Now that I’ve written a few posts of reflections on The Apostolic Tradition, I think it a good idea to give a quick review of sorts. I read the second edition of the translation by Alistair Stewart-Sykes for SVS Press’s Popular Patristics Series; for some reason he goes by Alistair Stewart on this volume, even though I’ve only seen the double-barrelled last name on his other work, including the first edition.
One thing you may have noticed in my Apostolic Tradition posts has been a certain ambivalence as to its author. This text, which is not transmitted to us in its original Greek besides fragments, comes down to us anonymously in Latin, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopic (three different dialects), and Arabic. In no manuscript is it attributed to Hippolytus. However, a text of this name is attributed to him elsewhere. Therefore, based on some similarity of ideas as well as fitting the highly reconstructed context of Hippolytus, in the early twentieth century it was attributed to him, and most people now taken is as uncontested ground that Hippolytus of Rome wrote On the Apostolic Tradition.
I think it is possible but not airtight. Stewart accepts the attribution and gives many reasons, drawing on the heavy reconstructions of third-century Roman Christianity conducted by Allen Brent. Brent and Stewart are both clever, so if I am skeptical of their conclusions, this doesn’t mean I am right. I think there are far too many unknowns and uncertainties to say for certain. Indeed, a colleague of mine is even uncertain that the person who lies behind the Hippolytean corpus even lived at Rome!
This should not keep you away from Stewart’s or anyone else’s translation, however. The text is probably of a similar age to Hippolytus, even if maybe it originated in Asia Minor as some believe. It represents the traditional form of many aspects of church life in a particular community in the pre-Constantinian age. For this reason alone we should give it some air time, regardless of authorship.
The Apostolic Tradition will appeal to people interested in the history of liturgy and sacrament and the history of church order. We have here what I think might be our oldest eucharistic and baptismal rites, which is very exciting. A number of other prayers and practices are also here — anointing the sick, blessing bread for those not present at church, personal prayer, communal teaching events, ordaining a bishop, the sign of the cross, and so forth. We see presbyters, bishops, and deacons doing their jobs, as well as catechists and other people with a largely teaching role.
I find it comforting to see the eucharistic liturgy’s similarity to the liturgies we use today, whether Anglicans, Methodists, Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Lutherans. There is a thread of tradition connecting this text and its community to us and our communities. A thread of faith in Jesus Christ and his precious death and glorious resurrection.
Besides the question of the catechumenate, I am also interested in the text’s promotion of ongoing teaching/learning and the rigour implied. Like some of the early Protestants, the members of this worshipping community are encouraged to attend a teaching session before work on weekdays. This sort of rigour is what I imagine myself liking and doing, even though spiritual laziness all-too-often wins.
The text is not long, so I do encourage you to read it.
Here are my other recent posts on The Apostolic Tradition:
I am the sort of person who is attracted to high ideals, although I am far too spiritually lazy to live up to most of them. Hence my ongoing appetite for monks and friars, for ascetics and mystics, for academic standards of publishing. I am always struck by the seriousness of becoming a Christian in the ancient church, as in the Apostolic Tradition attributed by some moderns to St Hippolytus.
In ancient Christianity, a person who is interested in becoming a Christian but not yet baptised is a ‘catechumen’. In the Apostolic Tradition, catechumens are expected to spend three years in preparation for their baptism (it is not the only text to do so; some ancient works on church discipline call for only three months) — during this time, they attend lectures about the Christian faith and are present at the liturgy on Sundays, but do not receive the consecrated elements.
At the end of this time, they are exorcised on multiple occasions, fast, and then spent the whole night before they are baptised ‘in vigil, hearing readings and receiving instruction’ (ch. 20.10, trans. Stewart-Sykes). Then, at cock-crow, the baptismal rite begins.
