To promote my upcoming course on the Desert Fathers, I put together this little video:
Earlier this summer, I was blessed to be raised to the rank of Professor of Christian History at Davenant Hall. During the interview, which was one of the best live (alas, not in-person) theological conversations I’ve had in a very long time, one of my colleagues remarked that he thinks it’s cool that we, a Protestant theological college, are offering a course on the Desert Fathers. (Sign up here!)
But, of course, the question is always: How do I sell this to my fellow Protestants?
Why study the Desert Fathers with me? Or at all?
For some people, the Desert Fathers and the entire monastic movement that flows from them represent something in Christianity that is unnecessary at best, Pelagian at worst. Isn’t asceticism an unholy hatred of the body? Don’t the Desert Fathers teach works righteousness?
If we want to answer these questions, we must quickly (if briefly for a blog post) go to the sources (ad fontes! in good Reformational fashion). What is asceticism? What do the Desert Fathers believe about grace? Can we today learn things from them?
Asceticism comes from the Greek word askesis, which is the Greek word for “training”, like athletic training — askesis is the word St Athanasius uses to describe the lifestyle and path of St Antony the Great. It is, then, more like “spiritual training” than hatred of the body. However, the entire human life is lived in the body. Therefore, the training of most Christians in history has involved embodied aspects — and, when healthy, no hatred of the body. Fasting, for example, is simply, well, expected of us by our Lord. And simple eating, simple living, are themselves caught up in various Scriptural injunctions, not to mention St Clement of Alexandria’s Paedagogus.
Here is the lifestyle of St Antony as described by St Athanasius:
All his desire and all his energies he directed toward the great effort of ascetic discipline. So he worked with his hands, having heard ‘Let the lazy person not eat’. [2 Thes 3:10] He would spend part of what he earned on bread and part of it he would give to those who were begging. He prayed all the time, having learned that it is necessary to pray by oneself without ceasing. [See Mt 16:6 and 1 Thes 5:17] Indeed, he paid such close attention to the reading of Scripture that nothing in the Scriptures was wasted. He remembered everything, with the result that for him memory took the place of books.Life of Antony, 3.5-7, trans. Vivian and Athanassakis
Somewhere, either Evagrius or the Life of Antony, the mean between abuse of the body and its indulgence is counselled in the wisdom of the Desert. The Desert Fathers do not hate the body.
Oh, and before addressing grace, look at where St Antony’s inspiration for askesis came from: Scripture. Indeed, he seems to have lived a life saturated with the Bible, doesn’t he? This is their ideal. In the first monasteries that shared a common life, besides a regular round of praying the Psalms and other Bible-reading, they had major Bible teaching twice a week.
What about grace? The Desert Fathers, after all, expend a lot of energy teaching about, well, expending a lot of energy. One of the famous sayings is that prayer is hard work until your last breath. Where, then, does grace fit in? Here’s what Evagrius says in his short work On the Eight Thoughts:
A great thing is the human being who is helped by God; he is abandoned and then he realizes the weakness of his nature. You have nothing good which you have not received from God (cf. 1 Cor. 4:7). Why then do you glory in another’s good as if it were your own? Why do you pride yourself in the grace of God as if it were your own possession? Acknowledge the one who gave it and do not exalt yourself so much. You are a creature of God; do not reject the Creator. You receive help from God; do not deny your benefactor. (8.12)In Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus, trans. Robert E Sinkewicz, p. 88.
Evagrius goes on, but I think you get the point.
Finally, there’s a historical reason to study any of the pre-Reformational monastic texts. As Dallas Willard notes in his book The Spirit of the Disciplines, the best books about the spiritual disciplines from Benedict onwards (if not from St Antony onwards…) were written by or about monks. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them and apply their wisdom to our own situation.
Indeed, we learn Trinitarian theology, Christology, the doctrine of God, ethics, morality, theology of the human will, semiotics, political theology, demonology, diabology (is that the word?), angelology, and (depending on your tradition) church order, liturgy, and canon law from the Fathers.
Why not the spiritual disciplines?
And if so, why not the fathers who were devoted to nothing else in their undivided pursuit of God?
