Simeon Stylites and History as Catechism

An ascetic Syrian monk living in the 4th and 5th Centuries has captured the minds of students of church history for a number of years. Simeon Stylites (A.D. 390-459) appears to have desired the life of a hermit. Being bothered by people coming to him for prayers, he retreated to the top of an abandoned column in the ruins of Telanissa, Syria. This column was 9 feet tall. However, due to frequent interruptions Simeon was unable to adequately continue his austerities. So he retreated to the top of a 50-foot column, living on a small platform at the top. From this station he continually repeated prayers.

Simeon Sylites

Simeon lived on a pillar for 37 years, and became quite an attraction. Over time a wall was erected around his pillar so that people would not disturb him; the wall allowed Simeon to continue his “prayerful contemplations.” His life and asceticism came to the attention of Roman Emperors Theodosius II and Leo I, as well as Genevieve of Paris. After his death Simeon was commemorated as a “Saint” successively by four church bodies, the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Eastern Catholic Church, and the Roman Catholic Church.

What is curious about the story of Simeon Stylites is that it continues to be retold as a part of Church History One with little or no biblical analysis. To the modern Evangelical reader his story seems like it comes from a different world. The retelling of his story, and that of other ascetic monks like the Western Hermit Benedict of Nursia (A.D. 480-543) form a fitting sandbox for adapting the teaching of history into catechetics—a teaching tool to modify the values of the learner.

While the lives of hundreds of evangelists who lived and ministered in the first five centuries are lost in the sands of time, these two ascetic monks were raised to sainthood by the various state churches. The life of Simeon was inscribed by one his disciples, the monk Antonius; and Pope Gregory I wrote about the life of Benedict. The lives of both of these men exemplify a readjustment of focus in Early Church evangelism, missions, salvation, and spiritual life. The ministry of Simeon Stylites and Benedict of Nursia serves to reshape the doctrinal positions of students of history on several fronts:

  • A redefinition of true Christian spirituality
  • A refocusing away from the Great Commission
  • Advancing the inadequacy of the Bible to properly interpret history
  • The need for subservience to the state-church’s decrees

This article will address each of these concerns, and provide an Evangelical response to the subtle realignment suggested through their uncritical inclusion in church histories.

As far as redefining Christian spirituality, a focus on these cenobitic monks (relationally separate from the world) diverges from the 62 “one another” commands of the New Testament. The most conspicuous of these “one another” commands is the command to “love one another.” It is found listed three times in John 13:

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)

All 62 of these “one another” commands can only be lived out with other Christians within the context of the local church. Therefore, obedience to these commands cannot be lived out through the ascetic isolation of the life of a hermit.

Further, true biblical spirituality does not consist of physical asceticism, as taught by Paul:

“Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations—‘Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,’ which all concern things which perish with the using—according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.” (Col 2:20-23)

Rather Paul warned that a time would come when asceticism would replace true Christianity:

“Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron, forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.” (1 Tim 4:1-3)

So, a “history as catechism” teaches and the titles of “saint” promulgate, the lives of Simeon Stylites and Benedict of Nursia are examples of a holy life. But their examples do not follow New Testament norms.

Then follows another tragedy, a refocus away from the Great Commission. A focus on the lives of these two hermits glamorizes their privatized, personalized, and individualized-approach to spirituality. Instead of this type of self-oriented spirituality Christ put a message in the mouths of His followers. He gave us the gospel along the command to go into the whole world with that message:

“And He said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.’” (Mark 16:15)

“Then He said to them, ‘Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.’” (Luke 24:46-47)

True spirituality is never focused for one’s own benefit or to one’s own glory. True spirituality is focused outwardly toward others with the gospel of Christ to the glory of Christ. And Christ never commanded His followers to live an ascetic life. Rather, He reframed the argument between the Stoics and Epicureans by replacing it with justification by grace alone and through faith alone.

A third unfortunate result of focusing on the spirituality of these hermits is the perception that the Bible is inadequate for properly interpreting history. Rather, for the Evangelical, the Bible must remain the interpretive lens through which all of life is analyzed and understood—including church history. The words of God’s Word provide the worldview through which the world is to be analyzed:

“And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. … You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.” (Deut 6:6-8)

Jesus said:

“Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock. But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it fell. And great was its fall.” (Matt 7:24-27)

Yet, enter these ascetics with the accolades of territorial church’s “sainthood,” and what happens to the teachings of the New Testament? The clear teachings of the Bible contradict these lifestyles as exemplary on a number of levels. So, when they are taught as good examples without being properly vetted through the Bible’s doctrine and practice, the student of history is left with a non sequetor. In order to accept these men as valid “holy” men, he must disengage his view of spirituality as taught in the pages of the Bible.

To reconcile this obvious non sequetor, the student of history must surmise that a different set of criteria are needed for interpreting Early Church spirituality. The student is made to engage in mental historical-criticism and to relinquish his present experience and understanding of life and posit a fairytale where the Bible is no longer the foundation of all truth.

The salty historian has the student right were he wants him, in a state of ambivalence. Now the scholar provides his pupil with an answer. To properly interpret Early Church history, one must find it in and through (1) an authoritative Church, (2) Its authoritative decrees (canonizations of saints), and (3) Its authoritative Creeds. The authority and inerrancy of the Scriptures are replaced with an authoritative Church and its inerrant history.

Finally then, the Evangelical student of history is left to interpretations of history hand-selected to provide him catechetical training. His congregational view of the church is not considered. His view of the Great Commission is never addressed. Evangelism and justification by faith are lost in the rhetoric of the Trinitarian and Christological controversies. In this fourth step, the student is asked to submit his mind to the state-church’s affirmation that these ascetics we really “saints” and lived exemplary lives. He may never consider why they are included in histories or why they are lifted up as examples.

Sola Scriptura is lost in these last two transactions. The Evangelical student of history may not realize that his newfound historical-critical insight, if unchecked, will eventually impale his Evangelical view of salvation. More historical catechetics are still to come. Simeon Stylites and Benedict of Nursia are only an appetizer. Church History One is filled with delectables to disengage the mind of the student of history from New Testament doctrines, creating a distant world far removed from the possibility of analysis through Scripture!

“But you must continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” (2 Tim 3:14-15)