Why Monasticism?

Introduction

            Every true believer knows the struggle with sin. This means that every believer and even those who are not followers of Jesus can empathize with the early monastics. As the Christian religion became a politicized version of itself, many considered it necessary to protest by retreating from the community. Their protest became the symbol of a new purity, a separation from sin and a life dedicated to God. This symbol went largely unchallenged and grew until it had a dominant place in Christianity. Thanks to people like Augustine of Hippo, Benedict, and Gregory the Great, monastic ideals became a common idea within the Christian empire. The Monastic rules were developed for the purpose of organizing this community and, though they varied in approach, one of the primary reasons for the rules was the same: to create a community were temptation could be mitigated. From Anthony to Benedict, to the greater community, the monastic ideal meant to remove oneself from the world in order to be holy separated to God, overcome sin and win the fight with the devil.

Origins of Monasticism and Their Purpose as a Protest Against Constantine

            As Christianity became the rule of the empire, if a person was to find favor with the emperor, church membership was a must. Shelley put it like this, “[p]rior to Constantine’s conversion, the church consisted of convinced believers. Now many came who were politically ambitious, religiously disinterested, and still half-rooted in paganism.”[1] It was not just the political shift in Christianity that prompted monistic tendencies. The move to monasticism was very theologically a resistance to the melding of Roman philosophy and Christian theology. This conflict is clearly seen in the “Origenist controversy… [where] … the monks, some of whom were the bitterest foes of Origen’s spiritualizing theology.”[2] Mosaicism springs onto the scene, starting especially in the east. This location makes sense because as Constantine moved the capital to Constantinople, those political pressures that Shelley mentioned would have been the most intense there. Meyendorff  makes a poignant observation when he says, “no Christian leader responsibly opposed the monastic movement.”[3] It is rare in Christian history to see movements so unopposed. One explanation for this might be that the Romans saw in monasticism the continuation of Roman stoic thought.  By the mid-first century, Stoicism highlighted the ideas of “ethics, duty, and impassivity.”[4] Ferguson points out that these were the characteristics that Benedict sought to implant in “the monastic life.”[5] Monasticism came to symbolize the great battle with sin, by stoic living the monk battles sin. Most regard Anthony as the first monk. Anthony saw his life as a great battle between sin, Satan, and humanity. Probably as a rejection of the new political Christianity, Anthony’s example became contagious. Shelley recounts Athanasius’s words about the effect of Anthony’s actions; “The sign of solitary ascetics rules from one end of the earth to the other.”[6]

Movement of Monasticism From Protest to Major Feature of Imperial Christianity

            With the wide acceptance of Monasticism as a part of Christianity, there began two parallel developments. First, monasticism was defined from within; people like Benedict and Gregory the Great helped to systematize and bring monastic adherents under the rule of the Papacy. Monasticism was also defined from the outside; Ferguson points out that “The canons of Chalcedon defined the place of monks in the church.”[7] A big influencer on the view of how the monastic life fit into the life of the church was Augustine of Hippo. Long before Augustine had become the Presbyter at Hippo, he had exhausted any love for worldly pursuits. It comes as no surprise that he formed “a monastic community life with his clergy.”[8] Considering Augustine’s outsized influence that came about from his battles with the Donatists and Pelagianism, it is not surprising that his monastic pattern “was later to be imitated by others.”[9] The monasticism of Augustine has a distinct difference from that of Anthony, in that, rather than solitary living, it included a brotherhood. It seems a reasonable conclusion that the influence of Stoic thinking in the west brought about this change. Friedrich points out that one of the necessary elements of stoic philosophy is the “common spirit of brotherhood.”[10]

