On December 24, 1914 a group of German soldiers near the western front along the border between France and Belgium set down their guns and began scavenging in the space behind their trench in search of trees. Due to what was by now four months of non-stop shelling the region looked more like the moon than anything on the earth. Most every living thing in the area, human beings very much included, had been devastated by the guns of August–which had become the guns of September, October, and November and would carry on for four more years, though no one at the time knew that.
Last spring, I wrote about my skepticism about the newfound trendiness of lenten fasting among Evangelicals of my generation. The trend continues apace. Here’s Glenn Packiam, pastor of New Life Downtown in Colorado Springs (it’s a “parish” of the more famous New Life) explaining why his charismatic and low-church congregation is holding an Ash Wednesday service today:
So, no, you don’t have to observe Ash Wednesday. You don’t have to have a service or even go to one. But it is a beautiful way to join with the Church—for the past 1200 years—and with the people of God—for thousands of years before that!—and humbly repent and seek God’s face. It is the beginning of a fast season, Lent. Lent—like every other season of the Church Calendar—is about marking time around the life of Christ. We tend to mark time around our own events; there’s nothing evil about that. But there is another way to keep time. Christians for centuries have marked time in way that reminded them of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So, in short, this is about being centered on Christ and being connected to the Body of Christ, historic and universal.
Packiam is endemic of how most Lent-adopters talk about church history: They denigrate (explicitly or implicitly) their low-church Evangelicalism as unmoored from tradition and underscore how adopting the liturgical practice connects them to the historic church. But what if the best way to express trans-generational solidarity with the millions of believers who have walked before you is by eschewing Lent? That’s the argument I want to support below.
Jonathan Edwards is my Homeboy
Here’s the thing. Evangelicalism has been around for centuries and its practice is strongly rooted in the past. In the churches I’ve attended over the past decade (sometimes called Young, Restless, and Reformed), most worship songs are rearrangements of lyrics penned by eighteenth-century figures Isaac Watts, Augustus Toplady, and Charles Wesley. And what’s true of the songs is true of the theology, long-dead folks like John Calvin and Charles Spurgeon are revered, a phenomenon summed-up by the famous Jonathan Edwards is my Homeboy t-shirt on the cover for Colin Hansen’s article describing this movement. In their sermons and theological treatises, these YRR Homeboys said quite a lot about keeping the season of Lent. Here’s a sampling of takes from the sixteenth (John Calvin), seventeenth (John Owen), eighteenth (Jonathan Edwards), nineteenth (Charles Spurgeon), and twentieth centuries (Martyn Lloyd-Jones).
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.12.20 (1536)
Calvin is clearly hostile to describing lenten fasting as an imitation of Christ.
Then the superstitious observance of Lent had everywhere prevailed: for both the vulgar imagined that they thereby perform some excellent service to God, and pastors commended it as a holy imitation of Christ; though it is plain that Christ did not fast to set an example to others, but, by thus commencing the preaching of the gospel, meant to prove that his doctrine was not of men, but had come from heaven. And it is strange how men of acute judgment could fall into this gross delusion, which so many clear reasons refute: for Christ did not fast repeatedly (which he must have done had he meant to lay down a law for an anniversary fast), but once only, when preparing for the promulgation of the gospel. Nor does he fast after the manner of men, as he would have done had he meant to invite men to imitation; he rather gives an example, by which he may raise all to admire rather than study to imitate him. . . . It was therefore merely false zeal, replete with superstition, which set up a fast under the title and pretext of imitating Christ . . .
John Owen, On the Mortification of Sin in Believers (1656)
Owen is a very interesting case because he wrote extensively on the Christian practice for mortification of the flesh. However, he was very clear to differentiate the gospel practice of mortification from practices of “popish devotionists.”
