Medieval Bulgar Controversy

Medieval Bulgar Controversy

Pope Nicholas I: Responses to the Questions of the Bulgars A.D. 866 (Letter 99)

Note: previous chapters are available here, here, here and also here.

Chapter LXXV.

The bishops whom we have sent to your country are bringing with them in writing the judgment of penance[25] that you requested, and of course the bishop who shall be ordained among you, will show it to you when it is appropriate; but it is inappropriate for a secular person to have such a thing, since the duty of judging someone with it has not been granted to him.

[25] This is thought to refer to an as yet unidentified or lost penitential manual.

Chapter LXXVI.

We also say the same thing concerning the book for performing the Mass.

Chapter LXXVII.

You say that certain Greeks take a closed book in their hands and one of them, taking a very small piece of wood, places this within the book; then if a question should arise about anything, they claim that they may know whatever they want using this method.[26] You are asking if this should be maintained or rejected. Clearly it should be rejected; for it is written: Blessed be the man whose hope lies in the name of the Lord: and who has not attended to vanities and false ravings.[Ps. 39:5]

[26] On this method of Scriptural divination, see now J. Elukin, “The Ordeal of Scripture: Functionalism and the Sortes Biblicae in the Middle Ages,” Exemplaria 5 (1993): 135-60.

Chapter LXXVIII.

You say that the people who rose up to kill you on account of Christianity, wished to do penance, but that the priests who were visiting you refused to accept their penance; now you ask what should be done about them. If, as you claim, they wish to do penance voluntarily, they should not be prohibited from doing so, but each should be completely subjected to the penance which the bishop or ordained priest should require from him; for it is a mark of Novatians, not Catholics, not to receive the penitent.[27]

[27] Named after their leader, the Roman priest Novatian, the Novatians were a rigorist sect that arose in the wake of the Decian persecution (AD 249-50) and held extremely strict notions of purity and severe penance; on them, see H. Vogt, “Novatian,” in Encyclopedia of Early Christianity II, ed. E. Ferguson, pp.819-20.

Chapter LXXIX.

After stating that it is a custom among you for the sick to wear a kind of bundle [of herbs?] hanging under their neck, you are asking if we forbid this from now on. We not only order that this not be done, but we also forbid in every way that this be done; for phylacteries of this kind are invented by diabolical wiles and are proven to be fetters on the souls of men, and therefore the apostolic decrees order that those who use them be expelled from the church after being struck with anathema.[28]

[28] Cf. Council of Laodicea, canon 36.

Chapter LXXX.

You inquire how you should confirm and maintain a mutual peace with a nation which seeks to have a peace with you. Whatever nation wishes to offer you peace, do not refuse them; indeed, it is written: Pursue peace with everyone,[Heb. 12:14] and again: Having peace with all men.[Rom.12:18] When it says “all,” clearly no one is excepted from mutual peace. Yet we cannot easily define how this peace is to be confirmed and maintained with this kind of nation, unless we first know the words and behavior of the nation with whom the peace is to be contracted. Nevertheless, because peace can be as pernicious as it can be praiseworthy, you should take care that in every peace pact Christ is placed first, so that as long as His law and especially His faith remain inviolate, the treaties which you make with each other may remain uncorrupted. How you should achieve this peace, the Lord demonstrates when he says: I give you my peace;[Jn. 14:27] therefore, with the person who does not have the peace of Christ, we should also not have the peace of communion, nor should we have it with the person who seeks peace in order that he may commit injuries more freely.

Chapter LXXXI.

