Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
Although I have used the name Berengar in the title of this article, there are two reasons why this choice of names might be misleading.
The first reason is that Berengar was not by any means the only one to enter the debate over the doctrine of transubstantiation. In fact, in this article we will be talking about two others: Paschasius Radbertus and Ratramnus. Both are important names in the debate.
The second reason why the use of his name in the title is misleading is that Berengar was, as a matter of fact, not the heretic in this controversy. And this series of articles is about heretics. Berengar was the one who held a correct view of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. He fought long and hard against transubstantiation.
I have chosen Berengar because his life is the most interesting one, and the story of his life best illustrates the controversy over this doctrine.
The second point that needs to be noticed in this introduction is that the three men whose names I have mentioned (along with a man by the name of Lanfranc) represent two different controversies separated by about 200 years. The first controversy was during the lifetime of Gottschalk, who died a martyr for his confession of the truth of sovereign grace. The time was in the middle of the ninth century. The opponents were Paschasius Radbertus and Ratramnus.
The second controversy took place in the middle of the eleventh century. In this controversy the two antagonists were Berengar and Lanfranc.
We shall be discussing all of these men along with their views.
The Presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper
We must have a clear understanding of the issues around which debate swirled if we are to understand the lives and views of these men.
The most basic question was this: How is Christ present in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper?
To that question two answers were given. While there were some variations in these two answers, most basically the difference was this: Is Christ present in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper in a physical way, or is He present in a spiritual way?
Some said that Christ was present in the elements literally and corporeally, so that His body and blood were communicated through the mouth. Others said that Christ was present spiritually and that He was communicated through faith.
It was the same controversy that divided Rome from the Reformers in Switzerland; and it was really the same controversy which finally divided Calvinists from Lutherans.
The First Controversy and the Views of Radbertus
The view which ultimately prevailed in the Roman Catholic Church, the view that the bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Christ, was taught in some simple forms almost from the beginning of the history of the church of the new dispensation. But it never had any kind of prominence, at least not in the first five or six centuries. The great church father Augustine repudiated the whole notion and taught emphatically that Christ’s presence was a spiritual presence only.
The controversy which developed in the ninth century was carried on between two monks. In fact, the controversy in the eleventh century was also between two monks. And, when one stops to think about it, all the work in theology in the entire Middle Ages was the work of monks, whether they defended the truth or were heretics.
There is, I think, reason for this. The schools in which the majority of people were trained were monastic schools. That is, they were established, supported, administered, and staffed by monks from particular monasteries. If one wished to go to school, he went to a monastery. This did not necessarily mean that one had to join a monastery as a monk to attend, but the very education in a monastic school was, in itself, a powerful incentive to join.
Further, the education in those days was almost exclusively for a life in the service of the church. Whatever one may have studied, it was to prepare him for a career in the church. Quite naturally, therefore, those who had had sufficient education to be busy in theology were also directed into careers in the church, the most available one being a career as a monk.
The view which later prevailed in the Roman Church was defended by Paschasius Radbertus. He lived from about 800 (the year Charlemagne was crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire) to 865.
Radbertus was a very learned and devout monk, but was also superstitious, as most monks were. He was a native of Soissons in France and soon rose in the Benedictine Order to become abbot of the monastery in Corbie.
Prior to becoming abbot he was a teacher in a monastic school and, because of his ability, he was sent on various ecclesiastical missions, especially involving the Benedictine Order.
In 831 Radbertus began to teach his views on transubstantiation—although that term itself was not used till almost the thirteenth century. He developed his ideas in a book that he dedicated to Charles the Bald, son of Charlemagne, who ruled over France upon the death of his father.
Radbertus taught that the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper were so completely changed into the body and blood of Christ that nothing remained of bread and wine at all. No bread was present, no wine remained, even though the figure of bread and wine presented itself to the senses of sight, touch, and taste.
While Radbertus attempted to find proof for his views in the teachings of the fathers and in Jesus’ words inJohn 6, he also appealed superstitiously to other lines of proof.
He appealed also to marvelous stories of the visible appearances of the body and blood of Christ for the removal of doubts or the satisfaction of the pious desire of saints. The bread on the altar, he reports, was often seen in the shape of a lamb or a little child, and when the priest stretched out his hand to break the bread, an angel descended from heaven with a knife, slaughtered the lamb or the child, and let his blood run into a cup (Schaff).
The First Controversy and the Views of Ratramnus
Ratramnus was a contemporary of Radbertus. He was a monk in the same monastery in Corbie. He was only a simple monk and Radbertus was his superior. That did not deter him from taking issue with his abbot.
Ratramnus was a friend of Gottschalk and was also a defender of Augustine. He wrote a book entitled “Concerning the Predestination of God,” in which he taught double predestination. He wrote this book, strangely enough, at the request of Charles the Bald.
Why Ratramnus was not condemned and punished as severely as Gottschalk is something of a mystery. I suspect that one major reason was that Gottschalk was much more outspoken in his defense of the truth than Ratramnus. Gottschalk vigorously promoted Augustine’s views at every opportunity. Ratramnus was more discrete. I do not mean to suggest that such discretion was a virtue. It was not. When the truth of God is at stake, one ought to defend that truth with vigor and enthusiasm—even if one must suffer for it, as Gottschalk did.
Ratramnus was a man of astonishing literary ability. His gifts of writing were widely recognized. Probably for this reason Charles the Bald, after receiving Radbertus’ book on transubstantiation, which had been dedicated to him, asked Ratramnus to write a response.
This was done, and Ratramnus set forth his views that the presence of Christ in the bread and wine was only a spiritual presence. Ratramnus had it all straight. He taught that Christ was appropriated by the participant at the Lord’s table, not by the mouth, but by faith. Hence, only those who had faith were also able to appropriate Christ, while the unbelievers were unable to receive Christ.
The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, therefore, was a commemorative celebration to assure believers of their redemption in the cross of Christ.
Such a view was in keeping with the views of Augustine, specifically also in keeping with Augustine’s view on sovereign predestination. Believers are elect, and the power of their faith lies in election. Unbelievers are reprobate, and they can receive no blessing from the sacrament.
The End of the Controversy
The views of Ratramnus did not prevail in the church of Rome. They did not prevail any more than did the views of Gottschalk. Both were ultimately condemned.
It would seem, therefore, thatall the work of Ratramnus was in vain, that his remarkable understanding of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and his defense of it—even though he had to disagree with his superior in the monastery of Corbie—was of no account and amounted to nothing.
But God works in unexpected ways, and our time is not by any means God’s time. Over 500 years later, during the heated discussions in England over the Reformation, the works of Ratramnus on the Lord’s Supper were discovered. They were republished and widely read, and they had a powerful influence on the development of the views of this sacrament in the English Reformation. The English Reformers saw the clear and unequivocal arguments Ratramnus had raised against Rome’s position, and they were persuaded by much of Ratramnus’ interpretation of the presence of Christ.
God’s truth is always victorious.