Hincmar of Rheims (806-882 A.D.)

The ninth century is a pivotal one for the development of Medieval Christendom for a number of reasons. The collapse of Charlemagne’s Empire, the Viking invasions, bloody conflicts with Muslims and Magyars, the Photian Schism, the work of Gottschalk of Orbais, the eucharistic debates between Ratramnus and Radbertus, the promulgation of the False Decretals of Pseudo-Isidore, and the first consistently propounded and practiced claims of the papacy to possess sovereignty over the whole Church, all make this century one of great importance. Here we will concern ourselves briefly with the life and work of a great man of faith and learning, Hincmar, the Archbishop of Rheims. For four decades much of the ecclesiastical and political controversy of the West Frankish Kingdom swirled around this man, and it is intriguing from the Protestant point of view to realize that not only did Hincmar take a very strong stand against the emerging absolute papal monarchist position but that he also was personally involved in the condemnation of Gottschalk’s doctrine of absolute predestination. Unfortunately, Hincmar’s major book on predestination has not survived the centuries, and it is difficult to say from what does survive of his work exactly what the nature of his opposition to Gottschalk’s views was.:”(The nineteenth century author of the New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge’s entry on Hincmar classifies him as a “Semi-Pelagian” and speaks of his opposition to “the Augustinian party.” A list of four propositions on predestination which Hincmar presented to the Synod of Savonières in 859 is given by the New Catholic Encylopedia’s article on the Archbishop, but given the peculiar biases of later ages (specifically post-Protestant Reformation), which are often incautiously retrojected into the past, even this is scanty evidence of “Semi-Pelagianism.”)”: Regarding his ecclesiastical-political views, however, we have an abundance of material, which will be summarized below.

A critical issue of discussion in the ninth century, particularly in the Frankish Church, was the notion that Christian society was made up of “two powers,” the spiritual and the secular, which were supposed to remain independent of each other but at the same time remain able to cooperate with each other in times of overlapping jurisdiction. This idea, transmitted to the Medievals from the work of Gelasius, Bishop of Rome from 492-496 A.D. (particularly his letter <em>Duo sunt</em> to the Eastern Emperor Anastasius and a follow up letter <em>Cum ad verum</em>), was already taking its place as one of the most formative influences upon Medieval Christendom. The principle it spelled out seemed all the more imperative to correctly understand and apply in a world that was rapidly sliding into feudalism, a system of government with a natural tendency to conflate spiritual and temporal powers into the office of king-priests and bishop-lords. In the disruption of society that attended the collapse of Charlemagne’s Empire, relations between the two powers began to be spelled out with increasing specificity and stridency against opposing views. By the early ninth century, three positions had come to the foreground of learned discussion and practical application: <em>papal monism</em> (temporal power subordinated to the spiritual, which itself ultimately resolved into the Bishop of Rome), <em>royal monism</em> (ecclesiastical power subordinated to the temporal lord), and <em>dualist conciliarism</em> (balanced interaction between the two powers; voice of the Church found in the whole Church, not merely her reputed head). These three positions are spelled out in no small detail in, respectively, the correspondence of Pope Nicholas I (r. 858-867), the correspondence of Charles the Bald (823-877), and the correspondence of Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims.

Nicholas I is a key figure in the development of papal monism because it was during his pontificate that the False Decretals of Pseudo-Isidore, purportedly records of the broad authoritative decrees of early popes, first became widely circulated. As well, he more than anyone else promoted the idea that “the Church” was coterminous with “the world,” thus bringing the entirety of the world under the sovereignty of the Church—or more specifically, of the Church’s absolute human ruler, the pope. Against such pretensions, the Frankish kings, following Charlemagne’s example, naturally balked. Actuated by the long traditions of seeing the king as “God’s vicar” (<em>vicarius Dei</em>), every bishop as a “vicar of Christ” (<em>vicarius Christi</em>), and an understanding of the dualistic nature of <em>societas Christiana</em>, kings such as Charles the Bald leaned toward interpreting the relationship of the two powers in a harmonic manner. That is, two powers were necessary to carry out God’s will in this life, and if, to that purpose, the king was God’s vicar on earth, then the bishop was correspondingly God’s vicar in the Church.:”(Karl Frederick Morrison, <em>The Two Kingdoms: Ecclesiology in Carolingian Political Thought</em> [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1964], pg. 58.)”: Yet, their thought was also animated by an older Frankish precedent of royal monism, in which, as with Charlemagne himself, the king was seen as both King and Priest (<em>Rex et Sacerdos</em>, and thus, as something much more than “merely” the protector of the Church. Charlemagne had taken it upon himself not only to convene and sit in Church councils, but to direct their business and help formulate their decrees. Later Frankish kings had a hard time resisting the urge to do the same.

