Thursday, February 22, 2024

The beginnings of monasticism

Where did Christian monks come from? There were certainly no monks or nuns in the Bible, yet, for we know that monasticism infests the lands in the time of Martin Luther. Most certainly, monasticism is a departure from biblical Christianity, yet how did it emerge in the first place?

In his book on the history of monasticism, John Binns details the emergence and development of monasticism [John Binns, The T&T Clark History of Monasticism: The Eastern Tradition (New York, NY: T&T Clark, 2020)]. As someone sympathetic to the Eastern tradition, Binns holds that monasticism is nothing more than Paul's supposed ascetism taken to heart, but more on that at another time. Formally however, monasticism begins with the first monk, Anthony of Egypt, the father of eremetic or solitary monasticism, around 304 AD. Pachomus began the first coenobitic or communal form of monasticism aound 320 AD. From then on, monasticism spreads rapidly through Christendom, becoming a feature of both Eastern and Western Christianity.

The beginnings of monasticism come about due to a few factors. A major factor is the fermenting of pagan views of ascetism through the views of condemned heretics like Origen and Evagrius, something which Binns could not deny, although he separated their heretical "metaphysical speculation" from their "ascetical teaching." (p. 182). Another factor is the elevation of marytrdom and martys to a holy status in the early church (the "cult of the martyrs"). Those who attain to this yet are denied actual marytrdom can aspire for the "white martyrdom" (p. 36) that symbolizes a removal from the world. A third factor is the zeal for holiness, which became difficult when more and more people became Christians. When Christianity became normal, those who seek purity ran to the desert to live out their separate lives, a choice easier to make after Constantine legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire resulting in an influx of nominal Christians into the Church.

As it can be seen, two of the main factors of the beginnings of monasticism come from a desire for good things. There is nothing wrong with honoring and respecting those who pay the ultimate price for their faith in Jesus Christ. There is likewise nothing wrong with a desire for holiness, and the influx of worldliness into the church should trouble Christians. But is the solution a withdrawal from the world, as monasticism would do, in a personal pursuit of one's subjective holiness? The answer of the Reformation was a resounding no. We are called to be in the world, but not of the world, as it is written:

I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. (Jn. 17:15-6)

Marytrdom is a gift, and so is continence, but none of these things are things one can dictate to God. The problem with monasticism from its inception is its vain attempt to control what gifts God should give to His people. One desire matyrdom, so one seeks after the "white" variety when the "red"' version (real martyrdom) is not given. One thinks ascetism brings one closer to God, so one becomes a monk, usurping God's prerogative over who should be married and who is to be celibate. In the end, instead of submitting to God, one attempts to climb Jacob's ladder to reach God, never understanding that God is the only one who can reach us, never we him.

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