That the ways and means to be used for the mortification of sin invented by them are still insisted on and prescribed, for the same end, by some who should have more light and knowledge of the gospel, is known. Such directions to this purpose have of late been given by some, and are greedily catched at by others professing themselves Protestants, as might have become popish devotionists three or four hundred years ago. Such outside endeavors, such bodily exercises, such self-performances, such merely legal duties, without the least mention of Christ or his Spirit, are varnished over with swelling words of vanity, for the only means and expedients for the mortification of sin, as discover a deep-rooted unacquaintedness with the power of God and mystery of the gospel.
Later, in the same piece, he specifically condemns the practice of abstaining from “sin for a season.”
And herein is the Roman mortification grievously peccant; they drive all sorts of persons to it, without the least consideration whether they have a principle for it or no. Yea, they are so far from calling on men to believe, that they may be able to mortify their lusts, that they call men to mortification instead of believing. The truth is, they neither know what it is to believe nor what mortification itself intends. Faith with them is but a general assent to the doctrine taught in their church; and mortification the betaking of a man by a vow to some certain course of life, wherein he denies himself something of the use of the things of this world, not without a considerable compensation. Such men know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. Their boasting of their mortification is but their glorying in their shame. Some casuists among ourselves, who, overlooking the necessity of regeneration, do avowedly give this for a direction to all sorts of persons that complain of any sin or lust, that they should vow against it, at least for a season, a month or so, seem to have a scantling of light in the mystery of the gospel, much like that of Nicodemus when he came first to Christ. They bid men vow to abstain from their sin for a season. This commonly makes their lust more impetuous. Perhaps with great perplexity they keep their word; perhaps not, which increases their guilt and torment. Is their sin at all mortified hereby? Do they find a conquest over it? Is their condition changed, though they attain a relinquishment of it? Are they not still in the gall of bitterness? Is not this to put men to make brick, if not without straw, yet, which is worse, without strength? What promise hath any unregenerate man to countenance him in this work? what assistance for the performance of it? Can sin be killed without an interest in the death of Christ, or mortified without the Spirit? If such directions should prevail to change men’s lives, as seldom they do, yet they never reach to the change of their hearts or conditions. They may make men self-justiciaries or hypocrites, not Christians.
Jonathan Edwards, An Attempt to Promote Agreement in Extraordinary Prayer (1745)
Edwards ridicules the no-flesh-but-fish rule while discussing how the capture of the French fortress of Louisbourg (on an island named Cape-Breton by the English) during King George’s War heralded the ascendance of the gospel and the downfall of superstitious Roman Catholic countries.
And one thing with relation to the taking of Cape-Breton, though it may seem trivial, yet I do not think to be altogether inconsiderable in the present case; and that is, that thereby the antiChristian dominions are deprived of a very great part of their fish, which makes no small part of the food and support of popish countries; their superstition forbidding them to eat any flesh for near a third part of the year. This they were supplied with much more from Cape-Breton than from any place in the world in the possession of papists. And the contention of France with the Dutch, deprives them of most of their supplies of this sort, which they had elsewhere. When the prophet Isaiah foretells the depriving Egypt of its wealth and temporal supplies, under the figure of drying up their rivers, this is particularly mentioned, that they should be deprived of their fish.
“And the Egyptians will I give over into the hand of a cruel lord. And the waters shall fall from the sea, and the river shall be wasted and dried up; and they shall turn the rivers far away, and the brooks of defense shall be emptied and dried up. The fishers also shall mourn, and all they that cast angle into the brooks shall lament, and they that spread nets upon the waters shall languish.” Isaiah 19:4-8.
This is expressed in the prophecies of drying up the waters, i.e. the supplies of Egypt; and this probably is implied in the prophecies of drying up the waters of that city which is spiritually called Egypt. And it may be noted, that this is not only a supply that the church of antichrist has literally out of the waters, but is that part which is eminently the supply and food of their antiChristian superstition, or which their popish religion makes necessary for them.