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I love the Desert Fathers. They are my first love in patristics, beginning with Athanasius’ Life of St Antony and the Sayings of the Desert Fathers translated by Sister Benedicta Ward. As I say on the product page where you can sign up:
How do we reach up to God? How can we pray without ceasing? What even is prayer? Are we really meant to sell all our possessions and give to the poor? What is the place of fasting in the Christian life? Questions like these drove a great movement of men and women from the cities, towns, and villages of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, into the wilderness or desert, beginning in the fourth century—a movement so large it was said that these men and women made the desert into a city. These earliest monks of the Christian Church sought to live the Scriptures and fill their lives with prayer, seeking after God with a single-minded, wholehearted devotion. The monastic desert cities of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria became the foundation of the spiritual disciplines as practiced through the long centuries to our own day. Their legacy is found not only in the monasteries of the Middle Ages, not only from Ireland to Iraq, but also in the spirituality of St Thomas à Kempis, whose Imitation of Christ has been read and beloved by Protestants of every generation, and in John Calvin, whose own spirituality bears the mark of St Bernard of Clairvaux.
In this course, we are going to dive into the sands of the desert, moving chronologically from the life and letters of St Antony of Egypt, the reputed “first Christian monk/hermit”, in the early 300s and whose life was recorded by St Athanasius, up to the letters of Sts Barsanuphius and John of Gaza in the mid-500s. Along the way, we shall spend time with the famous sayings of the Desert Fathers—short, pithy quotations or anecdotes with a deep meaning similar to the Proverbs of Scripture—as well as the work of Pachomius who was the first abbot of a community of monks; the lives of various Desert Fathers recorded by Palladius of Aspuna; the ascetic and mystical work of Evagrius Ponticus; and the life of Symeon the Stylite who lived on a pillar in the Syrian desert. I promise that we’ll meet a lot of behaviors and some teachings that are weird to us. I also promise that we’ll be challenged to go deeper in our own devotion to God, our own study of the Scriptures, our own pursuit of pure prayer. To study the Desert Fathers well is not simply to study the history of Christianity but to open up yourself to the transformative power of the same God whom they met in huts and caves on the banks of the Nile, the Jordan, and the Orontes.
Life is very busy (so I’ve not blogged as much I’d like), but you should know that I have an upcoming course with Davenant Hall this summer called “Athanasius Against the World”. I hope you will be able to join me for it! In the meantime, here are some of my previous Athanasius things, culminating at the bottom with my recent St Athanasius video on YouTube:
Reflections on John 12 (from 2021)
A little Trinitarian incarnational theology for you (from 2021 — video of my Davenant Fellows Lecture from December 2020)
Irenaeus and Athanasius (from 2013)
Saint of the Week: St. Athanasius (from 2010)
Wish I had more time for St. Athanasius (from 2009)
Full disclosure: While this post does represent something that’s been on my mind, I’ve chosen this particular topic tonight to encourage you to sign up for my course with Davenant Hall, The Church in Medieval England! Registration closes on Thursday, March 24.
I recently read Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. (1) I’d been planning on reading it since the summer, but some medieval Arthuriana and my reading load for teaching prevented me until now. Beowulf is greatly enjoyable — monsters, adventure, sword-wielding swimming contests, and only 3182 lines versus The Odyssey with 12,109 lines. (2) Beowulf was my second epic (the Odyssey my first), and my second piece of long-form medieval literature (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, trans. Tolkien, when I was 13). It has stuck with me these many years, appealing for all the reasons ancient and medieval epic and romance stay with me — poetic artistry, a good story, some wise utterances.
One of the many reasons Beowulf continues to resonate with me is a characteristic that is eminently medieval, although it is an impulse the Greeks, Romans, and Mesopotamians also demonstrate, albeit differently. The poem is itself deeply religious, deeply Christian, but the characters are pagans. While I concede that around the time Beowulf was composed, there was some concept of the “secular”, (3) there is very little in art of this period that would look such to us today.
