A Brief Reformed Look at Mediaeval Monasteries

Loving the Christian tradition is a sign of spiritual health. But we must read the past with discernment. Just as a malnourished individual must eat wholesome food and not simply anything he can lay his hands on simply because it is food, so must we be when it comes to the past. I suspect it is due to a malnourished involvement with the past that some recent authors are enthusing about some elements of Church History that our Evangelical and Reformed forebears threw overboard because of their dissonance from the standpoint of Scripture. A good example has to be this recent post, “It Takes a Monk to Save a Civilization” by Ben House. This blog is building upon Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization, which is a good read no doubt—especially for someone like myself with an Irish parent—but has some definite flaws from a historiographical vantage-point. For example, House states, “For a time, about all that stood between the preservation of European civilization or its descent into a true dark age was a hardy band of Irish monks who were dedicated to copying books and evangelizing people.” But what of the entire structure of the Byzantine Empire and its libraries and scholars?

Then, at the end of the post, House cites a couple of historians of the mediæval era like Christopher Dawson about the blessings of mediæval monasteries. Reading these quotes I hardly recognized the institutions that John Wycliffe (d.1384) and the early Reformers so heavily declaimed against.

The quote from Dawson’s The Making of Europe, runs thus: “The greatest names of the age are the names of monks—St. Benedict and St. Gregory, the two Columbas, Bede and Boniface, Alcuin and Rabanus Maurus, and Dunstan, and it is to the monks that the great cultural achievements of the age are due, whether we look at the preservation of ancient culture, the conversion of new peoples or the formation of new centres of culture in Ireland and Northumbria and the Carolingian Empire.”

For a Roman Catholic historian like Dawson, the list of names in this quote can remain undifferentiated. They are all heroes of the faith in the Roman pantheon. But it will not do at all for a Reformed historian to cite such a list without making differentiation between, for example, the Celts and the Anglo-Celtic supporters of the Church of Rome.

House has a good point in his post that churches must function like beacons of light in our collapsing culture as monasteries once did in late antiquity. But that point must be made with care lest we forget what the monasteries came to represent in mediæval Europe.