The T&T Clark History of Monasticism

The Eastern Tradition

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John Binns
  • London: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , November
     2019.
     272 pages.
     $114.99.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781788317610.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

John Binns’ The T&T Clark History of Monasticism: The Eastern Tradition explores the development of monasticism from its birthplace in the heart of the gospel through its institutionalization in the desert of Egypt up to the present day. Binns tells the story of Eastern monasticism as seen through the lens of primary and secondary sources on monasticism. As such, Binns does not skip over tales of miraculous healings, exorcisms, and even the assumption of the bodies of monks to heaven in his retelling of history. With erudition, Binns covers a vast history of monastic lives in the context of the life of the ecumenical church to guide the reader through the development of the monastic system from its inception to the modern day.  

Shedding light on the Christian life of isolated women and men of faith, part 1 identifies how monasticism was lived by early Christians who gave up their possessions and life in the world as married couples to choose a more isolated ascetic life. In many ways, those who lived such life made Anthony an inheritor and an organizer of a revolutionary way of life, rather than the pioneer.  

Part 2 explores the role of monasticism in institutionalizing the church and the church’s role in institutionalizing monasticism throughout the era of the ecumenical councils. During this era, the various forms of monasticism (coenobitic, eremitic, etc.), the structure of abbot systems, and the organization of labor among monks and lay members of the community or workers from surrounding villages were established. The role of monks in influencing the empire, formulating doctrine, and creating and healing schisms, cannot be understated.  

Parts 3 and 4 delve into the monastic developments that followed the solidifying of Christian doctrines and the surrounding schisms. Such developments include the involvement of monks in missionary activity to Russia and China, the establishment of unique forms of devotions corresponding to the new cultures where Christianity and monasticism was imported, and the contacts between Eastern and Western monasticism. Of monastic devotional importance is the development of the hesychastic way of life which traces its origins to the 2nd century with infamous figures such as Origen and Evagrius, all the way to its dogmatization in a series of local councils after Gregory Palamas. Hesychasm became the classic form of Byzantine monasticism in the Christian East.  

From 1453 to the present day, Eastern monasticism continues through series of ebbs and flows that part 5 summarizes. Major hardships that faced monasticism were the Ottoman occupation of Greece, the communist regime in Russia, and the sporadic struggles with caliphates occupying the seas of Alexandria and Antioch. Despite the hardships, monasticism continued to flourish in the East with its unique flavor expressed in its various ways of life from eremitic to coenobitic through idiorrhythmic. Eremetic life refers to secluded monasticism whereas coenobitic life denotes the communal practice of monastic life within the walls of a monastery or a community. Idiorrhythmic monasticism refers to the lifestyle adopted by ascetics who followed their own devices rather than conventional eremitic and cenobitic monasticisms.  

Though shedding light on the divisions of Eastern Christianity into Chalcedonian, non-Chalcedonian, and Assyrian in a mostly fair and concise retelling of the events of the schisms, the book would benefit from being more ecumenically sensitive when using pejorative titles for Chalcedonians as Melkites or non-Chalcedonians as Monophysites. This becomes especially important for three reasons: (1) Binns admits the use of the designation Monophysite to be unacceptable to most non-Chalcedonians; (2) Binns uses the term most of the time but occasionally uses the official titles such as Syriac Orthodox or Ethiopian Orthodox which can be confusing; and (3) the author is keen on not designating the Church of the East as Nestorian, which makes the book ecumenically imbalanced.    

This book is a welcome addition to the fields of history, monasticism, and Eastern Christianity. With the growth of interest in Eastern Christian developments and the constant revision of history, this book will be an indispensable source to both academic and lay readers who are looking for a text which summarizes and captures the essence and spirit of Eastern monasticism. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Andrew Youssef is a PhD student at Toronto School of Theology.  

Date of Review: 
June 15, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Binns is visiting professor at the Institute of Orthodox Christian Studies, Cambridge, UK and a research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, UK.

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