Tuesday, August 12, 2008

New Regular Feature

Taking a cue from my good friend Pr. Weedon, I am beginning a new feature here at This Side: The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

Who were the Desert Fathers?
The term "Desert Fathers" describes countless Christians who fled Roman civilization beginning in the late 3rd Century and lived as hermits in the deserts and waste places in Egypt and Syria. Some imagine that they fled the cities in order to escape the severe persecutions that were carried out at this time, especially under Diocletian (Emperor 284-305). But after the Edict of Milan (313) when churches began to be flooded with catechumens, visitors and the newly baptized, even more fled to the deserts to escape temptation and to live lives of suffering and self-denial for the sake of the Gospel.

Many were motivated by the "hard sayings" of Jesus about wealth, about non-violence, about humility, weakness and self-denial. Many were concerned that the Church was growing too fast and genuine Christianity and Christian living was being undermined by the popularity of the Church and accompanying laxness in discipline in order to accommodate such large nymbers of converts. Many saw the holiness of the desert dwellers and were attracted.

They were the first Christian monks and were universally esteemed by their peers, by the priests and bishops of the their day, and in time, by non-Christians, Emperors, Kings and rulers. Everyone could recognize that they were living markedly different lives for the sake of Christ, and by His power.

One of the practices of these hermits and monks was that those who were acknowledged as elders (mature in faith) by the others were made guides and teachers for the younger (this is not to give the impression that there was a system to this--it happened naturally through recognition of other's gifts). These were called Fathers, or in address, "Abba." They gave instruction and help to other monks and visitors in the form of sayings, brief stories, parables, commandments and exhortations. These sayings were collected by others in order to remember and preserve their wisdom and faith. A modern translation of the "Alphabetical Collection" by Benedicta Ward will be used for this feature.

Why would a good Lutheran pastor want to share these sayings of the Desert Fathers when Lutherans don't even have monks?
First, the lives of the Desert Fathers and their sayings have been universally esteemed and cherished by Christians from the time they began up until the Protestant Reformation. If you believe that the Christian Church was completely spoiled, ruined and false by the 4th Century and nothing good happened from then until the 1500's, then these are not for you. Neither is this blog, and neither is Lutheranism. Lutherans believe that God is present in His Church and that despite from some abuses that arose within Western Roman Catholicism, the Church has been guided by the Spirit from the beginning.

Second, the Lutheran Confessions speak highly of a few of these fathers, namely St. Anthony. 1 Luther praises them in various places, even teaching that Psalm 68:31 prophesies them, writing, "For 'the Egyptian messengers' are undoubtedly the holy fathers living in the desert: St. Anthony, Macarius, and many others."2 The Desert Fathers are praised for their faith, when Luther writes, " But those who follow the faith of the fathers can be tolerated, such as the disciples of SS. Benedict, Augustine, and Anthony were in the beginning. Thus too, in former times, the ceremonies conducted in some of the high places did not displease God, such as the great altar of Gibeon in I Kings 3[:4], upon which Solomon sacrificed, and the high place where Samuel lived and anointed Saul [I Sam. 9:25, 10:1]; because they lived in faith and did all things in faith, and did not merely follow the works of the fathers, as the later monks did and still do. They are downright hypocrites when it comes to God’s commandments; for such ceremonies are intended to achieve righteousness in the divine law by means of their own works and without faith."3

(On the other hand, Luther writes, "
Here I praise St. Anthony, who faithfully advised and commanded that no one should undertake any work not founded in the Scriptures. Indeed it is safer to regard anything the saints did without warrant of Scripture as a sin, rather than to hold it up as a good example. Neither will you offend any of the saints by considering as sins those works which they did without assurance and foundation in the Scriptures; for they know that they are sinners. But you will offend God and the saints if by their example you fall and break your neck.4)

Third, I am not a "good" Lutheran pastor, meaning that while some among us believe that Lutherans should read, feed and bleed only Pure Lutheran Teaching© I believe that is the way of cults and removes us from the heritage, history and purpose of Lutheranism and Christianity.5 We have much to learn, and even more to do.

How will this work?
Hopefully every day I will post a saying taken from Benedicta Ward's excellent translation.6. I do not know who long this will last, as there are a finite number of sayings, and an even smaller number that are appropriate to share here. I doubt the publisher would take kindly to me slowly republishing their entire book here online. But I will keep this going as long as there is interest and there are quotes to be found.

1 ApIV.211 says, "Anthony, Bernard, Dominicus, Franciscus, and other holy Fathers selected a certain kind of life either for the sake of study [of more readily reading the Holy Scriptures] or other useful exercises. In the mean time they believed that by faith they were accounted righteous for Christ’s sake, and that God was gracious to them, not on account of those exercises of their own." Ap.XXIV (XIII).38 says, "In the histories of the hermits there are examples of Anthony and of others which make the various spheres of life equal..."

2 Luther, M. 1999, c1956. Vol. 13: Luther's works, vol. 13 : Selected Psalms II (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works. Concordia Publishing House: Saint Louis

3 Luther, M. 1999, c1959. Vol. 36: Luther's works, vol. 36 : Word and Sacrament II (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works. Fortress Press: Philadelphia

Luther, M. 1999, c1959. Vol. 36: Luther's works, vol. 36 : Word and Sacrament II (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works. Fortress Press: Philadelphia

5 I am not a good Lutheran in other respects, too, but that is the subject of another blog post.

6 Ward, Benedicta. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers:The Alphabetical Collection. Revised Ed. 1984. Cistercian Publications. Kalamazoo, MI


  1. Anastasia Theodoridis said...

    Looking forward to this new feature! Thanks in advance.

    P.S. Reading this makes me realize that when my blog went berserk and lost its entire blogroll, I accidentally omitted to put yours back on! I've just now corrected that.

  2. Christopher D. Hall said...

    Thanks, Anastasia!

  3. -C said...

    "I am not a good Lutheran in other respects, too, but that is the subject of another blog post."

    But I think you are a good Christian - and in the long run that might be the more important thing, no?

  4. Christopher D. Hall said...

    -c, thank you for the kind words, but no, I am a lousy Christian too, which is far worse than being a poor Lutheran. But you are kind. Pray for me.

  5. -C said...

    "Pray for me."

    I will.

  6. orrologion said...

    There is another blog that has a similar series:


  7. Mike Baker said...

    Pr Hall,

    What is your resource for these quotes? Thanks.

  8. orrologion said...

    There are a number of 'paterika' (sayings of the Fathers) with stories similar to what Pr. Hall is posting. They are: "The stories associated with Daniel of Sketis... from the fifth through seventh centuries. Other examples include the Historia Monachorum in Aegypto, the Historia Lausiaca of Palladios, the alphabetical and topical collections of Apophthegmata Patrum, the Pratum Spirituale of John Moschos and the stories traditionally ascribed to Anastios the Sinaite."

    I'm reading The Spiritual Meadow by John Moschos at the moment and is a part of the Cistercian Publications series out of Kalamazoo, MI. The Alphabetical collection is most readily available in English in the translation by Benedicta Ward. The Lausiac History by Palladius is available here:


  9. Mike Baker said...

    Hmmm... maybe I should read footnotes. =P

  10. Christopher D. Hall said...

    Mike--sometimes the best stuff is in the footnotes :)

  11. Mike Baker said...

    Indeed. If you are not mindful of footnotes you will walk right by key pieces of information. *rim shot*