The Blessed Fulgentius (A.D. 467-532)

Fulgentius, Bishop of Ruspe, remains a relatively unknown leader of the early church. Almost certainly born in A. D. 467, Fulgentius (sometimes known as Fulgence) lived a busy life of sixty-five years until his death in 532. He lived in North Africa (present day Tunisia) during a difficult era of church history colored by debates over the deity of Christ, His nature(s), and the Pelagian controversy. He served as bishop from 507 to 532, though he spent many of those years in exile under the rule of an Arian king; the Arians denied the deity of Christ. God raised up Fulgentius to vigorously defend the orthodox faith in the face of great persecution. He is arguably the greatest churchman of North Africa to come after Augustine, in whose tradition he followed. John Calvin made extensive use of his writings, but because the biography of Fulgentius and his writings have only been translated into English within the last two decades, most in the English speaking world have no idea who he was. Virtually everything we know regarding Fulgentius is found in his Selected Works, translated by Robert B. Eno (vol. 95, The Fathers of the Church, ed. Thomas B. Halton, Washington D. C.: The Catholic University Press of America, 1997, xvi). All of the biographical information that follows is drawn from Eno’s translation. 

In 2009, reformed churches celebrated the the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth. Of course, last month, we remembered the 500th anniversary of Luther’s ministry. But, we would do ourselves a great service to look back beyond Luther and Calvin to know the saints from whom they learned. The extended sketch of Fulgentius that follows is intended to introduce you to him. In the future, I’ll offer a brief summary and analysis of his writings. The evidence suggests that he served God as best he knew how, and God blessed his ministry. However, he was a product of his times, and you’ll see his weaknesses and extreme views that we quickly identify as erroneous or deficient. Still, there is much for us to learn from this saint whose memory has nearly been eclipsed by the sands of time, to our detriment. 

Few of Fulgentius’ works remain, but even less is known of his life. One short biography of his life has survived the years. The author of this brief biography greatly loved Fulgentius and was self-admittedly converted to the monastic life through Fulgentius’ ministry. It seems that this biography was written, at least in part, to remind Felicianus, Fulgentius’ successor as bishop of Ruspe, of Fulgentius’ life and ministry. It is also likely that the author wanted to emphasize the rights and privileges of local monks to the new bishop. Probably for this reason, the author emphasizes Fulgentius’ life as a monk more than other aspects of his life. Though written to one man, it is likely that this biography was intended for wider circulation. The author recognized Fulgentius’ renowned teachings, but he also desired that through his biography, “may his life become even more renowned.” So far as can be told, this one biography is accurate, but it must be remembered that the author had certain favorable biases, demonstrated by the author’s every reference to Fulgentius as “the blessed Fulgentius”.

Fulgentius’ ancestors held noble positions in the city of Carthage. However, his grandfather lost his fortune and nearly his freedom at the hands of the invading Vandals led by King Gaiseric (390-477) who was an Arian. These Vandals ruled the land for over a century (430-523) and were heavily Arian in theology. Fulgentius’ grandfather was forced to flee to Italy with his family, but his two sons soon returned in an attempt to reclaim some of their family fortune. Unable to complete their mission because their house and holdings had been turned over to Arian priests, they went south to the city of Thelepte in Byzacena. There Mariana, Fulgentius’ mother, gave birth to her soon-to-be-famous son. His father, Claudius, died soon after his birth. His mother loved the Lord as a Christian woman, and she desired the best for her son. She forced him to study Greek and Latin even before attending school. His bright mind soaked up everything set before him. He also learned to handle the affairs of a large household at a very early age because of his father’s death, and he dealt wisely with family, slaves, and others under his care.

Because of his gifting, Fulgentius was appointed procurator of his region as a young man but was quickly dissatisfied by the worldliness he saw around him. His study of Greek philosophy and its dualism no doubt influenced his thinking in these matters. He apparently had some personal relationship with God at this point, but that is not altogether clear. Disturbed by the worldliness in his culture, Fulgentius gradually began to imitate the ascetic lives of the monks around him. He fasted, prayed, meditated, and cut down on his number of baths. Finally, under deep influence of Augustine’s Ennaratio on the thirty-sixth Psalm, he was ready to make the full transition to the life of a monk – no small thing for a man of Fulgentius’ social standing.

Arian Vandals continued to rule North Africa in those times. Being Catholic (the term was then used to differentiate orthodox believers from Arians) was difficult enough, and being a Catholic monk was even more difficult. Fulgentius committed himself to the exiled bishop Faustus in the desert, probably south of Thelepte, who led a small monastery. Some of his friends willingly followed him to the monastery, but his mother was terrified. She had lost her beloved son – it was as if he had died. This tragedy meant that his mother had no one to run the affairs of the household. His mother wept at the gate of the monastery, but Fulgentius remained unmoved by his mother’s desperate pleas. This example shows the great influence of Greek philosophy in the Christian world in the early church. Fulgentius’ spiritual motives were right. He wanted to know God, but he wrongly neglected his God-given family responsibilities in pursuit of spiritual things (though he did gift his land rights to his mother). His quickly established an even more ascetic lifestyle. His biographer writes:

The blessed Fulgentius tortured himself to an incredible degree with feats of abstinence, eating and drinking so poorly and so little, without wine and oil, that his terrible fasts caused the dried skin of his body to break open with many abscesses, and, with the onset of the skin disease called impetigo, the beauty of his well-formed body was disfigured.