I am stirred by this idea of the ancient catechumenate. Consider the poor results of conversionism — people come to a church event or rally or ‘crusade’, or they sit with a friend or a random stranger who ‘shares the Gospel’, and then the pray ‘the sinner’s prayer’. After that, they are expected to tithe and come regularly to potlucks. (I’m not that cynical, really…)
But shouldn’t people weigh the cost of discipleship? Shouldn’t they be placed upon the pathway of spiritual growth?
I figure our churches should have as two main areas of focus:
Worship God (‘glorify God and enjoy Him forever)
Make disciples (both through conversion and spiritual growth)
The ancient catechumenate was part of focus #2, and everyone involved in it was also involved in focus #1.
When I mention things like this, suddenly people get edgy. If we make full involvement in the sacramental fellowship something that requires commitment, something arduous, something big and worthy, won’t people be driven away? I mean, if they’re into Jesus, won’t they just slip away to the nearest megachurch instead?
Maybe. But is easy-ism worth it? Butts in pews are not necessarily disciples.
How can we rearrange what we do as witnessing and worshipping communities both to evangelise and to help new disciples grow into the fullness of the stature of Christ? Some sort of adapted catechumenate might be part of the answer.
I’ve been thinking about my experimental thoughts concerning church councils and General Synods in these days after General Synod here in Vancouver. The thing that most seriously differentiates the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada from an ancient council (ecumenical or otherwise) is not whether the Holy Spirit turns, or whether it gets things right, or whether it is accepted immediately, or any of that, but denominations.
Writing several decades later, St Jerome said of the aftermath of Rimini, “The whole world groaned and was astonished to find itself Arian.” (Dialogue Against the Luciferians 19) The ancient church was the church. There was nowhere else to go. Sure, there were a few schismatic groups outside the imperial church in the 300s, especially the Novatianists in most provinces and the Donatists in North Africa.
For most cities, however, the bishop was the bishop. If the faithful disagreed with his stance at any major synod, there was usually nowhere else to go.
This fact, combined with the coercive force of the Roman state, is why the church was able to resolve the Arian/Nicene debates. It wasn’t just the truth of the Nicene faith or the superior theological skill of Athanasius and the Cappadocians that won the day. It was the fact that the day had to be won by someone. The church could not have Jesus as both God and not-god, with perhaps a diocesan option based on the opinion of your local bishop and his reading of the creed or something.
Those who disagreed with Rimini had no option but to stay and fight, even if that meant facing exile, imprisonment, torture, and even death. I would like to say that the unholy alliance between church and emperor would mean that, in overturning Rimini, its supporters would find themselves in a like position. I am not saying, that is, that the supporters of Rimini behaved much badly than anyone else — actually, I will.
The Emperor Constantius II, engineer and enforcer of Rimini (killer of various relatives, torturer of various bishops), was a bad dude.
Anyway, the ancient church saw itself as a single thing. Therefore, when a council claiming to represent the whole church made a ruling a bishop or theologian felt was wrong, he did not simply leave. He stayed and fought — this is why we have so much high theology running through the fourth century as the church argued over how to express the Godhead of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Before Chalcedon in 451, the only people who did leave were people who left because they believed that the hierarchy was, in fact, null and void. The Novatianists and Donatists believed that the holy orders of the rest of the church were invalid because of their treatment of the lapsed in the aftermath of persecution. They did not separate over doctrine, per se, but over canon law — if you believe that someone is unfit to be a bishop but has been selected by the church, anyway, it strikes me as a different category of separation from if you believe a council or bishop already in power has erred and separate from it or him. Donatists and Novatianists would argue that any of the unfit bishops’ actions would be invalid and inefficacious; it’s a different variety of schism from those today.
In our time, on the other hand, the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada has decided that, since the bishops cannot agree on a major matter not simply of canon law but of moral theology (and therefore of biblical anthropology and the question of holiness and what sanctification looks like and the history of redemption and how we read the Bible — marriage is no small matter), that everyone can do as they please.