You have asked whether you dare march out against them or you should do something else, if you have made a treaty with a Christian nation through an exchange of oaths and later these people want to break the pact and attack you. Now then, we should tolerate every necessity rather than commit any iniquity; and therefore, the treaty upon which you have agreed should be violated on no account, unless a clause was included in the article confirming this treaty, such that one party shall maintain the pact, only if the other party has not violated it by any evasion. Indeed, a Christian should reject every kind of lying because of what is said to God: You destroy all who tell lies,[Ps. 5:7] and again: The mouth which lies, kills the soul,[Wis. 1:11] and the Apostle says: Do not lie to one another.[Col. 3:9] But if, with oaths cast aside and treaty broken, they have already risen up against you, your bishop shall tell you what you need to do, when you ask him. For since he will clearly know because of his position clearly the circumstances of the affair, the nature of the moment, the characters of the people, and the justice of the parties, he can more easily indicate what he sees to be more fitting and beneficial. And because he has a prior awareness of all these things, he can fully intimate to you what should be done. In the meantime, without knowing the situation well enough, we admonish you to pray always for the things of peace.

Chapter LXXXII.

The Apostle, who gives it to be understood that there should be no communion of light with darkness, Christ with Belial, faithful with infidel, indicates what sort of pact a Christian should make with pagans. But if the faithful man has established a pact with the infidel with this intention, namely that he be able to attract him to the worship of the true God, this should not be forbidden, since the Apostle does not forbid even the marriage that is between a faithful person and an infidel, to remain intact,[cf. I Cor. 7:13] and Moses, when he wished to draw his kinsman to the knowledge of the true God, does not dispise his company but greatly entreats him to be the leader of his company.[cf. Ex. 18] Moreover, some of the saints and faithful are found to have contracted treaties and pacts of friendship with foreigners and infidels, but they cultivated them not as if they approved of their faithlessness and superstition but rather employed them in various tasks such as for messengers and especially in earthly and servile occupations.

Chapter LXXXIII.

You ask if you are permitted to judge anyone concerning sins which are also crimes. Now then, if no one had wanted to sin, no one would have had to judge anyone; but after he sins, he is also judged, of course. For we know, to use the words of the Apostle, that the law was not established for the just man, but for the unjust, for those who are not submissive, for the impious, the sinners, the wicked, the parricides and matricides, the murderers, the fornicators, sodomites, forgers, liars, perjurors, and whatever else goes against the proper doctrine which conforms to the gospel of glory of blessed God.[I Tim. 1:9-11] You are not allowed, however, to judge clerics, since it is more fitting that they be judged by themselves.

Chapter LXXIIII.

You thought it wise to ask us what you should judge concerning a person who has falsely accused someone and later is revealed to be a false accuser. Concerning this, although the venerable laws indicate most fully what is just, it is nevertheless fitting that, together with the Apostle, we always exhort you to the bowels of mercy, which God attests that He wants more than sacrifice; indeed, when [the Apostle] himself taught the nations, whose teacher he was, he did not call them to the austerity of the law, but rather to the bowels of mercy, saying: Therefore, like God’s chosen and beloved saints, put on the bowels of mercy, kindness, humility, modesty, and patience, supporting one another and giving to each other, and if someone has a quarrel against another, just as the Lord has given to you, so you, too, should give.[Col. 3:12-13]

Chapter LXXXV.

Concerning [the case of] the man who gave something poisonous to a another man, about which you asked, we likewise exhort you to mercy, just as the Lord also commanded, when he said: Forgive and it shall be forgiven you.[Lk. 6:37]

Chapter LXXXVI.

If a thief or a robber is apprehended and denies that he is involved, you say that in your country the judge would beat his head with lashes and prick his sides with iron goads until he came up with the truth. Neither divine nor human law allows this practice in any way, since a confession should be spontaneous, not compelled, and should not be elicited with violence but rather proferred voluntarily. But if it just so happens that you find nothing at all which casts the crime upon the one who has suffered, aren’t you ashamed and don’t you recognize how impiously you judge? Likewise, if the accused man, after suffering, says that he committed what he did not commit because he is unable to bear such [torture], upon whom, I ask you, will the magnitude of so great an impiety fall if not upon the person who compelled this man to confess these things falsely? Indeed, the person who utters from his mouth what he does not hold in his heart is known not to confess but to speak.[cf. Mt. 12:34] Therefore leave such practices behind and heartily curse the things which you have hitherto done foolishly. Indeed, what fruit shall you have in those practices, of which you are now ashamed. Finally when a free man is caught in a crime, unless he is first found guilty of some wicked deed, he either falls victim to the punishment after being convicted by three witnesses or, if he cannot be convicted, he is absolved after swearing upon the holy Gospel that he did not commit [the crime] which is laid against him, and from that moment on the matter is at an end, just as the oft-mentioned Apostle, the teacher of the nations, attests, when he says: an oath for confirmation is an end of all their strife.[Heb. 6:16]

Chapter LXXXVII.

