At the end of our last lecture we began to look at a phenomenon that is quite foreign from evangelical Christianity, that being the rise and development of the monastic system. Let’s quickly look at some of the things we mentioned in our last lecture and then move on to some new ideas in this interesting development.
During the time of persecution, there was not great push toward monasticism, and it’s easy to see why there was no push and that as a persecuted minority, the Christians themselves were living in general in a semi-monastic state at times. But when persecution was lifted, suddenly Christianity becomes the state religion, and I remind you of the complaints which we have from the theologians concerning how the people of the church eat and drink and dress, and how there has been a sufficient amount of change in the church.
So beginning in the fourth century, we have the development of monasteries, and that development is quite rapid. As I mentioned to you in the last lecture, there were literally thousands of monks by the end of that century. I also mentioned that the monastic movement begins in the dry, hot deserts of Egypt and spreads from there. Furthermore, I mentioned that there was an important motivation for going into monasteries in that zealous Christians, and I mean zealous in both a good and a bad sense, could continue the ascetic ideal, even the ideal of martyrdom, which was prevalent prior to the rise of Christianity as the state religion. What could be “accomplished” by a quick bloody death was now being accomplished through the slow process of self-mortification.
We didn’t spend a lot of time looking at martyrdom in the ancient church, although we looked at persecution, but martyrdom was always looked upon with great favor and as a badge of courage, a crown of eternal glory as those people went to their death. We are reminded of some of the letters that we have from the time period of the apostolic fathers and apologists, the encouragement to permit martyrdom, the crown that was given to those who were martyred for their faith. That that part of Christianity was over, and once again I remind you that that persecution existed for two hundred years; now that that page in the history book of Christianity had been turned, so we have the desire to continue the type of mortification that was a pattern earlier established.
So in the beginning of the monastic movement, especially in the fourth and fifth centuries, there were three types of monastic movements, and now I move into completely new material. First were the ministers who followed ascetic practices but did not separate themselves entirely from social life. These would be ministers of congregations who would be preaching, would be ministering in their congregations, but who had not left urban life to be a recluse or to join a group of other people called monks who separate themselves from the sinful world. And so these types of ministers could live lives that would be considered a half monkly. They were like half monks.
Then the second group were those who separated themselves from all work and all social interaction. This is the kind that is best known in terms of the literature of rather strange people. These people who separated themselves from all the normal tasks of human life—labor, social interaction—also refused to wear normal clothing. They wore animal skins, and they permitted themselves only bread to eat. As I’ve been looking at the documentation surrounding this, it’s an interesting thing to note that they permitted themselves bread and salt, and it looks like the bread that they ate was much more similar to not the bread that we would have as we would go to a store, but more like the old-fashioned type of pretzel bread that would have salt on the outside, like store-bought pretzels today, but more like the hot pretzels that you can buy on street corners, that’s what was their type of diet. It wasn’t hot food, but this type of bread would last longer, not get moldy as quickly, so that’s what they usually ate, a salted type of bread. And they would dwell in caves. This didn’t go very well in the Western part of the church in Europe in that the climate was normally too harsh for someone to just live in a cave, but in places like Egypt and the desert, it was quite possible.
Then the third group was that group that lived in what we call cloisters, that is, a communal-type housing for those who wanted to follow an ascetic ideal. What was life like in these monasteries or cloisters? In the monastery life was spent in manual labor, and that is in contrast to the second type of a hermit monk, and spent in religious devotions. When we talk about manual labor usually it was farm labor and rural type of labor, and any excess food which was produced by them was then distributed to the poor.
On the bright side we see the movement for monastic life or cloister living being aided by the church historian, Augustine of Hippo. We remember our very brief account of his life, and as you remember, as he was converted in Italy, he then went back to North Africa to minister and to a semi-monastic life. As he went back from Italy to North Africa, he gathered a group of likeminded converts with him, and this group was willing to give up all their belongings and have a communal life. Augustine then gave rules for living and from this first monastic attempt we have the beginnings of the Augustinian monks, and I would remind you that it is from the ranks of these Augustinian monks that a thousand years later Martin Luther will come. This is a much more happy story as we look at monastic life. We see in Augustine the attempt to separate himself from the type of lifestyle which was his prior to his conversion. We see in Augustine a desire to take some of these sayings of Jesus and to apply them literally to his life.
The beginnings of monastic life should be seen in many ways to be positive. Here were earnest Christians like Augustine who had been called from a life of rather public sin to a life of disciplined piety. It was his attempt to be more and more conformed to the image of his Savior that he developed this type of monastic life. And as we see in many cases of church history, the roots, the beginnings of this movement, were in many ways good. However, I need to stress on the other hand to give you a more full picture some of the extremes of monasticism. Personally I don’t believe that monasticism is a biblical way of life, but whatever we think of monasticism, these stories of self-denial will be interesting to us. There are many such stories, but many of them are only stories. There’s no real foundation in fact or history for them. The stories which I mentioned, however, all are at least somewhat verifiable historically. And here are some of the stories.
We have the accounts of one particular monk who slept standing up and ate only once a week. As he slept standing up, he would lean himself against a wall or against some type of a staff, and this was his attempt to further mortify his flesh; his attempt to discipline his body so that he would be more attuned to the life of the Spirit. We have accounts of some monks who were hermits who, for example, would never eat bread but would only eat a wild type of food—things like ants and bark. We know of some monks or hermits who would go for many nights without sleep and would fast for seven days at a time. And it is true, if you’ve ever heard the story, there’s a true story of a monk whose name was Simeon who spent thirty-six years praying, fasting, and preaching from the top of a pillar, thirty to forty feet elevated in the air, and he only ate once a week. So there really was a monk who lived on a pillar for thirty-six years. The people would come usually every day to hear him preach. He would eat once a week. We would surmise that he would have to come down that one time a week to eat his food, but he lived on a pillar for thirty-six years.
These monks also did some other things that we would consider to be a little strange today, but once again we have to realize that they did this in an attempt to speak against the corruption of the culture of their era. One of the rules of these hermit monks would be never to cut their hair or beard, with the exception that some of them would cut their hair and beard at Easter. And we know of accounts of monks spending their entire lives in one cell, in one room that oftentimes was small and never coming out for fifty years, for example.
And we know looking ahead to the Reformation that as Luther went into the Augustinian monastery, he was given a cell (a cell sounds like a prison, and in many ways it was like a prison, but just a room), and that cell had one window with bars on it that looked into the cemetery of the monastery, and that was to be Augustine’s vision for the normal lifespan that would have been his as an Augustinian monk. He looked forward to death, that in death finally he would have life. And we know the rigors of Luther prior his conversion in self-mortification, in fasting. And later in the Middle Ages we’re going to see that there are groups of monks who go around the city beating themselves with whips. We could spend a lot of time analyzing the theological background to this type of living, this way of living, and the type of soteriology, the view of salvation, that’s inherent in it, but as I mentioned a few moments ago, I don’t think that this is a biblical way of life.
So those were some of the extremes. Some of those extremes become more normal as we move ahead in the centuries, but there are some other good results of monastic life. We have the account of one monastery: this group of Christians would rise before the rising of the sun and have a short time of devotions together, of singing hymns, and praising God. A time of prayer and the reading of the Scriptures, and then they would go to work, usually again as agricultural works, going to work and taking time once again throughout the day for a time of mutual Bible study and prayer. We know that the normal account was at 9 in the morning, 12 noon, and 3 in the afternoon they would stop their labor and have a time of prayer and Bible study. After their workday, they would have a simple meal of this bread with salt, this pretzel-type bread, and some vegetables. Then they would sing a hymn of thanksgiving and go to sleep on their straw beds. This was a picture of normal monastic life, in many ways, a somewhat healthy way of living in great contrast to the hermit monks. A life of labor; a life of devotion to Christ; a life of giving alms to the poor as they would have extra food, so the poor would come to the doors of the monasteries and receive food, but it was a life of rigor, no excess in clothing, no excess in food, and the pleasures of family life were forbidden these monks.
Monasticism was born in the East in Egypt and was especially popular there, and as I mentioned and as common sense would tell us, monastic life was in many ways much easier there because of the climate. Many parts of the West had a more harsh climate and especially living in caves is rather difficult. So we find in the West instead of the extremes of the hermit monks, we find more the development of the cloister life, the life living together in community, and as I mentioned, Augustine is a participant in this type of life. But picking on one example, and there are many examples, one example of cloister life is found in the West in the person named Benedict—Benedict of Nursia, and there’s a group of monks who continue to this day following Benedict known as the Benedictines, and I want to focus our attention upon them as a prime example of monastic life.