The result is that certain liberal/progressive/post-liberal bishops will authorise same-sex marriages within their dioceses. Others, including both traditionalists/conservatives/catholics-evangelicals and liberals/progressives/post-liberals of a certain mind on canon law and its pastoral use, will not.
Why even have a General Synod or a national church, in that case?
cut rant about canon law and remedies and church order short here
The disillusioned and weary will continue to leave, I can assure you.
Most of those who leave will be traditionalist/conservative/catholic-evangelical types. They will go where they have been going for a decade or more — the Anglican Network in Canada, the Anglican Mission in Canada, the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, maybe even the Anglican Catholic Church, as well as whatever evangelical congregation is nearest home or has the best preaching or the best outreach to the homeless or whatever other criterion one uses in choosing a church that is not actually one’s ultimate preference. (We go for the criteria: ‘closest to home with preaching we can stand and working with nap time’ ourselves.)
I know not the mind of the liberals/progressives/post-liberals who support same-sex marriage and were disappointed by the failure to change the marriage canon — especially those in dioceses with bishops who will not endorse lawlessness. I can see some finally giving up and leaving the church altogether, or others going to the United Church which seems to have a more united (ha!) front on this issue. I bet some who would have stayed to fight for a change to the marriage canon will leave now that lawlessness is the way forward.
This is the chief difference between now and 359. There is always somewhere else to go for the weary Anglican who doesn’t want to give up on church. I thought of this one Sunday sitting quietly and anonymously at a megachurch in Vancouver. How many other weary Anglicans attended that service, happy to hear a sermon about our mission as Christians, sad maybe not to have the liturgy, but somewhere inside, relieved not to continue this pestilential non-conversation, fake dialogue of people talking past each other even when they have goodwill.
All churches, whether evangelical or mainline, but especially white ones, in Canada are haemorrhaging members. This will only accelerate the Anglican Church of Canada’s decline.
Chances are, after the Anglican Communion explodes and the Anglican Church of Canada finally snuffs itself out with a whimper, the most important achievement of General Synod 2019 will have been the establishment of an ecclesiastical province for indigenous Anglicans, on the grounds that it will probably outlast white Anglicanism. In other news, we white Anglicans are all dissatisfied with how things went regarding marriage.
For the liberals/progressives/post-liberals, the dissatisfaction stems from the marriage canon remaining unchanged.
For the conservatives/evangelicals-catholics, the dissatisfaction stems from an amendment thereto allowing bishops to interpret the canon in such a way that it would allow for same-sex marriage, anyway.
A priest I know posted an interesting reflection on Facebook about how the Holy Spirit was invoked and called upon at General Synod, and these were the results. Whatever else is going on, this seems to be His will right now, even if it makes no sense to any of us.
As a person with a background researching the history of ancient church councils, this is an interesting point. If you read Eastern Orthodox discussions of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, you will find that they cite the precedent for the idea of an ecumenical council in the council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 where it was decreed that Gentile Christians did not have to be circumcised or follow Mosaic law. The telling phrase for the history of the councils is, ‘It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…’ (Acts 15:28) in the letter documenting the council’s results.
Ecumenical Councils are considered to be unerring in their doctrinal statements and universally binding in canon law. The reason why we didn’t get any between Acts 15 and Nicaea in 325 was the difficulty of getting church leaders together before Constantine’s conversion — at least, that’s what mediaeval accounts of events tell us.
The Seven Ecumenical Councils are:
Nicaea (325): Jesus is God
Constantinople (381): Jesus is God (round 2), also the Holy Spirit
Ephesus (431): Jesus is a single, united person
Chalcedon (451): Jesus is a single, united person with two natures
Constantinople 2 (553): Jesus is still one person, that’s the main thing. Also, let’s condemn a few people while we’re at it.
Constantinople 3 (681): Jesus had two wills because he had two natures.
Nicaea 2 (787): Make pictures of Jesus and kiss them.
The Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox all agree that these are ecumenical councils and accept their canons and doctrine. Anglicans are fuzzier. We have historically embrace 1-4 with gusto, and the only recent statement on them I know of is GAFCON (bafflingly) saying that they also embrace 5-7 so far as they are in accordance with Holy Scripture (but, based on the understanding of the people sitting in those councils, everything they did was in accordance with Holy Scripture, so what does GAFCON mean? Don’t kiss icons? Ignore canon law?)
The argument that the Holy Spirit speaks through the ecumenical councils is something along the lines of the fact that an invitation went out, every bishop who could made it, and then the major bishops who weren’t able to be there ratified the outcome later. Bishops in the Late Antique church are elected by the clergy and people of their dioceses and anointed and consecrated by three other bishops after their selection has been approved as valid by the Metropolitan bishop. Their duty, in part, is to preserve orthodoxy.
The ancient church may not have been a representative democracy, but this is vaguely kind of what this is. Maybe. But not really. Moving on.
But a General Synod is not an Ecumenical Council. Not only that, but we Anglicans, outside of those who don’t give a rat’s behind about the 39 Articles, theoretically believe that ‘general councils’ can err and sometimes have erred (Article of Religion XXI). This Article is mostly directed at the mediaeval ‘general’ councils of the western Church, which may not even technically be ecumenical even by Rome’s own canons, as lucidly and provocatively argued by Norman P Tanner in an article in Studies in Church History 38: The Church and the Book.
Anyway, what has this to do with General Synod?
By the Anglican view of things, General Synod can err. But did the Holy Spirit not show up? He was invoked. People prayed. This time, it seems delegates actually tried to act in love. Well, what about Lateran IV when it approved transubstantiation in 1215? I do not believe in transubstantiation. But I also believe that Innocent III and his cronies were praying men. Did the Holy Spirit show up?
What if sometimes the Holy Spirit shows up just to mess with us? I dunno, this is just an experiment. Setting aside medieval councils, consider:
The Council of Rimini, 359: the imperial church officially adopted a creed that said Jesus was ‘like’ (homoios) God the Father, rejecting all talk of essence (ousia). Given the engineering behind other councils, to say that Rimini was imperially engineered to that end need not necessarily take it out of the running as an ecumenical council. That homoian Christianity is heresy does. Hm.
The second ecumenical council, Constantinople (381), was probably not originally conceived as ecumenical, and certainly not received as such in the West at the time, possibly not until after Chalcedon in 451. Anyway, the Bishop of Constantinople who presided, Gregory of Nazianzus, resigned and left in a huff because they did not craft a creed that was completely unambiguous about the consubstantiality of the Holy Spirit. So even an ecumenical council may be perceived as messing up at the time. Hm.
In 448, a second council met at Ephesus and approved a one-nature formula of Christology. One of the reasons it was rejected was because of how it was run by the bullying Bishop of Alexandria, Dioscorus. Funnily enough, his sainted uncle, Cyril, was about as much a bully at the first council of Ephesus, and we accept it as ecumenical. Regardless, from 448 to 450, as far as anyone could tell, the imperial church was going to accept one-nature Christology. Hm.
In 754, there was an Iconoclast council at Constantinople that considered itself an ecumenical council. Iconoclasm, from the perspective of history as lived on the ground, had a lot of staying power until 787 at Nicaea 2, and was even reinstated by the imperial powers after that. Hm.
If we look at the ecumenical councils, we’ll see that there was a lot of arguing back and forth before and after them. They were not accepted immediately. Some spent a period of time being overturned, like Nicaea 1 and Nicaea 2. What makes them ecumenical is their long-term acceptance by the church — and even then, the so-called ‘Nestorian’ Church of the East only accepts two of seven, and the Oriental Orthodox of Miaphysite persuasion only accept three.
So what does this mean regarding Anglican General Synods?
Keep praying. Keep loving. Keep searching the Scriptures and their authority and figuring out what Truth is. Keep listening to the Holy Spirit. Hold fast to faith once delivered. Remember that the Church is Christ’s, not General Synod’s. Who knows why the Holy Spirit lets things happen that seem contrary to how we interpret Scripture and Gospel. But I like to think there was a purpose behind allowing the Council of Rimini to occur.
