Fourteen hundred years ago, Old Man Columbanus (d. 615), the pilgrim monk of Ireland, was hanging out in Milan. The outspoken abbot had worn out his welcome in Gaul and Germany, and so Columbanus turned south of the Alps to the Lombards, where in 612/613 CE, he was ‘received with honor’ by King Agilulf (reigned 590-616 CE) and Queen Theodelinda (570-628). Columbanus stayed in Milan until setting off in 614 to form his last monastery at Bobbio in the Trebbia Valley, one hundred kilometers south of Milan, on land offered to him by the Lombard king.
True to form, Columbanus’ sojourn in Milan was steeped in doctrinal intrigue. Arianism and the schism of the Three Chapters were top of his agenda.
According to Columbanus’ biographer, Jonas of Bobbio (fl. 650), ‘during his stay in Milan, Columbanus resolved to attack the errors of the heretics, that is, the Arian perfidy, which he wanted to cut out and exterminate with the cauterizing knife of the Scriptures. And he composed an excellent and learned work against them’. Although Columbanus’ treatise has not survived, Jonas gives an indication, however exaggerated, of Arianism’s persistent presence two centuries after the death of St Ambrose (d. 392), whose iconography includes a whip in hand invoking the image of a reincarnate Christ driving out the Arian money changers (cf. John 2:13-16). Over a century after Ambrose, Arians were still trolling the city.
Arianism was a royal prerogative in Milan. Ambrose’s chief nemesis had been Justina (d. ca. 391), wife and mother of Roman emperors, Valentinian I (reigned 364-375) and Valentinian II (reigned 375-392). Columbanus’ patron, Agilulf, was Arian, as were most of the Lombards, until he abandoned the doctrine in 603 upon the insistence of Theodelinda.
Agilulf’s about-face was not lost on Columbanus:
‘What I observe cannot be devoid of the miraculous. For the rulers in this province have long trampled on the Catholic faith and consolidated this lapse into Arianism; now they ask that our faith should be confirmed. Perhaps Christ now looks on us with favor. . . . Let the king follow the King. . . . What more pleasant than the concord of brothers long divided?’ (Letter 5.16).
One of Columbanus’ writings penned in Milan has survived, and ex-Arian Agilulf was the instigator. At the request of the king, Columbanus wrote a letter to Pope Boniface IV (papacy 608-615) regarding the Three Chapters. As controversies go, it is a real dozer, but as one episode in the larger saga of the Chalcedonian Confession, it was the talk of the day in the ecclesiastical world. The controversy affected the universal Church, while its effects were particularly localized. For nearly three decades (553-581), Milan broke off its communion with Rome, convinced that the Papacy had wussed out in its support of Chalcedon.
So what as all the fuss? In 451, the Council of Chalcedon declared: ‘We teach . . . one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, known in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation’. The Chalcedon definition immediately became the official Christology of the imperial Church – both Greek and Roman – but it did not cut the mustard with a few significant stakeholders, namely Antioch and Alexandria.
For nearly a century, a whole bunch of stuff happened. Failed attempts at reconciliation, such as the Henotikon of Emperor Zeno (482), only spawned more division and controversy. Then in 543/544, Emperor Justinian I (reigned 527-565), ever seeking the consolidation of his empire and attempting to win over the Non-Chalcedonians, issued an edict in which he anathematized the person and writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 428), certain writings of Theodoret of Cyrus (d. 457), and a letter of Ibas of Edessa (d. 557).
These texts, the so-called Three Chapters, were considered tainted with Nestorianism (see below).
Justinian’s edict condemning the Three Chapters was confirmed at the Second Council of Constantinople in 553. This decision was, in turn, acknowledged by the beleaguered Pope Vigilius (papacy 537-555), whom Justinian had forcibly summoned to Constantinople.
Enter the Schism of the Three Chapters.
The Schism of the Three Chapters greatly afflicted northern Italy between 553 and 698. While some Chalcedonians were content condemning the Three Chapters, others refused, arguing that to do so was a betrayal of Chalcedon. The opposition – led by Aquileia, which used the occasion to become a patriarchate – expressed its voice at the Council of Aquileia in 553. Aquileia, Milan and much of northern Italy broke off relations with Rome during the sixth century. While Milan’s recalcitrance lasted until 581, Aquileia held out until 698.
By the time Columbanus set foot in the city, Milan had been reconciled with Rome. Aquileia remained aloof, though, and the controversy of the Three Chapters was still reverberating through Christendom. As for Rome, Vigilius was long dead. Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604) had pursued a policy of tolerance for defenders of the Three Chapters, and now Pope Boniface IV had assumed the papacy. At King Agilulf’s beckoning, Columbanus wrote the holy pontiff calling on Boniface IV to take action to heal the divisions in the Western church caused by the Three Chapters schism, which had troubled western Christendom since the papacy of Vigilius in the mid-sixth century.
Columbanus’ letter to Pope Boniface IV (Letter 5, written in Milan in 613) is best known for his self-descriptions as a ‘bumptious babbler’ and a ‘dull Scots pilgrim’, his defense of Irish Christianity (‘We Irish, though dwelling at the far ends of the earth, are all disciples of St. Peter and St. Paul’) and the rather imprudent tone which he assumes towards the pope: ‘You must pardon me as I handle such rough passages, if any of my words have caused outward offence to godly ears . . . the freedom of my country’s customs, to put it so, has been part-cause of my audacity. For among us, it is not a man’s station but his principles that matter’.
There is no record of the Pope’s response.
Columbanus’ Milanese adventures came to an end in 614, when the old Irish pilgrim, a year before his death, set off to Bobbio to the place of his final resurrection in the Trebbia Valley. He died on 23 November 615.
Columbanus is remembered as a peregrinus, monastic founder and missionary. His greatest contribution was his introduction of the Irish practice of penance to continental Europe.
The Irish understanding of the pilgrimage life find expression in Jonas’ Life of Columbanus, in which Columbanus’ encounter with a devout woman in Ireland explicitly articulates the two degrees of peregrination – the lesser pilgrimage within one’s homeland and the greater, or ex patria, journey across the sea:
‘Twelve years have passed by, since I have been far from my home and have sought out this place of pilgrimage. With the aid of Christ, never since then have I engaged in secular matters; after putting my hand to the plough, I have not turned backward. And if the weakness of my sex had not prevented me, I would have crossed the sea and chosen a better place among strangers as my home’ (Vita Columbani 8, trans. Munro).
Whereas the Chalcedonian Confession defined Christ as having two natures without confusion or division, Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople (428 – 431) emphasized the disunion between the human and divine natures of Jesus. Consequently, Nestorianism rejected the title, Theotokos, ‘bearer of God’ or ‘mother of God’, for the Virgin Mary. Nestorius and his teachings were condemned at the First Council of Ephesus in 431 and the Council of Chalcedon in 451. This led to the Nestorian Schism in which churches supporting the doctrines of Nestorius permanently split from the Chalcedonian churches. Historically, they have been known as the Church of the East, or simply as the Nestorian Church.
Nestorianism and the larger Christological debate inspired another doctrine, which was also deemed heretical by the victorious Chalcedonian position of the Roman Church. Monophysitism, the doctrine of one nature, believed that Christ had but a single nature; his human nature had been absorbed into his divinity. Monophysitism survives today in the six churches belonging to the so-called Oriental Orthodoxy: the Coptic Orthodox, the Ethiopian Orthodox, the Eritrean Orthodox, the Syrian Orthodox, the Indian Orthodox and the Armenian Apostolic.