When it can be proved that the observance of Christmas, Whitsuntide, and other Popish festivals was ever instituted by a divine statute, we also will attend to them, but not till then. It is as much our duty to reject the traditions of men, as to observe the ordinances of the Lord. We ask concerning every rite and rubric, “Is this a law of the God of Jacob?” and if it be not clearly so, it is of no authority with us, who walk in Christian liberty.
He is especially critical of Lent’s call to mourn as if our Lord was taken away.
Come, then, and for your own good hang up the sackbut and take down the psaltery—put away the ashes! What if men call this season, “Lent”? We will keep no Lent, tonight—this is our Eastertide! Our Lord has risen from the dead and He is among us, and we will rejoice in Him!
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, sermon from John 1 (1962)
Lloyd-Jones is blunt in his appraisal.
Lent, of course, is a relic of Roman Catholicism. One can easily understand it in such an organization – it gives power to the priest, and so on – but there is, I repeat, no evidence whatsoever in favour of it in the New Testament, and it simply leads to this show of wisdom and human will power. It is people adding their works to the grace of God, and this is essentially Roman Catholic teaching. Well, my friends, let us get rid of this, let us not waste our time with it. We are to be led by the Spirit always.
Evangelicalism is a tradition too
I’m sure that an Evangelical Lent-adopter would protest that he isn’t going to do Lent in a “popish” way and thus evade the censure of the YRR Homeboys. If that were the case, why did none of these figures advocate for a reformed lenten fast instead of condemning the practice entirely? Furthermore, if the point for the adopters is to participate in an ancient tradition along with saints of previous centuries, it doesn’t make sense to radically alter the practice as traditionally performed.
My point is simple. Evangelicalism is a tradition with attendant folkways and liturgical practices. One of the practices low-church Evangelicalism has long embraced is not participating in lenten abstention. As a traditionalist, I walk in the steps of these historical homeboys and am the richer for it.
Gracy Olmstead has written the latest edition of an article that is in danger of becoming a meme amongst traditionalist conservatives: Millennial Christians are, apparently, converting to high church traditions en masse. Rebecca Van Doodewaard, Jeremy Tate, and Scot McKnight have also discussed this issue recently so it’s hardly a new story. There’s two things that need to be raised every time this article is written and, as best I can tell, none of them are discussed at any length in any of the pieces I’ve found.
First, there isn’t a ton of data showing how many people actually are converting to Catholicism or Orthodoxy or Anglicanism out of more evangelical backgrounds. (And we probably shouldn’t be including Anglicanism with Orthodoxy or Catholicism anyway, but that’s an entirely separate discussion.) Here’s the data we do have: Data from February of 2011 from the Pew Forum found that 9% of all Americans are former Catholics whereas only 7% of Americans are ex-Protestants. Of that 9% that have left Catholicism, 5% converted to Protestantism.
While it’s fair for members of high church traditions to point out that many of the converts to Protestantism are less engaged to begin with, while converts to Catholicism tend to be more noteworthy (Scott Hahn, Francis Beckwith, Jason Stellman, etc.), that doesn’t change the fact that more people convert from Catholicism to Protestantism than vice versa—a fact that most of these stories ignore completely.
Matt’s discussion of the Radicals and their revolution against comfortable and convenient Christianity has emerged, perhaps fittingly, during the liturgical season of Lent. The annual forty-day fast has always focused on the sacrifice inherent to the Christian call. Therefore, it should be no surprise that many of the same believers latching onto David Platt & Co.’s message have also begun to incorporate Lenten fasts into their worship practices. This devotional expression, long a hallmark of more liturgical churches, is now a growing trend among low-church Evangelicals.
The Evangelicalism of my parents’ generation lumped Lenten fasting together with saying the Rosary as the dead liturgy of a works-based religion. In other words, they didn’t do Lent. But now many of my friends, including lots of the fine folks here at Mere-O do. The question “What are you giving up for Lent?” is as common at hip church plants as skinny jeans and references to UFC fights. It is so cool that the really cool kids are giving up the practice in order to stay ahead of the trend.