Beowulf is interesting in this regard because, as I say, it is a deeply Christian poem. Yet none of the characters of the poem are Christians. They are all pagans, and explicitly acknowledged as such; there is not even an attempt by the Beowulf poet to imagine them as “noble pagans” who are Christians before Christ who maybe make the cut on Judgement Day (or Doomsday to be more OE).
That said, the frequency of mentions of God in Christian terms renders the tone of the poem pius in a properly Christian sense. Pietas here means rendering the proper respect and honour and duty to those around you and above you. In a Christian sense, it includes worship of and obedience to God, as well as honouring your human father and mother. It is also often seen to include fulfilling obligations for the political community, something that obviously becomes culturally conditioned depending on your context. In Beowulf, this last means kings giving gifts to thegns (a good king is a ring-giver) as well as helping your friends and harming your foes (in a Homeric rendering of accounts). Harming your foes is not exactly Christian, but it is unclear to me whether the feuds of Beowulf are approved by the poet or simply recorded, whereas aiding friends and giving gifts are both approved of.
The pagan cast of the epic, however, has misguided pietas towards the false gods of ancient Germanic religion, and the poet makes this clear, interweaving his own Christian commentary on the pre-Christian tale. Several times, the poet draws the reader out of pagan glories to the final judgement, lamenting the deaths of the unbaptised pagan heroes of the past.
However, throughout, there is also an almost unconscious pietas, a sort of natural law (to misapply the term) in Beowulf himself. Here I confess that I am borrowing from Tolkien, “The Monsters and the Critics.” In the poem, as Tolkien observes, Beowulf goes from trusting solely in the gift of God in the fight with Grendel, to trusting in weapons, armour, shield, in the fight with the dragon. Beowulf consciously chooses to trust in God for the outcome of the fight with Grendel, not in the weaponry or art of war devised by men:
… And may the Divine Lordtrans. Seamus Heaney, lines 685-687.
in His wisdom grant the glory of victory
to whichever side He sees fit.
Beowulf meets Grendel in the night, grapples with him, and rips his arm off. Grendel will bleed to death as a result.
The second monster is Grendel’s mother, whom Beowulf confronts with weapons. His first sword, Hrunting, fails him, and he almost loses this fight, needing the aid of a magic sword to gain the victory.
The third monster is the dragon. This time, Beowulf wins but dies in the process, slain by the dragon he and his thegn Wiglaf slay together. The poet says of him as he goes off to the fight:
The fabled warrior in his warshirt and helmettrans. Seamus Heaney, lines 2539-2541.
trusted in his own strength entirely
and went under the crag. No coward path!
Whereas with Grendel, Beowulf trusted in God to guide the outcome, here, with his weapons, he trusts in himself. He defeats the dragon, but the cost is his own life. The theme drawn through these episodes is that of Psalm 20:7, “Some trust in chariots, and some in horses: but we will remember the name of the LORD our God.” The less Beowulf trusts in God, the more dire becomes his own individual situation.
Yet there is also a high regard for Beowulf as a king saving his people, as a faint image of Christ. Beowulf sets out with twelve companions, his own apostles. And he is abandoned at his moment of keenest need save by one, Wiglaf, just as Christ was abandoned by all the (male) disciples save by St John the Evangelist. Like Christ, his death saves his people. To kill the dragon, the king dies; and in biblical imagery, the dragon represents the devil, defeated by Christ on the Rood.
In these and many other ways, Beowulf is a deeply Christian poem. The poet is not setting out to be “authentic” about these pagan characters. To his own self and his own religion he remains true. Yet his vision of their lives is capable of seeing the swift, sure hand of Almighty God at work.
This intertwining of pagan and Christian, or in other circumstances secular and sacred, is one of the things I love about the Middle Ages. So much of it has these layered readings and meanings and beautiful takes, just waiting to be fleshed out, or even enfleshed. It means that you can’t separate a study of medieval England (or a course!) into “secular” and “sacred” in any easy way.
If you want to engage with this beautiful medieval world more, do sign up for my course!
(1) This was round 4, first was R M Liuzza in high school, then Kevin Crossley-Holland in my 20s, then Tolkien around age 30; I hope that Round 5 will be in OE.
(2) At this point in my life, I have read a lot of ancient and medieval narrative literature, some of which I will definitely spend my life rereading.
