The Axe of St. Boniface and the Virtue of Discretion

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Saint Boniface, the 7th-century English bishop, missionary to Germany, and martyr, was a master of discretion. Guided by the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit, he knew the importance of choosing the right action at the right time. Boniface knew when to take up the axe, and he knew when to put it down.

The Discretion of the Teacher

Born with the Anglo-Saxon name Wynfrid in Western England around 675 A.D., Boniface knew from an early age that God was calling him to a monastic life of learning, teaching, and gospel ministry. He excelled as a student, then as a teacher and author, composing treatises on grammar and verse and his own collection of riddles.

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Formed by sacred scripture and the liberal arts, he guided his pupils with discretion according to their particular needs. Willibald, writing shortly after Boniface’s death, describes the character of Boniface’s instruction at this time:

“His discretion was such that his rebukes, though sharp, were never lacking in gentleness, while his teaching, though mild, was never lacking in force. Zeal and vigor made him forceful, but gentleness and love made him mild.

Life of Boniface, 1

Boniface seemed to take to heart Paul’s instruction to Timothy to:

Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching… always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

2 Timothy 4:2-5

The Discretion of the Evangelist

In his 40s, around 717 A.D., Boniface embraced the call to evangelism by launching a mission to Germany. In one sense, it was a surprising shift in ministry to depart England and leave behind good friends and a good reputation.

But we see Boniface’s discretion in discerning a call to the Germans. As an Anglican (meaning he was from the historic English Church), he was uniquely suited to the task. The Germanic peoples were considered enemies of the Romans and those close to the center of the Roman Empire. They had sacked Rome, after all, and for centuries, they resisted Roman rule. But Boniface realized that the German pagans were not so different from his own people.

Historian Tom Holland explains:

For Anglo-Saxon monks, the pagan darkness that loured over the eastern reaches of Germany, from the North Sea to the great forests of the interior, spoke not of an invincible savagery, not of a barbarism best left alone, but of a pressing need for light. All the world was theirs to illumine with the blaze of Christ.

Dominion, 203

Boniface knew it would take a determined effort to reach the Germanic tribes for Christ. At first, he had no success and returned home to England. After a year of rest and prayer, Boniface felt the call again. He sought and received the blessing of the Pope, who at that point changed his name from Wynfrid to Boniface, and then returned once again to Germany around 722 A.D.

The Discretion of the Iconoclast

It was during this second missionary journey that Boniface would wield his famous axe. Most of the time, discretion is the better part of valor, as the saying goes. But on rare occasions, valor is the consequence of discretion.

Boniface went to Geismar, to Donar’s Oak, also called the Oak of Thor. This tree was a sacred site for the pagan Saxon people, where they would worship and make sacrifices, sometimes of animals and sometimes even of people. Boniface took up his axe and cut the oak down in front of a large crowd. According to Willibald, Boniface cut the first notch, and then the Lord completed the task:

Taking his courage in his hands (for a great crowd of pagan stood by watching and bitterly cursing in their hearts the enemy of the gods), he cut the first notch. But when he had made a superficial cut, suddenly, the oak’s vast bulk, shaken by a mighty blast of wind from above crashed to the ground, shivering its topmost branches into fragments in its fall.

Life of Boniface, 6

To the modern mind, such iconoclasm would be a reprehensible breach of tolerance and religious pluralism. And it must also have been deeply offensive to many pagan Saxons at the time. But like Jesus overturning the tables in the Temple, Boniface knew his risk. He would undoubtedly arouse anger, but in his discretion, he believed the Lord would vindicate him. According to Willibald, he was:

At the sight of this extraordinary spectacle the heathens who had been cursing ceased to revile and began, on the contrary, to believe and bless the Lord.

Life of Boniface, 6

The Discretion of the Bishop

For the next three decades, Boniface labored as a Bishop in the German lands. He built a chapel from the wood of Donar’s Oak, coordinated a growing group of missionaries from England, organized extensive efforts at education in the scriptures and the liberal arts, and continually worked to reform the churches under his care to eliminate pagan syncretism. In the words of Tom Holland, he was “flinty, prickly, and exacting” (Dominion, 206).

Boniface was also shrewd in the ways of the world, using discretion to forge alliances with political leaders. One of his chief allies became Charles Martel, the grandfather of Charlemagne. Like Thomas Cranmer under Henry VIII, Boniface realized that religious reform requires attention to political context. In this, Boniface reflected the teaching of Christ, who told his disciples:

Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles.

Matthew 10:16-18

The Discretion of the Martyr

In 754, now approaching his 80th birthday, Boniface had a premonition of his coming death. He did not know how it would come.

Boniface was on a missionary journey to Frisia in northern Germany. He had appointed a day for all the converts to convene at his camp near the river Bordne to confirm their baptismal vows. That morning, a group of strange men arrived in boats on the river and began to approach the camp. When it became clear that these men had weapons, a few of Boniface’s attendants took up arms.

But Boniface discerned that his time had come, and at his discretion, he abandoned the way of the axe. Willibard describes the dramatic moment:

The man of God, hearing the shouts and the onrush of the rabble, straightway called the clergy to his side, and, collecting together the relics of the saints, which he always carried with him, came out of his tent. At once he reproved the attendants and forbade them to continue the conflict, saying: “Sons, cease fighting. Lay down your arms, for we are told in Scripture not to render evil for good but to overcome evil by good.”

Life of Boniface, 8; cf. Romans 12:17-21

Boniface and his companions were martyred. Later, the bodies were taken and buried at the monastery and Cathedral at Fulda. Some of Boniface’s possessions were also recovered, including a book called the Ragyndryudis Codex, whose original binding still bears the marks of an axe or sword. A later biography claims that Boniface held the codex up as a shield before he was struck down.

Learning from Boniface’s Discretion

Boniface’s example points to the necessity of discretion in the Christian life. There are times for gentleness and compassion and times for firmness and rebuke. In Christ, however, all these qualities are united. The Jesus who spoke to the woman at the well is the same Jesus who cleansed the temple. Thus, Jesus was not gentle without truth, nor was he demanding without compassion.

As Christians, none of us can fully capture the breadth of Jesus’ character. In many ways, this is why we need the church, the many parts of the body of Christ, each reflecting with particular brilliance one of his charisms.

As we grow in our discipleship, like Boniface, we become more like Christ. We grow in discretion and discernment, understanding the everyday application of God’s will. We learn when to take up the axe and when to put it down.

Here are Boniface’s final words, which draw on the teaching of Jesus:

Brethren, be of stout heart, fear not them who kill the body, for they cannot slay the soul, which continues to live for ever. Rejoice in the Lord; anchor your hope in God, for without delay He will render to you the reward of eternal bliss and grant you an abode with the angels in His heaven above. Be not slaves to the transitory pleasures of this world. Be not seduced by the vain flattery of the heathen, but endure with steadfast mind the sudden onslaught of death, that you may be able to reign evermore with Christ.

Life of Boniface, 8; cf. Matthew 10:28

Image: Boniface fells Donar’s Oak in Hesse. Color lithograph, around 1900, after the fresco, 1834/44, by Heinrich Maria von Hess.

Published on

June 6, 2024

Author

Peter Johnston

The Ven. Dr. Peter Johnston is the Ministry President of Anglican Compass. He is a priest and archdeacon in the Anglican Diocese of All Nations and the rector of Trinity Lafayette. He lives with his wife, Carla, and their seven children near Lafayette, Louisiana.

View more from Peter Johnston

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