Benedict, the Carolingians & Francis: Answering Our Dilemma

In my undergraduate program, my professors sought to form the whole person through a three-fold paradigm: the heart (be), head (know), and hands (do). In this model, classes in church and ministry leadership—along with classes in other disciplines—would integrate their lesson plans to focus on what a leader should believe and how they should think, who they should be in character, and what they should do.

At the time, it seemed like a noisy gimmick that distracted from the content and practices potential church leaders needed to know.[1] However, if one abstracts these generic principles, there is a hidden alignment between these three parts that is significant for our cultural moment and church history.

More broadly, this simple framework fits into two broader categories. They fit into the basic philosophical categories: metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology. Metaphysics is concerned with being, which extends to knowing who someone internally (the heart).[2] Epistemology is concerned with knowledge or how one knows something (the head).[3] Axiology is concerned with understanding value; in this case, how one lives or processes and makes moral choices and executes (or does not execute) on those decisions (the hands).[4] These general categories encompass all of life.

Additionally, since many students do not study classical Greek literature, some of the categorical thoughts are lost. This loss is unfortunate because much of the Western worldview is built off Greek thought and categories. In Greek, the heart, head, and hands align with orthopathy, orthodoxy, and orthopraxy. Orthopathy, though less familiar in theological vocabulary, is concerned with right character.[5] Orthodoxy often occurs in the theological context, but more broadly is concerned with right thinking.[6] Orthopraxy also occurs in theology but is also simply concerned with right action.[7] These categories are helpful because as one examines the medieval church, though they did not view all of life in this trifurcation, they operated in this paradigm.

Each generation of humanity faces these challenges of being, knowledge, and ethics to varying degrees of emphasis. Today’s cultural moment is no exception, especially after the rise (and shortly thereafter the fall) of postmodernism. Whereas premodern thought attempted to understand the world, and modern thought challenged the premodern thought process, postmodernism cast off the basic foundations of worldview and its philosophical tradition in favor of subjectivity. Though postmodernism appeared on the scene briefly and for the abandonment of something else, its effects are still felt today most notably in sexual orientation and gender identity discussions.

While it is easy to point to this issue as the problem, it is merely a symptom of the larger problem. As Carl Trueman helpfully points out in his book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution,[8] the root of this problem is epistemological—society is having a knowledge crisis (orthodoxy). While this is a contributing factor, epistemology is not alone. A lackluster epistemology is impacting who people are (orthopathy) and eschewing longstanding ethical frameworks (orthopraxy). Evangelicals run the risk of falling behind the times by going after a symptom of the problem and not addressing its sources directly.

Thankfully, evangelicals are not alone; Christians in centuries before have faced equally troubling situations. A Roman, turned off by the materialism of his society, flees so that he can focus on his holiness (orthopathy). A Frankish king, stepping into uncharted waters in the church-state relationship, navigates how society should be structured and implications thereof (orthodoxy). A successful Italian businessman, after being captured in war and suffering illness, devotes himself to a simple life, focusing on how to best serve those around him. These men—Saint Benedict of Nursia, Charlemagne, and Saint Francis of Assisi respectively—all faced crises in their own time and addressed them directly. While they did not think of their problems and solutions in explicitly these terms, they nonetheless sought to address important aspects of the person.

I will synthesize the problems and solutions of Benedictine monasticism to holiness (orthopathy), Carolingian ecclesiology and mission to the church-state relationship (orthodoxy), and Franciscan worldview to spirituality (orthopraxy) and relate them to evangelicals and the twenty-first century’s inquiry in knowledge as it relates to sexual orientation and gender identity.

  1. The trifurcation can be deeply deformative if the parts are not successfully integrated into each other. The result could be a fractured person that is unable to see how the three parts relate to each other. As a result, effective spiritual formation is lost.
  2. John Frame, A History of Western Philosophy and Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2015), 8.
  3. Frame, A History of Western Philosophy and Theology, 11.
  4. Frame, A History of Western Philosophy and Theology, 12.
  5. R. Paul Stevens, “Living Theologically: Toward a Theology of Christian Practice,” Themelios 20, no. 3 (May 1995): 6.
  6. Stevens, “Living Theologically,” 4.
  7. Stevens, “Living Theologically,” 5.
  8. Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020).

This post was originally part of an academic paper submitted to Dr. Timothy R. LeCroy in Ancient & Medieval Church History at Covenant Theological Seminary. It has been modified from its original version.