The Benedictine monks gave monasticism a permanent form in the West. Benedict was born in the year AD 480 at a time when society was at a great state of ruin. Remember from earlier lectures in AD 410 we have the first sacking of Rome by the barbarian northern tribes. That first weakness is slowly opening up, so that by the end of that century, Roman civilization as known for hundreds of years is destroyed, so that by 480, seventy years after the first sack of Rome (and it goes through a number of sacks), by 480 basic standards of life had changed and what was normally a peaceful life, what was normally a civilized life began to break down in its entirety. So in 480 we have at the birth of Benedict, a time of great ruin.
The story of his life is that at the age of fifteen, he leaves school and goes and lives by himself as a monk on his own. At one time, as the story goes, he felt so tempted to leave his solitude, to leave his cave (he was living in a cave). By this time there had been a tradition of this monastic, hermit-like life in the church. He was so tempted to leave his solitude and go and be with a woman, and he found the resolution (and the resolution to this temptation is a famous story) to this temptation in this way. The story goes, he took off his animal skins so that he was naked and found some thorns and briars near his cave, and he rolled himself naked on these thorns and briars until the passion went away. Now that’s an extreme story. Probably true. And it gives us an indication of the tremendous spiritual desire of these monks to be free of sin, a tremendous desire to be holy unto God. Whether I would suggest that any of you go and roll yourselves in briars and thorns if you have these temptations, I’ll leave that to your discretion. However, we need to understand the desire to be perfect as Christ was perfect.
On the other hand, I think we also need to advise ourselves of the lack of development theologically both in the doctrine of anthropology, the study of human nature, and the doctrine of soteriology, or the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of Christians. We’re going to see that it’s going to take a thousand more years for this doctrine to fully develop, and it comes into full bloom in the sixteenth century with the rise of the Reformation, and the Reformation itself will ring the death knoll to monastic life, that the Reformers are going to teach us, as the Bible teaches us, that our sins are forgiven in Christ. So what we have is the attempt to be sinless, but the attempt not being seen in terms of falling on Christ, which I would think would be a better resolution to the temptation to have illicit sexual relations, falling upon the mercy of Christ rather than falling on thorns and briars.
So Benedict, who is a standard for the West, established himself twelve different cloisters. Each of these cloisters had twelve monks and what they would call a superior, a head monk over these twelve different members. There are many biographies of Benedict that you can find in libraries. The stories of Benedict’s life are amazing. I don’t think they’re verifiable in historical fact, but he was attributed to having great miraculous powers, including the power of raising people from the dead.
So no wonder there was a whole movement of Benedictine monks if such power resided in this one young man that he could lay hands on people and raise them from the dead. By the way, I don’t believe that that’s true, but that’s the story about his life.
And so the rule of Saint Benedict (he is a saint in the Roman Catholic Church) is quite famous, and this rule provided the basic foundation for monastic life in the Middle Ages. Without going into any detail, they had an ascetic life and yet an ascetic life without extreme rigor. They wore what is called a tunic, which would be seen as a cloth-type robe, more like a skirt than the normal clothing that we find in men today, and this tunic had a black hood over it, and that would be the hood they would put over their heads in time of rain or inclement weather, and that was always black, and they then received the nickname of the Black Friars from this hood.
The Benedictines fasted two days a week. By fasting in that sense because there was manual labor in the community, to go without food entirely given a Gregorian society would be true self-mortification in terms of people starving to death, so fasting for them consisted of eating only one meal in that day. And we know, for example, from the time of Benedict that there was a level of food permitted to each monk. Each day the monk normally ate a pound of bread and a pound of vegetables and half a bottle of wine. No meat was eaten except by the very sick or the very old, and that during the time of meals, silence was enjoined.
The Benedictines, as they went into the cloister, gave up all personal wealth and gave it to the monastery itself, so that even the clothing, the black friar hood and the skirt that they wore, even the clothing that they wore was owned by the community. There was no personal property, and these Benedictine rules become the standard from which all the various other monastic movements find their foundation. Asceticism without great rigor, twice a week fasting, communal life, silence during meals, very humble food, no meat at all—these are some of the foundations that we’ll see continuing for hundreds of years later.
That concludes our look at monasticism and its foundations in this fifth century especially—fourth and fifth. We see that this will continue in the medieval time period and become an important force both for good and for evil in the period; as I mentioned, the Augustinians are the ones who give us Martin Luther, and it’s a monastic system that ultimately produced its own demise.
The next part of our lecture for today is our conclusion of the doctrine of Christ in the ancient church period—the post-Chalcedonian Christology. This will be our last formal lecture presenting new material in this course, and we finally see the beginnings of the end of doctrinal strife in this important teaching.
