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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 2, Chapter 27 - Columbanus in Italy; His great protest against the Papacy; Founds Bobbio


We have followed Columbanus across the Alps. Over him is now the sky of Italy, and around him is many a town and river, renowned in the heroic age of Rome, and suggesting to the cultured Culdee the virtue and patriotism of an earlier day, in contrast with the venality and pusillanimity which led to the fall of the great empire. The once invincible Roman was gone, and the barbarous Lombard had come in his room: where Cęsar was law, Alboin now swayed his scepter. So passes the glory of States; and so do empires created by the sword fall by the sword; but the kingdom, in the erection of which Columbanus was privileged to take part, was one which the arms of no conqueror should ever overthrow. The motto on the banner under which he fought was the same with that which remains to this hour written on the walls of the mosque of St. Sophia at Constantinople—"Thy Kingdom, O Christ, is an everlasting Kingdom,"—an unconscious prognostication by the Turk, one would think, that Islam must yet yield up the scepter to Christianity.

Columbanus had been only a short while in Italy when tidings reached him that his enemy, Brunhilde, had fallen from power, and that the throne was now filled by Clotaire II., a sovereign friendly to the Culdee evangelisation, and in particular to Columbanus himself. This opened his way back to his monasteries, should he feel inclined to return. His children in the Vosges sent him a pressing invitation to come and live amongst them, and preside over the churches and schools which had been of his own planting, and which were now beginning again to flourish. But his new environments had shed new lights on the path of duty. A Divine hand had led him into this land. Many things he should never have understood in the remote Vosges, and the sequestered Bodensee stood here revealed in the light of day. A mysterious power was rising in the chair of the Roman bishop, which, if allowed to develop into full stature, would, he foresaw, one day extinguish the faith and crush the liberty of the Christian church. Columbanus was the right man, and he had come at the right hour. He was here to sound a warning peal of what was coming. He must first of all admonish the bishop of Rome that he was climbing like Lucifer, and that unless he retraced his steps, while yet there was time, he should fall like Lucifer. And second, he must show the peoples of Christendom the bondage that was preparing for them, and exhort them to resist before the yoke had become too strong to be broken. He was here, moreover, to hold open the door to the Culdee army that was advancing behind him, to whom Columbanus was to bequeath the battle after he had gone to his grave. He struck the first blow, and the rank and file of the Culdee host rushed in and long maintained the struggle against Gothic paganisms and Roman corruptions. To the teachings of these men it is owing that the church of Milan retained its independence in the face of Rome till the eleventh century, and that Christianity flourished in a measure of apostolic purity in the north of Italy, long after it had been grossly corrupted in many places both south and north of the Alps. We have a noble relic of the pre-Reforrnation Christianity of sub-Alpine Italy in the Waldensian Church.

Occasion soon offered for Columbanus to raise his voice. Just eight years before his arrival an imperial decree had installed the Bishop of Rome spiritual sovereign of Christendom. It is as not to strengthen Christianity but to strengthen himself that Phocas, the usurper and murderer, conferred this stupendous dignity on Boniface III. It was simply a piece of State policy. The residence of the emperor was now at Constantinople, and who so well fitted to fill his place at Rome, and to conciliate the provinces of the western world, to the rule of the absent emperor, as the supreme pastor of the church? Phocas, therefore, placed Boniface, in his empty chair. The priestly influence of the one would be a prop to the imperial power of the other, and the chair on the banks of the Tiber would uphold the tottering throne at Byzantium. So thought Phocas; and his policy has been pursued, to the infinite damage of both states and churches, by the kings of Europe for 1200 years; nor is it antiquated even yet. We may conceive how startling to the simple and spiritual minded Culdee must have been the spectacle that met his gaze when he entered Italy—a chair changed into a throne, a pastor transformed into a monarch, who instead of preaching the Gospel, was occupying himself with political cares and ambitions, was imposing taxes, regulating finance, and giving orders for the enrolling of soldiers and the movements of troops!

