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1911 Encyclopedia Britannica


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ULFILAS ( c. 311-383), the apostle of Christianity to the Gothic race, and, through his translation of the Scriptures into Gothic, the father of Teutonic literature, was born among the Goths of the trans-Danubian provinces about the year 311.1 The Arian historian Philostorgius ( Hist. eccl. ii. 5) says that his grand-parents were Christian captives from Sadagolthina in Cappadocia, who had been carried off to the lands beyond the Danube in the Gothic raid of 264, and became so naturalized that the boy received a Gothic name, Wulfila (Little Wolf).

1 Krafft gives 313 as the date; Waitz, 318.

An authoritative record of the outlines of his life was only discovered early in the 19th century in a writing of Auxentius of Milan, his pupil and companion. At an early age Ulfilas was sent, either as an envoy or as a hostage for his tribe, to Constantinople, probably on the occasion of the treaty arranged in 332. During the preceding century Christianity had been planted sporadically among the Goths beyond the Danube, through the agency in part of Christian captives, many of whom belonged to the order of clergy, and in part of merchants and traders. Ulfilas may therefore have been a convert to Christianity when he reached Constantinople. But it was here probably that he came into contact with the Arian doctrines which gave the form to his later teaching, and here that he acquired his command over Greek and Latin. For some time before 341 he worked as a lector (reader of the Scriptures), probably among his own countrymen in Constantinople, or among those attached as foederati to the Imperial armies in Asia Minor. From this work he was called to return as missionary bishop to his own country, being ordained by Eusebius of Nicomedia and "the bishops who were with him," probably at Antioch, in 341. This ordination of Ulfilas by the chiefs of the semi-Arian party is at once an indication of their determination to extend their influence by active missionary enterprise, and evidence that Ulfilas was now a declared adherent of the Arian or semi-Arian party. He was now thirty years of age, and his work as "bishop among the Goths" covered the remaining forty years of his life. For seven of these years he wrought among the Visigoths beyond the Danube, till the success which attended his labours drew down the persecution of the still pagan chief of the tribe. This "sacrilegus judex" has been identified with Athanaric, a later persecutor, but the identification is not beyond question. To save his flock from extinction or dispersion, Ulfilas decided to withdraw both himself and his people. With the consent of the emperor Constantius he led them across the Danube, "a great body of the faithful," and settled in Moesia at the foot of the range of Haemus and near the site of the modern Tirnova (349). Here they developed into a peace-loving pastoral people.

The life of Ulfilas during the following thirty-three years is marked by only one recorded incident fSozomen iv. 24), his visit to Constantinople in January 360, to attend the council convened by the Arian or Homoean party. His work and influence were not confined to his own immediate flock, but radiated by means of his homilies and treatises, and through the disciples he despatched as missionaries, among all the Gothic tribes beyond the Danube. Thus the Church beyond the Danube, which had not been extinguished on Ulfilas's withdrawal, began to grow once more, and once more had to undergo the fires of persecution. Catholic missionaries had not been wanting in the meanwhile, and in the indiscriminate persecution by Athanaric, between 370 and 375, Catholics and Arians stood and fell side by side. The religious quarrel either accentuated, or was accentuated by, political differences, and the rival chiefs, Athanaric and Frithigern, appeared as champions of Paganism and Christianity respectively. Then followed the negotiations with the emperor Valens, the general adhesion of the Visigoths under Frithigern to Arian Christianity, the crossing of the Danube by himself and a host of his followers, and the troubles which culminated in the battle of Adrianople and the death of Valens (378). The part played by Ulfilas in these troublous times cannot be ascertained with certainty. It may have been he who, as a "presbyter christiani ritus," conducted negotiations with Valens before the battle of Adrianople; but that he headed a previous embassy asking for leave for the Visigoths to settle on Roman soil, and that he then, for political motives, professed himself a convert to the Arian creed, favoured by the emperor, and drew with him the whole body of his countrymen - these and other similar stories of the orthodox church historians appear to be without foundation. The death of Valens, followed by the succession and the early conversion to Catholicism of Theodosius, dealt a fatal blow to the Arian party within the empire. Ulfilas lived long enough. to see what the end must be. Hardships as well as. years must have combined to make him an old man, when in 383 he was sent for to Constantinople by the emperor. A split seems to have taken place among the Arians at Constantinople. Ulfilas was summoned to meet the innovators, and to induce them to surrender the opinion which caused the dispute. His. pupil Auxentius describes how, "in the name of God," he set out upon his way, hoping to prevent the teaching of these new heretics from reaching "the churches of Christ by Christ committed to his charge." No sooner had he reached Constantinople than he fell sick, "having pondered much about the council," and before he had put his hand to the task which had brought him he died, probably in January 383. A few days later there died, also in Constantinople, his old enemy and persecutor, Athanaric.

The Arianism of Ulfilas was a fact of pregnant consequence for his people, and indirectly for the empire. It had been his lifelong faith, as we learn from the opening words of his own confession- "Ego Ulfilas semper sic credidi." If, as seems probable from the circumstances of his ordination, he was a semi-Arian and a follower of Eusebius in 341, at a later period of his life he departed from this position, and vigorously opposed the teaching of his former leader. He appears to have joined the Homoean party, which took shape and acquired influence before the council of Constantinople in 360, where he adhered with the rest of the council to the creed of Ariminum, with the addendum that in future the terms inroTTao-cs and oucla should be excluded from Christological definitions. Thus we learn from Auxentius that he condemned Homoousians. and Homoiousians alike, adopting for himself the Homoean formula, "filium similem esse patri suo." This Arian form of Christianity was imparted by Ulfilas and his disciples to most of the tribes of the Gothic stock, and persisted among them, in spite of persecution, for two centuries.

The other legacy bequeathed by Ulfilas was of less questionable value. His version of the Scriptures is his greatest monument. By it he became the first to raise a barbarian tongue to the dignity of a literary language; and the skill, knowledge and adaptive ability it displays make it the crowning testimony of his powers as well as. of his devotion to his work.

The personal qualities of the man may be inferred from his pupil's. description of him as "of most upright conversation, truly a confessor of Christ, a teacher of piety, and a preacher of truth - a man whom I am not competent to praise according to his merit, yet altogether keep silent I dare not." See Waitz, Das Leben des Ulfilas (1840); W. L. Krafft, Kirchengeschichte der deutschen Volker (Abth. i., 1854); H. Bohmer in Herzog-Hauck, Realencyklopddie, 3 vol. xxi.; W. Bessell, Das Leben des Ulfilas (1860); C. A. Scott, Ulfilas, Apostle of the Goths (1885).

(C. A. S.)

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Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Ulfilas'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. 1910.

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