Essay / Theology

The Superiority of a Monastic Theological Method

This is post 1 of 4 in a series on the monastic theological method. It looks forward to the publication of Greg Peters’ new book: Monastic Theology as Theological Method: The Superiority of the Monastery to the University. Join us in this article as Dr. Peters distills the differences of approach between monastic and scholastic theology and sets the vision for the forthcoming book:

It recently came to me that I have been formally studying monasticism for just under thirty years.
I discovered Bernard of Clairvaux in a not-very-creatively-named Church History II class in Fall
1993 at Philadelphia College of Bible (now Cairn University). Dr. Chip Hard told us that
Bernard was a Cistercian monk. Being a Southern Baptist kid from central Virginia I thought to
myself, what’s a Cistercian? Actually, what’s a monk? And so began a study of monasticism that
has not abated.

It was early in my monastic studies that I found Jean Leclcerq’s The Love of Learning and the
Desire for God
. But it is only now that I have come to realize that Leclercq’s distinction between
“monastic theology” and “scholastic theology” is not just a way to categorize the historical
development of early and medieval theology but are actually two ways of doing theology. That is,
monastic theology and scholastic theology are distinct theological methods and I think I
understand how they are distinct and I think I can argue that a monastic theological method is
superior to a scholastic one. And if it is superior to a scholastic theological method, then it is
superior to many modern forms of theological methodology which are the children,
grandchildren, great grandchildren and perhaps even bastard children of this thing called
“Scholasticism,” which relies on a scholastic theological methodology.

Despite appearances, the discipline of theology is in trouble. It is true that there continues to be a
steady stream of theological publications and without doubt there are still doctoral programs with
theology students and seminaries brimming with divinity students. There are centers for pastor-
theologians, a nationwide “Theology on Tap” program, a network of Christian study centers
dedicated to lay theological training and conversation, and another network of theological
institutes offering advanced degrees and programs outside the traditional seminary structure.
Further, there remains publishing houses focused on theological books. And, of course, there are
still thousands of churches dedicated to preaching and catechesis, perhaps even theological
preaching and deep catechetical formation.

Yet, at the same time, and despite these resources, there seems to be a continual and ongoing
famine “of hearing the words of the Lord” (Amos 8:11) so as to elevate the level of Christian
theological literacy. Contemporary Christian music continues to grow more theologically vapid,
the best-selling books of the aforementioned publishers tend to be theologically weak and many
Christians cannot even name the books of the biblical canon, the Ten Commandments or the
basics of Christian orthodox belief as found in the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds. In fact, the next
generation of Christians may not be Christian at all but be moral therapeutic deists instead (see
Christian Smith, Soul Searching). For all of the available theological resources, there is not a lot
of good theology making its way from the hallowed halls of academia down into the pews. In
any case, I doubt whether most of the theology emanating from the academy would be
understood or even welcomed by the faithful, who seem to be mostly content with saccharine
songs and theologically lite sermons.

But theology has a venerable pedigree for it originates as a concept in ancient philosophy. In the
Republic, Plato records Socrates (d. 399 BCE) asking, “But what precisely are the patterns for
theology [θεολογίας] or stories about the gods?” Having rejected the traditional understanding of the gods presented by the poets (e.g., Homer), Socrates believes that his way of talking about the
gods (i.e., theology) is right. Thus, theology, understood literally as “talk about God” (θεός-
λόγος) enters into the philosophic tradition and is later Christianized and defined as “reason or
discourse concerning divinity” (Augustine of Hippo, City of God 8.1). Yet, by the time of the
birth of the universities in the thirteenth century, theologia refers to an academic discipline, “a
scientific model of understanding the faith as a tool for the education of the professional clerical
class,” according to Bernard McGinn. And, unfortunately, this more formal or “scientific”
understanding of theology has continued to dominate and, thus, decimate theology as talk about

The decline began when theology lost its end. The great Franciscan theologian Bonaventure (d.
1274) defended theology as the highest of all academic disciplines, writing: “it is evident how
the manifold wisdom of God, which is clearly revealed in sacred Scripture, lies hidden in all
knowledge and in all nature. It is clear also how all divisions of knowledge are servants of
theology” (On the Reduction of the Arts to Theology, 26). Bonaventure not only sees theology as
an academic discipline that reigns as the “queen of the sciences,” but he also understands that the
telos of theology (qua theology and not as an academic discipline) to be five-fold: 1) it
strengthens faith; 2) honors God; 3) forms character; 4) consoles; and, most importantly, 5) fosters
union with God through charity. The ultimate end of theology is to come to know God so as to
be unioned with him, as a spouse is wedded to her beloved. Theology’s telos is not just content
mastery or domesticated axioms about God but personal communion with the Triune God:
Father, Son and Holy Spirit. To study theology properly is not only to speak about God but to
commune with God.

And this telos has been (mostly) lost in today’s theological landscape. The goal of my book is to
distill the differences of approach between monastic and scholastic theology and to argue for the
superiority of monastic theology. For example, monastic theology’s is superior by its concern
with the role of affectus. In On Consideration, Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153) writes, God “is
perhaps more worthily sought and more easily found by prayer than by discussion” (On
5.32). Prayer, born out of one’s experience leads to love of God, creating a desire
for a personal, experiential relationship with God as opposed to mastering the theological content
of Trinitarian theology, for example. It is good to know that the Father beget the Son but more
important for one to have a relationship with the only-begotten Son, a relationship that is deep
and profound. To quote Leclercq, “the great difference between the theology of the schools and
that of the monasteries resides in the importance which the latter accord the experience of union
with God” (The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, 212). Rupert of Deutz (d. 1129) makes the explicit claim that theological “knowledge does not come from an outer, as if foreign, document, it comes from an inner and personal experience” (Commentary on the Apocalypse 2.2). Rupert speaks of the spiritual intimations a person understands inwardly.

Thus, monastic theology is dependent on a “lived faith” that results in a savoring and relishing of divine realities. A monastic theologian, is a liturgist; that is, one who worships God, individually and corporately. A monastic theologian is one who learns the terms and logic of theology so that she can move to the worship of God. A monastic theologian obtains an objective knowledge of God so that she can prepare herself for a subjective, personal knowledge born of the affect. An experience that does not ignore the role of the reason or logic but one that is born primarily out of one’s inner self, in fellowship with those theologians who have come before and in communion with the Word of God. It is for this reason, and for many more, that makes a monastic theological method superior to a scholastic methodology.

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