The whole fad has me thinking: was the old-fashioned Evangelical opposition to Lenten observance just one more relic of an irrational anti-Papistry, or is there some real wisdom in abstaining from abstaining?
The Affair of the Sausages
Our parents weren’t the first Protestants to resist Lent. The suspicion of Lent emerged at the very dawn of the Reformation. In fact, less than five years after Martin Luther posted his 95 theses, an intentional violation of the Lenten fast was the event that brought the Reformation to Switzerland. Zurich pastor Huldrych Zwingli had been teaching on Christian liberty and his congregant, Christoph Froschauer, had just published a new translation of the Pauline Epistles. To celebrate the publication, Froschauer shared two sausages with his employees. This violated the terms of the church’s fasting requirements, which at that point completely forbade the eating of flesh meat.
At that time, the secular authorities enforced church doctrine. Froschauer was arrested. Zwingli subsequently defended Froschauer’s action as a proper exercise of Christian liberty. Roman Catholic authorities were not immediately persuaded. The citizens of Zurich were; the following year the city became officially Protestant.
In the following decades, English Puritans went even further in their opposition to feast days not commanded by scripture. Their opposition culminated in a 1647 parliamentary act abolishing Lent as well as the rest of the liturgical calendar:
Forasmuch as the feast of the nativity of Christ, Easter, Whitsuntide, and other festivals, commonly called holy-days, have been heretofore superstitiously used and observed; be it ordained, that the said feasts, and all other festivals, commonly called holy-days, be no longer observed as festivals; any law, statute, custom, constitution, or canon, to the contrary in anywise not withstanding. (link)
The Puritans banned all of these holidays because they found them unsupported by Scripture and to be the occasion of superstition. By the latter, they meant that common people would confuse the feast and fasts for the essence of Christianity and would mistake the simple Gospel. This concern also drove Zwingli’s opposition. In his sermon defending Froschauer, he noted that “simple people” may get the impression that if they comply with the Church’s Lenten commands they may think that they are good for the rest of the year. Yet, in truth, “one should at all time confess God, live piously, and do no more than we think necessary in the fast” (Zwingli, p. 107).
Yesterday, the Roman Catholic Church got a new Pope: Pope Francis, né Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio. The former archbishop of Buenos Aires was a bit of a surprise pick, as Cardinal Bergoglio was on almost none of the lists of likely candidates floated by the experts and pundits. I was expecting a surprise, but not one of this degree. This new Pope Francis is already an unexpected sort of pope.
It is, of course, too early to declare a definitive take on Pope Francis’ reign. But this is Mere O; it is not our style to be so deterred. By looking at who he is, the name he took, and the first impression he gave, we can already see much that is significant. So far, the theme of his election seems to be “novelty following precedent.’
Francis is, as many have already pointed out, the first non-European pope in over a millennium. Better put, he is the first pope who is from neither the Mediterranean world nor from Europe. He is from Argentina, the son of Italian immigrants. It is easy for people from the United States to forget that we were not the only American country to experience large-scale immigration in the late 19th and early 20th century. Argentina in particular was an immigration magnet, in various eras even encouraging mass immigration. Everyone talks about Germans in Argentina, but Italians were the largest immigrant group. As a second generation immigrant, he is a native Italian speaker with a Spanish first name. So while he is the first Latin American pope, he might be eligible for Italian citizenship by descent. The novelty of his national origin manages to be surprisingly in line with the tradition of Italian popes. Continue reading
Pope Benedict caught the whole world off-guard this morning. At the end of the consistory of the College of Cardinals, he announced his resignation as bishop of Rome, effective on the evening of February 28. It was a true surprise announcement, given the lack of advance leaks and the general consternation that has greeted it. So far the prize for most dramatic headline seems to be the one from the daily Vatican press packet: “Pope Renounces Papal Throne”. Which reads like a line from a Medieval history textbook.
