Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Reading the Rule of St. Benedict for Today

Written by: Justin Taylor

StBenedictofNursiaThe Rule of St. Benedict (regula Benedicti) was written by Benedict (c. AD 480-547) as a rule for communal life under the order of an abbot (the head of the abbey).

For fifteen centuries, it has served as a leading guide for balanced monastic living. And these days, Benedict is making a comeback, thanks in no small part to Rod Dreher’s bestselling The Benedict Option, which picked up on philosopher Alasdair Macintyre’s comment that “We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”

As Timothy Fry explains in his editorial preface to an English transition, these 73 rules offer “directions for all aspects of the monastic life, from establishing the abbot as superior, the arrangement of psalms for prayers, measures for correction of faults, to details of clothing and the amount of food and drink.”

For a quick historical summary of the Rule, this is a helpful overview.

Accessing Bendict’s biblical fidelity—or lack thereof—depends in large part upon larger questions related to the nature of Christian spirituality, and specifically the wisdom of seeking sanctification in a monastic order. While the monastic impulse may be regarded as understandable and well-intentioned, most Protestants will struggle with its ascetic orientation, some of its key doctrines (e.g., of creation, justification, sanctification, authority, vocation), and its extrabiblical rules that not only go beyond Scripture but at times contradict it..

Because Catholic (i.e., Western) Monasticism holds to the Great Tradition, there is much that Reformed and evangelical readers will find unobjectionable per se. And many of the rules are good, basic, proverbial counsel for living life.

At times, a particular principle itself may be biblical, but Benedict makes unbiblical applications due to the monastic assumptions he brings to the text.

As a minor example, note his prohibitions on laughter:

  • “We absolutely condemn in all places any vulgarity and gossip and talk leading to laughter, and we do not permit a disciple to engage in words of that kind.”
  • “The tenth step of humility is that he is not given to ready laughter, for it is written: Only a fool raises his voice in laughter (Sir 21:23).”

This is one of those places where I want to respond, “Yes, but.” Yes—let us put away all vulgarity and gossip. And we should put away the kind of laughter that is incommensurate with knowledge of our sin (James 4:9). But laughter itself can be biblical, an expression of joy at the great things God has done (Ps. 126:2). Benedict relies upon a non-canonical book in prohibiting readiness to laugh rather than focusing upon the object of laughter. C.S. Lewis once noted that “There’s no sound I like better than adult male laughter.” But for Benedict, adult male laughter was a cause for suspicion.

As another example, Benedict is rightly concerned that the monks not give occasion to the Evil One (Eph. 4:27; 1 Tim. 5:14). But when will this happen? Benedict warns that it can happen when the monks go to sleep early. Or it can happen when they engage in “idle talk” (65, 70). Or it can happen if they are distressed when their abbot takes gifts sent to them from their parents and gives it to another monk. These were undoubtedly practical realities with monks living together in an abbey—under a father-like authority who controls all aspects of their lives—but specific “rules” become well-intentioned strictures that actually limit our biblical freedom in Christ.

Nevertheless, some of Benedict’s rules exhibit good biblical sense and are applicable for all leaders (e.g., “Let him strive to be loved rather than feared”).

Benedict seems to miss the distinction between discipline and punishment. The former is applicable to believers (e.g., Heb. 12:5-6), but punishment is not (for Christ has born it once and for all). God’s discipline of his children is now redemptive not retributive. But Benedict claims (emphasis added):

  • “He will have no reward for service of this kind; on the contrary, he will incur punishment for grumbling, unless he changes for the better and makes amends.”
  • “For all the more reason, then, should evil speech be curbed so that punishment for sin may be avoided.”
  • “If he does not use this occasion to humble himself, he will be subjected to more sever punishment for failing to correct by humility the wrong committed through negligence.”

Benedict’s position is understandable in light of Roman Catholicism’s teaching on justification and purgatory, but it does not thereby make it more biblical.

Other criticisms could be offered (e.g., his commending of shame as a motivator, his view of our satisfaction for our own sins, etc.).

Again, my bottom-line takeaway from reading the Rule of St. Benedict: much of his counsel is fine, in and of itself—but mainly when it is confined to the most general level. The more specific he gets, the more problems he seems to create, especially if the rules are regarded as universal and inviolable.



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