I have recently been cramming for a Sunday School series on historical theology. Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, the proper metaphorical picture of my research style for this project is a lot more like strip mining than careful archaeology; but I’ve still managed to unearth some glorious nuggets along the way to complement my old seminary notes. My immediate topic has been the theology of the Middle Ages. It turns out that I was wrong in thinking I could just portray the Middle Ages as a period of general decline in which a few noteworthy men stuck stood out: there was much more going on in the theological world, most often behind closed doors. You can’t really understand the theology of the Middle Ages, I discovered, without exploring monasticism. Since pretty much every well-known theologian from the Middle Ages either was a monk or was educated in a monastery, it turns out that monasticism is an integral part of our intellectual and theological heritage.
This led me to read a little volume that I found surprising: the Rule of Benedict. Written in the 6th century, it has long served as a rule-book for monks living communally under an abbot. As you have probably deduced, not everything in a 6th century guide for cenobitic monasticism is going to have immediate applicability to today’s ecclesiastical climate. That is most certainly the case. But these men knew what it was to battle lust and rebellion in their own hearts. Benedict was bright enough, even in the “dark ages” before evangelical authors came along and made everything plain, to realize that part of the solution is to tell young believers not to surround themselves with unnecessary temptations. There is much wisdom in this volume amidst the foreign curiosities. It will teach you things about human nature.
But the Rule of Benedict is only one work from the “lost millennium,” and an early one at that. My brief and shallow tour of works written between the collapse of the Roman Empire (476 or so) and the Ninety-Five Theses (1517) has only given me good reason to set aside some real time for Anselm, Abelard, Aquinas, the Victorines, (just a sampling of available resources), and other men of the era. Doubtless there will be chaff in abundance, but even the chaff has its own way of teaching us about what is valuable and what is ephemeral.
While I was digging, I discovered an article written much more recently, in which our (and I really do mean “our” here) chronological snobbery is laid bare for what it is, especially with reference to the Middle Ages: