The Rule of St. Benedict by Benedict of Nursia

St. Benedict of Nursia writing the Benedictine...
St. Benedict of Nursia writing the Benedictine rule, portrait in the church of Heiligenkreuz Abbey near Baden bei Wien, Lower Austria. Portrait (1926) by Herman Nieg (1849-1928) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Though it sheds light on how monasteries functioned in the Middle Ages, The Rule of St. Benedict sheds even more light on the theology behind the monastic movement. Benedict of Nursia wrote his rule around the year 530, hundreds of years before the Reformation. Yet the seeds of a works-based theology seem already to have been firmly planted.

Consider this from the prologue:

“For we ought at all times so to serve Him with the good things which He hath given us, that He may not, like an angry father, disinherit his children, nor, like a dread lord, enraged at our evil deeds, hand us over to everlasting punishment as most wicked servants, who would not follow Him to glory.”

In other words, our salvation is not secure and God, like an angry father, may snatch it away from us at any moment and send us to hell, depending on our behavior. Sadly, assurance of salvation is a foreign concept to Benedict.

His view of justification is problematic as well. Throughout the work, it is evident Benedict believes our justification before God depends upon our ability to follow the rules, primarily of course the Benedictine rules:

“If we desire to dwell in the tabernacle of His kingdom, we cannot reach it in any way, unless we run thither by good works.”

This is the very thing against which Martin Luther so strenuously fought many centuries later. To make matters worse, the works prescribed here are not even those things to which the Bible calls believers. Benedict seems primarily interested in external compliance as exhibited by certain types of asceticism:

“The vice of personal ownership must by all means be cut out in the monastery by the very root, so that no one may presume to give or receive anything without the command of the Abbot; nor to have anything whatever as his own, neither a book, nor a writing tablet, nor a pen, nor anything else whatsoever, since monks are allowed to have neither their bodies nor their wills in their own power.”

This is more akin to the false religion of the Pharisees with their multiple man-made rules than to the Christian concept of salvation by grace through faith. It also stands in direct opposition to scriptures such as Colossian 2:21-23

“If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” ( referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.”

As Martin Luther realized hundreds of years later, no amount of asceticism or self-flagellation can make us holy. Only the grace of God through Jesus Christ can do that.

There are other issues too such as his belief that the abbot stands in the place of Christ in the lives of the monks and the frequent violence done to scripture by removal from context and misapplication.

Whether I recommend this book depends upon the goal of the reader. It’s an excellent book to read if you’re looking to gain an historical perspective on medieval monastic life but if you’re looking for a treatise on living the Christian life – look elsewhere.

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