As a historian, and one whose work covers part of the Middle Ages, Pope Benedict’s resignation was equal parts surprising and fascinating. As one friend of mine put it, the last time something like this happened, a Christian Emperor sat in Constantinople, Christopher Columbus wasn’t born yet, and Dante was still writing the Divine Comedy. But to really get at the historical importance of today’s headlines, a quick breaking-news church history sketch is in order.
The History of Papal Resignations
There are roughly three relevant historical precedents for Pope Benedict’s resignation: Benedict IX (1045), Celestine V (1294), and Gregory XII (1415). Each case was quite the mess, and each presents a different case from today’s news and from each other.
Benedict IX was pope near the end of a very turbulent era for the See of Rome. In the early 11th century, two Italian noble families vied for control of the papacy: the Crescentians and the Tusculans. Benedict IX was set up as pope by the Tusculans in 1032. He was, by most accounts, a violent and dissolute man. His resignation in 1045 was part of a revolving-door in his pontificate, where he was forced out (1044), restored (March 1045), resigned irregularly in favor of a relative (May 1045), and managed to resume office (1047) before being deposed for good (1048) at the behest of a very annoyed Emperor. (Check out the Oxford Dictionary of Popes, by J.N.D. Kelly. It manages to give a clear and concise account of that convoluted story.) Continue reading
Athanasius takes a swipe at the limited popular influence of the Greek philosophers:
As to Greek wisdom, however, and the philosophers’ noisy talk, I really think no one requires argument from us; for the amazing fact is patent to all that, for all that they had written so much, the Greeks failed to convince even a few from their own neighborhood in regard to immortality and the virtuous ordering of life.
He then contrasts this with the teacher from Nazareth:
Christ alone, using common speech and through the agency of men not clever with their tongues, has convinced whole assemblies of people all the world over to despise death, and to take heed to the things that do not die…
A good reminder of the fact that reason alone holds little power. In fact, saying that the Greeks were not “convinced” undersells the point; were there not likely many who were convinced by the philosophers in argument and yet still helplessly afraid of death? Imagine the father of a boy seized in convulsion, who cried out to Christ with tears pleading “I believe; help my unbelief!” For all the genius and charm of Socrates, what authority does he hold over demons? Who is even he next to the King of Glory? I have heard he stood without shivering over a winter night, but did anyone ever ask “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!'”
For a long time I’ve wrestled with the implications this has on evangelism and the general witness of the church. But for now, I’m dwelling on the extent to which I would be counted as one in the number of those who despise death.
Last year, I asked “Why Church History?”, and my answer was to point to the spiritual fellowship that we share across time. We look back, and we see a great crowd all bearing witness to one great Savior. This time, I want to take another angle on how our belief in this transcendent Communion of Saints should inspire our interest in church history.
Christ’s Church is one fellowship across time, space, and cultures. This truth is one reason to point to a distinction between the visible and invisible church. The eternal, unmixed, and universal fellowship is an invisible one, tied together in unity as adoptees of one Father, joint heirs with the same Lord Jesus Christ, and enlivened by one Holy Spirit. The visible church is intersection of that eternal invisible fellowship with the visible, fallen world of our age. It is what we can see now, out in the realm of human events. It has a discernible history, but it is divided by eras and shifts in cultural and intellectual fashions.
In the visible church, we see all the wrinkles and blemishes and ailments of the Bride of Christ during the time of her engagement. Her full glory is yet to come, just as the final glory of her members is yet to come. We see the faults of those who came before, but at most a foretaste of their perfection in Christ.
But this distinction of visible and invisible is not some eternal Platonic divide. It is temporary. On the Last Day, when Christ returns, the dead are raised, and the Judgment is complete, the visible church and the invisible church will be one and the same.
So why study church history? For the Christian, it is to gain an acquaintance with our future contemporaries. In the visible realm, they are our forebears in the faith. Their ways are often foreign to us, and their lives seem often remote and strange. Their virtues can seem either hollow or unreachable, and their faults glaring and incomprehensible. But in the greater reality, for now invisible, we are all immediate family. In Christ, the Church is only one generation.
