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Saintly Heretic

By October 1, 2012 No Comments
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by Carol Westphal

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…” Hebrews 13:1

I’ve been married to the same man for almost fifty years, and it’s been a good run. But recently, a new man has come into my life. My husband doesn’t need to worry too much about him, though, as this “new” man is really a very old man. In fact, he’s been dead for over sixteen hundred years, and I’m not even sure of his correct name. Ulfila? Ulfilas? Ulphilas? Wulphila?

Whatever. I met Ulfila while reading a church history book recently. He was given all of one short paragraph, but his story intrigued me, so I did a little digging in some other sources. What I learned is that he was born around 311 in Dacia, a territory north of Greece (today’s Balkan states) that was then under the control of the Goths. He was, it seems, a descendant of Christian prisoners captured by the Goths in Cappadocia in the third century and was raised in the faith—a faith, however, that was probably more Arian than orthodox in its understanding of Christ. For some reason—no one knows for certain just why— as a young man, Ulfila was sent to Constantinople. While there, he became a lector in the church, and was later consecrated Bishop to the Goths by Eusebius of Nicomedia, the very one who baptized Constantine in his final illness.

Eusebius was himself an Arian and thus not of the true orthodox faith, which meant that Ulfila’s understanding of Christ became more firmly cemented in the Arian dogma/heresy. So it was a decidedly Arian interpretation of Christianity that Ulfila took with him when he later returned to Dacia as a missionary. He taught the Goths that Jesus did not share in the same substance with the Father. Jesus was only “like” the Father, according to a creed that Ulfila supported at the Synod of Constantinople in 360.

Perhaps this Arianism accounts for the short shrift he’s given in the annals of church history? I couldn’t even find his name in the index of one church history book! But Arian though he was, I find so much of value and worth in Ulfila’s life. And, quite honestly, I rather like having a “heretic” among the great cloud of witnesses watching us “feebly struggle” while “they in glory shine.” It makes me a little more humble about what I know and what I don’t know.

I grew up in a very fundamentalist church, and we were so sure, so very sure that we had all of God’s truth neatly tucked into our little God box. But the older I get, the more I realize how incomplete, how inadequate my understanding of the faith is. My God box has lost most of its sides and its top as well. And while, to be sure, I’m grateful for the creeds that emerged from all the wrangling of the first few centuries of the church’s life, I’m more and more aware that while they point to the truth, they don’t contain or fully definethe truth. So I’m quite happy to envision Ulfila as a part of that great cloud of witnesses worshiping and praising our Lord and at the same time cheering us on as we wend our way through life.

Ulfila’s life was truly exceptional. After spending some eight to ten years as a missionary in Dacia, Ulfila was forced to flee south because of Gothic persecution of Christians in Dacia. Even though Ulfila hadn’t managed to tame the warlike Goths through his missionary work, he certainly didn’t forget them. Instead, he decided to translate the entire Bible into the Gothic language. One problem: there was no Gothic alphabet. That, however, didn’t deter Ulfila. He worked out an alphabet for the Goths and then proceeded to translate the Bible into their language. And here’s a fascinating little detail: Ulfila decided not to include the Books of Kings in his translation of the Bible. The Goths didn’t need any encouragement, he reasoned, to exercise their often violent tendencies. A new alphabet. An almost complete translation of the Bible into the Gothic tongue. And he still only gets one short paragraph in some church histories, and isn’t even mentioned in others? Seems a bit strange to me.

One final note about Ulfila’s life and witness. Sometime around 381, Ulfila was summoned to Constantinople by Emperor Theodosius I. There was to be a discussion among the various factions of the faith regarding the person of Christ. Ulfila’s attendance at this forum suggests that perhaps he wasn’t completely sure that what he had taught throughout his life really did fully express the truth about our Lord. His participation in the dialogue makes me think that Ulfila was at least open to approaching and discussing the great mystery of our Savior’s being with those who differed from him—a good example for our own time. I like to imagine Ulfila, who died at some point during those fourthcentury discussions, smiling down on all the attempts at dialogue within the church today. Smiling down on discussions with those of other faiths. Smiling down, as well, at all the attempts in our personal lives to remain open to new insights and to ever enrich and expand our own understanding of the faith that shapes and guides our lives.

I’m so happy to have Ulfila in my life. I so appreciate his devotion to our Lord. I appreciate his energy and creativity. I appreciate his openness to dialogue about faith differences. And from now on, on All Saints’ Day, when we thank God for the lives of those who have gone before us and sing the glorious hymn “For All the Saints,” I will be remembering Ulfila and thanking God for his life and for his humble witness—that is, after I have recited, with reverent appreciation, the beautiful (and orthodox!) Nicene Creed.

Carol Westphal is a retired Reformed Church in America minister living in Nanuet, New York. She blogs