Whereas advocates of papal monism could refer to themselves as “vicars of the Son of God,” and thus, the absolute power in the Church-world,:”(Ibid., pp. 57-58.)”: advocates of royal monism could refer to themselves as ruling “the church and the Empire” (<em>ecclesiam imperiumque regit</em>) and as being “the rector[s] of all Christian religion in so far as it pertains to men.”:”(Ibid., pg. 138.)”: The exclusive nature of these two competing monisms was, in fact, largely responsible for the functional breakdown of Gelasian dualism in the Carolingian age, for as is often the case with radically opposed principles neither side can see any room for compromise lest the entire structure fall apart. Because the Frankish kings were fighting an emerging papal absolutism in a very confused societal setting, they, like some of the later high papalists such as Giles of Rome and Augustinus Triumphus, tended to be dualistic in theory but monistic in practice. What the Carolingian theologians and kings needed was an “intermediary” between the two powers, a “neutral” power that could decisively determine where the boundaries of each of the other two began and ended and help to smooth out the numerous confusions of jurisdiction that existed as the Empire fell apart under both internal and external pressures. Lacking such a “third way”, the episcopal-royal discussions tended to be dominated by extremes.:”(Ibid., pp . 66-67 and 136-137.)”:

But the factions actually did have a third way. Hincmar of Rheims, widely acknowledged as one of the foremost juristic minds of his day, offered just that, and with great learning and vigor. Standing within the dualistic framework of the Church Fathers and his own teachers and predecessors (outstanding scholars such as Abbot Hilduin of St. Denis, Alcuin, Rhabanus Maurus, and Haimo of Halberstadt) Hincmar of Rheims participated tried to make the Kingdom of the Church (<em>regnum Ecclesiae</em>, an established juridical fact with its own social integrity and jurisdictional independence from the secular power.:”(Ibid., pp. 245-246.)”: To this end, the dualists formulated against both papal monism and royal monism a third way—a way that might be called “constitutional conciliarism.” Although Hincmar was a dedicated conciliarist he found himself in the full-time service of Charles the Bald, an advocate of royal monism.

The context for the most developed expression of Hincmar of Rheims’ dualist-concilarist views was a bitter dispute between himself and his nephew, Hincmar, the Bishop of Laon, regarding an alleged breach of the younger’s feudal obligations to Charles the Bald. In classical Christian fashion the issues involved in this dispute were brought to the bar of several successive councils for arbitration (though with the Carolingian spin of the king presiding over the councils). Hincmar of Laon was repeatedly condemned by these assemblies. In his defense, the younger Hincmar made use of the logic of the False Decretals of Pseudo-Isidore which were just then coming to be widely known. He did this by appealing to the supposed sovereign rights of the Bishop of Rome to be “the court of first instance” rather than the “court of final appeal.” These putative rights of the pope were being buttressed by not only the “historical” Decretals but by the powerful influence of Pseudo-Dionysian hierocratic philosophical theology. For Hincmar of Laon, all synodal and conciliar judgments were validated by the “authority of Peter” (<em>auctoritas Petri</em>) and the customs (<em>consuetudo</em>) of the Roman Church. Both of these principles, in turn, resolved into the “from himself” (<em>ex sese</em>) dictations of the Roman Bishop. This stand ultimately alienated the younger Hincmar from his uncle, the Archbishop of Rheims, who staunchly opposed the monarchical pretensions of the Roman See on solid canonistic grounds.

Whereas Pope Hadrian II (r. 867-872), Hincmar of Laon’s great defender, could write “Those who do not shrink from disparaging St. Peter and his successors or from invidiously spurning the <em>decreta</em> they have issued through the Holy Spirit are undoubted blasphemers against the Holy Spirit,”:”(Ibid, pg. 102
.)”: Hincmar of Rheims steadfastly maintained that he would strive “to receive and carefully to follow (as far as they are to be followed) the decretals of the Roman pontiffs received and approved by holy councils.” He pledged to submit to any decretal of the Roman Church which was promulgated “according to the measure of the Holy Scriptures and the decrees of the holy canons.”:”(Ibid, pg. 92.)”: For Hincmar, papal decretals were considered “public declarations about laws” (<em>promulgationes de legibus</em>) rather than “public declarations of laws” (<em>promulgationes legum</em>)—a distinction that is less revealing in English than it is in Latin, but which nonetheless is decidely not in the spirit of the papalism that was being concurrently advocated by Pope Nicholas I.

