Irenaeus’ argument against Pope Victor: “Yet all of these lived none the less in peace, and we also live in peace with one another; and the disagreement in regard to the fast confirms the agreement in the faith.” [emphasis mine] Irenaeus believed and affirmed in this extant rebuke of Pope Victor that disagreements on what would later come to be known as adiaphora are not a sufficient reason for communion to be dissolved. On the contrary they in fact confirm the unity of faith.[10] But how can this dissimilarly actually confirm unity?

Reaching Earlier

In the rebuke from Irenaeus he posits another similar issue between liturgical practice and disunity with a renumeration of an early incident between Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna and a disciple of the Apostle John[11], and Anicetus, Bishop of Rome preceding Victor in the chair of Peter. Irenaeus states, “…when the blessed Polycarp was at Rome in the time of Anicetus, and they disagreed a little about certain other things, they immediately made peace with one another, not caring to quarrel over this matter.”[12] Here he is clearly appealing to the succeeding presbyter, Victor, that not so long ago two well respected bishops of both Sees had almost the same issue, and yet their response was not in line with the current Roman Bishop. For they hastily made peace, and frankly, cared so little about the topic that it was not even worth their time to argue, let alone excommunicate, one another.

Irenaeus then seals his argumentation with,

“For neither could Anicetus persuade Polycarp not to observe what he had always observed with John the disciple of our Lord, and the other apostles with whom he had associated; neither could Polycarp persuade Anicetus to observe it as he said that he ought to follow the customs of the presbyters that had preceded him.” [emphasis mine]

We can see that the Apostles John, along with the others for which John associated with, meaning there were multiple Apostles in line with this practice, celebrated the Mystery of the Lord on Saturday in direct opposition to Rome’s then current Sunday celebration. However, Anicetus was not out of line with his predecessors either! A Sunday observance in Rome is already seen as the norm and “the custom of the presbyters that had preceded him”. The plural use of the word “presbyters” would imply at the minimum two Roman bishops with this practice, and this is supported by other early church documents.[13]

As such, some two thousand years later this dispute between several Bishops of the early church serve as an example of diversity in tradition that does not contradict the faith, but in fact “confirm the agreement in faith”.[14] The fact that both churches were handed down two different days, both from recognized Apostolic authorities describes to the reader a unique moment of church diversity that remained within unity. But with this diversity in unity, how are Lutheran and Catholics to understand our diversity in liturgy? Both theological parties cite this exact same story to support their understanding of what makes communion possible between diverse traditions, but are their understandings uniform from the events detailed by Eusebius?

Dissonantia Ieiunii Non Dissolvit Cononantiam Fidei

Both the Lutheran and Roman Catholic confessional literature cites this story in their respective formulations of church liturgical diversity. And yet, even with a stated commonness of faith at one time[15], a shared western liturgical practice and an equally comparable view of the eucharist to that of the Orthodox Church (for which Rome actually encourages participation in their divine service and Eucharistic communion)[16], the same fervor is not granted to Lutheran services. Rather, we are stricken between each other’s altar rail with prohibition. The answer for this seemingly strange double standard in actuality is not one at all: it is a matter of the interpretation of this Eusebian citation.

According to the Catholic Catechism the basis for unity is once again threefold: firstly, the confession of the faith as passed down by the Apostles.[17] For this basis, even such recent popes as Pope Paul VI recognized the basic unity of faith contained within the Lutheran communion.[18] Second, was the common celebration of divine service, especially that of the sacraments. Again, an interfaith panel of Roman and Lutheran theologians meeting in a post-Vatican II conference found enough common understanding to call for a basic unity in the two parties Sacramental understanding of the eucharist.[19]

However, it was the tertiary requisite which has kept the bond of unity torn in perpetuum: the visible bond of Apostolic succession through the sacrament of the Holy Orders. This requirement for any level of inter-Lutheran-Catholic communal unity would require a communion with Rome that is only possible within the Roman See, or with valid Apostolic succession, which Rome and the Orthodox churches share, but most Lutheran churches are lacking.

