Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

Lengthening our Memory 8

posted by Scot McKnight


Chris Hall, in Worshiping With the Church Fathers
, examines another topic — withdrawal into the desert — and it leads me to ask a question, one that I hope you give some thought and then weigh in:

Why do you think most Protestants, and especially low church evangelicals, have no monastic tradition, no ascetical tradition, and no emphasis on retreats into the desert? And for those who do find such traditions, why do they have to dip into the fathers and the Roman Catholic traditions to find it? Is there something wrong with this tradition or is there something wrong with the evangelical tradition?

Well, St Antony and the desert tradition are synonymous. Once, after hearing a sermon on “be perfect and sell your possessions,” St Antony — and later St Francis — took these words of Jesus to heart and sold all. St Antony into the desert; St Francis into a life of denial and poverty and humility.
And why do both Antony and Francis exercise such an iconic power or moving symbol to this day?
The desert tradition has a number of significant words: training, discipline, humility, emulation, submission, spiritual warfare … yes, and many today chafe at the number of “spiritual encounters” Antony had (I know I do). 

And then the extremes: going all night without sleep as a discipline, eating but once a day or less, eating bread and salt and water, sleeping on a coarse mat or even on the ground. This strengthened his soul as it suppressed the body.
Antony was known for not competing spiritually; he took one day at a time and received what it had. He was in the desert for 35 years and the Eastern fathers saw him in terms of theosis: he was transformed by the time in the desert. He was a powerful minister of the gospel after this time in the desert.
Hall closes the chp with a discussion of theosis. Union with Christ transforms into Eikons of God, those bearing God’s image. Christ became what we are in order to make us what he is. But Athanasius, who wrote the book on St Antony, does not blur ontological distinction in his theory of theosis. The incarnation, and therefore also eucharist, are Christ’s joining our nature so we can be united to him. Meditation on the redemptive work of Christ fosters theosis.

Comments read comments(26)
post a comment

posted February 11, 2010 at 2:10 am

In response to the question, “Why do you think most Protestants, and especially low church evangelicals, have no monastic tradition, no ascetical tradition, and no emphasis on retreats into the desert? And for those who do find such traditions, why do they have to dip into the fathers and the Roman Catholic traditions to find it? Is there something wrong with this tradition or is there something wrong with the evangelical tradition?”
Dallas Willard comes to mind, reminding us (evangelicals and other low-church types, mostly) that “Grace is not opposed to effort, grace is opposed to EARNING.” DW thinks that evangelicals are in need of this reminder in order to understand why spiritual disciplines (retreats, asceticism, etc) are a biblical and profitable part of being a Christ-follower, and I think he’s hit the nail on the head.

report abuse


posted February 11, 2010 at 5:02 am

Speaking as one who grew up in evangelical household and went to seminary, I have always have trouble reconciling the role of effort in the Christian life (which is why I really enjoyed Willard’s books when I came across them a few years ago). Life was a constant cycling between trying to be good, and then feeling guilty for “working for my righteousness” and relying on human effort instead of letting the Holy Spirit do the work. “Letting go and letting God” led to misery, which was reinforced by my church which tended to focus only on how humans are miserable sinners. In the end, it was too discouraging to live that way, especially because I knew that Jesus promised freedom in the gospels.
So I started to think that it is something in the DNA of Protestantism (especially view of justification/sanctification) that makes it difficult to incorporate the spiritual disciplines (e.g., solitude)
To give one example, Luther said, ?Here Thomas [Aquinas] errs in common with his followers and with Aristotle who say, ?Practice makes perfect?: just as a harp player becomes a good harp player through long practice, so these fools think that the virtues of love, chastity, and humility can be achieved through practice. It is not true.?
Even though I am still a Protestant, in my own lived experience, I come closer the view of Aquinas in that quote than Luther’s.

report abuse


posted February 11, 2010 at 5:45 am

Dear JAR – beautifully articulated. My own RC – Protestant pilgrimage has some similar components to your own, but I think that my RC background (which was, in many ways, devout) makes me more open to learning from (what are now, for me) other traditions (RC, Orthodoxy, desert fathers, etc.). Thanks.

