Free eBook: Getting Through the Storms in Life

Century VI, Chapter I


The Life of Fulgentius, and the State of the African Churches in his Time.

In the year 496, a storm began again to lower over the African Churches. Thrasamond, whose reign then commenced, as obstinate in arianism as Huneric, but more sagacious and less bloody, mingled the arts of gentleness and severity against them. On the one hand he strove to gain over the orthodox by lucrative motives, on the other he forbade the ordination of bishops in the vacant churches.* But Eugenius, whose faithfulness had been so severely tried in the former persecution, was called to sleep in Jesus before the commencement of this. The African bishops showed however that divine grace had not forsaken them. They determined unanimously not to obey an order, which threatened the extinction of orthodoxy. They ordained bishops, and filled the vacant sees, though they foresaw the probability of Thrasamond's resentment. But they thought it their duty to take care of their flocks at this hazard, rather than to seem to consent to the king's unrighteous prohibitions. Thrasamond enraged, determined to banish them all. Fulgentius was just at that time chosen bishop of Ruspae. In him we behold another instance of the effects of the religion revived under Augustine. Fulgentius's life is written by some one of his disciples, and dedicated to Felician, a bishop, who was the successor of Fulgentius. The review of it and of his own works will give us a specimen of the power of divine grace^yictoriously struggling under all

• See Fleury, b. xxx. vol. iii.

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the disadvantages of monastic superstition and the childish ignorance of a barbarous age. Fulgentius was descended from a noble family in Carthage, where his father was a senator. His grandfather Gordian, flying from the arms of Huneric, retired into Italy. After his decease, two of his sons, returning into Africa now settled under the Vandal government, found their family mansion possessed by the Arian clergy. By royal authority however they received part of their patrimony, and retired to Constantinople. In that part of the world, at Tellepte, Fulgentius was born, being the son of Claudius one of the brothers, and of Marriana, a christian lady, who being soon left a widow gave her son a very liberal education, for which Constantinople afforded at that time peculiar advantages; and thus his mind became stored with Greek and Roman learning. As he increased in religious seriousness, he inclined more and more to a monastic life, for which he gradually prepared himself by successive austerities in Africa, the country of his father, to which he returned with his mother. He was received into the monastery of Faustus, a bishop whom the Arian persecution had banished from his diocese to a place contiguous to it where he erected his monastery. The spirit and fashion of the times so transported him, that, at first, he refused even to see his own mother who came to visit him, though he afterwards behaved to her with the greatest filial duty. He underwent severe bodily sufferings from the renewal of the arian persecution. He was beaten with clubs so cruelly, that he confessed afterwards he scarce found himself capable of enduring the pain any longer, and was glad to induce his tormentors by some conversation to allow an interval to his afflictions. For he seems to have been of a weak and delicate constitution, and the softness of his early education rendered him unfit to bear much hardship. His mind, however, appears to have been serene and faithful to his Saviour, whom, in real humility and sincerity, though tarnished with the fashionable superstition, he served according

to the fundamentals of the gospel. The arian bishop of Carthage, who had known Fulgentius, and esteemed his character, highly disapproved of this treatment, which he had received from a presbyter of his own religion and diocese, and told the injured youth, that, if he would make a formal complaint before him, he would avenge his cause. Many advising him to do so, "it is not lawful, says Fulgentius, for a christian to seek revenge. The Lord knows how to defend his servants. Should the presbyter through me be punished, I shall lose the reward of my patience with God, and the more so, as it would give an occasion of stumbling to the weak, to see an arian punished by a monk." By and by he retired into the more interior parts of Africa. Sometime after he sailed to Syracuse, and then visited Rome, and saw there king Theodoric in the midst of a magnificent assembly. If men in this life, seeking vanity, attain such dignity, what will be the glory of saints who seek true honour in the new Jerusalem? this was the reflection. Ruspa? in Africa was the placQ to which Fulgentius, much against his will, was at length elected bishop. But this exaltation lessened not the severity of his way of life: and by the Arian persecution he was banished into Sardinia in company with other faithful witnesses of orthodoxy. Upwards of sixty bishops Were with him in exile. Thrasamond sent more still into Sardinia, in all 220; exerted himself mightily in overcoming the constancy of the orthodox, and delighted to insnare them with captious questions. Fulgentius was sent for by him to Carthage, and by his skill in argument, and his readiness in answering questions, excited the king's admiration—till through the advice of his Arian clergy, who looked on the presence of Fulgentius as dangerous at Carthage, he was remanded to Sardinia. Soon after, Hilderic, the successor of Thrasamond, in the year 523, favouring the orthodox, put a total end to the persecution, and Ruspas once more beheld her bishop.