You inquire as to whether or not, if someone forces a widowed woman to take up the monastic life, he commits a sin. Now then, in this matter, one should know that there are some virtues without which we cannot enter into [eternal] life and others which are required only from someone who pledges.[cf. Mt. 18:8] Of course, without humility, chastity, almsgiving, and prayers no one can enter into life, and these, along with virtues like them, are the ones which are required from everyone. But to wear the monastic habit and to lead a life apart are demanded by God only from someone who pledges thus. Consequently, someone who does violence to another, in order to make that person take up the monastic habit and a more removed life, which the person has neither desired nor chosen — this person cannot escape sin just like any other violent man. Moreover, because what is done does not come from the will of the one who receives it, the person receiving the religious habit gains nothing from it and the person imposing it shall not fail to be condemned for his cruelty.


Regarding your parents, about whom you inquire, you are not allowed to pray for those who died without the faith (infideles) because of their sin of unbelief (incredulitas), in accordance with the saying of the apostle John who said: There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it.[I Jn. 5:16] Indeed, it is a sin unto death for those who die in this sin.

Chapter LXXXIX.

It is a custom of the ancients to offer the new fruit and first fruits of property, a custom which we read Abel and Cain to have practiced almost at the beginning of the world itself.

Chapter XC.

You ask whether one is permitted to eat animals or birds, if they were killed without a blade and died after being struck only by a man’s blow. Concerning this matter, St. Augustine wrote in detail against Faustus the Manichaean, from whose words we give only a bit to avoid being prolix: When the church of the nations, he says, became such that no carnal Israelite appears in it, what Christian now observes the rule, that he not touch thrushes and smaller birds, unless their blood has been shed, or not eat a rabbit, if, having been struck on the neck with a hand, it was killed without a cruel wound? And those who perchance still fear to touch these, may be mocked by the rest. Thus that judgment of the truth held the minds of all in this matter: “It is not what goes into your mouth that pollutes you, but rather what comes out.(Mt.15:11)[29]

[29] Augustine, Against Faustus the Manichee XXXII § 13.

Chapter XCI.

A Christian should consume neither an animal which a Christian hunts and a pagan strikes and kills, nor an animal which a pagan hunts and a Christian kills, namely lest the faithful (fidelis) appear to have communicated at all with the unfaithful (infidelis); for what part has the faithful with the unfaithful?”[II Cor. 6:15] And this is again because of the conscience not of the faithful person but of the unfaithful person, namely who glorifies himself, because a Christian has shared an animal with him and therefore asserts that, because he was not despised by the faithful person, the vanity of his error stood approved by the Christian.

Chapter XCII.

You desire to know how many patriarchs there truly are. In truth, those men should be considered patriarchs who achieve the apostolic see through the succession of bishops, i.e. those who rule over those churches which the apostles are shown to have established, namely the churches of Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch. Rome, because both princes of the holy apostles, Peter and Paul, established it by their preaching and sanctified it with their own blood which was shed for the love of Christ; Alexandria, because the evangelist Mark, who was the disciple and son by baptism of Peter, established it after being sent by Peter and dedicated it with his blood to the Lord Christ; and Antioch, because it was there that in a great assembly of the saints the faithful were first called Christians and because the blessed Peter governed it for some years before he came to Rome. The bishops of Constantinople and of Jerusalem, although they are called patriarchs, do not possess as much authority as the above [sees]. For, as regards the church of Constantinople, none of the apostles founded it nor did the synod of Nicaea, which is more venerable and celebrated than all other synods, make any mention of it; rather its bishop was given the title of patriarch more through the favor of princes than by reason, since Constantinople was called “New Rome.” As for the bishop of Jerusalem, although he is both called a patriarch and should be honored as such in accordance with ancient custom and the synod of Nicaea, with his proper dignity of metropolitan preserved, in [the acts of this] same great synod, he is in no way called the bishop of Jerusalem, but rather the bishop of Helia. For on the one hand, the true Jerusalem, which is our mother, is only in heaven;[cf. Gal. 4:26] in accordance with what the Lord predicted, on the other hand, the earthly Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman emperor Aelius Hadrian down to its foundations so that not a single stone was left atop another stone,[cf. Mt. 24:2] and it was reconstructed by this same Roman emperor Aelius Hadrian in another place so that the place of the Lord’s cross, which was outside the gate, is now found within [the city] and that city is called Aelia after the aforementioned Aelius Hadrian.[30]