And now we hear the voice of Columbanus clear and loud, and verily there is no uncertain sound in the trumpet peal that resounds through Italy. The more immediate occasion of Columbanus' interference was what is known in history as "the Controversy of the Three Chapters." To see how it bears on our subject, and especially how it brings out in the clearest possible light the INDEPENDENCE of the Culdee Church, and its explicit refusal to submit to the dictation of the Roman See in matters of faith, we must attend a little to this dispute. In the middle of the sixth century three eminent fathers—Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret, and Ibas of Odessa—were condemned as heterodox by a council at Constantinople (A.D. 553), now called the fifth Ecumenical council. The fourth general council, that of Chalcedon, had approved the writings of these Fathers as orthodox. The influence of the Emperor Justinian, however, procured, as we have said, the condemnation of their writings as execrable and blasphemous, and pursuing his victory over the three bishops, Justinian, by imprisonment and exile, compelled Vigilius, Bishop of Rome, to concur in the condemnatory sentence of the council of Constantinople. The question—was the condemnation of the three Fathers just and righteous, or false and iniquitous?—divided the Church. We have seen the side on which Rome ranged herself. Which side did the Celtic, that is, the Culdee Church, take? Did she follow in the wake of Rome? Far from it. She gave her verdict on the side of the three Fathers, and in condemnation of Rome. We can see no belief in the infallibility of Peter's chair here; no submission to the alleged papal supremacy. Cardinal Baronius brings out most clearly the independence of the Culdee Church at this epoch, while at the same time he rebukes that church most severely for daring to differ from Rome. The Cardinal says:—"By the malice of the evil spirit it happened that the Irish Church, which up to this time had been well cultured, was overcast with dense gloom, having suffered shipwreck by her not following in the wake of the bark of Peter, which sails at the head of all, pointing the way into the harbour of salvation.... For all the bishops which were in Ireland rose up unanimously, with most ardent zeal, in defense of the Three Chapters. And when (afterwards) they heard that the Church of Rome had adopted the condemnation of the Three Chapters, and strengthened the fifth synod by her concurrence, they added also this further impiety, that they separated themselves from the same. And in this state they continued a very long time, pitying those who followed the fifth synod as wanderers from the straight path of the faith."[1]

The clear meaning of this highly metaphorical passage is that the judgment of the Scoto-Irish Church in this controversy was in flat opposition to that of Rome, and added thereto this farther impiety, "that she separated herself from the Roman communion," that is, excommunicated the Pope and all his adherents, and continued "a very long time wanderers from the straight path." Yes, she continued till the middle of the twelfth century, when the soldiers of Henry II., crossing the Channel, drove the Irish into the Roman fold at the point of their swords.

So far Baronius: let us next hear Colmbanus. He arrives in Italy in A.D. 612, just eight years, as we have said, after the title of "Universal Bishop," had been conferred on Boniface by imperial decree. Columbanus takes up his abode at Milan, and commences evangelistic efforts among the Lombards. The controversy of the "Three Chapters " is still raging, and Aigilulf, King of the Lombards, requests him to indite a remonstrance to the Pope, exhorting him in steering the bark of Peter, to eschew the tackings and shiftings which were causing so many scandals. Columbanus fell in the more readily with the king's proposal, because he saw in it an opportunity of vindicating his own church by pronouncing adversely on the action of Rome. He sat down and wrote an epistle to Boniface IV, who now filled the papal chair. To ears accustomed, as were those of the Pope, to the siren song of adulation, the honest words of the Culdee missionary must have fallen with the stunning force of a thunderclap. As we read Columbanus' letter, we feel as if Luther held the pen. Certainly, till we come down to the sixteenth century, we meet with nothing breathing a sturdier independence or a more uncompromising protestantism than this famous epistle. The Culdee missionary gives the Pope all his legal titles, and then proceeds:—