And that is one reason why the doings, the customs, and the teachings of past Christians should interest us. If they are in Christ, and we are in Christ, we are not ultimately foreign to each other. We received the faith from them across time, and we will enjoy future sight together as peers. In the eternal kingdom on Earth, we will be together far longer than we were ever separated. And in the present time, that should also relativize the distinctions and divides between generations, classes, nations, and ethnicities.
So, in an odd way, we Christians should study the past so as to better understand our eschatological future.
D.G. Hart has given some feedback and pushback to Matt’s and my posts on Voluntarity and the Young Reformed. Dr. Hart is not one to back away from the rough and tumble of electronic controversy, so I am glad to have merited no worse than a backhanded compliment (or perhaps a complimentary backhand?) from him.
I am honestly glad to surprise Dr. Hart with my awareness of the history of the Old School/New School controversy. I should add that I am aware of, and greatly appreciate, the NAPARC churches. I have a particular admiration for Hart’s denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and for their key founder, J. Gresham Machen.
I think broader evangelicalism has a lot of important lessons to learn from these more confessional churches, about the importance of the visible church and the value of the old confessions. We evangelicals often need to escape the narcissistic attitude toward history that plagues our culture. The cry “Ad fontes”, “to the fountain”, is just as important now as it was during the Reformation. It is a cry to return not only to the scriptures, unique and supreme as their authority is, but also to the best of the theologians from all ages of the church. From the recent past to the deep past.
So when Dr. Hart asks, “But I’d sure like to know which cooks they have in mind and what authorities are overseeing the kitchens,” here’s my reply. I would love to see the Young Restless and Reformed set start cooking more from Hodge and Warfield’s cookbooks, with some Turretin sauces as a garnish. And not just when they are trying to make a point about alternate views of creation or the extent of the Flood. Many, including Carl Trueman and Kevin DeYoung, have warned of the risks of the Young Reformed movement becoming yet another celebrity fad. Unlike Dr. Hart (presumably), I don’t think that entails a root and branches rejection of the pietistic heritage.
Now maybe I’m just bad at the whole subtlety thing, but I was using a New School/Old School analogy in a very loose sense. The New School Presbyterians tended to hold denominational affiliation more loosely, were more willing to participate in revivals that crossed churchly and theological lines, and to adopt newer theological developments like dispensationalism and Keswick holiness. In a similar manner, what I called the “Parachurch” or “New School” (note the scare quotes, which I normally avoid) are more open to independency, interdenominational blending, and newer networks based to a large degree on ministry method and ethos.
By contrast, the Old School Presbyterians tended to emphasize confessional theology, the ordinary means of grace, and the work of the visible church. Some, like Warfield and the Old Princeton set, had a more favorable attitude towards pietism and saw at least some revivals as works of God. Others, like Nevin, had an even stronger emphasis on sacraments and liturgy and issued scathing rebukes of revivalist methods. What I called the “Church” or “Old School” young Reformed have a relatively stronger emphasis on covenant theology, grace-centered life, the work of local church officers, and a tendency to stockpile Banner of Truth reprints. I don’t mean to draw a perfect parallel or a historical succession. Just a pretty strong rhyme.
As for examples of “Church” or “Old School” Young Reformed figures, I would suggest Kevin DeYoung, who has argued in defense of the institutional church and called for a renewed appreciation for the Heidelberg Catechism. Dane Ortlund, perhaps, if he doesn’t object to being dragged into this. Or the younger end of the Reformation21 fanbase. Plus a good subset of those who have joined the PCA in recent years, or who quietly wish that more Baptist churches held up the London Baptist Confession (or even the Abstract of Principles) instead of the anti-confessionalism that has come to dominate the American baptist scene. And—if it would not be too forward—myself, insignificant beginner that I am.