Oh, and if you’re a bishop: Obey canon law, for Pete’s sake.
Many have found themselves and their faith unsettled as the West entered, enters, dwells in, the state of late modern existence called ‘postmodern’. As well, whether the ‘postmodern’ has had anything to do with it, in the same decades since I heard my father proclaim the death of Christendom in a 1998 sermon, many have found discomfort with the church of evangelicalism for many a reason.
Some left to the liberal side of the mainline. Others left to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. Some of us stayed put as best we could but found ourselves slowly transforming into something different from what we once were. For example, last year, I was venting to my brother some frustrations with the church I attended (Reformed, biblicist, low church, evangelical, pseudo-Anglican). I said I didn’t think I was an evangelical anymore (even though my commitment to historic orthodox theology and ethics is as strong as ever), and he said I sounded like a catholic Anglican.
After all, at the time I was reading Alexander de Hales (1185-1245) on grace in the original Latin for comfort in my plight (a friend had sent it to me).
Of course, I have only stayed put ecclesially (-ish?). What I have been doing for most of my (as yet brief) adult life has been lunging into ancient, mediaeval, Byzantine, and Orthodox Christianity as my solace, alongside the English poets and the Prayer Book. Perhaps you, too, find yourself in an awkward place at your church — you affirm historic orthodoxy but rankle at the pulpit, shudder at things other evangelicals say, and don’t know if you’re becoming a liberal or an Anglican. (Become Eastern Orthodox, it seems the best option right now.)
If so, here are some reasons, regardless of where your ecclesiastical home lands, why theologically conservative Protestants should get to know ancient Christianity.
1. The New Testament
No ecumenical council determined which books are in the canon of the New Testament. And if you understand the way western canon law works, the 397 Council of Carthage with its canon is maybe not as important as it looks. Anyway, this is a thing we should all know. What happened instead was an unofficial growing consensus that manifested itself over centuries through the guidance of the Holy Spirit so that the 397 canon of Scripture was not controversial, nor was Athanasius’ in 367, nor would that of Innocent I be in the early 400s. This is very brief and not meant to be a historical investigation of the question of how or when the NT canon settled; please don’t troll me, I’m never in the mood.
What I want to say is: If these people were attuned to the Holy Spirit and filled with His grace to be able to discern between the inspired revelation of God and everything else (however valuable to the church’s life), shouldn’t we pay attention to what they have to say on other subjects?
2. The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity
The ancient church fathers articulated with ever greater precision and beauty the doctrine of the Most Holy and Life-giving Trinity, finding a way to use human words that is both biblically faithful and philosophically sound. Read their writings on the Trinity, such as St Gregory of Nazianzus’ Five Theological Orations.
If you believe the Trinity is an essential doctrine for Christian orthodoxy, doesn’t it make sense to get to know it from the people who had to think through these dangerous new waters?
Moreover, reading the ancient theologians on the Trinity, not only does your appreciation for this doctrine grow, so does your love and awe of God. You want to praise and worship so wonderful a Persons as these.
Furthermore, the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are still out there, alongside Oneness Pentecostals, Christadelphians, and Richard Rohr. The beauty, elegance, and logic of these teachings, coupled with their biblical fidelity will help you navigate any future encounters with such as these. I enjoy bringing up St Athansius with Jehovah’s Witnesses, myself.
3. The Person and Work of Jesus
Alongside the Most Holy Trinity, the ancient church thought through what it believed about the person and work of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, the God-man, who trampled down death by death. If you believe that Jesus Christ is one person who is at once fully human and fully divine, why not read the writings of the people who articulated this belief and wrestled with how to phrase it? Why not go and read the Chalcedonian definition of the faith right now?