[30] Nicholas’s claim that the emperor Hadrian (AD 117-138) destroyed Jerusalem is erroneus; Titus destroyed the city in AD 70 at the end of the Jewish War.

Chapter XCIII.

You also ask which patriarch is second to that of Rome. According to what the holy Roman Church maintains, the canons of Nicaea indicate, the holy bishops of Rome defend, and reason itself dictates, the patriarch of Alexandria is the patriarch second to the pope.

Chapter XCIIII.

You claim that the Greeks say that chrism arises in their country and is distributed by them throughout the entire world, and you therefore wish to know if this is true. Yet we believe that your cleverness has already noticed that it is not true.

Chapter XCV.

You ask what we think should be done about those who flee to a church because of certain crimes. Now then, although the sacred canons demand that the decrees of the worldly laws be upheld and these laws seem to have no mercy for certain people, we who have not accepted the spirit of this world say nonetheless that, if someone flees to a church, he should not be brought out, unless he should wish [to come out] willingly.[cf. I Cor. 2:12] Indeed, if in former times robbers and others guilty of different crimes sought indemnity by fleeing to the asylum of the temple of Romulus, how much more should those who flee to the temple of Christ receive remission of their crimes and be restored to their original state of complete security, once the suspect has offered an oath [concerning his innocence] on his own behalf.

Chapter XCVI.

Regardless of what your wife plots or does against you or whether she accuses you, she should not be rejected or held completely in hatred, except because of fornication.[cf. Mt. 5:32; Eph. 5:29] Rather, as the Apostle commands, she should be loved, just as the Church is loved by Christ.[cf. Eph. 5:25] However much Christ is accused in the mouths of heretics and blasphemed among the nations,[cf. Rom. 2:24] He tolerates those preaching perversities for the time being and does not repel from the bosom of His mercy those who come to their senses.

Chapter XCVII.

The same should also be observed concerning a servant who accuses his lord before the princes, from whom, according to the Apostle, his lord should withhold his threats.[cf. Eph. 6:9] For what shall we say about the servant, when the Lord gave a general command to all and concerning all, saying: Forgive and it shall be forgiven you,[Lk. 6:37] and the Apostle said: See to it that no one render evil to someone for evil;[I Thes. 5:15] for in fact, where he has placed “to someone”, he also understood a servant. Now if you say that he did not include all persons, hear what comes next: But always pursue what is good towards one another and towards all people.[ibid.]

Chapter XCVIII.

You ask whether someone who has killed himself should be buried, and if a sacrifice should be offered for him. He should indeed be buried, lest he inflict a bothersome smell on the sweet smell of the living; nonetheless, unless fear strikes some people, he should not be carried to the grave with services in the customary manner. Yet if there are those who serve in his burial out of their zeal for humanity, let them seem to render it for their own sake and not for the person who was his own murderer. A sacrifice, however, should not be offerred for him, who sinned not only unto death, but toasted his own death and destruction. For who commits a sin unto death — for whom the Apostle John tells us we should not pray — more than the person who, in imitation of Judas,[cf. Mt. 27:5] is shown to have been his own murderer with the devil as his teacher?

Chapter XCIX.

