Request an Exam Copy

Is Monasticism Exceptional or Normal? — An Excerpt from "Church History, Vol. 1, 2nd Ed."

Categories Book Excerpts


I am a student of history, particularly Church history. There is much to discover (or perhaps rediscover) about the beliefs and practices of Christ's Bride buried deep within the sands of time that can speak prophetically into our time.

Take the practice of monasticism, for instance.

Many today are wondering if this life of denial and simplicity could be helpful in our overly consumeristic culture. While fleeing from the trappings of this world might seem like and overly radicalized version of the Christian life, Everett Ferguson reveals in his book Church History, vol 1, 2nd edition that "In the fourth century, champions of monasticism treated it not as a special form of the Christian life, as it came to be later, but as the actualization of what was in principle a life demanded of all Christians." (229, emph. mine)

In other words, the kind of ascetic flight that exploded in popularity in the 4th century wasn't viewed as an exceptional Christian life, but a normal one. It was a protest effort against both the secular culture and secularization of the Church, as well as an attempt to work out Christ's teachings on self-denial.

I wonder how rediscovering and retrieving this practice might impact the 21st century Church in her own protest? How might it impact how we follow Christ in the way of self-denial?

In the excerpt below Ferguson helps us understand some of the history behind this early Church movement to help us rediscover and retrieve what the forebears of our faith themselves discovered about the Christian life.

-Jeremy Bouma, Th.M. (@bouma)


CHAPTER 12: The Church in the Fourth and Early Fifth Centuries

Monasticism, Expansion, Life, and Worship

The greater abundance of literature from the fourth and early fifth century make this period a convenient time to review some major developments in the early history of Christianity. This was a significant period in regard to monasticism, missionary expansion, the relation of Christianity to Roman society, and the elaboration of the liturgy.


A. Origins

In its monastic expression, Christianity has close approximations to some other world religions, most notably Buddhism. Tributaries of Christian monasticism include the following:

1. Jewish

Judaism, although generally non-ascetic in its approach to life, in the first century included some ascetic strands. We know of celibate Essenes and, perhaps related to them, the Therapeutae in Egypt, who maintained a separation of male and female members. Moreover, some of the Old Testament prophets and later figures like John the Baptist offered potential models of solitary, seemingly homeless religious life.

2. Pagan

Pythagoreans were vegetarians and exercised a disciplined life that may have been the model for the Therapeutae. The Gnostics typically viewed matter as evil. Some Cynics “denied the world” in an uncompromising protest against the norms of society.

3. Eastern

The Manichaeans may have provided precedents of celibate communities. The Hellenistic world was also intrigued by reports of the gymnosophists (naked wise men), holy men in India.

4. New Testament

Jesus’ sayings, such as “sell your possessions and give to the poor” (Matthew 19:21), had a great influence in monastic circles. Jesus and the Twelve became images of ideal monks. The Apocryphal Acts brought the ascetic motif into prominence.

5. Secular

Social factors, such as escape from the burdens of society, led pagans to withdraw to the deserted regions bordering the settled Nile valley.

6. Christian

Asceticism in varying degrees of self-denial (in matters of marriage and diet) had been practiced by some  Christians from the early days of the church. Largely this was individual, with the person maintaining his or her home with the family or in personal quarters. So, the early asceticism was not withdrawn from everyday life.

In contrast to unorthodox ascetic practices (in Marcionism, perhaps Encratism, and some forms of Gnosticism), early asceticism did not regard matter as evil. Instead, it adopted self-denial as the renunciation of the good in pursuit of a higher life and to be more fully dedicated to religious ministry.

Many females adopted the ascetic life, something obscured by the fact that most of the literature was written by males for males. Although women seem to have preceded men in living an ascetic life at home or together in small groups for mutual support, men in greater number made the break to withdraw into the desert areas.

By the end of the third century the ascetic impulse began to express itself in a greater degree of withdrawal from society, at first near cities and villages, but soon by flight to greater solitude in the uninhabited or sparsely inhabited regions near the Nile valley…

…Although the Egyptian contributions to Christian monasticism are better known, asceticism in Syria had earlier and deeper roots (Encratism, Marcionism, and within orthodox circles ascetics living with the mainstream community), with the result that the Syrian church had a strong ascetic impulse from an early date.

Terms employed for ascetics included “monk” (a solitary man, one who lived alone), “anchorite” (one who withdraws), and “hermit” (from the word for a deserted region). In common usage, monk has become the general word, and both anchorite and hermit are used forthose who adopted a solitary life. The term used to describe communityis “cenobite,” from the Greek for “common” or “community life.” Ascetics living together in small groups — whether in cities, towns, or villages — were called apotaktikoi.

The ascetic flight from the world, taking the form of a spatial separation from society, exploded in popularity in the fourth century and left an indelible impact on Christianity in subsequent centuries. The social factor mentioned above affected Christians as well as pagans. Specifically Christian motivations have sometimes been cited as involved in the new popularity of asceticism. There was also an element of protest, both against the institutional church and against the increasing secularization of the church. In addition, an effort was made by some to work out the true Christian life in terms of the self-denial that had been required in times of persecution.

Less worthy motives were also at work among some who sought escape from responsibilities, and their disorderly behavior brought some discredit on the whole movement, whose champions sought to correct these expressions of escapism. 

In the fourth century, champions of monasticism treated it not as a special form of the Christian life, as it came to be later, but as the actualization of what was in principle a life demanded of all Christians.

At the beginnings of the movement, however, monasticism often competed with the church and was, in a sense, a rejection of it, until ecclesiastical statesmen (Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, Augustine) captured and domesticated the monastic impulse as a part of the total life of the church.

Three forms of monasticism developed in Egypt: (1) the hermit life, where individual monks lived an isolated and austere life of spiritual struggle in prayer and meditation, typified by Anthony; (2) the cenobitic or communal model, where a group of monks lived, prayed, and worked together under a superior, a model developed by Pachomius; and (3) an intermediate form, where a loosely organized group of small settlements (of 2 to 6 persons) in close proximity looked to a common spiritual leader, a type pioneered by Ammun.

Similar to the last was the laura that developed in Palestine. Cells or caves for individuals were located in close enough proximity that a person could live as a hermit, but come together with others for worship and other occasions...

…In Syria a distinctive development of the hermit life was living on a small platform atop an abandoned column. The first of these “pillar saints” was Symeon Stylites (c. 390 – 459), who progressively raised the height of his pillar to increase his separation from the earth and people.  Other Stylites followed his example. (Pg 227-230)


Church History, Volume 1, 2nd Edition

by Everett Ferguson

Buy it Today:

Barnes & Noble
Find More Retailers


My Advice to Students — Daniel Block Says "When You Wrestle with the Text, Wrestle with the Text."
My Advice to Students — Daniel Block Says "When You Wrestle with the Text, Wrestle with the Text." In our ongoing video series of advice to students from biblical scholars, Daniel Block, Old Testament professor at Wheat...
Your form could not be submitted. Please check errors and resubmit.

Thank you!
Sign up complete.

Subscribe to the Blog Get expert commentary on biblical languages, fresh explorations in theology, hand-picked book excerpts, author videos, and info on limited-time sales.
By submitting your email address, you understand that you will receive email communications from HarperCollins Christian Publishing (501 Nelson Place, Nashville, TN 37214 USA) providing information about products and services of HCCP and its affiliates. You may unsubscribe from these email communications at any time. If you have any questions, please review our Privacy Policy or email us at This form is protected by reCAPTCHA.