Again, knowing how and why the church has come to its belief in Jesus Christ as one person existing in two natures, fully human and fully divine, will help you with Mormons, Richard Rohr, et al., but it will — once again — also bring you to your knees in worship of Christ Our God who was crucified for us.
Furthermore, maybe Brian D. McLaren and others who say that penal substitutionary atonement theory is ‘divine child abuse’ are getting to you — not necessarily that they annoy you, but that you fear they are right. Well, let me tell you something about ancient views on the atonement: None of them is penal subistitutionary atonement, for this was not articulated until the masterful work of St Anselm, Cur Deus Homo (c. 1100). Being a catholic Anglican, I agree with Anselm, but since I increasingly lean East, I also see that this is not the only way to view the atonement, which is an act of God like a diamond, casting forth different colours in different directions depending on the light.
What you will find is a central home for the cross (crucicentrism being integral to evangelical identity) alongside an embiggening of your vision to see that the Incarnation is a Big Deal, that when God answered the prophet’s call to rend the heavens and come down (Isa. 64:1), nothing could ever be the same. If atonement is an issue for you, the Fathers will bring you to your knees in worship of the suffering immortal God.
One of the Most Holy Trinity was crucified and died for us. Hallelujah!
You read the New Testament. You believe in the Trinity and the two natures of Christ as well as his atoning work on the Cross. These are great reasons to get to know the Fathers. And as you get to know them, you’ll realise that they inhabited a world without the distractions of Twitter, Facebook, Game of Thrones, Avengers films, or the Kardashians. They did, however, inhabit a world with the distractions of chariot races, imperial pomp, occasional persecutions, the theatre, gladiatorial combats, brothels, singing competitions, banquets, and more.
And you’ll find that many of them kept themselves grounded through spiritual disciplines.
Many of us have found (stereo)typical evangelical piety and pietism shallow. We want to love God more and go deeper and see real transformation in our lives. So did the Fathers. And they took to hear the exhortations to pray without ceasing and to love one another and to care for the poor and oppressed.
If you take seriously what they believed, shouldn’t you take seriously how they lived?
These are just the four that came to me tonight. What reasons do you have for reading the Fathers?
I discovered today that the Latin Vulgate gives paenitentiam agite — Do penance! — where English Bibles usually give, ‘Repent!’ in Matthew 4:17. The Greek is metanoeite; the automatic instinct is to opt for the English. The Latin would seem to tend towards simply performing some sort out outward act, mere ‘works righteousness’ without a related renovation of the heart. Or perhaps a purely sacramental version; confess to a priest and perform the penance assigned.
Certainly, it could be read that way. It has been used that way.
For Ivo of Chartres, who has come up on this blog a few times lately, paenitentiam agere may better be, to carry out penitence. It is interesting what happens with the switch of verb and the switching out of one English derivative from paenitentia for another. Ivo is insistent in his letters that just because a person — be he king or bishop — has performed some outward act of charity or discipline does not mean that true paenitentia has occurred.
Paenitentia involves the inward workings of the human heart. These are visible to God alone. However, for Ivo, as for medieval culture more generally, the inner person will manifest itself in outer deeds. Thus, to carry out penitence will necessarily involve both true contrition for sin and behaviour that shows a desire, a willingness, to change.
Today’s Protestant is probably still wary of this question of the outer behaviour.
For Ivo, as represented in the Prologue that he wrote for his canon law collection (the Decretum — a title it shares with many other canon law collections!), the canons of the church are remedies for sin. These canons include the order for administering penitence. I am not going to get into the concept of temporal penalties for sins in mediaeval theology for two reason: 1. I don’t feel like offending any Roman Catholic readers; 2. I am not sure what it’s development looked like in the Middle Ages.
Nevertheless, whether someone believed that penitential acts could get them time off Purgatory, Ivo’s argument is fairly simple: they help you become holier. That is, with the aid of the grace of God working in you, your penitential actions will help make your soul healthier (remember the medical imagery he uses) and thus more able both to perform virtuous deeds and resist temptations to sin.