You ask, if a Christian should be buried within a church. The holy pope Gregory resolved this question when he said: If grave sins do not weigh heavy, it benefits the dead if they are buried in churches, because their relatives, whenever they come to these sacred places, remember their relatives, whose graves they see, and pour out prayers to God on their behalf. But the bodies of those whom grave sins oppress, are placed in churches not for their absolution but rather for the further increase of their damnation.[31]

[31] Gregory I, Dialogues IV.50.

Chapter C.

As for a person who has died in battle, you can gather from the preceding chapter whether he should be brought home, if his parents or friends wish it. Therefore, if indeed his relatives wish it, the dead person should be brought back home, in order that those who see his tomb closeby may remember him and may pour forth prayers to the Lord on his behalf. For sacred history says that when he was about to die, St. Joseph also ordered something similar concerning his own bones.[cf. Ex. 13:19]

Chapter CI.

You inquire to whom alms should be allotted. The Lord clearly shows this when He says: Give to anyone who asks you,[Lk. 6:30] and again, recalling His father, He says: He makes the sun rise over the good and bad and rain upon the just and the unjust,[Mt. 5:45] and the Apostle says: When we have the time, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of the faith,[Gal. 6:10] i.e. Christians. A certain order of discretion should nevertheless be observed in the giving of alms, which we refrain from explaining fully now in our zeal for brevity. But let us first indicate what this name signifies: alms (elemosyna) in Greek is called mercy (misericordia) in Latin, and certainly it is written: To take pity on your soul is pleasing to God.[Eccles. 30:24] Therefore, a person should first give alms to himself before all others; indeed, a man should begin every rule for doing well with himself, namely pleasing God through the cleanliness of his mind and body and thereby giving to himself that living bread, which descends from heaven. But then alms should be offerred to relatives suffering from need, as it is written: Do not despise your own flesh;[Is. 58:7] for nature itself teaches us this. Furthermore, when shall a stranger offer what I myself do not offer to my relative? After them, mercy should be especially offerred to those who are ashamed to ask. It should also be noted that there are some people upon whom nothing should be conferred, as it is written: Give to the good, and do not receive the sinner, and again: Do not give to the impious man,[Eccles. 12: 5-6] and again: Set your bread and wine upon the grave of the just man and do not eat or drink from it in the company of sinners.[Tob. 4:18] For he offers his bread and wine to sinners who gives support to the iniquitous because they are iniquitous; this is why some of the rich people of this world nourish actors with effusive largess, while the poor of Christ are tortured by hunger. But the person who has given his bread to a sinner in need not because he is a sinner, but because he is a man, clearly nourishes not the sinner, but the just man, because he loves the nature in the man, not the fault.

Chapter CII.

We have taught above that violence should not be inflicted upon the pagan in order to make him become a Christian.

Chapter CIII.

You ask what should be done with the profane books which you say that you have taken from the Saracens and have with you. These should, of course, not be kept: for, as it is written, Evil conversation corrupts good behavior.[I Cor. 15:33]

Chapter CIIII.

You ask about what should be done concerning many people in your country who you claim have been baptized by some Jew, though whether he is Christian or pagan you do not know. Of course, if these people have been baptized in the name of the holy Trinity or in the name of Christ alone, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles,[Acts 19:5] — for as St. Ambrose explains,[32] it is one and the same thing — it is agreed that they should not be baptized again. But first, inquiry should be made into whether this Jew was a Christian or a pagan or if he later became a Christian, although we do not think that what the blessed Augustine says about baptism should be disregarded: “…we have already shown at sufficient length, he says, that baptism, which is consecrated in the words of the Gospel, is not affected by the error of any man, whether the minister or the recipient, nor by whether he holds views contrary to the revelation of divine teaching on the subject of the Father, or the Son, or the Holy Spirit;[33] and again: There are also those among their number, who still live in iniquity or even lie amidst heresies or the superstitions of the gentiles; yet even there, “the Lord knows who are his.” For amidst that ineffable foreknowledge many, who seem outside, are inside;[34] and in another passage: even the slow of heart understand, in my opinion, that the baptism of Christ cannot be violated by any perversity of the person giving or receiving it;[35] and again: yet he that is separated may confer it [baptism], just as he that is separated may receive it, but he confers it to his destruction. But the person upon whom he confers it, can receive it to salvation, if he himself receives it when he is not separated.[36]

[32] Ambrose, On the Holy Spirit I.3.

