Greg Peters. The Story of Monasticism: Retrieving an Ancient Tradition for Contemporary Spirituality. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015. See here to purchase the book.
Greg Peters is a Benedictine oblate, an Anglican pastor, and an academic who teaches medieval and spiritual theology. His book, The Story of Monasticism,
is about the history of Christian monasticism, and reactions to it,
from the first century C.E. to the present time. Peters also explores
possible implications of monasticism for today’s Christianity, including
Peters seems to argue against Protestant misconceptions of
monasticism, particularly the misconception that monastics were
cloistered spiritual elitists who did little to help the outside world.
Not only did many monastics set up institutions that helped the
vulnerable, Peters contends, but they also aimed to instruct laypeople
on how to live a spiritual life, through words, publications, and
example. Although Peters is arguing against misconceptions that can
probably be identified as Protestant, Peters also holds that historic
Protestantism was not thoroughly opposed to monasticism. Prominent
Protestant founders maintained that monasticism was acceptable, as long
as it expressed gratitude to God for salvation as opposed to trying to
attain salvation, and expressed repentance.
I was particularly interested in reading this book to learn more
about the origins of Christian monasticism. Peters’ discussion on this
topic did not disappoint, although there were occasions when his
arguments were a bit of a stretch. Peters was arguing that certain ideas
of monasticism are present in the Bible: the Nazirite vow and other
vows in the Torah, contemplation of God in the Hebrew Bible, leaving one
place to go to another (i.e., the desert) for a religious purpose, and
Paul’s reference to people who abstained from sex for spiritual purposes
in I Corinthians 7.
Peters is probably correct that some of these concepts set the stage
for monasticism, but I would not consider Moses talking with God on the
mountain to be an example of contemplation, or Abraham leaving Ur or
Haran to go to the Promised Land to be like monastics leaving society to
set up religious communities. Maybe there is somewhat of a similarity
between monasticism and these biblical ideas, but there are also
differences (i.e., Moses was not engaging in a discipline of
contemplation, and Abraham was not setting up a monastic community).
Peters also speculates that a belief in the imminent end of the world
may have encouraged Christians to seek salvation and purity through
monasticism, and that is plausible. Moreover, Peters mentions possible
predecessors to Christian monasticism (i.e., the Essenes), and he notes
in a footnote the existence of monasticism outside of Judaism and
Christianity (in Buddhism, for example).
Although Peters’ focus in the
book was on Christian monasticism, he would have done well, in my
opinion, to have offered brief rationales for Jewish and non-Jewish or
non-Christian forms of monasticism, in order to explain the rise of
Christian monasticism within the context of monasticism in general.
Peters did refer to the scholarly view that Christian monasticism was
different from Hellenistic ascetic associations, and that “there is no
evidence of cenobitic monasticism until the rise of Christian cenobitism
in the fourth century” (page 24), but I was unclear about what the
difference was (though Peters does cite an article, which I can read).
There were questions that I had in reading the book: What was the
significance of publishing spiritual books for laypeople, when many
people in medieval times could not read? Was there an expectation that
the social elites would teach others? If people went to monasteries to
be saved, what does that say about people outside of the monasteries?
According to Peters, monastics went to monasteries to escape temptation
and to focus on discipleship, but they still believed that people
outside monasteries could be saved. I wondered how they envisioned that
The book is still an informative resource in detailing the history of
Christian monasticism and Christian monastic movements (i.e., the
Benedictines, the Dominicans, the Franciscans, the Jesuits, etc.).
Moreover, Peters did well to offer a taste of monastic spirituality,
particularly the obedience, the discipline, the humility, the
fellowship, and the solitary contemplation of God that monastics sought
I received a complimentary review copy of this book from Baker Academic in exchange for an honest review.
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