"It is not vanity, but grief, that compels me, a mere dwarf, of the meanest rank, to write to such lofty personages, seeing that the name of God is blasphemed among the nations, through you contending with one another. For I do grieve, I confess, for the infamy of the chair of St. Peter. . . . The storm threatens the wreck of the ship of the church; and hence it is that I, a timid sailor, cry out, 'Keep watch, for the water has already made its entrance into the vessel, and the ship is in jeopardy. For we are the disciples of Saints Peter and Paul, and of all those their disciples, who by the Holy Ghost have written the divine canon. Yes, we, the whole body of the Irish, who are inhibitors of the ends of the world, and receive nothing beyond the teaching of the evangelists and the apostles. There has never been amongst us any heretic, any Judaizer, any schismatic; but the catholic faith has been held unshaken by us, as it was first delivered to us by you, the successors, to be sure, of the holy apostles.... Therefore that thou mayest not be deprived of apostolic honour, preserve the apostolic faith, [2] confirm it by testimony, strengthen it by writing, fortify it by synod, to the end that none may justly resist thee. Despise not the poor advice of a stranger, as being a teacher of one who is zealous for thy sake. The world is now drawing to an end; THE PRINCE OF PASTORS[3] is approaching; beware lest he find thee remiss and negligent, both beating thy fellowservants with the blows of an evil example, and eating and drinking with Hebrews; lest what follows (in that place of Scripture) befall thee, as the consequence of thy security. 'For he who is ignorant shall be ignorant' (1 Cor. xiv. 38). Watch, therefore, I pray thee, O pope; watch, and again I say watch, because, doubtless, Vigilius did not keep Vigil, [4] whom those who throw blame upon thee cry out to be the HEAD OF THE SCANDAL."

This places, first of all, the creed of the Scoto-Irish Church beyond dispute. On the testimony of her most distinguished son in the seventh century, that church held nothing "beyond the teaching of the evangelists and the apostles." There is not a word here of the "traditions of the Fathers," or the "decrees of councils," which form so large a part of the creed of Rome at this day. "You, the successors of the holy apostles," says Columbanus. You, as discharging the office of bishops in the same city, but not, therefore, vested in the peculiar powers and prerogatives of the apostles, much less those higher prerogatives, which the Popes arrogate to themselves, though the apostles never claimed then. Columbanus continues:—

"Lest, therefore, the murderer from the beginning (Satan) bind men in this his very long cord of error, let the cause, I beseech thee, of the schism be immediately cut off from thee by the sword, as it were, of St. Peter, that is, by a true confession of faith in a synod, and by a renouncing of all heretics, that thou mayest cleanse the chair of Peter from every error; nay, horror! if any (as is reported) has gained an entrance there, if not, that its purity may be known of all. For it is doleful, nay, deplorable, if in an apostolic seat the catholic faith is not held . . . Therefore I beseech you, for Christ's sake, come to the relief of your good name, which is torn to pieces among the nations, that your silence be no longer imputed to your treachery by your rivals. Dissemble, therefore, no longer, keep no longer silence, but send forth the voice of a true shepherd. Surely the blame is yours, if you have wandered from the true faith, and made void the first faith. Deservedly do your juniors resist you; deservedly do they refuse communion with you, until the memory of the wicked be wiped out from you, and consigned to oblivion. For if these charges are more certain than false, then the tables being turned, your sons are changed into the head, and you into the tail, which is a grief, even to say. Therefore, also, they shall be your judges who have always kept the catholic faith, no matter who they be, even though they may appear to be your juniors. [5] For the orthodox and true catholics are they who have never, at any time, either received or defended heretics, or any persons suspected of heresy, but have always zealously persevered in the true faith."

