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The Controversy of the Eighth Century. Its Roots (§ 1).
Elipandus, Bishop of Toledo (§ 2).
Felix, Bishop of Urgel (§ 3).
Recantation of Felix (§ 4).
Later Adoptionist Tendencies (§ 5).
Explanation (§ 6).
1. The Controversy of the Eighth Century. Its Roots.
Adoptionism—a heresy maintaining that Christ is the Son of God by adoption—is of interest chiefly for the commotion which it produced in the Spanish and Frankish Churches in the latter part of the eighth century, although the formulas around which the conflict raged can indeed be traced back to the earliest period of Western theology; but the spirit of the controversy and the result showed that the orthodoxy of the eighth century could no longer entirely accept the ancient formulas. The phrases in which such writers as Novatian, Hilary, and Isidore of Seville had spoken not merely of the assumption of human nature by the Son of God, but also of the assumption of man or the eon of man, led by an easy transition to words which seemed to imply that Christ, according to his humanity, was the adopted son of God; and formulas of this kind occur not infrequently in the old Spanish liturgy.
2. Elipandus, Bishop of Toledo.
The Spanish bishops of the eighth century, and especially their leader, Elipandus (b. 718; bishop of Toledo from about 780), so used such phrases as to provoke criticism and disapproval first in Asturia, then in the neighboring Frankish kingdom, and finally at Rome. A certain Migetius, preaching in that part of Spain which was held by the Moors, had given a very gross exposition of the doctrine of the Trinity, teaching that there were three bodily persons, and a triple manifestation in history of the one God. Against him Elipandus wrote a letter vindicating the orthodox idea of the immanence of the Trinity, but at the same time establishing a very sharp distinction between the second person of the Trinity and the human nature of Christ. The person of the Son was not that made according to the flesh, in time, of the seed of David, but that begotten by the Father before all worlds; even after the incarnation, the second person of the Godhead is not the bodily, of which Christ says “My Father is greater than I,” but that of which he says “I and my Father are one.” Elipandus did not mean to do violence to the orthodox teaching by this distinction; but if the expression were pressed, the human nature 49 appeared a different person from the person of the Eternal Word, and the single personality of Christ disappeared. Elipandus defended himself in letters in which he used the expression that Christ was only according to his Godhead the true and real (proprius) Son of God, and according to his manhood an adopted son. The opposition to this view was voiced by Beatus, a priest, and the monk Heterius of Libana. Elipandus wrote in great excitement to the Asturian abbot Fidelis, bitterly attacking his opponents, who first saw the letter when they met Fidelis in Nov., 785, on the occasion of Queen Adosinda’s taking the veil. In reply they wrote a treatise, discursive and badly arranged, but strong in its patristic quotations, emphasizing the unity of Christ’s personality. The conflict was complicated by political circumstances and by the efforts of Asturia, to attain independence of the most powerful Spanish bishop. Complaints were carried to Rome, and Adrian I. pronounced at once against Elipandus and his supporter, Ascaricus, whom he judged guilty of Nestorianism.
3. Felix, Bishop of Urgel.
At what period the most prominent representative of Adoptionism, Felix, bishop of Urgel in the Pyrenees, first took part in the strife is unknown. At the synod of Regensburg in 792, he defended the heresy in the presence of Charlemagne, but the bishops rejected it. Felix, although he had retracted his doctrine, was sent by the emperor to Rome, where Pope Adrian kept him a prisoner until he signed an orthodox confession, which on his return to Urgel he repudiated as forced, and then fled to Moorish territory. In 793 Alcuin, just back from England, wrote to Felix begging him to abandon the suspicious word “adoption,” and to bring Elipandus back into the right path; and he followed this up by his controversial treatise Adversus hæresim Felicis. About the same time Elipandus and the Spanish bishops who belonged to his party addressed a letter to the bishops of Gaul, Aquitaine, and Asturia, and to Charlemagne himself, asking for a fair investigation and the restoration of Felix. Charlemagne communicated with the pope, and caused a new investigation of the case in the brilliant assembly at Frankfort (794). Two separate encyclicals were the result—one from the Frankish and German bishops; the other from those of northern Italy—which agreed in condemning Adoptionism. Charlemagne sent these, with one from the pope (representing also the bishops of central and southern Italy) to Elipandus, urging him not to separate himself from the authority of the apostolic see and of the universal Church. Strong efforts were put forth to recover the infected provinces. Alcuin wrote repeatedly to the monks of that region; Leidrad, bishop of Lyons, and the saintly Abbot Benedict of Aniane worked there personally, supporting Bishop Nefrid of Narbonne. In 798 Felix wrote a book and sent it to Alcuin, who replied in the following spring with his more extended treatise Adversus Felicem. Felix must by this time have been able to return to Urgel, as he wrote thence to Elipandus. Leo III. decisively condemned him in a Roman synod of 798 or 799. Alcuin received a contumelious answer, and was anxious to cross swords personally with his antagonist.
