Thursday, January 7, 2016

Berengar - The Man Who Chickened Out

Berengar was a man who lived in a key turning point in the history of the church. The events that surrounded him made a significant difference in the history of the later Medieval church. Berengar, based on his own study, reached the conclusion that Christ was not physically present in the Lord's Supper. This set off a series of councils, in which the supporters of the idea of the physical presence tried to condemn Berengar. While there was support for both views, Berengar was ultimately condemned and, faced with death, denied his views. But Berengar was not convinced and continued to argue for his view. Meanwhile, Gregory VII was made pope. Philip Schaff argues that Berengar had reason to believe that Gregory was willing to accept his views, regarding the matter as a thing indifferent. But Gregory appears to have backed down when he saw that so many of the rank and file supported the opposite view. He may have been afraid it would endanger his intended reforms if he supported this unpopular view. So Berengar was once again condemned and denied his view. And Pope Innocent III officially declared that belief in the real presence was required by the Medieval church system.

Why were so many in favor of the view Christ was physically present in communion? It made it easier to believe that one could be accepted by God simply by going through the motions of partaking of the sacrament. It also exalted the clergy, who were seen as having the authority of making this transformation come about. At that time the church organization was in a corrupt condition, and there was very little preaching being done, but the main thing the priests did was administer the sacraments. Also, a more magical idea fit in better with the remnants of pagan belief. As I have said before, I do not believe that Scripture makes it clear in what way Christ is present in the Eucharist. But I have a real problem with it being made automatic, rather than dependent on the faith of the recipients. And I have a bigger one with one view being made out to be the only acceptable view and with condemning those who do not hold it.

Now I do not want to sit in judgment on Berengar or Gregory. I have never been put in the position of having to pay with my life or even endangering my reform movement if I stand up for what I believe. And I think it would be easy to rationalize that this was, after all, a minor point. But the fact that these two men chickened out meant that the visible church organization was saddled with the dogmatic enforcement of the contrary view for hundreds of years. We do not know what would have happened if they had stood firm. It might have made little difference in the long run. Or maybe things would have been different. We will never know.  

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