Columbanus could not recognise Boniface as "Head of the Church," but he did not for a moment question his right to be called "Head of the Scandal." It is also here assured that the Church of Rome may lose the apostolic faith; nay, it is distinctly intimated that she had already done so, and that her title to " apostolic " had lapsed; and Columbanus puts it to her whether she does not hear the approaching footsteps of the PRINCE of pastors coming to call her to a reckoning? We proceed with Columbanus:—

"Inerrant !" we hear Columbanus exclaim. You have already erred, O Rome !—fatally, foully erred. No longer do you shine as a star in the apostolic firmament. You have fallen from that high sphere; you have plunged into the night, and unless you speedily regain the orbit in which you once shone, there is reserved for you only the "blackness of darkness," "An apostolic seat!" again exclaims Columbanus. Your chair, O! Pope, is defiled with heresy. Deadly errors have crept into it; it harbours horrors and impieties. "Catholic!" again cries Columbanus. The true Catholicism you have lost."

Could any one better define Catholicism than this Protestant of the seventh century? The orthodox and the true Catholics are they who have always zealously persevered in the true faith. So does the Culdee tell the man who claimed to have a monopoly of Catholicism.Columbanus goes further still:

"With us it is not persons, but reason, that has weight; but the love of gospel-peace compels me to speak out freely, what a stupor has come over you both that ought to have remained one choir.... For we, as I said before, have been devoted to the chair of St Peter; for though Rome be great and renowned, yet with us she is great and renowned only on account of that chair. For though that ancient and most august name (Rome) of Ausonian glory became renowned even to our western and out-of-the-world parts; yet from the time in which God vouchsafed to be the Son of God, and, riding on his two most glowing steeds, Peter and Paul, stirred up the stagnant waters of this world, and multiplied charioteers to the millions of innumerable nations; the head charioteer Himself —namely, Christ, the true Father, the Horseman of Israel, came even unto us. Since that time you (Romans) are great and illustrious with us, and Rome is more noble and renowned; nay, you are, if one may so speak, well-nigh celestial with us, for the sake of Christ's two apostles, and Rome is the head of the churches of the world, saving the singular prerogative of the place of our Lord's resurrection."

This passage abounds in delicate touches of sarcasm, as does the whole epistle. "The Head-charioteer and the true Father—namely, Christ." He it was who sent the gospel to the countrymen of Columbanus by his two radiant steeds, Peter and Paul, speaking in their inspired writings, and not that other who styles himself, by the grace of Phocas, "universal Head and Father." "With us," says Columbanus, speaking in the name of the Scots of Ireland, "we are devoted to the chair of St. Peter." not, surely, to the chair of Boniface, which was "defiled with heresy," but to the chair of St. Peter; which was none other than the confession of faith made by Peter. Only so long as the Popes retained Peter's faith did they sit in Peter's chair. So does Columbanus affirm, as the following extract will show. And even with the glory of that faith around her, Rome was second to Jerusalem. This makes clear the sort of Headship which Columbanus ascribed to Rome. It was a headship of honour, and not of authority. It was Jerusalem first, Rome next; and both on grounds of pious and reverent feeling, and not of Divine appointment. And this honour and dignity, he tells the Roman bishop, would remain with him not a day longer than he retained the true faith. The chair of Peter lacking Peter's faith was no better than the chair of Roman Augur or of pagan Druid.

"Thus it is, then, that as your honour was great, in consideration of the dignity of the chair; so you have need of great care, that you lose not your dignity through any perversity. For so long shall power remain with you, as right reason remains with you. For the key-keeper of the Kingdom of Heaven is He who, by true knowledge, opens to the worthy, and shuts to the unworthy; otherwise, if He do the contrary, he will be able neither to open nor to shut. Seeing, then, that these are true principles, and received as indisputably true by all the wise—since you (because forsooth, no one is ignorant how our Saviour gave to St. Peter the keys of the kingdom of Heaven)—since you, I say, assume to yourselves, by some arrogance or other, I know not what, an authority and power in Divine things above others, know that, if you even think such a thing in your hearts, the less will your power be with the Lord; because that which makes unity of power and prerogative, all the world over, is unity of faith, to the end that liberty to the truth be given everywhere by all, and access to error, be in like manner refused by all; seeing it was a right confession, that gave the privilege, even to the holy key-keeper Himself, THE COMMON FATHER-ABBOT OF US ALL" [6]