He lived among his flock from this time to his death, eminent in piety, humility, and charity. For near seventy days he suffered extreme pains in his last sickness—"Lord, give patience here and rest hereafter," was "his constant prayer—and he died at length, as he had lived, an edifying example of every christian virtue. I feel almost ashamed to have written so barren a life of a man undoubtedly excellent in godliness. But the reader must be content, as well as myself, with the poverty of materials. In an age of learning and genius the life of Fulgentius would have shone abundantly. In his treatise to Morinus on predestination he observes,* " The internal master, from whom we have received the supply of celestial doctrine, not only opens to us, inquiring the secrets of his words, but does also himself inspire the grace to make inquiry. For we cannot so much as hunger after the bread which comes down from heaven, unless an appetite be given to persons before fastidious by him, who deigns also to give himself to satisfy the hungry. From him it is, that thirsting we run to the fountain, who affords to us himself that we may drink." He afterwards expresses himself with great energy " on the internal and sweeter doctrine of divine inspiration, where truth speaks the sweeter, as it is the more secret." I shall not expect of any man, but one who is truly taught of God, to give a candid interpretation of this. " I pray to be taught many more things which I do not know, by him, from whom I have received the little which I do know. I beg by his preventing and following grace to be instructed,"f &c. In what follows he shows how seriously he had made the sentiments of Augustine his own, in discussing points exceeding intricate, with that author'6 modesty and dexterity, and particularly in resolving all sin into pride.J

In a subject so arduous as Predestination, it is very easy to push men into difficulties. Our author observes,^ that some Frenchmen had objected to Augustine, that he had described men as predestinated not only to judgment but also to sin: on which account the learned and holy Prosper defended the sentiments

•Booki. ch.i. f Ch. iv. t Ch. xvii. §Ch. xxx.

of the African prelate, whose death prevented any answer from himself. Prosper says, the unbelief of men

author of good, not of evil. Infidelity is not to be referred to the divine constitution, but only to the divine prescience.

With equal dexterity he defends the faith of the Trinity in a book addressed to king Thrasamond* Let it suffice to mention one argument for the divnity of the Holy Ghost toward the close. " If he can quicken who is not God; if he can sanctify who is not God; if he can dwell in believers who is not God; if he can give grace who is not God, then the Holy Ghost may be denied to be God. If any creature can do those things, which are spoken of the Holy Ghost, then let the Holy Ghost be called a creature." In a treatise on the incarnation and grace of Jesus Christ * he answers the trite objection against divine election drawn from the words, " God would have all men to be saved," by showing that upon the views of those who see no mystery in the subject, bijt resolve the distinction into the merits or demerits of men, Almighty God ceases to be incomprehensible, as the scripture describes him to be. He allows the great truth, that God would have all men to be saved, and yet that there is a depth not to be fathomed by man in the destruction of so many sinners. Much more might be quoted from this author on subjects essentially connected with the gospel of Christ. But the diffusiveness of the quotations from Augustine may supersede the necessity of enlarging on the views of one, whoso closely followed his steps, and who wrote and lived with a similar spirit.

Besides several doctrinal treatises we have also a few epistles of this saint. The fourth to Proba concerning prayer deserves to be carefully studied. It is an excellent sample of the humble piety of the African school. He instructs the lady in his favourite doctrine of grace connected with humility, and justly infers,

predestination; for God is the

that if a man as yet innocent could not remain- so by his natural power, much less can this be expected from him now that he is in a state of so great depravity. Hedescribes, in a pathetic manner, the snares arising from the craft of Satan, and the corrupt workings of the heart, declaring that though the Lord from time to time attend with aids during the sharp war, lest his people faint, yet our mortalnature is suffered to be overloaded with the burden of corruption, that we may feel our helplessness, and have speedy recourse to divine grace. He describes the conflict between flesh and spirit, shows that it must last through life, that prayer and watching are ever necessary, and that a conceit of our perfection would lead us into deadly pride. He recommends an humble contrite frame of spirit, not only for the beginning, but for the whole course of a christian's progress, and concludes with a beautiful view of the perfect rest from sin which remains for him hereafter. It is refreshing to the mind, to see the real principles of christianity appearing in great vigour and clearness in this little composition.