What is post-Chalcedonian Christology? If you think back to the fourth century in the Council of Nicea in the year 325, you’ll remember that the Council of Nicea supposedly answered all the questions of the problem of Arianism, but it was going to take until 381 to really resolve the issues. So in 451 we have the Council of Chalcedon, which dealt with the questions of the incarnate Christ and His natures. How can there be both fully God and fully man? As Chalcedon did not fully resolve the questions, just as Nicea did not fully resolve the questions, we need to take a look at the next hundred years or so after the Council of Chalcedon to see how the church developed finally the doctrine of Christ.
I must introduce one new player in the field of battle concerning the doctrine of Christ, and his name is Eutyches or Eutyches, depending on how you want to pronounce his name and what textbook—whether you want to read an America English book or an English English book. Eutyches was a monk who played an important role in the Council of Chalcedon itself in the year 451. It was his opinion (and by the way he’s going to be condemned) that the human attributes of Christ were assimilated into the divine, so that His body was not consubstantial with our bodies, and so therefore He was not human in the proper sense of the word. His own example went something like this: “If you are on the sea and you take a drop of molasses or of oil or of some other type of liquid and you take that drop and drop it into the sea, immediately it becomes dispersed so that that droplet of oil or molasses or some liquid no longer retains its own unique properties.” Likewise, so thought Eutyches, we have the human nature of Christ as that little drop being dropped into the vast ocean of His divinity so that His body and His human nature changes and He really isn’t a human being in the full sense of the word.
There were a lot of followers of Eutyches or Eutyches after the Council of Chalcedon, and the extreme followers of Eutyches are called, and here’s a technical word that you should be putting down in your notes, Monophysites. I’ve introduced that word earlier. It’s a compound word, mono meaning one and physite . . . . It could be translated by the word nature. One nature. The Monophysites thought that Jesus had one nature after the incarnation. They saw that he had a composite nature, that is, there’s one nature with two parts, but they distinctly denied that he had two distinct natures—a distinct human nature and a distinct divine nature. They believed that two distinct natures would necessarily involve a duality of persons, and in a sense a schizophrenic type of Christ. If you have a fully human nature and a fully divine nature, how can these two natures ever be unified? How can the human and the divine ever be complete and still enmesh together? It was impossible for the Monophysites to contemplate such a union, and you can see how that droplet of oil into the sea example was important for them.
And so after 451 we have the Monophysite controversy that’s going to take a hundred years to be resolved, and it sounds like a long time to resolve when in many ways it’s a simple question. But as we put ourselves into the fifth and sixth centuries, it’s simple to us because this is part of church history for us. This is a problem that has been resolved for over a thousand years, but the church needed to fully, just as in the other doctrinal controversies, fully investigate, fully understand the Scripture’s teaching concerning the nature of Christ. And there are some interesting passages that if we were doing a course in systematic theology we could examine together that indicates that Jesus is fully divine and fully human and yet sometimes the indication is that there wasn’t a complete union of these two natures. When Jesus confesses that He doesn’t know the time of His second coming, does He really not know? Does that mean there isn’t a complete union of the divine and human? Obviously as God Almighty, He knew all things. What about passages where we see Jesus hungering and thirsting as He goes and asks for water at the well, for example? Does God fully hunger and thirst? How are these two natures put together?
The resolution, the legal resolution of this problem occurs in the year 553 at another council. I hope you have been writing down the names of these councils, and sometimes it’s hard to keep track of all the players on the field so you have to buy a program. I can’t provide a program for you, so I hope you’re making one up as we’ve been lecturing, listing the names of the councils and listing the resolutions that occur with the different councils. In 553 we have the Council of Constantinople. Constantinople in 553 resolves the Monophysite controversy. This is also known as the fifth ecumenical council. I would remind you, what’s an ecumenical council? An ecumenical is in contrast to a local synod or even a more general council where all the different geographic locations and areas of the church are represented at that council, and that’s why it’s called an ecumenical council. The emperor of the Roman Empire, whose name is Justinian, summoned this fifth ecumenical council, and this council was in many ways favorable to the Monophysites but in other ways was unfavorable to them as well. It was unfavorable to them insofar as it anathematized those who declared that the Council of Chalcedon countenanced the very errors which it condemned.