P.S. For Mere-O readers who are unfamiliar with the references to the New School/Old School controversy, I promise to outline some highlights in a post in the very near future. It is a very interesting and important story. If such a post is not up soon, my friends should rebuke me, hold my feet to the fire, and perhaps even poison my tea.
Last Sunday was Easter. This year was a special year, in that the Eastern and Western churches celebrated it on the same date. Easter is a variable-date feast for both families of churches, but the range of possible dates under each calendar partially overlaps. You might wonder how that difference between Rome and Constantinople came about. You may also wonder why its date is so varied, instead of being fixed like Christmas. The stories are related, and quite interesting.
It all starts with the Jewish festival of Passover, the annual commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt. In the Hebrew calendar, it falls on the fourteenth day of the month Nisan. (The preparation is on the 14th; the new day starts at evening time, so the feast itself is on the 15th.) It is a lunar calendar, with each month starting with the new moon. But purely lunar calendars have a problem. A cycle of twelve moons is shorter than a solar year. On the same day of the same month of a different year, the stars will be in a different place. Even worse, if the calendar is not corrected, the place of the seasons on the calendar drifts noticeably. The major feasts of the Hebrew calendar, however, are meant to correlate with the seasons. You want to offer the firstfruits of the harvest at harvest time. So the month of Nisan was pegged as following the ripening of the barley crop. If the month of Adar ended before the barley was ripe, you just have the month of Adar a second time. The middle of the month corresponded with the full moon, so in practice Passover fell on a full moon following the vernal equinox.
The Babylonian Exile, and the Diaspora in general, put a wrench in that system. You can’t easily track the Judean growing season from Babylon. Several methods were devised for keeping track of the right date to observe Passover in obedience to the Law. The head of the Sanhedrin did not decree a definitive standard mathematical method for calculating the Hebrew calendar until the 4th century A.D. Even then, it took some time for that method to be universally received by the Jewish community, such that Jews in Rome, Jerusalem, and Babylon all celebrated the feast on the same day. Before that time, in a given year different local communities might celebrate Passover on very different dates on the Roman Julian Calendar.
Christians began to commemorate Christ’s resurrection from a very early time. We see in the Acts of the Apostles that early Christians began gathering on Sunday, the day of the week on which Christ arose, very early on indeed. It is not clear when Christians started observing an annual feast of the Resurrection,* but the practice was already underway in the 2nd century. Two main forms of observance emerged: celebrating the Resurrection on 14 Nisan (first day of Passover), and celebrating it on the Sunday after that date. The Fourteenthers (aka Quartodecimans) were mainly based in Asia Minor, while the “Sunday after Passover” practice was observed elsewhere, most notably in Rome. There was fierce controversy in Rome on the matter in the later 2ndcentury. Remember, Rome as capital housed people from all over the Empire, so it was a natural place for the two practices to bump elbows. When the families from Asia Minor start feasting several days early, it raises a ruckus. For the most part, the parties of both sides agreed it was not worthy of schism. (Victor, bishop of Rome between 189 and 199, was a notable exception.) When the dispute came to a vote at regional councils (including one in Palestine), the “Sunday after Passover” practice won out. The Fourteenthers gradually disappeared, and the label slowly became a handy slur to hurl at the other side in a debate over Easter dates. (The “fighting words” use of the label makes it hard to determine exactly when the faction died out.)
That whole time, most Christians used a simple method to find out the date of Passover on the civil (Julian) calendar: ask a Jewish friend. By the early fourth century, a lot of Christians were unsatisfied with that practice. The distance between the Christian and Jewish communities had gradually grown, and leaders on both sides were increasingly concerned with marking and fencing the border lines. Also, a lot of Christians noticed the wide local variation in calendar calculation. They wanted to be able to calculate their feast on their own, and there was no universally-accepted Jewish system of calculation to copy. Other Christians were quite attached to the “ask a rabbi” method.