This, I think, carries with it a fuller understanding of repentance than our usual English translation of metanoeite in Matthew 4:17. Is it biblical? Well, I hope so. Here is a brief thought on metanoia: it is a word used in various situations to refer to a changing of directions — perhaps changing sides in a war, for example. To risk the etymological fallacy, it seems to have something to do with changing your nous, your mind/intellect/heart/however you wish to translate that word. In that case, Jesus is referring to changing the direction of your life and heart to live in the Kingdom of the Heavens.
To effect that change — well, here we fall back on St Paul’s various lists of virtues and vices, of fruits of the Spirit, and his exhortations to pray, to worship God, to rejoice in the Lord, to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. It strikes me that what Ivo is doing is trying to find specific applications of St Paul’s general principles for the health of those Christians who write him letters or who use his canon law collection.
And one last thing — Ivo’s Christian is not alone, not sitting about performing penitential deeds in isolation. Ivo’s Christian, clerical or lay, is part of the militia Christi — the army of Christ. He or she is a communicating member of the local Church, having received the sacrament of holy baptism and partaking of the blessed sacrament of Holy Communion. He or she is a hearer or reader of God’s word, whether in sermon or from a book.
This is the context of ideal mediaeval penitence — the real life of the church as lived in community by real people.
The rabbit hole that led fromAtheist Delusionsto The Benedict Option has now, unsurprisingly, led me to the Rule of St Benedict itself. I’ve decided to write a series of posts looking at the Rule, its meaning, and perhaps what it means today. Mostly it will be my own musings, and not scholarly work on sixth-century Latin monasticism. Out of laziness, I shall sometimes use the abbreviation RB to refer to it.
RB was written around the year 540 in south-central Italy by Benedict of Nursia, abbot of the monastery of Montecassino. All that we know about St Benedict’s life we get from St Gregory the Great (saint of the week here) several decades later in Dialogues, Book 2. This is not to say that Gregory is not accurate. It is just a fact worth establishing.
As I’ve said on this blog ad nauseam, Benedict’s Rule was not an immediate best-seller or ‘success’. A good example of that is the fact that, as R. A. Markus argues inGregory the Great and His World, St Augustine of Canterbury and his fellow monk-missionaries of the 590s were not Benedictine, even though Gregory was a big fan of St Benedict. So let’s start with some foundations in ecclesiastical history, ca. 500-604.
Ecclesiastical and Monastic History in the Sixth Century
The monastic and ecclesiastical world into which the Rule was born was not centralised. There were no monastic orders to organise the various monasteries. You did not need authorisation from the local bishop to become a monk or a hermit. There was certainly a monastic and ascetic tradition in Latin Christianity, of course. Benedict draws on that, especially The Rule of the Master and (St) John Cassian (variously on this blog; start here). But monasticism was looser, simply a group of likeminded persons and institutions with no formal relationship, whether following the Rule of St Caesarius of Arles (who died in 542, around the time Benedict wrote the Rule) or, later on at Luxeuil and Bobbio, St Columbanus (who died in 614).
Although most people did see the Bishop of Rome as head honcho number one, this did not mean he actually had any active jurisdictional powers outside of his own Metropolitan area of Suburbicarian Italy. Thus Kathleen G. Cushing, Reform and the Papacy in the Eleventh Century sums up what I have also observed about Gregory:
Gregory clearly was convinced that the pope was the jurisdictional as well as the spiritual head of the Church; yet it is evident from the letters in his Register that he understood this chiefly in terms of the Roman Church being the final court of appeal rather than as an executive authority. More important for Gregory was the pontiff’s pastoral role, which obliged him to have cura animarum (care of souls) for all the churches under his headship. This was not, as has often been argued, a claim for ‘absolute’ authority. Rather, Gregory understood papal primacy in terms of defending and extending the faith, along with securing ultimate appellate jurisdiction in ecclesiastical matters. (58)
This is important to establish. Simply because the bishop of Rome was not yet the high medieval papacy that developed in the course of the eleventh and twelfth centuries does not mean that the Late Antique and Early Medieval Christian West was disunited. Monks, priests, bishops, kings, saw themselves as part of one big, happy Christian Church, united with Rome and with each other, even if they disagreed about things like the date of Easter or the role of the Bishop of Rome, or if they differed from place to place in matters of liturgical or monastic observance.
