Ascetical Theology


Just recently I have been blessed to come across the work of Fr Martin Thornton and have already learnt so much from his ressourcement reflections on The Life in God.

As I showed with the last post on this page with the help of my friend and wonderful scholar Alice’s work, the Bible and Church at Her best are very much about the great both/and of life and love, the consummation of all things, the great Mystical Supper of the lamb, new heaven and new earth, and on and on; the Incarnational Theology of Martin Thornton lives and moves and has its being in that Christian participation so should be shared in.

He called this ‘Ascetical Theology’ but uses that word in a wonderfully encompassing manner and saves it from the dry rigidity of the past alone or from men in far-off places nothing to do with how we live our lives with The Living God; as Fr Behr has done wonderfully elsewhere.


Thornton speaks of ‘the schools’ and ‘the wilderness’ as well ‘the pendulum’ that often swings too far in one way and doesn’t allow for the Paradoxes of Christ to command our ascent. On all of this is is presciently correct and he offers guidance against such folly, comparable to Alan Jacobs’ ‘Way of exchange’.

Take this from Fr Dallman’s thesis on Thornton. (Referring here to his book on English Spirituality.)
”The next words are “makes the bold and exciting assumption”
These clearly demarcate this statement as either part or all of Thornton’s
motif. He is trying to state what he understands, at the writing of this book at least, the basis for his interpretation and thinking to be. Why is this assumption both “bold” and “exciting”? We might be reminded of the words “we are bold to say” that precede the recitation of the Our Father in eucharistic liturgy. Thornton does not expressly explain his use of the word “bold.”
Yet he does immediately expand on what he means by “exciting,” or at least one
meaning. In the subsequent paragraph, he writes
It is a common dilemma of theological students, absorbed or otherwise, in
a lecture on Old Testament sources, the synoptic problem, or some
intricate piece of Scholastic philosophy, to sit back and ask themselves ‘if
I am training to be a parish priest what has all this to do with it?’ Ascetical
theology asks the same question in a way which excludes the answer
‘nothing at all.’ The question becomes honest and exciting instead of
frustrating; one of the lesser values of ascetical study is to colour and
bring alive some aspects of theology which, to the average student, would
otherwise be academic and dull.
At least in the immediate sense, “exciting” refers to theological students who are bored
by a particular aspect, idea, or area of their study. This
continues to affirm that Thornton
intended to offer here a motif, because he thinks application of the motif in real life
theology brings some kind of change to the interpretation or interpretive mood of the
person who adopts it. Furthermore, application of this motif does exclude at least one
kind of interpretation. The response to any theological insight cannot be “it has no
bearing on my priestly ministry,” or more bluntly, “it does not matter.”
Expressed in the converse, the consequence of Thornton’s theological motif
is “everything matters.”
Somehow, the most intricate piece of Scholastic philosophy, the most arcane aspect of an
Old Testament lecture or lecture on the synoptic problem of the gospels must have some
kind of relationship to the ministry of the theological student after graduation.
Thornton continues with the words “that every truth flowing from the Incarnation,
from the entrance of God into the human world, must have its practical lesson.” This is
the expression, in clear terms, of the motif that governs Thornton’s ascetical thinking, at
least as of 1963 and English Spirituality. Notice the clear and strong language: “every
truth,” not just some and not others; “flowing from the Incarnation,” an image that brings to mind the image of “living water” from the Gospel of Saint John;
“entrance of God into the human world,” brings to mind another Johannine image, “
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father”;
and then “must have its practical lesson,” is a clear affirmation of the relationship between theological interpretation and Christian practice: a practical lesson and not an
intellectual lesson.”
Is this the ‘Johannine’ stage that Rosenstock-Huessy spoke of? (As mentioned in Peter Leithart’s article linked below.)

”He spoke of the world entering a “Johannine” age of history, an age of the Spirit that would move quite differently from the earlier ages of the Church: “each generation has to act differently precisely in order to represent the same thing. Only so can each become a full partner in the process of Making Man.”

Rosenstock-Huessy also develops a kind of Trinitarian historiography and anthropology. He links the articles of the creed¯which moves from Father, Son, to Spirit¯with three millennia of church history. During the first millennium, the Church concerned with being body of Christ (Son); the second concentrated on restoring creation to its Creator, since after men restored to God, they could begin to purge the world of ungodliness (Father); the next millennium will be the age of the Spirit, which will concentrate on “revealing God in society” (Spirit).”


This gets at what the Church and Life in Christ is about- the great both/and, the Pentecost of Life, God and Man, Marriage and Monasticism, Male and Female, etc etc and is true witness. May such work help you to love God and others as yourself in a joyful pleroma of ways, now and ever and unto ages of ages.



Memory Eternal!



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