(3) For the early medieval secular, see the special issue of Early Medieval Europe from last February.
I had the blessing to appear on the latest episode Ad Fontes Podcast — you can listen on Spotify here. I’m not sure you can call being an audio guest an “appearance”, but my voice was there with Rhys and Onsi! It was a great privilege to share a mic with these two gentlemen. Ad Fontes is the podcast associated with the Davenant Institute’s journal, Ad Fontes. As the podcast description says:
“Ad fontes” means “to the sources!” and was a rallying cry of the Reformation as the Reformers sought to return to the historic teaching and practice of the church. We hope to do the same in this podcast by looking closely at the kinds of texts and sources covered in the Ad Fontes journal.
Our aim is to not just to think about the sources, but to think through the sources – to have our minds shaped by what has gone before, not to simply pay lip service to it. We’re not just after knowledge, but wisdom.
The topic under consideration for this week was, as Rhys’ title says, “Ye Olde England” — specifically, Christianity in England in the Middle Ages, moving beyond stereotypes of tyrant kings, superstitious masses, and proud popes to the beauty, piety, and theology of the medieval millennium as it was lived through by the people of the English nation.
As you probably know, I’ll be teaching on this topic starting in April, so sign up now!
When I was a kid, if you were to ask me what my favourite things were, the answer would be easy — knights, castles, and the Middle Ages. What were my favourite stories? The answer could be found by finding me crouched just inside the door to my bedroom where the hall light spilled across the floor, reading a library book about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. What was my favourite historical event? The Crusades.
Add to this the fact that I was reared in the Anglican Church with a priest for a dad who loves history. In confirmation class, maybe also through osmosis or conversations around the home or in the car, I came to understand that the Anglican Church wasn’t like other Protestant churches — we stood in line with the medieval church in England, stretching back to Augustine of Canterbury. All we did was clear away some abuses (like clerical celibacy!) and clarify some unclear teachings (like, say, justification by faith alone).
You can imagine, then, how pleased I am to be offering my course The Church in Medieval England: 597-1485 for Davenant Hall this spring term, starting in April! You can sign up here.
To pique your interest, here’s the description I put in the syllabus:
The period known as the Middle Ages is often thought of as “dark”, particularly as far as Christianity is concerned. In this course, we will study the path of Christianity in England from the arrival of Italian missionaries in 597 to the accession of Henry Tudor (Henry VII) in 1485, a journey from small Anglo-Saxon kingdoms through the Norman world, up the cusp of the Reformation era. In the lectures, I will move generally chronologically, examining events and major figures as they arise. Particular attention will be given to the twelfth century because of the transformations of the wake of the Norman Conquest, the emergence of the Cistercians, and the rise of universities, as well as late medieval piety and calls for Reform.
What we shall see is a nuanced world of many layers, where the deep Augustinian theology of Thomas Bradwardine (Archbishop of Canterbury, d. 1349) co-exists with those he felt were Pelagian. Alongside the monasteries and universities, there is also the popular world of medieval religion, found in poems, plays, and pilgrimages, devoted to Christ’s passion, the saints, the Eucharist. In a sort of middle place, we will find time for the mystical writings of hermits, canons, and Carthusians, some, like the Abbey of the Holy Ghost, directed to the laity.
We will read Gildas, Bede, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, The Dream of the Rood, the Life of Alfred by Asser, Eadmer’s Life of St Anselm, Simeon of Durham, Aelred of Rievaulx, primary sources about Thomas Becket, Alexander de Hales, Robert Grosseteste, Everyman, shorter devotional poetry, Pearl, Julian of Norwich, John Wycliffe, and medieval liturgy.
Other big names will also turn up, names like Aneirin, Boniface, Aelfric, William of Ockham, William the Conqueror, William II Rufus, Henry I, Henry II, lots of other kings and queens, Thomas Bradwardine, Richard Rolle, The Cloud of Unknowing, Margery Kempe, John Peckham (Archbishop of Canterbury), Queen St Margaret of Scotland, and so forth, as well as some continental biggies like Gregory the Great, Innocent III, Gratian, Thomas Aquinas, et al.