[33] Augustine, On Baptism IV.15(22).

[34] Ibid. V.27 (38).

[35] Ibid. VI.1 (1).

[36] Ibid. VI.5 (7).

Chapter CV.

To your inquiry and request for instruction as to what should be done about those who, carried away beyond the commands of the apostles, attempt to preach, one of them, i.e. Paul, responds and has given the following instructions, saying: Yet if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you something more than what we are preaching to you, let him be anathema.[Gal. 1:8] When this does happen, however, you who are laymen should not judge indiscriminately or boldly; for we all offend in many things.[Jam. 3:2]

Chapter CVI.

Finally you humbly entreat us to offer you, as we have to other nations, the true and perfect Christianity which has neither spot nor wrinkle,[cf. Eph. 5:27] since you claim that many people from different places come into your country who say many different things according to their wishes, i.e. the Greeks, the Armenians, and those from other places. You therefore ask to be told whether you should obey all of them in their various senses or what you should do. Truly we are not enough in these matters, but our sufficiency is from God;[II Cor. 3:5] and the blessed Peter, who lives and presides in his see, offers the truth of the faith to those who seek it. Indeed, the holy Roman Church has always been without spot or wrinkle, obviously because it was established by the man whose confession of faith was divinely approved. To instill this faith of Christianity in you, although no one can understand its mysteries completely — behold, through God’s inspiration we have sent our writings, our messengers, and different books to your country and until you grow strong roots, we shall in no way cease from watering you, and until you arrive at the solid food of perfection, we shall never fail to feed you at least with milk;[cf. Heb. 5:12-14] for you are my crown and joy in the Lord.[cf. Phil. 4:1] Concerning those whom you say have come into your country teaching various different things, we have already written much to you and now we take care to write you some words of the teacher of the nations who said with the support of sacred eloquence, when he feared that there were such people among the Corinthians: For I fear lest, when I come, I shall not find you such as I wish, and I shall be found to be not as you wish; lest there be contentions, envying, animosities, dissension, backbiting, whispering, swellings, and tumults among you.[II Cor. 12:20] Nevertheless, as far as right faith is concerned, we do not care who preaches, but whom they preach. Indeed, [the Apostle] himself wrote, saying: Certain people preach Christ out of envy and contention, certain other preach Him out of good will; still other preach Him out of love, because they know that I have been placed to defend the gospel. Certain people do not proclaim Christ sincerely because of contention, thinking to add affliction to my bonds. Yet what is this to me? When in every way Christ is proclaimed whether by accident or by truth, I rejoice and shall rejoice in this.[Phil. 1:15-18] But he who said these things, you respond, also says elsewhere: Avoid profane and inane conversation, for these lead greatly to impiety, and their word creeps like a cancer.[II Tim. 2:16-17] Nonetheless, in all these things the mercy of God shall be with our messengers and your future bishop, who shall instruct you and inform you fully as to what you should do. Yet, whether now or later, let them always consult the apostolic see in doubtful matters and on the more important issues, as is the custom of the entire Church; and once instructed by it on what is fitting, they shall establish and teach with earnest preaching the things that are God’s.

We have given these responses to your questions and the issues that you raised, insofar as the Lord has given them to us, not as much as we could but as much we thought could satisfy you for the time being. But when, with God’s concession, you have a bishop through the ministry of our prelacy, he shall teach you everything which pertains to his office, and if there are things which he does not understand, he shall receive them again from the authority of the apostolic see. May God, Who has worked the greatest salvation among you, bring it to completion, make it solid, and stabilize and strengthen it to the very end. Amen.

Source: Translated by W. L. North from the edition of Ernest Perels, in MGH Epistolae VI, Berlin, 1925, pp.568-600.

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