Fulgentius seemed to gain strength in his weakness, and desired to set his heart on his heavenly salvation. For these reasons he set his mind and heart to undergo these great sacrifices seeking to more fully take up his cross daily and follow Christ.

Still a young man, Fulgentius soon left that monastery so that local temptations might not overtake him, and he went to another monastery some distance away. The abbot, Felix, quickly recognized Fulgentius’ superior mind and abilities and tried to give the position of abbot to Fulgentius who, in the humility he was trying to cultivate, would only share the position with Felix. Fulgentius’ biographer gives a perhaps glorified review of the relationship between these two men, but they divided duties such that Fulgentius did the preaching and Felix handled the physical needs and hospitality.

The monastery was persecuted by barbarians (probably Moors), and the monks were forced to wander in the desert. When they finally did find a place to settle in Sicca, north of Thelepte, they were violently persecuted by Arian priests. Fulgentius was becoming known for his great mind by this point, and the Arian priest was probably rightly concerned that Fulgentius would quickly win the people in the area back to the Catholic faith. A group of Arian priests came upon the traveling Fulgentius and his monks on a desert road and took them captive. However, before they were captured, Felix threw their few pieces of gold to the side of the road. Fulgentius was beaten with many blows, but he did not recant of his position of the full deity of Christ. They were then sent out into the wilderness naked and penniless. Then, they returned to find the gold Felix had earlier cast aside, and they went on thanking God that He had provided for their needs.

Word spread quickly of Fulgentius’ beating, and many, even some sympathetic Arians in positions of authority, were ready and willing to retaliate on his behalf. However, Fulgentius preferred not to take revenge fearing that if revenge was taken, “we would lose the reward from God for our suffering.”

The restless Fulgentius traveled a great deal. It seems that he was always in search of living a more ascetic life, and he was restless in his desire to find it. He began to read the writings of several monks in Egypt, who were generally known for their even greater acts of asceticism, and he quickly desired to go there. He quietly went to Carthage and boarded a ship headed for Alexandria via Sicily. At Syracuse in Sicily, bishop Eulalius hosted Fulgentius and soon recognized that Fulgentius was a theologian of first rank. When he asked why Fulgentius desired to go to Egypt, Fulgentius allegedly lied in an attempt to maintain his humility and not reveal his spiritual purpose. Eulalius saw through Fulgentius’ smoke screen and pressed for the real reason. Upon hearing Fulgentius desire for greater spirituality, Eulalius urged him not to go there because, in spite of the great asceticism of the Egyptian monks, they were infected with Monophysitism and had been separated from the Chalcedonian Catholic church by the great Acacian schism (484-519).

The Arian threat had already deeply influenced Fulgentius’ life and thinking and now the threat of Monophysitism was also deeply influencing Fulgentius’ direction. It is probably also during these times of reading and study that Fulgentius began to defend Augustine’s view of predestination over against the Pelagians and semi-Pelagians. It is very interesting to see how these three key issues of debate in the whole church (Arianism, Monophysitism, and Pelagianism) impacted this man so profoundly in a personal way as he sought to defend the truth of God’s word. Also of interest is the dynamic impact of these teachings, whether true or false, on nations, cities, and towns. These issues were matters of life and death for men of every kind. Leaders like Fulgentius bore great weight on their shoulders and thousands of people looked to their leadership.

In the end, Fulgentius decided against going to Alexandria. However, he did go to Rome in the year 500 at 33 years of age before returning home to North Africa. There, he witnessed the grand procession of Theodoric (454-526), the mildly-Arian Ostrogothic king of Italy. Upon seeing Rome, Fulgentius is credited as saying:

How lovely the heavenly Jerusalem must be if the earthly Rome shines so brightly! And if in this world the dignity of such great honor is paid to those who love vanity, how great the honor and glory to be given to the saints who contemplate the truth!

From there, Fulgentius returned to his home in North Africa where he was warmly welcomed by the monks and laity alike. He immediately planted yet another monastery in the province of Byzacena. The number of monks there grew quickly. Thinking himself too humble to lead a monastery, he abruptly left this new monastery and went southwest, down near the city of Junca, to a remote monastery in the clefts of shoreline rocks, accessible only by boat. There he practiced asceticism as a lowly monk, refusing leadership. He liked to work with his hands, and here he practiced his favorite craft: weaving palm leaves into fans. Fulgentius enjoyed his position as a simple monk, learning rather than teaching and ruling, but this peace was not to last.