Boy, that’s possibly the longest title I’ve given a blog post yet! But it’s true! This January I’ll be teaching “The Historical Context of the Seven Ecumenical Councils” for Davenant Hall (the Davenant Institute’s teaching wing). If you’re already excited enough, you can register for the course here. If you need more convincing, read on…
Do you believe in the Trinity? Do you believe that Jesus is fully God and fully human, perfect and entire in each, without getting it all mixed up and turning him into a divinised man or a man adopted by a god or a god who merely uses a human body like an avatar or something?
Do you kiss icons?
If you have an answer to any of these (yes, no, what?), then the outcomes of the Seven Ecumenical Councils should interest you! These seven councils met between 325 and 787. All were called by emperors. All dealt with church-rupturing theological issues. All also dealt with some canon law, except for 5 and 6, so a special council was called after number 6 that we call the Quinisext Council. It’s exciting already, isn’t it?!
These seven councils were admitted by the imperial church to provide the dogmatic boundaries for orthodox thought and worship. They come to be considered as having universal jurisdiction in doctrine and canon law. These seven, and only these seven, hold such a status in the Eastern Orthodox Church. These seven plus a bunch of later ones hold such a status in the Roman Catholic Church. Three of these, if I understand aright, are embraced by the Oriental Orthodox. And I’m not sure if the Church of the East formally embraces any of them, but they espouse the doctrine of the first two.
Protestants tend to explicitly endorse the first four, but I see no reason not to embrace five and six as well, whereas many Reformed Christians reject the seventh because of its acceptance and promotion of holy images (icons). I, personally, accept all seven. I’ve been told that I am what they call, “based”.
These seven councils are:
- Nicaea (325): Jesus is of one substance with the Father
- Constantinople (381): Reaffirms Nicaea and pushes towards the full divinity of the Holy Spirit
- Ephesus (431): Jesus is only one person, fully human and fully divine
- Chalcedon (451): Jesus exists in two natures, one human and one divine
- Constantinople 2 (553): Jesus’ two natures come together in what we call the “hypostatic union”
- Constantinople 3 (680/1): Jesus has two wills
- Nicaea 2 (787): Images of Jesus and the saints are good
In my class, we are going to explore the events leading up to and the aftermath of each council. Some of them had some pretty crazy stuff going on at them (particularly Ephesus and second Constantinople), so we’ll look at how (or how not!) to run a church council. We’ll look at why these seven but not other ones (why not Serdica in 343? Why not the Lateran Council of 649? What about the council of 869?). And we’ll examine the writings of one major theologian associated with the teaching of each council.
It’s going to be a fun ride, and hopefully it will help you appreciate even more the glory of the Most Holy Trinity and the Person of Jesus Christ our Saviour and His work of redemption in becoming man.
The Gospel is Jesus, so these questions matter.
And for a foretaste, check out my December 16 lecture, “The Christmas Councils”.
Today’s round in my ongoing promotion of my upcoming Davenant Hall course is a post I wrote for Davenant, looking specifically at the question of how the canon of Scripture came to be within the wider framework of, “Did Constantine really change everything?”
You can read it here.
One of the challenges facing anyone who wishes to embrace pre-modern Christian thought is the way the ancient and medieval Christians read the Bible — particularly their use of those approaches to the polysemy of Scripture that we broadly call “allegory” but which I have come to prefer to call the “spiritual sense” of Scripture. I do this partly because the “spiritual sense” may be what we would strictly consider “allegory” (a one-to-one correspondence between events and things in text and events and things in “reality”), or it may be typology (an image in the text is fulfilled in later salvation history, usually by Jesus), or it may really be more “symbolic” (eg., many approaches to Moses on Mt Sinai may be more strictly symbolic than allegorical). Or it may be none of these but occupy some other term relative to the spiritual level of reading — anagogy or tropology or …
Typology is the most scripturally … justified spiritual sense. The book of Hebrews, for example, sees the ceremonial world of the Old Testament as being types of the anti-Type, Christ. Christ himself considers the brass serpent Moses lifted up in the wilderness a type of his own crucificixion (Jn 3). 1 Peter 3:20-22 uses the term antitypos in reference to Noah’s ark as a prefigurement to baptism. The Christian tradition naturally followed the apostolic witness (besides Christ Himself!) and found other types throughout the Old Testament. Melito of Sardis, to cite only one example, in his Paschal Sermon, sees the Passover as a type that Christ fulfils. Typology is happily used by Reformed preachers today.