Although the churches contained within this record may have had valid Holy Orders, the question is not whether they did or not, as Rome eisegetically reads into the text. But rather why was it exactly that a sitting Pope desired to remove churches from the common communion, and what was the church catholic’s response? To this, we clearly see a fallible Pope making an erroneous declaration that was out of sync with his own communion, and that the universal church sharply rebuked him for it. Nowhere in this text does it defend a necessity for valid or invalid orders, or even the sacramental nature of such orders at all. The conditions set by Polycarp and Anicetus, or between Victor I and the churches of Asia were not that they had some valid Apostolic succession that was sacramental in and of itself, as even the churches in Asia themselves indeed possessed this and yet were being excommunicated regardless. The resolution at hand was that because there was a unity in faith, the diversity in liturgy did not matter. It was this Apostolic faith that was sacramental, not the arbitrary act of the laying on of hands. It is this sacramental faith that the churches in Asia as well as Rome possessed, and as such spurred Irenaeus to write on behalf of the preservation of such unity. As Polycarp, his mentor, knew well: this unity in Apostolic faith was worth preserving over simple liturgical diversity.


According to the account contained in the Church Histories we see no direct evidence of Papal fidelity as a direct requisite for communal unity. To that end, many Lutherans throughout modern American history have felt comfortable having their Catholic brothers and sisters at the communion rail as they do indeed see in the Formula of Concord’s citing of this early church dispute as necessitating only a common faith and understanding in the Eucharist as the essential factors in communal fellowship. Rome, on the other hand, has and will most likely continue barring Lutherans from their communion tables, save dire circumstance on an individual basis, on account of a third requisite factor: recognition of the Pope as the head of the Christian church.

In conclusion, the arguments presented here are intended to denote a development in the doctrine of eucharistic fellowship within Rome, and in opposition the Lutheran view denotes an earlier form of communal requirements more akin to the story of not only Victor I but also of Polycarp, Irenaeus and Anicetus, all the way back to the Apostles. This true Apostolic succession, one of faith and not of episcopacy, is what validates the sacraments from one church to another.

[1] Eusebius, Church History V, 24, 13 (NPNF, ser. 2, 1:243). [2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed., 815. [3] FC, EP X, 7., SD X, 31. [4] "Pope", Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Oxford University Press, 2005, ISBN 978-0-19-280290-3 [5] "I received this rule and ordinance from our blessed father, Heracles". Eusebius, Church History VII, 7 (NPNF, ser. 2, 1:243). [6] Eusebius, Church History V, 24 (NPNF, ser. 2, 1:243). [7] Eusebius, Church History V, 24, 16 (NPNF, ser. 2, 1:243). [8] Eusebius, Church History V, 24, 9 (NPNF, ser. 2, 1:243). [9]That they were wont, on a stated day, to meet together before it was light, and to sing a hymn to Christ, as to a god,” Pliny, Epistle X, 96; trans. By J. Stevenson in A New Eusebius (London: S.P.C.K., 1968), 14. [10] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed., 1200-1202 [11] Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses III.3­­ [12] Eusebius, Church History V, 24, 16 (NPNF, ser. 2, 1:243). [13] “…no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord’s Day” Letter to the Magnesians Chapter IX. —Let us live with Christ [A.D. 110]). [14] Eusebius, Church History V, 24, 13 (NPNF, ser. 2, 1:243). [15] Paul C. Empie and T. Austin Murphy, eds. Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Catholic Conference, 1967, 1970), vols II and IV. [16] Catholic catechism 838, 1399 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed., 838, 1399 [17] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed., 815, Cf. UR 2; LG 14; CIC, can. 205 [18] De Ecclesia, Decree on Ecumenism, section 3, p.5. [19] Ibid. “the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them (separated Churches and Communities) as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Church.”

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