The Wilderness and Early Christian Monasticism

st-antony-agains-the-demonsIn the sixth chapter of his The Word in the Desert, Douglas Burton-Christie reflects on the influence of eschatology, compunction (penthos), asceticism, and the struggle against evil on the shape of the scriptural interpretation of the Desert Fathers (and Mothers). Highlighting monastic awareness of coming death and judgment (182-3), compunction and the power of scripture (187-91), and the dual (internal and external) nature of struggling against evil (192-5), Burton-Christie outlines the desert reading of the scriptures, remarking on the centrality of allegorical interpretation (196), the recapitulation of Jesus’ time in the desert (198), the power of the words of scripture (199), vigilance and guarding the heart (203-5), and the lack of relations (207). In light of a course devoted to the study of wilderness traditions, while Burton-Christie’s work remains intriguing, this treatment against raises questions about why early Christian monastics did not draw upon and/or develop further Israelite wilderness traditions. To my mind, the Father who asked, “Did Satan pursue them like this in the early days?” could easily have turned to Israel’s wilderness testing for some type of answer. Instead, figures such as Abraham, David, and Jesus were regularly utilized, at least according to Burton-Christie’s presentation. Although the Fathers were clearly aware of Moses—and, it seems, the language of the Pentateuch, at least exhortations to “watch yourself” (Gen. 24.6; Ex. 23.21)—these narratives were not meaningfully employed in the monastic resistance of evil. Could it be that Israel’s time in the desert was viewed more as a model of what not to do in order to avoid temptation? Perhaps. But Burton-Christie’s reflection on desert interpretations of scripture doesn’t address possible wilderness interpretations of Israel in the wilderness. Continue reading

American Christianity and the Hell of Paradise Lost

HellfireIn at least some contemporary circles, the topic of the afterlife and Hell are hot topics (pardon the pun). This is especially true within numerous Christian communities as they react to the perspectives of various pastors and scholars on hell and the state on non-Christians after death. It seems safe to say that most Americans know something about the concept of hell—that fiery place of torment that you go to if you’re not up to snuff with St. Peter (or something like that). And while numerous religious perspectives conceive of something similar to the Christian conception of hell (think of Hades for the ancient Greeks), what many people don’t realize is that the hell commonly conceived of by Americans isn’t really based on Biblical portrayals of someplace called hell. Indeed, much of what we think about hell and its prince, Satan, comes not from any scriptural text, but instead from the epic poetry of John Milton.[1] In this post, we will examine some of the Hell portrayed in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Continue reading

Heiko Oberman on the Historical Luther

This post is part of our series on the Historical Luther. Today’s post examines the perspective of Heiko Oberman.

 

Martin Luther

Martin Luther

Heiko Oberman (d. 2001), in his book Luther: Man between God and the Devil, posits that “To understand Luther, we must read the history of his life from an unconventional perspective… in the light of eternity; not in the mild glow of constant progress toward Heaven, but in the shadow of the chaos of the Last Days and the imminence of eternity.”[1]  Oberman writes this biography of Luther with several key ideas in mind. First, he writes Luther on the assumption that “the Reformer can only be understood as a late medieval man for whom Satan is as real as God and mammon.”[2] Second, Oberman seeks to understand Luther in his contextual totality: “The crucial point is to grasp the man in his totality—with head and heart, in and out of tune with the temper of his time.”[3] An overview of Oberman’s work will demonstrate that he does indeed demonstrate the eternal direction of Luther’s life, his medieval political and religious context, and Luther’s’ belief in the reality of Satan. Continue reading