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Berengar of Tours

Berengar of Tours (died January 6, 1088) 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.
2 Berengar Submits at Rome
3 Reasserts his Views in France
4 Berengar's Significance

Early Life.

Berengar of Tours was born perhaps at Tours, probably in the early years of the eleventh century. His education began 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 on his pupil. Berengar was less attracted by pure theology than by secular learning, and brought away a knowledge of Latin literature, dialectic, and a general knowledge and freedom of thought surprising for his age. Later he paid more attention to the Bible and early Christian writers, especially Gregory of Tours and Augustine of Hippo; and thus he came to formal theology.

Returning to Tours, he became a canon of the cathedral and in about 1040 became head of its school, improving its efficiency and attracting students from far and near. He acquired his fame as much from his blameless and ascetic life as from the success of his teaching. His reputation was such that a number of monks requested him to write a book to 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.

Amid this chorus of praise, a discordant voice began to be heard; it was asserted that Berengar held heretical views on the Eucharist. He was inclined 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, who begged 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 Johannes Scotus Erigena) to be heretical. He declared his own agreement with Scotus, and believed himself to be supported by Saint Ambrose, Saint Jerome, Augustine, and other authorities. By the time this letter was received by Lanfranc in Rome, it had been read by several other people; and as Berengar was not well thought of there, Lanfranc feared his association with him might prejudice 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, Berengar agreed to go, first passing through Paris to obtain permission from King Henry I of France, as nominal abbot of St. Martin at Tours. Instead of granting it, the king imprisoned him. 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 attempted to defend him, but were shouted down and threatened; Ratramnus's book was destroyed, and Berengar was again condemned.

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

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.

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 offence.

He was still firm is his convictions, and in about 1069 he 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. It was there that he died, his convictions unchanged; he trusted in the mercy of God under what he considered the unjust persecutions to which he had been subjected.

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.