“Straying Too Far From Shore?”


Gottschalk of Orbais was a Saxon monk who revived the “predestinarian vs. free will” battle waged by Augustine against Pelagius centuries earlier. As is often the case in religious controversies, Gottschalk and his adversaries were a contentious lot, with neither side granting any quarter. Although reputedly a man with a ferocious temper, perhaps, what got—and kept—Gottschalk in nearly constant conflict was his clarity, a dangerous attribute when confronting kings and prelates. In bringing us Gottschalk’s story, C.W. Powell concludes that it may quite literally be “dangerous to seek to understand fully what God has hidden in His own counsel.”

It was a most happy arrangement. The little child was given as an offering to the church by his wealthy parents who didn’t want him, along with his inheritance. The church used the inheritance; the child was treated as a monk and served God.
The church had a twinge of conscience at the Council of Toledo in 656 and forbade the reception of “Oblates” until the age of ten and allowed them to leave the monastery if they wanted to when they reached puberty. They were not considered monks after the Council of Toledo except here and there [“here and there” refers to both time and space].
It was good all around: the parents needn’t be bothered, the church got richer, and the kid became holy. Or maybe angry. Or maybe even holy and angry. It is sometimes hard to tell the difference between holy anger and an angry holiness, but there is a difference, an important one.
Gottschalk of Orbais died one day before Reformation Day, on October 30, but about 650 years before that other, more famous predestinarian, Martin Luther. Gottschalk was born in 808 [?] and his Saxon Father, Count Bern gave him to the monastery of Fulda along with his inheritance, for he lived in the here and there’s mentioned above.
He received a respectable monastic medieval education at Fulda under the monks, but at the Council of Mainz in 829, he entered the claim that he had been forced illegally into the priesthood and wanted to be released along with the inheritance. He was generously allowed to go away, but only after agreeing under oath not to ever, ever ask for his inheritance again. It seems that his inheritance had been inherited by an important someone else and so it was beyond his reach.
“Gottschalk’s arguments were as follows: a monk is basically a slave, even though God’s slave. However, according to the Saxon laws a man could be bereft of his freedom only in presence of Saxon witnesses, which condition had not been fulfilled. Hrabanus, on the other hand, emphasized that the property requested by Gottschalk had been inherited by Louis the Pious from his father and could not be given back to the rebellious monk. Moreover, he regarded as heretical the wish itself to be freed from the vows under such a pretext.”1
Hrabanus, however, appealed the decision of the council to Louis the Pious. Louis reversed the decision and Gottshalk was returned to the monastery and then was transferred to the monastery at Orbais, where he began the study of Augustine and of Fulgentius of Ruspe. It was there he received priest’s orders.
So by the age of twenty or so the powers that ran the church had several reasons to distrust him. When one of the reasons is money it may be quite difficult to earn love again.
The problem was mainly this. The church had put Gottschalk’s inheritance to good use. That important someone mentioned above was indeed Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne. Before he died, Charlemagne had divided his extensive empire into three parts, into what was to become Italy, Germany, and France. His brothers died before Charlemagne, so Louis received the empire. Louis placed his three sons over the three parts of the empire, hoping to keep the empire intact after his death. He had a great need for money because he was involved in many wars to secure his kingdom in the fracturing that followed the death of Charlemagne. The situation was further exacerbated when Louis had a fourth son, Charles the Bald, and tried to give him an inheritance by carving away land belonging to the three sons afore mentioned, the half-brothers of Charles. It was as nasty a situation as family quarrels can be.
Gottschalk’s inheritance bought the church favor with Louis and the money probably purchased military support. At any rate, it would never come back to Gottschalk. It also meant that powerful figures had an interest in subduing the upstart monk.
Being under a cloud by the church and under the suspicion of the civil powers, Gottschalk had to make his own way. He would not have termed it in this manner, because he soon discovered a teaching of the Scripture that had fallen out of use or understanding since the Council of Orange [529]. It had been taught by St. Augustine [354-430] and [as Gottschalk claimed] by St. Isodore [560-636], but the church for many years had taught otherwise.
The teaching that Gottschalk had rediscovered was the Apostle Paul’s doctrine of predestination. After Gottschalk this doctrine would not be revived until the Middle Ages by men such as Thomas Bradwardine, Gregory of Rimini and John Wycliffe, and later by John Huss, Martin Luther, and John Calvin.
Gottschalk’s teachings on these matters fell on a most hostile soil from which bitter fruit was to grow, for hearts were very hard.