4. Recantation of Felix.
Leidrad induced Felix to appear before Charlemagne, with the promise of a fair hearing from the bishops. They met at Aix-la-Chapelle in June, 799 (others say Oct., 798). After a lengthy discussion Felix acknowledged himself defeated and was restored to communion, though not to his see, and he was placed in Leidrad’s charge. Felix then composed a recantation, and called on the clergy of Urgel to imitate his example. Leidrad and Benedict renewed their endeavors, with such success that Alcuin was soon able to assert that they had reclaimed 20,000 souls. He supported them with a treatise in four books against Elipandus, and prided himself on the conversion of Felix. The heretical leader seems, however, to have quietly retained his old beliefs at Lyons for the rest of his life, and even to have pushed them logically further, since Agobard, Leidrad’s successor, accused him of Agnoetism, and wrote a reply to some of his posthumous writings. In the Moorish part of Spain, Elipandus seems to have had a numerous following; but here also he found determined opponents. The belief was gradually suppressed, though Alvar of Cordova (d. about 861) found troublesome remnants of it.
5. Later Adoptionist Tendencies.
With the rise of scholastic theology there was a natural tendency of rigid dialectic to lead away from the Christology of Cyril and Alcuin toward a rational distinction between the two natures, not so much with any wish to insist on this as from a devotion to the conception of the immutability of God. This caused the charge of Nestorianism to be brought against Abelard. Peter Lombard’s explanations of the sense in which God became man leaned in the same direction. A German defender of this aspect of the question, Bishop Eberhard of Bamberg, in the twelfth century, accused his opponents roundly of Eutychianism. In fact, the assailants of Adoptionism, starting from their thesis that Christ is really and truly the Son of God, even according to his human nature, because this nature was appropriated by the Son of God, came ultimately, for all their intention of holding the Church’s doctrine of the two natures and the two wills, to a quite distinct presentation of an altogether divine Person who has assumed impersonal human substance and nature. They really deserted the position taken by Cyril, though he was one of their main authorities. If one seeks the historical origin of this late form of Christological controversy, distinguishing it from the immediate cause, it must be found in the unsettlement of mind necessarily consequent upon the attempts of the ecclesiastical Christology to reconcile mutually exclusive propositions.
The intellectual mood which led directly to this distinction between the Son of God and the man in Christ has been variously explained. Some ascribe it to the surrounding Mohammedanism, making it an attempt to remove as far as possible the stumbling-blocks in the doctrine of Christ’s 50 nature; but this may be doubted, since the main difficulties from the Moslem standpoint—the Trinity, and the idea of a God who begets and is begotten—remain untouched. Others see in it a survival of the spirit of the old Germanic Arianism, which is excluded by the adherence of the Adoptionists to the orthodox Trinitarian teaching. The obvious relation with Nestorianism and the theology of the school of Antioch has led others to assume a direct influence of the writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia; but there is as little evidence for this as there is for the theory that those whom Elipandus calls his “orthodox brethren” in Cordova, and whom Alcuin supposes to be responsible for these aberrations, were a colony of eastern Christians of Nestorian tendencies who had come to Spain with the Arabs.
Bibliography: The writings of Elipandus, Felix, and Heterius in MPL, xcvi.; Paulinus, Vita et Litteræ, ib. xcix.; Alcuin, Opera, ib. c.-ci.; Monumenta Alcuiniana, in Jaffé, Bibliotheca rerum Germanicarum, vol. vi., Berlin, 1873; MGH, Epist., iv., 1895; Agobard, Vita et Opera, in MPL, civ.; the Acta of the Synods of Narbonne, Ratisbon, Frankfort, and Aix-la-Chapelle, in Harduin, Concilia, iv., in Mansi, Concilia, xiii., in Gallandi, Bibliotheca, xiii., and MGH, Concilia, ii., 1904; C. W. F. Walch, Historia Adoptianorum, Göttingen, 1755; idem, Entwurf einer vollständigen Historíe der Ketzereien, vol. iii., 11 vols., Leipsic, 1762-85; F. C. Baur, Die Christliche Lehre von der Dreieinigkeit und Menschwerdung Gottes, 3 vols., Berlin, 1841-43; Rettberg, i. (1846) 428; J. C. Robertson, History of the Christian Church, 590-1122, London, 1856; A. Helfferich, Der westgothische Arianismus und die spanische Ketzergeschichte, Berlin, 1860; J. Bach, Dogmengeschichte des Mittelalters, i. 102 sqq., Vienna, 1873; K. Werner, Alcuin und sein Jahrhundert, Paderborn, 1876; C. J. B. Gaskoin, Alcuin, pp. 79 sqq., London, 1904; DCB i. 44-47; Hefele, Conciliengeschichte, iii. 642-693, 721-724; Hauck, KD, ii. 289 sqq.
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