report abuse


posted February 11, 2010 at 6:51 am

I don’t think that the desert fathers are particularly worth emulating – because I don’t think extensive withdrawal to contemplate God is the mission of a Christian. But that is a side issue.
I agree with JAR, in the midst of many things Luther got right, this is one he got wrong. The same ideas are seen in other reformation traditions as well. The practice of virtue, disciplines, changes us. We can train the mind in a way similar to the way an athlete trains the body. All are not equal, some will succeed more than others, we need the grace of God, but to fail to try – intentionally – is a cop out, and will limit the work of God.

report abuse


posted February 11, 2010 at 7:09 am

Peter in #1: I like that Willard quotation, “”Grace is not opposed to effort, grace is opposed to EARNING” very much. Thanks for sharing that with us.
And I agree with those of you who say Luther got this particular matter wrong.
I guess some people need the intensive retreat from the world for a long time, but I think the majority of us really need mini-retreats and we can get those each day during prayer. I have never been on more than a weekend retreat and those were years ago, but I really think I would love to be able to “go away” for a week or two away from my “regular” life just to be able to be fully immersed in the practice of listening to God. We can do it in our every-day lives, but I do believe it helps to have some going away time too.

report abuse

Josh Rhone

posted February 11, 2010 at 9:43 am

I think that the seeming disparity between the Protestant tradition and the ascetical tradition is rooted in the reaction of the Reformers and Radical Reformers to all things Roman Catholic. The excesses, abuses, and lack of understanding that many of the reformers and people who followed in the wake of the reformers had in respect to the ascetical tradition made it easy for them to reject it lock-stock-and-barrel.
As others have noted, the cry of sola fide undoubtedly helped to solidify the Protestant tradition’s willingness to distance itself from a tradition that seemed to be very much rooted in works. After all, Luther in his tractate, On the Freedom of a Christian, is very careful to nuance his view of faith in such a manner so that even faith itself cannot and will not be construed as a “work”.
Theology and reaction aside, however, I think that the divorce of the two traditions is rather sad and tragic. Discipleship without discipline is well-nigh impossible. What is more, Protestants could do well to listen to and learn from the monastic and ascetic traditions regarding things such as sanctifying one’s time, prayerfully listening to the voice of God, etc.
Even as I typed that last sentence another thought occurred to me- maybe Protestants are hesitant to embrace the ascetic and monastic traditions because what these traditions value is very much different than what the Protestant tradition has come to value. After all, if sanctifying of one’s time is a monastic value- it is a value that doesn’t square very well with the idea that time is commodity that is to be used efficiently to accomplish as much as we can. If sitting quietly and waiting in eager anticipation of hearing a the still, small voice of God is a value of the monastic tradition- it doesn’t fit very well within the Protestant brand of faith that suggests we need well-produced worship services, raucous praise music blaring from our stereos, and vodcasts and podcasts that allow us to hear preaching/teaching 24/7.
Maybe the Protestant/ascetic divorce is part theological, part reaction, and largely rooted in a Protestant brand of faith that is rooted in consumerism and commodification rather than obedient submission to the lordship of Christ?!

report abuse


posted February 11, 2010 at 9:47 am

One thing seems certain to me on this issue – whatever extremes the desert fathers may have been “guilty” of evangelicals are equally guilty of in the opposite extreme. We (I include myself) are one undisciplined bunch, and I find JAR’s comment to be fairly representative of many of us – we don’t know what to do with “discipline”. We tend to equate it with Catholicism, legalism, works-righteousness, etc. However, I am coming to believe that there is an essential role for discipline in the process of discipleship. The key it seems to me is how to exercise discipline with humility under the grace and enablement of God. BTW, men like Dallas Willard are a welcome prophetic voice to the church today.