Characteristics of Monastic Rules

            A monk is someone at battle with sin. All the monastic sects had in common the goal of living separately from temptation. Benedict, who Ferguson called “the father of westering monasticism”[11] certainly had in mind the confrontation with temptation. Ferguson said that when Benedict was “confronted with a temptation, he would throw himself on the bramble bushes.”[12] This extreme attack on temptation is at the core of most monastic systems. Of course, the Bible, especially the Old Testament, is replete with the examples of fleeing temptation. Joseph flees Potiphar’s wife, Elijah flees into the wilderness, Daniel refuses to eat the king’s food and many others. Though the different monastic systems approached the rules differently, one thing that existed throughout was the moral implication of the rules. Ferguson again points out that Basil’s rules and Benedict’s different greatly on the level of application given; but agreed greatly on the moral implications of the rules. For this reason, almost all of the systems required some sort of trial in order to be admitted into the brotherhood. Another key highlight in both Basil’s rules and Benedict’s is that of obedience to one’s superior. The idea of obedience is also scriptural in that Jesus disciples were obedient to him and many other mentor/mentee relationships in scripture, such as Paul and Timothy, come with the example of obedience. In the mind of at least Basil and Benedict, it seems clear that these rules were not about tyrannical governance, but rather about protecting the members of the groups from the temptations that they had within themselves. The last similarity between the systems to be mentioned here is the idea of celibacy. Paul the Apostle did say that it was better not to marry in order to be set apart to the work of God.[13] Paul said that not every man was cut out for that life, indeed the implication is that few are, and that “because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife.”[14] Long before the idea of Monasticism had become mainstream, Christians were already taking vows of celibacy.[15]

Conclusion

            Temptation and the devil were on the mind of any man that wanted to be a monk. The idea of being set apart for God is and always will be an integral part of how the people of God think. Even before there was a political infiltration, Christian leaders like “Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian, and other leaders threw their support behind the idea of a higher level of sanctity.”[1] The desire to be morally distant from the rest of the world, even to be distant from this new easy Christianity that happened with Constantine, seems to be the driving force behind the spread of  Monasticism.

 

 

References

[1]. Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, Updated 2nd ed. (Dallas, TX: Word Pub., 1995), 96.

[2]. Ferguson, Everett. 2013. Church History, Volume 1: From Christ to the Pre-Reformation. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 312

[3]. John Meyendorff. 1980. “St Basil, Messalianism and Byzantine Christianity.” St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 24 (4): 219–34. https://search-ebscohost-com.lopes.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0000783083&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

[4]. Judith Odor, “Stoicism,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

[5]. Ferguson, Everett. 2013. Church History, Volume 1: From Christ to the Pre-Reformation. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 318

[6]. Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, Updated 2nd ed. (Dallas, TX: Word Pub., 1995), 118.

[7]. Ibid, 266.

[8]. Ibid, 271.

[9]. Ibid.

[10]. Friedrich Hauck, “Κοινός, Κοινωνός, Κοινωνέω, Κοινωνία, Συγκοινωνός, Συγκοινωνέω, Κοινωνικός, Κοινόω,” ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 795.

[11]. Ferguson, Everett. 2013. Church History, Volume 1: From Christ to the Pre-Reformation. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 315

[12]. Ibid.

[13] 1 Cor 7:1-2, ESV.

[14] 1 Cor 7:2, ESV.

[15] Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, Updated 2nd ed. (Dallas, TX: Word Pub., 1995), 118.

 

Bibliography

Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language, Updated 2nd ed. (Dallas, TX: Word Pub., 1995), 96.

Ferguson, Everett. 2013. Church History, Volume 1: From Christ to the Pre-Reformation. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 312

Friedrich Hauck, “Κοινός, Κοινωνός, Κοινωνέω, Κοινωνία, Συγκοινωνός, Συγκοινωνέω, Κοινωνικός, Κοινόω,” ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 795.

Odor, Judith. “Stoicism,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

Meyendorff, John. 1980. “St Basil, Messalianism and Byzantine Christianity.” St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 24 (4): 219–34. https://search-ebscohost-com.lopes.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0000783083&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

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