A report live-blogged by Andy Naselli

(Media from this event should be made available shortly.)

I’m writing from the A. T. Olson Chapel at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Here is the information that the Henry Center provided for this event:

Bradley Nassif,Professor of Biblical & Theological Studies, North Park University

“Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Christian Antiquity”

Contemporary Christians are increasingly turning to the past for wisdom and guidance in the 21st century. While some of the past is best left behind, other portions offer buried treasures for Christian life and ministry. This lecture will examine the nature of holiness in the great Desert Fathers and Mothers in Egypt, Palestine and Syria from the 3rd – 6th centuries, with an emphasis on the role of Scripture in personal development and pastoral counseling. We’ll examine the rise of the great desert disciples and the role Scripture played in cultivating a life of holiness. For them, the Word was not only to be interpreted with the mind, but also to be “seen” as an exegeted text. A wholistic “hermeneutic of the desert” emerged in the context of personal discipleship and a life of prayer, fasting and inner watchfulness.

1. Rediscovering the Christian Classics: The Academy and the Church

  • Christians are increasingly rediscovering the classical tradition of the Christian church. Cf. Tom Oden’s ancient Christian commentary series. Other factors for this rise include multiculturalism, well-established doctrinal boundaries, reclaimed ecumenical roots, and the rise of the new ecumenism.
  • Interest in Eastern Orthodoxy in particular is rising among divinity schools.
  • The (newly formed) Wheaton Center for Early Christian Studies focuses on the early church.

2. Rise of Early Monasticism

  • Monasticism already existed in the second or third century (and maybe the first).
  • Early monasticism was the golden age.
  • Why did people flee the city for monasticism?

2.1. External motivations

It was a means to protest the growing worldliness in the church and the growth of elaborate forms of Christian worship that made God seem distant.

2.2. Internal motivations

  • The primary motivation was the gospels themselves (i.e., the gospel contained in the liturgies).
  • Example: St. Simeon the Pole-Sitter sat on a thirty-foot pole for about thirty-eight years. He would preach from the pole.

2.3. Theology of the desert

  • Why did they flee to the city? Is there a connection between the Bible, the land, and the quest for holiness?
  • The desert is a place of death.
  • The desert is a place for testing and humbling.
  • The desert is a place where God’s people repented and where sins were forgiven and forgotten (i.e., the scapegoat).
  • The desert is a place of spiritual warfare (cf. Luke 4). It is not a retreat.

2.4. Theology of the landscapes

  • Is there a correspondence between the desert’s geography and the human heart?
  • The dessert is physically barren, and the heart is spiritually barren.
  • The dessert is detached from the things of this world. Simplicity is the essence of survival.
  • The desert is a place of silence (cf. Ps 46:10).
  • The desert is a massive place, evoking awe and wonder at God and whittling down people to their proper place.

3. Scripture and the Quest for Holiness

3.1. Obedience

  • We need more Bible obedience, not Bible knowledge. We need more integration, not information.
  • The Bible was central to the monks. It was their daily bread.

3.2. Meditation

  • This refers not to a mental pondering of the biblical text. Rather, they orally pronounced the text as the sat in their cells.
  • They would fight what they called “the noon-day demon,” a well-known enemy of the soul. It was either a psychological or demonic attack to make them despair and doubt, and the attack typically came in the day rather than the night. It was a temptation to leave one’s calling as a monk in the dessert. The remedy for this was reciting Scripture (cf. Matt 4).
  • What is the Christian life? “I fall down, and I get up.”

3.3. Memorization

  • The Gospel of Matthew was the most popular book to memorize.
  • The Psalms played a major role in their daily prayers.
  • One monastery required its monks to memorize all 150 psalms and the entire NT!
  • Monasteries could be treasure troves of ancient biblical manuscripts.

3.4. Spiritual warfare

The more you practices the Scriptures, the more you learned them, and the more you learned them, the more you practiced them. True exegesis is attaining the text by putting it into action.

3.5. Transformation

  • One monk (Anthony) said, “If a person is not edified by my silence, neither will he be edified by my words” (saying 2).

4. Conclusion

Contrary to popular conception, this quest for holiness in ancient antiquity was deeply rooted in the Bible.

4.1. Saying of Anthony

Someone asked Anthony, “What must one do in order to please God?” Anthony replied,

Pay attention to what I tell you, whoever you may be: (1) Always have God before your eyes. (2) Whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the Holy Spirit. (3) And whatever place you live, do not easily leave it. Keep these three precepts, and you will be saved.

4.2. Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian

O Lord and Master of my life!

Take from me the spirit of sloth, faintheartedness, lust for power, and idle talk.

Give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.

Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own faults and not to judge my brother, for you are holy always, now and ever and unto the Ages of Ages.


-prayed frequently during Great Lent in the Eastern Orthodox Church

5. Select Bibliography on Desert Spirituality

(Items 7–9 are scholarly resources.)

  1. Roberta Bondi, To Love As God Loves (Fortress, 1986). A great place to start learning about desert discipleship.
  2. John Chryssavgis, In the Heart of the Desert. Written by an Orthodox priest and student of the desert tradition. Great icons with accompanying text.
  3. St. Athanasius, The Life of Anthony, translated from the Coptic and Greek by Tim Vivian and Apostolos N. Athanassakis (Cisterician, 2003). The classical definition of the ideals of monasticism through the life of one of its greatest exponents.
  4. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, translated by Benedicata Ward (Cisterician,1975). Warm, sometimes humorous presentation of individual “sayings” of great monastic leaders of the early church, written much like the book of Proverbs.
  5. The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers, translated by Benedicata Ward (Cisterician,1997). More “sayings.”
  6. The Philokalia, translated by G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherard, Kallistos Ware (4 of 5 volumes available; Faber, 1972ff.). The classical work on the spirtiuality of the Christian East from the 4th–15th centuries. Next to the Bible, this collection has been read more widely than any other ancient or modern piece of literature among Eastern Orthodox Christians.
  7. The Philokalia, edited by Brock Bingaman and Bradley Nassif (Oxford University Press, 2011).
  8. Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert (Oxford University Press).
  9. William Harmless, Desert Christians: An Introduction (Oxford University Press).