I’m going to talk with you today about a theologian that Reformed Christians do not usually talk about:
Benedict of Nursia (480-543)
If you have some acquaintance with him, you may be thinking “what does a monastic have to do with Reformed theology?!?” If you have no acquaintance with him at all, my hope is that you may begin your exploration of Benedict in a positive light.
Who was Benedict?
Benedict was a man who lived during a time that the social order of the Roman Empire was quickly disintegrating. He reached the age when he was to go to college and, upon realizing that he was going into “the world”, he fled to the desert. He spent years there in solitude, prayer, study of the Scriptures, and a variety of ascetic practices. This was done with the goal of mortifying sin.
Eventually, he was asked to form communities around the practices he had cultivated. He did so and wrote a classic of Christian literature, known as The Rule of St. Benedict. Developing these communities was common in the ancient church; we know that Basil of Caesarea, Augustine, and Athanasius formed their own communities or praised the lives of desert monks.
What is His Rule All About?
Benedict’s Rule is composed of 73 short chapters and sets out an order of discipline, daily life, and worship for an order of monastics. It includes instructions on prayer (gathering 7 times everyday for the singing of psalms, liturgical prayers, and readings from the Scriptures), daily work, how those in the community are to interact with each other, how they are to eat, how they should sleep, etc. It includes guidance on how to cultivate virtues such as humility (chapter 7 discusses the “twelve degrees of humility”).
Perhaps the most famous contribution on Benedict is the slogan of the Benedictine monks:
Ora et Labora.
Pray and Work.
Benedict’s spirituality is, in the end, deeply practical. It focuses on a life of prayer and work. This is to bring balance. While prayer and study will eventually become wearisome to us, and excessive work a burden, Benedict brings the two together harmoniously in a manner that honors us as both creatures made in the image of God who worship Him and also cultivate the world that He has given us.
While later Benedictine’s would infuse it with a more mystical tone, Benedict’s rule instead focuses on daily, mundane tasks and addresses the pitfalls that may come through them because of sin. For example, in discussing the distribution of necessary goods, Benedict writes:
Let us follow Scripture: Distribution was made to every man according as he had need. By this we do not mean that there should be respect of persons (God forbid), but consideration for infirmities. He that needeth less, let him thank God and not be discontented; he that needeth more, let him be humbled for his infirmity and not made proud by the mercy shown to him: so will all the members be at peace. Above all, let not the vice of murmuring show itself in any word or sign, for any reason whatsoever. But if a brother be found guilty of it, let him undergo strict punishment (Rule, ch. 34).
Benedict’s rule was ascetic, certainly. Some comforts of life were withheld with the purpose of brining the lusts of the flesh under control. Whether we think that is vain teachings of men (Colossians 2:21) or simply wisdom for sanctification is up for debate. However, the rule itself was not excessively burdensome. Indeed, it is one of the reason’s the Benedictine Orders became so prevalent throughout the ancient world: because they allowed for an engagement with the world and allowed for the boundaries of our creatureliness. Benedictines did not hide from the world but became the preservers of culture after the fall of the Roman Empire. They transcribed Scripture, they maintained knowledge of basic crafts and trades, and they taught them to the people of their surrounding communities.
Benedict in a Reformed Key
But does this in any sense translate to Reformed theology? I believe so. The Reformed – especially Calvin – had a love/hate relationship with monasticism. You can find instances in his commentaries in which Calvin likens monastics to the Pharisees who go a great distance for one proselyte and only destroy him. In other places, you find Calvin speaking in positive terms about the early monastics. In his Institutes, he distinguishes between ancient monasticism and the monasticism of his day which had created either austerities too burdensome and unbiblical, or had fallen into decadence. What concerned Calvin was the creation of a sacred class of monks who were more perfect that the secular class of men, living out their common vocations in the world. However, he saw the benefit of these “monastic colleges” for training men in “greater austerity and patience” for the purpose of training for ministry.
However, we can see cognates with the way our Reformed spoke of sanctification in common, daily, mundane terms, when we look to the rule of St. Benedict. Indeed, the theology of grace underpinning both traditions comes to the fore in this passage below:
Such men as these, fearing the Lord, are not puffed up on account of their good works, but judging that they can do no good of themselves and that all cometh from God, they magnify the Lord’s work in them, using the word of the prophet: Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name give the glory (Psalm 113:9). (Prologue to Benedict’s Rule).
Note that Benedict does not ascribe worth to himself or to the monks for the good works they do. Rather, he begins his rule – setting the context for everything that follows – that all that happens in the life of the monk starts with grace, continues in grace, and ends in grace. The monks are to give all the glory to God for whatever good is found in them.
Do we say, then, that Benedict was “Reformed”? I think it would be anachronistic to do so. Certainly he was not concerned with the same theological concerns and debates that the Reformed were. However, Reformed believer can look at his words – like those above – and say “yes and amen.”
This is because Benedict’s Rule is deeply biblical. One can hardly go more than two pages in his rule without encountering Scriptural quotations, especially from the Psalms and Proverbs. Indeed, Benedict may have been setting out a kind of “Gospel Wisdom” for young men seeking to understand how to live in light of the gospel.
What Does Benedict Do for Us?
For one, I think we should read Benedict because we can see how worship, spirituality, and Christian living was articulated in the early church. We can find some of the sources which inspired our Reformed forefathers, as many of them were deeply read in men like Benedict. However, we must eat the meat and spit out the bones. When we read Benedict, we must remember that our rule for holiness is the moral law. Thus, any act of piety and devotion that we do has reference to that. Anything else is a man-made tradition. However, we can see a great deal of wisdom Benedict’s rule; indeed in chapter 4 (“The Tools of Good Works”), many of the good works extolled by Benedict are directly from the Ten Commandments.
The application of the moral law, however, requires wisdom and a knowledge of our limitations and flesh. Benedict is a helpful read for cultivating personal practices at home (such as the singing of psalms, either personally or with family), corporate practices as a community, how to love and serve your neighbor, and more. These are things the Reformed can agree on with Benedict, even if we cannot adopt his rule as a whole.