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Advanced Historical Theology - The Carolingian Renaissance - by C. Matthew McMahon

Historical Theology Articles

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Part 12 – Advanced Historical Theology – The Carolingian Renaissance

The Carolingian empire (ninth and tenth centuries) was like a light that shown in the darkness of the Middle Ages in terms of scholarship. Most of the scholars were in the British Isles. Charlemagne was emperor at this time and the most outstanding theologian of the day was Alcuin of York who was instrumental in organizing all of the schools and universities.

The first controversy that emerged at this time was again Christological. It centered in Spain and involved the Frankish kingdom as well as the papacy. It revolved around the question of adoptionism, which taught that Christ was not the Son of God by essence, but by adoption. This was posed when Bishop Elipandus of Toledo attempted to fuse together certain aspects of sound Christology with various tenants of Sabellianism. Alcuin wrote vigorously against this error and those holding the position were forced to recant.

Secondly, the controversy over predestination resumed. This began with Gottschalk (or Gottescalc) on the one hand and the abbot Rabanus Maurus and the archbishop of Hincmar on the other. Gottschalk wrote in the Augustinian fashion on grace and predestination. When Rabanus found out about these new writings, he took up his pen to write On Foreknowledge and Predestination, and on Free Will. He followed up with using his authority and had Gottschalk imprisoned. In reading the works of Rabanus, it is evident that he did not understand Augustine’s doctrine of predestination at all. Instead, Rabanus simply set forth a resurgence of Semi-Pelagian ideas that would later mold Arminian thinking, and later the Evangelical church of the 19th to the 21st century. Hincmar also wrote against Gottschalk and became his greatest adversary. Unfortunately, Gottschalk was forced to live in monastic imprisonment until his death. There were attempts at smoothing over the controversy (especially in 860 A.D. during a council meeting) but all attempts at unity failed.

Other lesser-known controversies raged during this time that came and went with the passing of time; one was over the virginity of the virgin Mary. Ratramnus of Corbie taught that Jesus had been born in a mystical and mysterious manner, not in normal childbirth. Another controversy arose around the Eucharist when Charles the Bald posed the question whether the body and blood of Christ can only be seen by faith (in mysterio) or truly with the eyes (in veritate). There was widespread opposition to the view that it was actually the body and blood of Christ seen, especially in the works of Paschasius, but later on this would become the normative view of the Roman Church. Another controversy regarding the soul emerged where Ratramnus taught that the soul was incorporeal and was not therefore circumscribed to the body.

The greatest controversy during this time was the filioque controversy which emerged between the East and the West. This has remained a stumbling block for Christian unity ever since. The hinge here was the manner in which Eastern theologians understood the relationships between the persons in the Trinity, and the manner in which they were understood in the West. The East taught that the Father is the ultimate source of the Trinity, not the Son. The Holy Spirit then proceeded from the Father through the Son. The West taught that the Holy Spirit was the love that bound the Father and Son together, and proceeded from them both. The issue, though, was never settled.

The most notable figure during this whole period was John Scotus Erigena. He was a native of Ireland and came to the Frankish kingdom during the first half of the ninth century. He enjoyed great admiration in the court of Charles the Bald and wrote on many theological subjects. He stands in the tradition of Clement of Alexandria, Origen and Pseudo-Dionysus. Though he wrote volumes, his views on most orthodox theological ideas were warped and deviant at best. He was mistaken on predestination, the nature of God’s knowledge, the nature of God himself, and his cycles and divisions of nature afford a systematization of biblical doctrine, but without orthodox interpretation. He even saw the torments of hell as metaphorical and believed hell torments were simply the sufferings of an evil conscience. This really did not matter since he believed that everything would go “back to God” in the end anyway (which made him a Universalist of sorts).

During this time the development of private penance took place under the influence of Celtic missionary-wanderers through Gaul and Spain. Also during this time, the papacy grew to power shifting the governance of the church from an unbiblical Episcopalian trend to a thoroughly deviant and unorthodox papal dictatorship. Pope Felix III did not recognize the claims of the patriarch of Constantinople. As a result Zeno clashed with him over authoritative issues. There was a difference between the church’s ecclesiastical function and the political realm. The pope sought refuge in the words of Christ to Peter to build his church on him. This gave way to the papacy and papal succession. Gregory the Great clashed with Constantinople later because he refused to acknowledge the right that the patriarch of that city claimed to be called “Ecumenical Patriarch.” This process of refusal to acknowledge papal claims escalated until 800 A.D. when Pope Leo III placed the imperial crown on Charlemagne’s head. This was an ominous sign for papal power since the “pope” was now dictating political enthronement. Later, papal power would grow and strengthen under the reign of Pope Innocent III, the most powerful pope of the Roman See.

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