Allegory, on the other hand, gets people concerned. Although some like to wag their fingers at the post-Constantinian African Augustine, most people, if they know a thing or two, are concerned about Origen of Alexandria (d. c. 253). Origen is seen as a Neo- or Middle Platonist who’s not really fully Christian, and he brings over to the Bible the foreign, pagan Platonic allegory. He’s too speculative, and he rejects the “literal” meaning of Scripture.
The allegories of the pagans, the allegories of the myths, are considered “eisegesis of embarrassment” — the gods getting up to no good in Homer and Hesiod are actually allegories about natural philosophy (“science”). Other myths, such as Hercules’ descent into Hades, are turned into moral allegories. The story of Zeus and Danae, wherein he impregnates her through a shower of gold, begetting Perseus, is considered an allegory about how you can only get the girl if you’re rich enough. Somehow that’s even more embarassing!
Anyway, if pagan allegory is the origin of Christian allegory (which I doubt), then the genealogical fallacy tells us that allegory is how Christian writers smooth out the “awkward” bits of Scripture.
This is not usually the case. There are times, we must admit, when Origen says that when Abraham does something wrong, it’s not literally true but there to serve an allegory. Like Lot having sex with his daughters. But the vast majority of the allegories of the Fathers, of Origen, are nothing of this sort.
Here are some basic facts about allegory as practised by Origen and his successors, such as St Gregory of Nyssa, St Maximus the Confessor, and others:
First, the genealogy of Christian allegory comes from Philo and his exegesis. Now, Philo will have taken his method from his fellow Platonist mystics and applied it to the Jewish Scriptures. But the Christians took up Philo precisely because he was a reader of the same Bible as they.
Second, the genealogy of Christian allegory comes from St Paul, particularly the allegory of Hagar and Sarah (Gal 4).
Third, Christian allegory, in fact, almost never denies the historical reality or indeed reliability of the text of Scripture. Some of them seem to deny the historical truth of Genesis 1, but many do not. St Augustine seems to affirm multiple allegories as well as the “literal” truth. They work alongside each other and interplay with each other. God is the Lord both of the writing of Scripture and of history. This is vitally important if we are to understand Origen.
Origen can read scripture “literally” (ad litteram in Latin [although he wrote in Greek]) and “spiritually” at the same time. Allegory and typology are at the service of the historical fact as it unfolds through the revealed word pointing us to God the Word.
Fourth — and this may actually be the single most important point — Christian allegory, like typology, is almost always about Christ. Jesus Christ is the God-Word Who became flesh. He is the wisdom of God. He is present to us in a special way when we read Scripture (something affirmed by Origen in words that are almost sacramental). Jesus is seen as the key to the Old Testament, both in basic terms of fulfilling prophecies and in typological terms. He is also the focus of most allegories, especially those that endure.
Fifth, allegory is careful. In the sixteenth century, allegorical readings of Scripture came under fire because it was seen as treating Scripture as a wax nose that could be bent whichever way the exegete wanted. This is emphatically not what the Origenian tradition does. They have methods that are theological, literary-philological, and philosophical that determine how we are to understand an allegory. In fact, Origen’s search for the spiritual sense uses as much philology as a modernist seeking the plain sense!
Anyway, I doubt this will convince the skeptical that the allegories of Origen, the Cappadocians, Ambrose, Augustine, St Maximus the Confessor, and Lancelot Andrewes are worth reading. But I hope to at least make these things clear. Also, more straightforward ways of reading of greater familiarity to us are still in practice throughout the era before (and after) Constantine.
If you want to learn more about ante-Nicene exegesis and Origen, you should sign up for my course with Davenant Hall, Christianity Before Constantine! Registration ends September 10 — that’s Friday!