Today we are pleased to share the latest post in our weekly series, Beyond the Book. This month Greg Peters will be discussing the history of Christian monasticism, and its continuing importance for the contemporary church.
There is a common misconception that the institution of monasticism only exists in the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches. And there is a historiography that says that Protestants threw out the baby of monasticism with the bath water of late medieval faith and practice. Yet, this is not the case. There has been an ongoing impetus in the Protestant tradition to either maintain the institution of monasticism or see it reintroduced into Protestantism. There were sixteenth century Protestant theologians who said so and there continue to be advocates down to this day.
Martin Luther and John Calvin rejected monasticism primarily based on the notion of life-long vows but both had room for monasticism if it could be construed without vows. Furthermore, many other reformers did not entirely reject monasticism and did not see it as inconsistent with a reformed theology, whether Lutheran, Calvinistic, Anglican or other. Well-known twentieth-century Protestant theologians such as Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Donald Bloesch have all argued for a Protestant monasticism and currently Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Shane Claiborne and Scott Bessenecker claim to be living out a “New Monasticism.”
Simultaneously many Protestant believers have become oblates or associates of Roman Catholic monasteries, giving them an opportunity to partake of much that is good in monasticism without having to become monks and nuns. Roman Catholic monastic writers such as Thomas Merton and Richard Rohr are popular spiritual writers with a wide Protestant readership and the well-known monastic Rule of Benedict is used by Protestants to address questions as diverse as leadership and business practices.
All of this, of course, is not the same as the re-establishment of historic monastic institutes among Protestants but they are clear signs that there is an interest in the history and practice of monasticism and its relevance to today’s Protestant church. The Story of Monasticism is an attempt to offer guidance in this recovery of monasticism for today’s church, looking closely at the history of monasticism as a guide for our own future. Monasticism is not the answer to every question asked in today’s church but it is an answer to many of the questions. Protestant Christians would be remiss if they failed to retrieve this ancient tradition for contemporary spirituality.
Greg Peters (PhD, University of St. Michael’s College, Toronto), a Benedictine oblate, spiritual director, and ordained pastor in the Anglican tradition, is associate professor of medieval and spiritual theology in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He is also visiting professor of monastic studies at St. John’s School of Theology in Minnesota and adjunct assistant professor of church history and ascetical theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary in Wisconsin. Peters is the author of Peter of Damascus: Byzantine Monk and Spiritual Theologian and Reforming the Monastery: Protestant Theologies of Religious Life.