This is conclusive as regards the opinion of Colunbanus and the Culdee Church on the claim of Rome to exclusive power. Columbanus scouts it. You the Roman Church. says Columbanus, affirm that the "keys" which Peter received from his Lord, he has transmitted to you, and to you only, and, therefore, that you possess the exclusive prerogative of opening and shutting to men the kingdom of lheaven. It is an unheard-of arrogance—the very thought sinks you. These "keys," Peter received not for himself, nor for you, but for ALL of us. He was the father-abbot, not of the Roman Church only, but of all churches. All of us have a common interest in him, and all of us who have what Peter had—namely, a right confession of faith, have the same power to open and to shut which he had. It was his Confession of Faith that made Peter a door-keeper and a key-bearer, and the church only that retains Peter's faith sits in Peter's chair, and wields Peter's sword. The passage is a distinct claim on the part of the Celtic church to full equality with, and entire independence of, the Church of Rome.

The epistle of Columbanus to Boniface IV. is one of the noblest monuments of antiquity. It is a specimen of the classic polish, the lettered grace, and the intellectual power which flourished in the schools of Iona and Ireland at that age. It is more: it is an enduring monument of the apostolic Christianity that formed the creed of the Scottish churches of Ireland and Scotland. Its sarcasm is refined, but cutting. Its logic carries the reason captive; its honesty and courage are beyond all praise, considering that when it was written from east and west flattery only was pouring in upon the man whom Phocas had made head of the universal church. In the midst of the hundreds of bishops who cringe and grovel at the foot of the papal chair, Columbanus stands erect. But the crowning excellence of this manifesto is its moral earnestness. The finger of Providence is seen in ordering that such a manifesto should be emitted at this epoch. It was a weighty and solemn call to Rome to adventure not a step farther in her newly path; and it was an equally weighty and solemn call to the nations of Europe to abandon her communion and get out from under her shadow should Rome refuse to reform. Neither Rome nor the nations gave heed to the warning. The former, century by century, departed farther from the simplicity and purity of Christianity, climbing higher and higher into the empyrean of political power, and the latter sank apace into darkness and bondage. Nevertheless the manifesto of the great Culdee was not in vain, nor did his words fall on the ground.

The epistle of Columbanus stood on the records of the age a public notification of an apostasy into which almost all churches had gone headlong, and after lying neglected for a thousand years, Luther brought it forth, and in substance published it a second time in the hearing of assembled Christendom at the Diet of Worms. It received subsequent ratification in the ever-memorable PROTEST of the German princes at Spires. It lives in the Reformation. And it will go down the ages an imperishable monument that the Reformed church is the old, and the church of the pontiff the new. The former has its institution from Christ, the latter from Phocas.

When Columbanus laid down his pen after writing his epistle, or rather his three epistles—for besides his letter to Boniface IV. he wrote two to Pope Gregory;—he may be said to have finished his work. He lived after this two years and founded the monastery of Bobbio, in a gorge of the Apennines between Milan and Genoa. He died at Bobbio, 615, and his tomb was still to be seen there in the seventeenth century, when it was visited and described by the learned Mabillon.


Footnotes

1. Baron. Annales, Tom. vii., an. 566, col. 619. Colonię Agrippinę, 1609

2. Ut ergo honore apostolico non careas conserva fidem apostolicaam.

3. One of the titles of the Pope when the epistle was written.

4. Vigilius non bene vigilavit.

5. Younger churches, i.e., who received the faith later.

6. Epistola S. Columbani ad Bonifacium Papam IV. Maxima Bibliotheca Bibliotheca Veterum Patrum.. Tom. xii. p28, et seq. Lugduni, 1677.