His new monastic brothers loved Fulgentius, but so did those at his old monastery, including Felix, who clamored for his return. Faustus, bishop over the region of his old monastery, threatened excommunication if Fulgentius did not return, and so the ever-humble Fulgentius returned. In order to keep Fulgentius from fleeing again, Faustus immediately ordained him a priest, and his biographer says: “Now, adorned with the offices of abbot and priest, he could neither leave the monastery nor be ordained in another church. Now, conquered and bound by the fetters of honor, the blessed Fulgentius began to rule his monastery with a good heart.” Through all of this, Fulgentius’ fame grew abundantly.

Everyone wanted to see Fulgentius ordained as bishop, but such an ordination was illegal during these years because of Vandal rule. The existing bishops finally decided it best to ignore the law and ordain a number of new bishops. Fulgentius fled and hid so as not to take the glory of being ordained bishop. Soon almost every place had a bishop – many thinking they could not wait to find Fulgentius, lest they not have a bishop at all. Soon, the Vandal King Thrasamund (ruled 496-523) exiled all of the new bishops, and Fulgentius thought it safe to return from hiding. However, the people of Ruspe did not have a bishop (not even one in exile). Almost humorously, the people rushed the monastery, took Fulgentius by force and had him ordained as their bishop against his will in the year 407 or 408. Fulgentius was about 40 years old.

Once ordained, Fulgentius undertook his office with great devotion, though he still lived, dressed, and ate as a monk. He quickly established yet another monastery. Through it all, Fulgentius was greatly loved by the people because of his great love for them. However greatly the love flowed, this relationship was not to last.

King Thrasamund exiled Fulgentius and the other remaining bishops to Sardinia a short time later. The king persecuted the church terribly during these times, very directly trying to force his Arian views of Jesus Christ on those who remained. Fulgentius could only write letters to support the flock during these times, but he did make the most of a unique opportunity on Sardinia to influence the other bishops with his great mind and understanding of Scripture.

Thrasamund had trouble convincing the African people to deny the deity of Christ, and so he desired to speak with one of the best Catholic theologians in order to better learn how to defeat this orthodox theology. For this purpose, Fulgentius was recalled from Sardinia in 517. Fulgentius responded brilliantly to the king’s challenge and also had opportunity to strengthen the people in Carthage through one-on-one teaching as to the truth of the Trinity as friends visited him in prison. The opposite of the king’s original desire occurred, and Fulgentius and Trinitarian doctrine became all the more popular. Actually, the king grew to respect Fulgentius and wanted to keep him in Carthage, but the frustrated Arian priests saw the influence of Fulgentius in the city and demanded that he be returned to exile in 519.

It was during these exile years that Fulgentius fought against Arians and Pelagians in his writings, and he continued to grow spiritually in a personal way as well. His spiritual tenderness, shone through in his personal letters, few of which have survived. He also showed himself to be a theological lion, responding to various issues in his many writings, often writing on behalf of all of the bishops on the island. Unfortunately, few of these works have survived to the present day. Most of his surviving works were written in his last years of life.

King Thrasamund died in 523, and Hilderic (ruled 523-530) took his place. Though officially Arian, Hilderic was friendly to the Catholics and allowed the bishops to return to their cities. Fulgentius returned to Ruspe amid great fanfare and began perhaps the most successful nine years of ministry until his death in 532. To support the monks, he gave Abbot Felix’s monastery exemption from the rule of future bishops of Ruspe that they might freely continue their practice in the event of disagreements between the bishops and monks.

He was insistent that the monks and priests under his charge be humble. He encouraged them to grow spiritually and did this by mandating fasts on Wednesdays and Fridays; these fast were specifically for the clergy but also for any lay person who was able. He was also concerned for the skillful singing of the Psalms, which seemed to be a passion of his life. Everyone was to be present for morning and evening prayers and the daily vigils. Those monks who were “turbulent souls he lashed with words, but others whose fault was public he had beaten with blows.” Fulgentius proved himself to be a peacemaker; he made peace with other bishops through his humility, and he worked gently with those who had relapsed into Arianism during the persecution. He preached, taught, and wrote extensively during this period. His preaching, in particular, blessed many hearers. His biographer wrote: “Whenever he preached, he entranced the souls of all, not to induce vain and empty applause but to generate within them compunction of heart.” No doubt, his humble life spoke volumes through his preaching and brought greater weight to it.

Fulgentius never lost his ascetic vision and delight in attempting to grow closer to God through this humility. One year before he died, he moved to the island of Cercina and built a monastery there. It seems that he knew the end of his life was near, and he desired to do strict penance before he died. There, he asked forgiveness from the monks for being too hard on them at times. He died after sixty-five years of life, serving twenty-five years as bishop.