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Berengar of Tours

Berengar of Tours was an 11th century Christian theologian in France who disputed with the Church leadership over the doctrine of transubstantiation in the Eucharist.

Table of contents

1. Early Life.

Berengar of Tours was born perhaps at Tours, probably in the early years of the eleventh century; died in the neighboring island of St. Cosme on January 6, 1088.

He laid the foundations of his education in the school of Bishop Fulbert of Chartres, who represented the traditional theology of the early Middle Ages, but did not succeed in imposing it upon his pupil. He was less attracted by pure theology than by secular learning, and brought away a knowledge of the Latin classics, dialectical cleverness, freedom of method, and a general culture surprising for his age. Later he paid more attention to the Bible and the Fathers, especially Gregory and Augustine; and it is significant that he came to formal theology after such preparation.

Returning to Tours, he became a canon of the cathedral and about 1040 head of its school, which he soon raised to a high point of efficiency, bringing students from far and near. The fame which he acquired sprang as much from his blameless and ascetic life as from the success of his teaching.

So great was his reputation that a number of monks requested him to write a book that should kindle their zeal; and his letter to Joscelin, later archbishop of Bordeaux, who had asked him to decide a dispute between Bishop Isembert of Poitiers and his chapter, is evidence of the authority attributed to his judgment. He became archdeacon of Angers, and enjoyed the confidence of not a few bishops and of the powerful Count Geoffrey of Anjou.

2. Controversy over the Eucharist.

Amid this chorus of laudation, however, a discordant voice began to be heard; it was asserted that Berengar held heretical views on the Eucharist (see also transubstantiation). In fact, he was disposed to reject the teaching of Paschasius Radbertus, which dominated his contemporaries. The first to take formal notice of this was his former fellow student Adelmann[?], then a teacher at Liége, who wrote to question him, and, receiving no answer, wrote again to beseech him to abandon his opposition to the Church's teaching.

Probably in the early part of 1050, Berengar addressed a letter to Lanfranc, then prior of Bec, in which he expressed his regret that Lanfranc adhered to the eucharistic teaching of Paschasius[?] and considered the treatise of Ratramnus on the subject (which Berengar supposed to have been written by Erigena[?]) to be heretical. He declared his own agreement with the supposed Scotus, and believed himself to be supported by Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and other authorities.

This letter found Lanfranc in Rome, after it had been read by several other people; and as Berengar was not well thought of there, Lanfranc feared his association with him might be prejudicial to his own interests, and laid the matter before the pope. The latter excommunicated Berengar at a synod after Easter, 1050, and summoned him to appear personally at another to be held at Vercelli in September.

Though disputing the legality of his condemnation, he proposed to go, first passing through Paris to obtain permission from King Henry I, as nominal abbot of St. Martin at Tours. Instead of granting it, however, the king threw him into prison, where Berengar occupied himself with the study of the Gospel of John, with a view to confirming his views.

The synod was held at Vercelli without him; two of his friends, who attempted to defend him, were shouted down and barely escaped personal violence; Ratramnus's book was destroyed; and Berengar was again condemned.

He obtained his release from prison, probably by the influence of Geoffrey of Anjou; but the king still pursued him, and called a synod to meet in Paris Oct., 1051. Berengar, fearing that its purpose was his destruction, avoided appearing, and the king's threats after its session had no effect, since Berengar was sheltered by Geoffrey and by Bishop Eusebius Bruno of Angers, and found numerous partisans among less prominent people.

3. Berengar Submits at Rome.

In 1054 Hildebrand came to France as papal legate. At first he showed himself friendly to Berengar, and talked of taking him back to Rome to get Pope Leo IX's authority with which to silence his foes. But when he found that the latter could do more to disturb the peace of the Church than Berengar's friends, he drew back.

Under these circumstances Berengar decided to concede as much as he could, and the French bishops showed that they wished a speedy settlement of the controversy, when the Synod of Tours declared itself satisfied by Berengar's written declaration that the bread and wine after consecration were the Body and Blood of Christ. The same desire for peace and the death of Pope Leo were reasons why Hildebrand did not press for Berengar's going to Rome at once.

Later Berengar went to Rome in 1059, fortified by a letter of commendation from Count Geoffrey to Hildebrand. At a council held in the Lateran, he could get no hearing, and a formula representing what seemed to him the most carnal view of the sacrament was offered for his acceptance. Overwhelmed by the forces against him, he took this document in his hand and threw himself on the ground in the silence of apparent submission.

4. Reasserts his Views in France.

Berengar returned to France full of remorse for this desertion of his faith and of bitterness against the pope and his opponents; his friends were growing fewer-- Geoffrey was dead and his successor hostile. Eusebius Bruno was gradually withdrawing from him. Rome, however, was disposed to give him a chance; Pope Alexander II wrote him an encouraging letter, at the same time warning him to give no further offense.

He was still firm is his convictions, and about 1069 published a treatise in which he gave vent to his resentment against Pope Nicholas II and his antagonists in the Roman council. Lanfranc answered it, and Berengar rejoined. Bishop Raynard Hugo of Langres also wrote a treatise De corpore et sanguine Christi against Berengar.

But the feeling against him in France was growing so hostile that it almost came to open violence at the Synod of Poitiers in 1076. Hildebrand as pope tried yet to save him; he summoned him once more to Rome (1078), and undertook to silence his enemies by getting him to assent to a vague formula, something like the one which he had signed at Tours. But his enemies were not satisfied, and three months later at another synod they forced on him a formula which could mean nothing but transubstantiation except by utterly indefensible sophistry. He was indiscreet enough to claim the sympathy of Gregory VII, who commanded him to acknowledge his errors and to pursue them no further. Berengar's courage failed him; he confessed that he had erred, and was sent home with a protecting letter from the pope, but with rage in his heart.

Once back in France, he recovered his boldness and published his own account of the proceedings in Rome, retracting his recantation. The consequence was another trial before a synod at Bordeaux (1080), and another forced submission.

After this he kept silence, retiring to the island of Saint-Cosme near Tours to live in ascetic solitude. Apparently his convictions were unchanged at his death, and he trusted in the mercy of God under what he considered the unjust persecutions to which he had been subjected.

5. Berengar's Significance.

Berengar's real significance for the development of medieval theology lies in the fact that he asserted the rights of dialectic in theology more definitely than most of his contemporaries. There are propositions in his writings which can be understood in a purely rationalistic sense. But it would be going quite too far to see in rationalism Berengar's main standpoint, to attribute to him the deliberate design of subverting all religious authority-- Scripture, the Fathers, popes, and councils. This would be to ascribe to a man of the eleventh century views of which his age knew nothing, which it even had no terms to express.

The contrast which he sets forth is not between reason and revelation, but between rational and irrational ways of understanding revelation. He did not recognize the right of the prevailing theology to claim his assent, because it made irrational assertions; the authorities to which he refused to submit were, in his judgment, only human authorities.

He spoke bitterly and unjustly of popes and councils, unable to forgive them for making him untrue to himself; but this meant no rejection of the Catholic conception of the Church. His opposition was limited to the eucharistic doctrine of his time, and he controverted the theory of Paschasius not least because he believed it was contrary to Scripture and the Fathers, and destructive of the very nature of a sacrament.



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