Ulfila–Heretical Saint

ulfilas

Ulfila  311-383 C.E.

          There’s a new man in my life!  My husband probably 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 1600 years, and I’m not even sure of his correct name.  Ulfila?  Ulfilas?  Ulphilas?  Wulphila? 

          Whatever.  I met Ulfila when I was reading a church history book some time ago.  He was given only one brief paragraph, but his story intrigued me, so I did a little further digging.  Born about 311 in Dacia, a northern province of the Roman Empire that was primarily inhabited by not-so-Christian Goths, Ulfila was, nevertheless, raised as a Christian by some of the few Christians scattered throughout Dacia.  The faith he was taught, however, was a “heretical” faith, for the Christians of the region were followers of Arius, and Arius had taught that Jesus was a lesser god created by God the Father, and that he did not share the same substance as the Father.

          Nevertheless, Ulfila was a devout believer in Jesus, and after traveling south to Constantinople to train under an Arian bishop for a life of ministry in the church, Ulfila was in due course consecrated as Bishop to the Goths.  When he returned to his home in Dacia, Ulfila served his people and taught them in the Arian way.  Jesus was only “like” the Father.  Jesus was “lower” than the Father.  Jesus was not really God. 

          But Arian though he was, this little known heretical saint is well worth knowing about, as there is so much of value and worth in Ulfila’s life.  After spending about 8-10 years as a missionary in Dacia among the Goths, Ulfila was forced to flee south because of Gothic persecution of Christians.  While in virtual exile, he decided to translate the entire Bible into the Gothic language.  One big problem.  There was no Gothic alphabet.  That, however, did not deter Ulfila.  He simply invented an alphabet for the Goths and then proceeded to translate the entire Bible into their language.  Almost.  Ulfila decided not to include the Books of 1 and 2 Kings in his translation of the Bible.  The Goths, he reasoned, didn’t need any encouragement to exercise their often violent tendencies. 

          All this and only one short paragraph in a book of church history?  Probably due to his heretical Arianism.  In another church history book, I could not even find his name listed in the index!  But quite honestly, I rather like having a “heretic” among the great cloud of witnesses watching us as we “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 really is.  And while, to be sure, I’m grateful for the creeds that emerged from all the wrangling in the church’s early years, I’m more and more aware that while these creeds point to the truth, they don’t fully define the 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.

          A final note about Ulfila’s life and witness.  Sometime around 381, Ulfila was summoned to Constantinople for a discussion among the various factions of the faith regarding the person of Christ.  He did go, demonstrating an openness to talk with those who differed from him.  His participation in this discussion provides, I believe, a good example for our own time, and I suspect that Ulfila, who died at some point during these discussions, smiles down on all the attempts at dialogue within and beyond the church today on so many different issues.  I suspect he also smiles at all the attempts in our personal lives to keep open to new insights and to ever enrich and expand our personal understanding of the faith that shapes and guides our lives. 

          So on All Saints’ Day this year, I will be remembering, not only those near and dear to me who have gone on before.  I will also be remembering Ulfila, even as I recite the Nicene Creed with its clear denunciation of his Arian teaching.  I will remember him.  I will thank God for his life and for his witness.  And I will continue to picture him cheering us on in all our efforts to live out the challenges of our faith.      

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