After a pilgrimage to Rome and some mission work in the Balkans, Gottschalk returned to France, to meet charges of heresy from his old superior Hrabanus. Tried by the Synod of Mainz in 848, he was found guilty of teaching “double predestination,” that the elect were predestined to life and the lost passed over and predestined to damnation. Gottschalk would not have put it that way, for he believed that although predestination was single, it was twofold. He was committed to the care of his metropolitan, Hincmar of Reims. Hincmar called a synod the next year that again condemned Gottschalk. There was apparently no serious inquiry into his views, but he was degraded from the priesthood. Hincmar had him flogged almost to death. He was prohibited from contact with the outside and given a life sentence in the prison at Hautvillers.
Who was this Hincmar? He had risen to power through his long friendship and support of Louis the Pious and later, Charles the Bald. A thorough sycophant and flatterer of the powerful, Hincmar obtained the powerful post of Archbishop of Reims after the disgrace of Ebbo for his support of the rebellion of the three sons of Louis against their father. When Louis triumphed, Ebbo was disgraced and Hincmar rewarded with Reims.
In a letter to Hincmar, Hrabanus accused Gottschalk of the following: “The predestination of God is found in a bad person, just as it is in a good person. He also says that certain people are such in this world that, according to the predestination of God, which compels them to go into death, they cannot correct themselves from error and sin, as if God from the beginning had made them to be incorrigible and to go to destruction, subject to punishment.” Further, Hrabanus said that ignorant people were being led astray, thinking “How will it profit me to labor in the service of God? For, if I have been predestined to death, I will never escape it. But if I live badly and I have been predestined to life, I will without any doubt go to eternal rest.”2
The accusations of Hrabanus and their friendly reception by the Council of Mainz and by Hincmar are simply forms of what the Apostle Paul states as objections to his doctrine in Romans 6, “Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?” Paul’s answer in rejecting this sophism was that the death of Christ and His resurrection secures for His people newness of life by the power of the Holy Spirit, simply because they have been predestined to conformity to the likeness of Christ (Romans 6-8). For the pious bishops to bring it forward reveals how steeped the church had become in works-righteousness.
Although some voices affirming the grace of God were to be heard faintly in the years that followed, the light of the evangelical doctrine of sola gratia, “grace alone,” would not blaze forth again until the Reformation.3
Hincmar and the bishops called together at Quierzy did receive scriptural and patristic quotations from Gottschalk, some of which are touched on below, but they were not given serious consideration, for the synod simply confirmed the guilt found by the Council of Mainz. The sentence was, “We decree by episcopal authority that you be punished with severest beatings and that according to ecclesiastical regulations you be confined to a cell, lest you presume to usurp for yourselves the teaching office, we impose perpetual silence on your mouth by the power of the eternal Word.”4
Hrabanus informed Hincmar that he would no longer participate in the discussions and so Hincmar wrote to the bishop of Lyons reiterating the accusations against Gottschalk.
Of course, the charges were true, for Gottschalk was indeed teaching a twofold predestination. The problem for Gottschalk was that neither church nor state had any stomach for a doctrine that exalted God and debased man. The power of emperors and prelates would be greatly diminished if such doctrine caught on. How could men be persuaded to live according to ecclesiastical mandates if their destiny was in the hands of God? What could man’s legislation count against the eternal decree of God?
It is not as though Gottschalk had no company in affirming his doctrines, for he could quote St. Isidore, “Predestination is twofold, either of the elect to rest or of the reprobate to death”5 or Gregory the Great, “Looking upon some, you redeem them; abandon others, you destroy them.”6 Or St. Augustine, “If the church were to be so sure about some people that she also knew who they are, who although they are still situated in this life, have still been predestined to go with the devil into everlasting fire (Mt. 25:41), she would not pray for them, as she does not pray for the devil.” “What will he who gave these things even to those whom he has predestined to death give to those whom he has predestined to life?” “To the damnation of those whom he has justly predestined to punishment.”7
Perhaps, the kings and prelates were more concerned about the manner of Gottschalk than the substance of the controversy. Certainly, his method was logical, determined, certain and bound to offend those who had interest in being offended. The attempts, however, to cast him as sociopathic, mentally de-ranged, or demon-possessed do not hold water, as Genke illustrates.
The rigor of the sentence against Gottschalk did provoke second thoughts among many even during his imprisonment and before his death. In spite of the order of silence, he was able to write letters in his defense. Hrabanus was shocked, but did nothing to curtail his writings. The ecclesiastical climate did not encourage a full examination into the theological issues, and perhaps there was no one in that age capable of grasping the issues which continue to perplex. It would be over seven centuries before that discussion would take place in the Synod of Dordt as a result of the Remonstrance.
Hincmar, sometime after 861, discovered a strange entry, dated 859, in the Annals of St Bertin. As Genke and Gumerlock put it:

It was a short but vexing entry: “Nicholas, the Roman pontiff, faithfully confirms and in a catholic manner determines his position concerning grace and free will, as well as concerning the truth of the twofold predestination and the blood of Christ, which was shed for all believers.”
Even though Hincmar “neither heard about this from anyone else nor read it anywhere else,” in 866 begged Egilo of Sens, who made his way to Rome, to ask the Pope whether anything like that had indeed taken place, since the annals were already accessible to many. Since we are unaware of what Egilo was able to find out, the basis of that statement of Prudentius remains a subject of much controversy unto this day.8
The entry might have been made by Prudentius who had the Annals in his possession and had entered some very derogatory items about Hincmar. But it is hard to imagine that he would have invented something so inflammatory in the present environment and attributed it to the Pope. Even the Catholic Encyclopedia commends him for his accuracy in extending the Annals of St. Bertin to include the history of those times.
After a monk had escaped from Hautvillers and brought an appeal from Gottschalk to Pope Nicholas, Hincmar wrote to the Pope requesting advice concerning the disposition of Gottschalk, even offering to release him if the Pope wished. Unfortunately, there appears to be no record of a reply from the Pope or any further communication to Hincmar. Pope Nicholas died in 867 and Rome became interested in other things. Gottschalk, whose name means “God’s Slave” went to his reward in 868, a much better inheritance than that wasted on Louis the Pious, fulfilling the Scripture “that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God.” [Acts 14:22]
For the last twenty years of his life, Gottschalk was denied communion by Hincmar, who offered communion only on condition that Gottschalk deny what he had written about predestination. But the predestination controversy left Gottschalk behind and Hincmar, be-cause of his influence with the king, eventually was able to quiet the opposition.9
A number of things, perhaps, contributed to the tragedy of Gottschalk’s life. Being forced into the “holy” life, the unjust loss of his inheritance, the political/ ecclesiastical environment, the overly harsh punishment combined with his very stubborn and refractory disposition all contributed to the tragedy. Second-guessing is always easy from the distance of centuries, but it might seem to a less theological age that the whole range of lesser punishments available to Hincmar under his order might have sufficed to quiet the controversy. Predestination is certainly a biblical doctrine taught by Paul, but it is dangerous to seek to understand fully what God has hidden in his own counsel. “Little ships ought to stay near the shore,” is good advice even for great theologians.
Another consideration might be found in the wise words of Solomon: Ec 7:16 “Be not righteous over much; neither make thyself over wise: why shouldest thou destroy thyself?” We are to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves, and Gottschalk was perhaps not wise to challenge the great powers in church and state. Every great truth has its corresponding religious affection, and humility would seem to be compatible with God’s sovereignty and predestination. There appeared to be very little humility on either side of the controversy. Those who sided with Gottschalk appear to be motivated by enmity toward Hincmar; those on the other side had the interest of the king at heart.
In due time, both the friends and enemies of Gottschalk went to their predestined end, which is known only to God, who keeps such things in His own hands.

C. W. Powell serves as the Academic Dean at New Geneva Theological Seminary.

1 Inrebus.com. Gottschalk of Orbais. Retrieved October 26, 2011 from inrebus.com: http://gottschalk.inrebus.com/index.html
2 Rabanus (Hrabanus),”Letter to Hincmar on the Council of Mainz.” Cited by Victor Genke and Frank Gumerlock, Gottschalk & a Medieval Predestination Controversy, (Milwaukee, Marquette University Press, 2010) 167
3 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume IV: Mediaeval Christianity. A.D. 590-1073. Retrieved October 26, 2011 from ccel.org: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/hcc4.i.xi.xvii.html
4 Hincmar, “Sentence Against the Most Stubborn Gottschalk.” Cited by Genke & Gumerlock, 169.
5 Ibid. 86.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid. 83
8 Ibid. 53-54
9 Gregory Johnson. “A Bibliographical Review of Historiography on Gottschalk” (1999). Retrieved October 26, 2011 from Gregscouch.homestead.com: http://gregscouch.homestead.com/files/Gottschalk.html. This site has an excellent bibliography on the life and writings of Gottschalk.