The Benedict Option, Evangelicals, and Catholics: A Response

On the heels of Rod Dreher’s week-long sojourn in Louisville to share more about the Benedict Option with Evangelicals there, a rash of blog posts has followed.  In the first of what is now four posts, Dreher shares a question that was posed by Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, in an interview he was recording for Mohler’s podcast Thinking in Public.  Dreher recounts that:

Yesterday afternoon [February 8th] I sat down with the great Al Mohler to record an episode of his podcast Thinking In Public. Late in the interview, he said something to the effect of, “Now, I have to ask you a tough question, and I want you to be honest when you answer me.”

I seized up. He continued, “Do you think that Evangelicalism has what it takes to do the Benedict Option?”

I gave him my honest answer: “I don’t know.” I explained that I don’t want to make a comment on a form of the Christian faith about which I know so little. I told him that I have to believe it is possible, because I know Evangelicals personally who are doing it (and interviewed some of them for my book), but in general, I don’t see that they have nearly the resources in their tradition that Catholics and Orthodox do. But that could just be my ignorance.

I agree that Evangelicals have a harder road to travel for the Benedict Option, but it is by no means impossible.  The biggest barrier is that of Tradition.  The Benedict Option implies–if it doesn’t outright require–being able to enter into several layers and streams of tradition in which Evangelicals, by and large, do not participate.  Those traditions would be at least: the Great Tradition that both Catholics and Orthodox share, which includes the traditions of sacramental and liturgical practice, as well as the monastic tradition, with its own unique traditions and practices, to which St. Benedict is but a gateway.  As I’ve said before, if the Benedict Option isn’t fundamentally about what St. Benedict was about, then it is almost meaningless.

Mohler’s response really surprised me:

He replied that he is certain that Evangelicalism does not have the internal resources to do the Benedict Option — but that classic Protestantism does. He talked about how Evangelicals need to plunge deeply back into their Reformation roots and recover the spirituality and structure of the Reformers. I’m not going to say more, because you’ll really want to hear what Dr. Mohler had to say on this front. It was quite powerful, and to me, a revelation of sorts. Not sure when the podcast will be up. [CS: Dreher mentioned in a subsequent post that the podcast would be posting on Monday, 2/13)

Three thoughts exploded in my head as I read this.  First, “classic Protestantism” very quickly revealed within the lifetimes of Luther and Calvin that it did not have the resources–spiritual, theological, ecclesial or otherwise–to sustain something coherent beyond a reactionary protest movement.  The subsequent splintering of Christendom into smaller and smaller, mutually exclusive factions and denominations was in full force before Luther himself departed from this world.  What foundation does that provide for the Benedict Option?  One is reminded of Brad S. Gregory’s recent book The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society.  Do we really want to repeat that process all over again?  I was also reminded of G.K. Chesterton’s comment in his essay The Idols of Scotland, found in his book The Thing: Why I am a Catholic, that the Reformation was a shipwreck.  A shipwreck indeed.  The Protestant response to that shipwreck was to pull the Church apart and call the pieces churches or theologies; the Catholic response was to repair the ship and get her sailing again.

The second thought that occured to me was that the whole question of the Benedict Option and Evangelicals, or Protestants generally, begs the question of authority that Catholics and Protestants have debated since the Reformation.  Is it the Bible Only, Sola Scriptura, or is it Scripture and Tradition?  As I mentioned above, there are layers of tradition involved in just understanding the Benedict Option.  If one does not even understand the value of tradition for religious practice–epistemological questions aside– how can one incorporate the practices of said tradition?

Thirdly, if, as Dreher presented Mohler’s response, that Evangelicals need to “plunge deeply back into their Reformation roots and recover the spirituality and structure of the Reformers,” then that would seem require the acknowledgement that Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and the other Reformation Fathers were all originally Catholic and subsequently abandoned that faith.  I recall from my own studies of the Reformation Fathers how very Catholic many of them were on present-day dividing points of theology like Mary, the Eucharist, and the Communion of Saints.  I know that Catholics and Lutherans seem to now be officially agreeing on points on which they were historically divided, but Mohler is Southern Baptist and most Evangelicals in the U.S. aren’t Lutheran and won’t likely be inclined to see such official Church dialogue as being valid, let alone binding.

At any rate, I will be watching in iTunes feed for Mohler’s interview with Dreher to post tomorrow, or whenever it becomes available.  If you aren’t already listening, subscribe to Thinking in Public in the iTunes store or your favorite podcasting app.

UPDATE 2/13/17: The conversation is available now here: http://www.albertmohler.com/2017/02/13/benedict-option-conversation-rod-dreher/  and also in iTunes.

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