The epistle to Eugyptius* is full of charity, and describes this greatest of christian graces in a manner much resembling that of Augustine. In an epistle to Theodorus a senatorf, he congratulates him on his victory over the world. He had been, it seems, a Roman consul, and had given up secular pursuits through the love of heavenly things. Fulgentius strongly reminds him to whose grace alone he was indebted for the change, and recommends humility J, " a virtue which neither those have who love the world, nor those who profess to have renounced the world by their own strength." By which distribution of the unconverted into two sorts he points out the same division of men,

* Kp. 5. | Ep. 6.

T The practice of Fulgentius agreed with his doctrine. About the end of the year 524, a bishop in an African council disputed precedency with him. The council decided for Fulgentius, who for that time acquiesced in the authority of the council. But, observing how much the other was afflicted at the determination, in a future council.he publicly desired that it might be reversed. His humility was admired, and his request was granted.

which has ever taken place from the time of Christ. Pharisees and Sadducees were their names among the Jews; in the Gentile world the terms Stoics and Epicureans gave the same distinction. In the school of Augustine lovers of the world, and men proudly boasting in their own strength, pointed out the difference, which we now commonly mark by the terms worldlyminded and self-righteous: while in all ages the genuine religion of real humility stands contradistinguished from both. Fulgentius recommends to this nobleman the constant study of the scriptures. " If you come to them meek and humble, there you will find preventing grace by which, when fallen, you may rise; accompanying grace, by which you may run the way of rectitude; and following grace, by which you may reach the heavenly kingdom."

In the epistle to Venantia concerning repentance*, he steers in the middle course between presumption and despair, invites all men of every age to repent and be converted, under the confident expectation of acceptance with God through Jestfs Christ, mentions our Lord's parable of the different hours in which labourers are brought into the vineyard as an argument, that no time is fixed to debar the returning sinner. Nor would Jesus have come to save the lost in this last age of the world, if human wickedness was ever too strong for divine mercy and goodness. He observes, that the great defect of Judas in his repentance lay in this, that he had no faith in that blood which he had betrayed. He quotes pertinent scriptures, and, to comprehend in one nervous sentence the whole subject, he says t, A salutary conversion is twofold; it is when repentance leaves not him who hopes in the divine favour, nor hope deserts the penitent: and it is evidenced by this, if a man with his whole heart renounce his sin, and with his whole heart place his hope of forgiveness in God. For sometimes the devil takes away hope from the penitent, sometimes repentance

from him who hopes. In the first case he overwhelms the man whom he burdens, in the second he throws down him whom he sets at ease. Hear his testimony to the mystery of the gospel. The only begotten God so loved human nature, that he not only freed it from the power of the devil, but also placed it at the right hand of the Father in himself above all good angels.

In his epistle concerning the baptism of a dying negro, who had given previous proofs of sincerity, while he was a catechumen, but in the time of baptism itself was senseless and incapable of professing his faith; he endeavours to obviate the doubts of those who were afraid lest his incompetency should prevent his salvation. There are two points observable in this epistle, one is the custom of the church in presenting infants to baptism, the other is, that however rapid the progress of superstition had been in the time of Fulgentius, yet the most destructive superstitions, and those which are directly subversive of christian faith and purity, both in doctrine and practice, were as yet unknown. He assigns as*a reason for not baptizing the dead, that sins are irremissible after the separation of the soul from the body. He supports his opinion with the declaration of the apostle, that we must be judged of the things done in the body. Nothing can be more conclusive against the pernicious doctrine of purgatory.

I observe farther that he uses the word " to justify" in the same sense in which Augustine does; nor does the true idea of the word seem to be recovered by the christian world till the days of Luther*.

He speaks of the evils of the Pelagian heresy, and describes the strength and ability given to Augustine against it, and strongly recommends the writings of that father to the christian world, as containing a more copious instruction of divine grace, than had been known some time before, though the doctrine itself, he contends, had ever been held in the church, f

* De Verit. Prad. b. i. c. xiv. f De Verit Prsd. b. ii. c. xviil.

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