And so the Monophysites were not satisfied with the resolution of the Council of Constantinople in 553. They were not fully in agreement with how the Council of Chalcedon worked out the two natures of Christ, and so in a sense, this fifth ecumenical council provided a resolution, but not really. In 325 to 381, the church was unified concerning the Trinity. In 451 there’s basic unity again concerning the nature of Christ in the incarnation, and in 553 the Monophysites, who weren’t fully satisfied with the resolution of 451, are never fully satisfied. And in 531 we have the ceiling of the separation of the Monophysites from the Christian church, and as I mentioned in a much earlier lecture as we looked ahead to this whole era, as I was introducing the era that we call the conciliar era, the era of the councils, I mentioned to you that the Monophysites existed for many centuries after this and that in the nineteenth century the Christian church in America sent missionaries to the Monophysites in India. But from this time period on, from 553 on, the Monophysites were excluded from what we would call Catholic or universal Christianity, and they retain a separate existence from that time on.
That seems like a difficult question—the two natures of Jesus Christ in the incarnation. There’s one more area that we need to investigate—are you ready for this other technical word—the Monothelite controversy—the Monothelite controversy. Same prefix, mono, and thelos is another transliteration of the Greek word for will—the one-will controversy. We had the one-nature controversy; now we have the one-will controversy. The attempted settlement of the Monophysite controversy soon demonstrated that there still was not harmony in the church. The Monophysites have left, they’re out of the scene, the church makes its stand that we have a complete and yet distinct two natures in Christ.
The next question that the church wrestles with after the Council of Constantinople in 553 is the question of whether or not Jesus had two wills. Did He have a full and complete human will? Did He have a full and complete divine will? This controversy is one that I have in my own years of ministry seem to be still a hot issue in the Christian church, and there is still a lot of discussion concerning this question: that is, as we think about the temptation of Jesus Christ, did He have a fully human will that could really be tempted in the ways in which you and I are tempted? That question has a secondary question that is not fully resolved in the time period of our own church history, that is, up until the year 600. In the human will is the possibility of sinning. Is it necessary that there’s a full possibility of sinning for a temptation to occur? This question is still going to be debated throughout the history of the church, and there will be whole tomes written on this question. I’m reminded, for example, of the eighteenth-century American author, Jonathan Edwards, who wrote a massive tome on the nature of human will and the nature also in that tome of Christ’s will. His book was called On the Freedom of the Will. And so there are still questions being raised concerning the nature of Christ’s willing.
So listen carefully to the resolution that we find in the ancient church to this important and interesting question so that you can have some background for your own contemplation and, especially if you’re a pastor of the church, your own leadership when the questions come up, and they do come up, in church life. Several vital questions had been unanswered with the Council of Chalcedon and the Council of Constantinople in 553. For example, the question of how the two natures in Christ remain in many ways an unsolved question, but the additional question arose, How much is included in the person and how much is included in the nature of Christ? If Christ had one will, where did His will reside? Did it reside in His human nature, or did it reside in His divine nature? And the concomitant question, Are there two wills in Christ? Is there a human will and is there a divine will? To say that there is but one will in Christ seems to rob our Savior of true human volition, and to say that is, therefore, to detract from integrity of His humanity. Let me say that again. To say that Jesus only had one will in many ways seems to rob Him of being able to will fully as a human being, and therefore the question rises as to how human was He? On the other hand, to say that there are two wills in Christ seems to lead us back into the problem of Nestorianism. So how are we going to resolve this question?
The Monothelites started from the unity of the person of Christ and asserted by their name now, mono thelos, Monothelite, one will, they asserted that because there is one person of Christ, there must only be one will in Christ. Assuming that there’s one will in Christ, then we see the Monothelite camp dividing into two subcamps. Either the human will is regarded as merged in the divine so that the divine will alone acted, or they regarded the will as some type of a composite will resulting from a true fusion of a human will and a divine will. What a complex controversy, and it will take a long time for the church to fully resolve this one. And the resolution, by the way, comes in the seventh century, which is beyond the parameters for this course. So should I leave you hanging, or should I give you the answer? I’d be remiss in not giving the answer even though it goes beyond the year 600. In the year 680 there is one final ecumenical council, the sixth, and it’s also meeting in Constantinople and they met there just to confuse students of church history. The doctrine of the two wills in Christ is adopted, that Jesus had both a fully human and a fully divine will. And so the established position was that the human will by its union with the divine did not become less human but was heightened and perfected by this union with the divine will, and so the human will of Christ, the church said in 680, and the divine will in Christ continue to act in perfect harmony with each other, yet still being distinct.
These difficult Christological struggles are found mostly in the Eastern church, which had more philosophical sophistication; however, in the West, there is still some time for debate on the doctrine of Christ. But those debates in the West take us beyond the parameters of the course in the ancient church.