Their disagreement came to a head at the Council of Nicaea in 325. (Yes, Constantine may have called it to settle the dispute over Arius, but the various churches had several of their own agenda items that did not concern him.) At the council they agreed that Christians needed to draw up their own system to determine the date. They agreed that Easter should be observed on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox. That roughly paralleled their understanding of how the Jewish calendar customs worked out on an astronomical model. The council also tasked the bishop of Alexandria, a wealthy church in a city full of observatories and astronomy buffs, to keep track of it for everyone. Thus began the practice of the bishops of Alexandria sending an annual letter to all the churches they recognized as orthodox, telling them the year’s Easter date.
As anyone who has worked on a committee knows, an agreement made at a meeting does not always translate into everybody following the same plan. It took decades to get everybody on board, to iron out a standard date for the equinox, tables of standard full moon dates, and the resulting table of standard Easter dates. For a while, more than one set of Easter tables were used. (Notably, the Irish churches used a different Easter table than the churches in Gaul and Rome through the seventh century.) Eventually, by the 8thor 9thcentury, pretty much all but the most remote, difficult to contact churches were using basically the same tables. (In church history, any important debate takes about a century to settle. Less important ones can go on longer.)
So why the modern difference between East and West? Blame Copernicus. The astronomical revolution of the 16thand 17thcentury allowed for precise calendar calculations. Until the atomic clock, careful use of astronomy was the best way to keep track of dates, months, and years. Pope Gregory XIII commissioned a team of astronomers to reform the old Julian calendar. Set in ancient Rome, its system of leap years pulled the calendar 3 days off the solar cycle every four centuries. That meant the vernal equinox was ten days off from when it was (traditionally) set at Nicaea. That made it harder for people in distant regions to calculate the date of Easter. So Gregory had his experts reform the leap year system, reclaim the ten missing days, create a better table of the full-moon cycle, and thus reform the Easter tables. He decreed the new calendar in 1582.
Most Catholic countries adopted the new calendar quickly. Most Protestant territories initially rejected it on political and religious (read: anti-papal) grounds. But slowly the astronomical arguments for it won out. England held out until 1752. Eastern Orthodox Russia did not use it as the civil calendar until the Bolsheviks took power, and Greece waited until 1923. At that time, some Eastern Orthodox churches adopted a revised Julian Calendar that is mostly identical to the Gregorian, but kept the old Easter tables. (Not all of them accepted it, which is why there are breakaway “Old Calendar” groups, and not all Orthodox jurisdictions in the U.S. observe Christmas at the same time.) Particularly, their new calendar kept the Julian (Eastern Orthodox) date for the equinox, which is now fourteen days off the Gregorian (Western churches) date. The two systems mark their calendars off different full moons on most years.
Maybe one day we’ll settle that difference and all observe together. Until either Christ returns, or someone else decides to adjust the tables again. Whichever happens first.
In sum, the Christian Easter(s), and the liturgical year observances that are set relative to it, come from an attempt to create a Christian calendar to match the Jewish Calendar. A Christian Nisan, so to speak. And as was the case within the Jewish community, it took a lot of time, ink, and flared tempers to work it out.
*Let’s dispatch one misconception. The fact that we call the holiday “Easter” does not reveal some hidden pagan roots to the holiday. It certainly has nothing to do with the goddess Ishtar. English and German use names based on “east”, as a reference to the rising sun. In fact, words for “east” tend to come from words for “rising.” It makes a kind of sense, as Jesus Christ is the Sun of Righteousness, risen with healing in His wings. (Malachi 4:2) But most other languages call the feast day by some variant of “Pascha,” from the Hebrew pesach (“pass-over”). Instead of using a loanword or a calque like “Passover,” old-time German and English speakers created their own punning word for it, and that word stuck. Centuries later, it became a stumbling block for preachers and pamphleteers with too keen an eye for seeing ancient pagan roots in traditional Christian practices. That is the common farce that humans are prone to, a product of poor memory, excess cleverness, and axes to grind.