That is, I reject the retrojection of 16th-century Gallicanism into 6th-century Gaul. I also reject the idea that Insular (aka ‘Celtic’) Christianity was in opposition to its continental brethren. Things were looser back then, and even the pope knew it. Gregory was willing for his missionary-monks to keep local Christian observances where they found any and not seek to completely Romanise all the customs. Some centralising tendencies did exist amongst the Roman missionaries, it is true. Ecclesiastical history is rarely black and white.
Other tendencies in the sixth century include some of the first large canon law collections that survive for us. This is part of a wider cultural phenomenon of synthesis, encyclopedism, codification, and establishing a tradition to pass along, and we see it in Boethius as translator and commentator on Aristotle as well as philosopher in his own right, Cassiodorus’ Institutions, the Justinianic legal corpus, and, in a century, the works of St Isidore of Seville.
Anyway, Benedict wrote his Rule for his own monastery at Montecassino, and he did so as part of a wider cultural world of Latin monasticism, whether in Ireland, Gaul, Spain, or Italy. He sought to make something that would be easily followed and not especially burdensome compared to some other rules. He drew on the wider ascetic tradition, as already noted above. And, like most early Christian monastics, he established a rule of prayer for his monks centred on the Psalter, something in common with the fourth-century Egyptians and contemporary Irish.
540, the approximate date of RB, was five years after Belisarius invaded Italy to ‘reconquer’ it from the Goths on behalf of Justinian. There is so much that could be said about Italy in this century, as well as about Justinian, as well as about the papacy and the Goths, the papacy and Gaul, Gaul and Constantinople, etc, etc. If such things float your boat, I’ve written on sixth-century history on my other blog. Start with The Sixth-Century West, which links to the others.
What I think we should note is that the Byzantine-Gothic war lasted for decades and ruptured the cultural and economic fabric of Italy. It is thus important for Italy’s transition from ‘late Roman’ to ‘medieval’. Campania, where Benedict lived, was one of the areas of campaign. Perhaps, in a small way, he was trying to do what Rod Dreher and others say, and provide an anchor in a stormy sea. He never notes it explicitly, though; his Rule could just as easily have been written a century before or a century after (NB: some say it’s actually seventh-century Anglo-Saxon, but we’ll avoid that discussion here — see the relevant portions of Gert Melville, The World of Medieval Monasticism for a refutation).
Before the coming of Belisarius, Italy had been stable. The Goths ruled pretty much as the late Romans had. Maybe better? Hard to judge. After Justinian’s victory and the Pragmatic Sanction of 554, there was only a brief interval before the coming of the Lombards who started taking over so much that Justinian had gained. The sixth century was not Italy’s best.
But it gave us Benedict, Boethius, Cassiodorus, Arator of Liguria, Ennodius, Venantius Fortunatus, Columbanus, and Gregory the Great. It also gave us some spectacular mosaics in Rome, Ravenna, and elsewhere. Political instability and economic decline do not always equal cultural stagnation.
In a very short space, this is the world of Benedict. A united but diverse world, where things have been going well but are starting to go poorly.
In the series that follows, my thoughts on RB will start with the Prologue and draw in various strands of thought. There are no guarantees where I’ll draw from, but it seems that it may be best to ponder how the Rule might be adapted for us today, and then reflecting with my own thoughts and connections to Late Antique/Early Medieval monkery and to later forms of Benedictine monachism (which will include not just the Order of St Benedict but Cluny and the Cistercians as well; other orders that use RB are the Tironensians and Camaldolese, while Trappists are technically the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, so also use RB).