report abuse


posted February 11, 2010 at 10:10 am

This is of particular interest to me because some of my graduate work was around the desert communities.
Part of the issue, IMO, is that evangelicalism is fundamentally “individualist”.
In the Sayings we see a that the ground of spiritual formation in the Desert was communal and marked by radical submission, compunction and discipline that required the support of others.
Can you imagine in an individualistic faith community someone submitting to direction the way the Fathers and Mothers gave it?
The Fathers and Mothers understood that when the whole human self is engaged in rigorous disciplines over time this shaped the spirit of a person toward quietness, meekness, contemplation and prayer.
For all the seeming unreasonable demands that some Desert Fathers and Mothers put on their disciples, there are moments in the Conferences of Cassian that help us see that the Fathers and Mothers would also rebuke each other for being unreasonable or too harsh.
These were dynamic communities given to dialogue, discernment and a deep seated love for the health of souls.
they probably had a better understanding of the brokenness of the human self than the reformers.
On the side note of “mission”, right or wrong, the cosmology of the early communities saw themselves as going out into the places where the disorder of the evil one reigned.
They believed they were fulfilling mission to do battle with powers of evil and the extension of redemption as a continuation of “Christus Victor” via the life of God’s people.
Further, these communities were largely on the edges of cities. They were engaged and known by those within the urban centers and had regular contact with them.
So i don’t think that, for the most part, these communities were living out the more “middle church” mode of “cloistering” even with the occasional hermit being given permission by the community to withdraw more fully.

report abuse


posted February 11, 2010 at 10:18 am

This may sound absurd but my monastic time was when I was a stay at home mom. I spent a lot of time alone, doing menial tasks with little sense of human reward. Many moms returned to work and I found my days very alone and God was a dear companion.

report abuse


posted February 11, 2010 at 10:54 am

I think there’s something missing in evangelicalism or better put, some of evangelicals have missed out by relegating Catholicism to the sidelines because of a few beliefs that we do not share. It’s as if Catholicism has no redeeming value in some evangelicals mind. But, when you do that, you miss out. I know in talking about things like silent prayer and silent retreats, I usually get the deer in the headlights look from many people. These things and others have not been emphasized so it is foreign to many people.
A questions though: Scot, why do you “chafe” at the number of spiritual encounters that Antony had? Just curious….

report abuse

Mike Hickerson

posted February 11, 2010 at 10:57 am

I agree with those who credit/blame Martin Luther for the rejection of monasticism, but we ought to exercise some charity toward him and his context before simply saying he was wrong. After all, he was deeply embedded in the monastic tradition when he experienced God’s grace, and that experience led him (and his future wife) to reject the monastic system of his day. If we honor and credit the grace-filled experiences of Antony and Francis, then we should do the same for Luther’s experience.

report abuse


posted February 11, 2010 at 11:00 am

“We can train the mind in a way similar to the way an athlete trains the body.”
If the analagy is baseball, we shall of course be very muddied and tattered children by the time we reach home(taken from C.S.Lewis).
Churches act as if they are the game when they are the locker room. Williard is a coach, but I don’t think effort is the key. Not that preparation isn’t necessary. I need to relax and have some fun to play well. When your really in the zone, it’s effortless. Some play year round, others are like monastics in the off season.
Learn your position, be a team player, be an iron player. Your definitely not gonna get a hit most at bats. The game is joyous!