Now it should be noted that Nicholas’ exalted view of the papacy was rhetorically buttressed by the fact that most Frankish theologians in the ninth century <em>did</em> speak of the Roman Bishop as the “universal pope” and the “supreme pontiff”.:”(Karl Morrison, <em>Tradition and Authority in the Western Church, 300-1140</em> [Princeton University Press, 1969], pg. 228.)”: A treatise written in Nicholas’ honor in 867 trumpeted that he had obtained the “principate of bishops” (<em>principatum obtineat episcoporum</em>) and that no synod could possess legitimate authority without his express approval. Another writing brazenly stated that “If indeed iron sharpens iron, then the Greek language should agree so that it does not differ from the truth, [since only] in the Latin church is the catholic faith indissolubly held.”:”(Ibid., pg. 229, citing Ratramnus of Corbie’s <em>Against the Opposition of the Greeks</em> [PL 121:337-346] as the best argument of several, which included a similar work by Aeneas of Paris [PL 121:683-762]. The phrase I have translated here is from the latter, Col. 689: “Si enim ferrum ferro acuitur, congruum esset ut Graeca lingua a vero non discreparet, in quo Latina normam catholicae fidei indissolubiliter tenet.”)”: Nicholas made much of these declarations, along with Pseudo-Isidore’s. However, Hincmar of Rheims opposed this rising tide of papalism, particularly the use of Pseudo-Isidore. His own considerable canonistic learning caused him to doubt that the Decretals had actually proceeded from the ancient Roman See and to assert that they had instead been cunningly devised by others and that they contradicted “the holy rules” (<em>sacris regulis</em>).:”(Ibid., pg. 231.)”:

Pseudo-Isidore describes papal decretals as being statements “in which, according to the chief apostolic see, authority stands not unequal to that of councils.”:”(My translation of text provided by Morrison, The Two Kingdoms: Ecclesiology in Carolingian Thought, pg. 74: “in quibus pro culmine sedis apostolice non inpar conciliorum exstat auctoritas”.)”: Hincmar of Rheims agreed, as did theologians on all sides of the disputes, that councils were not autonomous from the Bishop of Rome. But unlike the papalists Hincmar distinguished between “the justice of Peter” (<em>aequitas Petri</em>) and the “assent of the Church” (<em>assensus ecclesiae</em>). The former phrase, derived from Leo the Great, was thought by papalists to ground papal sovereignty in Christ’s commission to Peter (Mt. 16:18-20). But according to Hincmar, the <em>aequitas</em> was always subject to the <em>assensus</em>, because the Church was composed of all the bishops and laymen, not merely the pope and his lackeys. This distinction enabled the Archbishop to uphold Petrine authority in the Church while denying its alleged corollary papal sovereignty over the Church. In Hincmar’s theory, the authority of ecclesiastical canons derived from the assent of the universal Church (<em>assensus universalis ecclesiae</em>), and all judgments, even papal ones, which were issued out of conformity with that universal assent were to be considered illegitimate.:”(Ibid., pp. 91-94.)”:

According to Hincmar, the Roman Bishop <em>did</em> have the right to dispense with conciliar decrees which dealt with historically-transient matters no longer applicable to the present-day Church. However, the decrees of councils that expressed the universal assent of the Church were to be considered “fixed and immobile decrees” (<em>fixis et immobilis decretis</em>).:”(Ibid.)”: When this synodal limitation of the Bishop of Rome’s powers is added to the distinction between “initial” and “appellate” jurisdiction, where the metropolitan (archbishop) has the former in his own territory, a powerful system of checks and balances upon papalism can be seen.

Unfortunately, this balanced, powerful, thoroughly catholic system of government became lost to Christians in the chaos of the remainder of the ninth century, the “Dark Age” of the tenth century, and the subsequent evolution of the Papal Monarchy in the eleventh century. Although occasional strong voices (Wenrich of Trier, “The Anglo-Norman Anonymous,” John of Paris, Marsilius of Padua, William of Ockham, William Durandus the Younger) would be raised in protest against the Papal Monarchy, it would be nearly six centuries before the principles of constitutional conciliarism would again become championed in a new showdown with papalism. The next time it would be a showdown that was not merely of the character of a debate but rather of the very survival of the Church and the <em>societas Christiana</em> she had created.

Hincmar of Rheims himself lived just long enough to see the beginning of the terrifying Viking invasions. Sadly, the great Archbishop died on the run from the rampaging pagans. But like so many other important but little known figures of the Middle Ages, he being dead yet speaks.

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