report abuse


posted February 11, 2010 at 11:10 am

I agree particularly with one of the comments above, which points to Luther and the reformers pointedly negative attaitude towards monastics and religious life traditions. Luther and Zwingli in particular were very pointed in their remarks about Friars ‘lice on the Devil’s fur coat’ for example, and of course referred to the Anabaptists in derogatory terms as ‘new monastics’.
But all that said, I think that there are clearly proto monastics in the bible, such as John the Baptists, Elijah and any number of nazirites. I think there are pockets of protestantism which have picked up these and other role models, including Antony – who obviously was neither protestant nor catholic. Moreover there has been a strong move by parts of the protestant church to claim the ‘celts’ as non roman monastics from whom we can learn.
So I’d say its too simplistic to claim there is no monastic heritage in protestantism, look at the Ferrar Community of Little Gidding which began just after the Reformation for instance. They perhaps werent monastic as such, but their life was such that the puritans still called their home an ‘Arminian Nunnery’. Nicholas Ferrar was an Anglican, and so falls within the protestant fold.
Today there are all kinds of new monastic communities within protestantism, even within evangelicalism. These groups have been called ‘new monastic’ after the famous Bonhoeffer phrase, but in fact represent more realistically a new iteration of monasticism which has been developing since approximately 1930.
Monasticism after all is an evolving concept, people now look back to Benedict, who looked back to Antony, who looked back to John who was a Nazirite and so drew upon the well of Nazirite teachings which takes us back to Elijah and so on.
Sorry, enough of the waffle, and yes, I have written a book about this stuff :)

report abuse


posted February 11, 2010 at 11:33 am

I can think of three reasons. There are probably more.
1) Over-reaction to Roman Catholic emphasis on life-long celibacy for those in the monastic tradition.
2) Evangelical emphasis on being in-not-of instead of being far-removed.
3) Low-church protestantism came along about the same time as the rapid expansion of wealth and leisure for the West’s middle-classes. Who wants to be an ascetic when you can have a big-screen tv?

report abuse


posted February 11, 2010 at 11:40 am

Who wants to be an ascetic when you can have a big-screen tv?
it reminds me of a conversation with a friend who had just come back from a Benedictine retreat house.
He said, I so want to be a monk.
I said, Me too. But married. with money.

report abuse


posted February 11, 2010 at 11:48 am

Chris B. and Nathan, your comments remind me of this quote:
“Philip Yancey writes of a spiritual seeker who interrupted his busy, acquisitive life to spend a few days in a monastery. “I hope your stay is a blessed one,” said the monk who showed him to his simple cell. “If you need anything, let us know, and we’ll teach you how to live without it.”
Seriously though, time in a monastic setting or silent retreat can help one to adjust their perspective which may or may not include giving up worldly possessions. Maybe people could hold on to their big-screen t.v.s but do so with a less possessive attitude. Others however, might be called to give some things up. It’s about following whatever God would call you to do and he knows what each one of us needs.

report abuse

Chaplain Mike

posted February 11, 2010 at 12:38 pm

Scot, I do believe we have an ascetical tradition in evangelicalism, but because of the “evangelical” priority in evangelicalism, I think it is revealed more in terms of sacrificial service and missions than in personal spiritual formation alone.
“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose,” were Jim Elliot’s famous words, and they were spoken in the context of leaving the world behind to reach people for Christ.

report abuse


posted February 11, 2010 at 1:13 pm

I don’t think sacrificial acts alone are really viewed as ascetical in evangelicalism.
I think they’re seen as the living out of a contrasting cultural value system, not a discipline that shapes the human soul.
I think such acts are seen as evidentiary of Christian identity, not formational of it.

report abuse

Scot McKnight

posted February 11, 2010 at 1:28 pm

Pat, I don’t think I worded that well. I should say that I chafe at the extremity of his experiences, not so much the number (the number of the odd experiences with demons — makes me wonder if some of this is hallucenogenic).

report abuse


posted February 11, 2010 at 2:00 pm

or embellishments by Athanasius?

report abuse


posted February 11, 2010 at 2:05 pm

I think once someone undergoes much extreme asceticism, anything is possible in terms of experiences. One can reach a place in which the physical, emotional and mental start to impinge on each other.

report abuse


posted February 11, 2010 at 4:38 pm

sometimes i WISH i could live a monastic life–not one where you couldn’t talk or had to live on a handful of grain but one where everything we did was seen as worship.
PS a good new book “Water from a Deep Well–Christian spirituality from early martyrs to maodern missionaries” by Jerry Sittser.

report abuse

Randy G.

posted February 11, 2010 at 5:20 pm

I didn’t have time to read all the comments, so I apologize to any who have said this before.
I find that it is not so much the lack of withdrawl or discipline that Protestantism lacks as a valuing of solitude and what Madeliene L’Engle characterized as “Being Time.” My wife and I have been deeply blessed by an abundance of being time while I am undemployed and she is under-employed. This time for contemplation, watching and being present in our neighborhood has given our church-life a depth it never had before.
Yesterday I was gifted with an opportunity to spend time mourning the two evictions that have occurred on our block in the past week, and to consider how my wife and I might work to build community structures to prevent such occurences in the future.
Randy G.

report abuse

Randy G.

posted February 11, 2010 at 5:22 pm

I meant to suggest in my post above that I wonder whether we Protestants have it wrong. Do we work so hard at being successful Christians that we miss the opportunities right in front of our noses?
If so, why?
Randy G.

report abuse


posted February 11, 2010 at 5:53 pm

# 9 Joanne- I would also point to this era of my life as being quite monastic and a major time of spiritual formation but it is one that is under the radar in most evangelical churches.

report abuse


posted February 11, 2010 at 11:55 pm

Well there’s monasticism and there’s monasticism. Benedict’s monastery Monte Cassino is right along the main road from Rome to Naples. If you’re trying to escape from the world this is poor planning! And the Rule of St. Benedict places tremendous value on hospitality — monks (and nuns) are to receive a guest as Christ. This is a very different mindset from later orders with much stricter cloister. There’s a Poor Clares monastery in my neighborhood and not only is there a floor-to-ceiling fence separating the nuns’ area from the public area, but the chapel is set up in an L shape, with the nuns on one leg and the public on another and the altar and pulpit in the middle. So I could be present in the chapel when the nuns are chanting the Office, but we’d never see each other.
I have to say I don’t understand the strict cloister. (That’s okay. There are lots of good and valuable things that I do not understand.) But even the strictest of the cloistered would say that their vocation is to be praying for all the rest of us. It isn’t a self-focused “spend all my time and attention shaping myself into the epitome of holiness.” It’s withdrawn, yet withdrawn in prayer for the good of the world.

report abuse

Post a Comment

By submitting these comments, I agree to the terms of service, rules of conduct and privacy policy (the "agreements"). I understand and agree that any content I post is licensed to and may be used by in accordance with the agreements.

Previous Posts

More Blogs To Enjoy!!!
Thank you for visiting Jesus Creed. This blog is no longer being updated. Please enjoy the archives. Here are some other blogs you may also enjoy: Red Letters with Tom Davis Recent prayer post on Prayables Most Recent Inspiration blog post Happy Reading!  

posted 11:15:58am Aug. 16, 2012 | read full post »

Our Common Prayerbook 30 - 3
Psalm 30 thanks God (vv. 1-3, 11-12) and exhorts others to thank God (vv. 4-5). Both emerge from the concrete reality of David's own experience. Here is what that experience looks like:Step one: David was set on high and was flourishing at the hand of God's bounty (v. 7a).Step two: David became too

posted 12:15:30pm Aug. 31, 2010 | read full post »

Theology After Darwin 1 (RJS)
One of the more important and more difficult pieces of the puzzle as we feel our way forward at the interface of science and faith is the theological implications of discoveries in modern science. A comment on my post Evolution in the Key of D: Deity or Deism noted: ...this reminds me of why I get a

posted 6:01:52am Aug. 31, 2010 | read full post »

Almost Christian 4
Who does well when it comes to passing on the faith to the youth? Studies show two groups do really well: conservative Protestants and Mormons; two groups that don't do well are mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics. Kenda Dean's new book is called Almost Christian: What the Faith of Ou

posted 12:01:53am Aug. 31, 2010 | read full post »

Let's Get Neanderthal!
The Cave Man Diet, or Paleo Diet, is getting attention. (Nothing is said about Culver's at all.) The big omission, I have to admit, is that those folks were hunters -- using spears or smacking some rabbit upside the conk or grabbing a fish or two with their hands ... but that's what makes this diet

posted 2:05:48pm Aug. 30, 2010 | read full post »

Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.