Diarmaid MacCulloch. Silence, A Christian History. London: Allen Lane; New York: Viking, 2013.

The first three sections of MacCulloch's survey cover silence as a theological and ritual concept in the Bible, early Christianity, and in the medieval epochs of Byzantium and Western Europe. Here is the heart of silence, demanding careful attention, masterfully summarized. The fourth section shifts the definition of silence to a political, cultural, and psychological tool of religious minorities. This shift splits silence into two themes, potentially two books.

In the Old Testament (Tanakh), silence was associated with death, whether by God or in dumb idols against the "goodness of cultic noise." Yahweh was an assertive and loud deity, and his people were expected to respond ritually. Accordingly, silence was a negative expression, and peace was the "culmination of massacre and conquest." Yahweh's punishment of his people was withdrawal, silence, or further against recalcitrant prohets, striking them dumb. But with historical captivity and suffering and increasing Greek influence, God's remoteness increased, and apocryphal Jewish scriptures describe the end times as a return to "primal silence."

In the New Testament, the silence of God continues. The wilderness solitude of Jesus resembles the prophet model of Moses and Elijah, and the historical Jesus is plagued by the silence of God in the Agony in the Garden, as the Suffering Servant before Pilate in silence, and in his last words of abandonment on the cross. Clearly the Jewish and earliest canonical concepts of silence are entirely negative.

But as Macculloch reminds us, eighty-five percent of Christian texts were lost by the mid-2nd century. The first canonical texts present Paul exhorting silence against noisy Greek communities, praising a low profile and hard work, downplaying the apoccalytic strains in the first communities awaiting Jesus' return. For, indeed, the Great Disappointment -- that Jesus did not return -- discredited the prophetic to the advantage of the bishops and their urgency to promote structure. Further, the prophetic elements were identified with heresy. Greek influence presented Jesus as the Aristotlean logos but also brought a Pythagorean and Platonic appreciation of silence more appreciated by gnostics but welcomed nevertheless by all of the era's theologians. Opposition to noise in litury became common,

But Christianity's dual parentage in Judaism and Hellenism simmered. The community model of the Acts had disappeared, and noisy churches chafed against bishops as much as did monks seeking more contemplation and simplicity, eventuyally creating the eremitic and mystical traditions originating in Syria and popularized by Athanasius, Pachomius, and John the Solitary. They incorporated silence as methodology to reflect the tenuous silence of God and lost hope of Revelations.

The period 450 to 1100 establishes the character of silence. In the Eastern world, the lingering influence of Dionysius the Areopagite's monophysitism favors the via negativa, the mystical, the ascetic, and the view of Isaac of Nineveh that "pure prayer is silence." Neoplatonic and Gnostic elements favoring silence in theosis were also present. But the Western-Latin world, led by Augustine, rejected the East to espouse an allegorial method of biblical interpretation, favoring what would become lectio divina. John Cassian and Benedict, as monastic founders, did favor silence but as a functional path to virtues such as humility and obedience, not as elements of theology, even less mysticism. Even silence as liturgy was rejected in the West as monastic noise in the form of books read aloud, liturgical chant, and use of bells became primary. A distinction in chant was its utilitarian function of silencing noise and contrasting with a noisy laity.

The West still produced champions of silence. John Scotus Eriugena translated Pseudo-Dionysius; the Carthusians outdid the Cluniac reforms by recreating desert eretimism, and Guigo (The Ladeder of Monks) and John Climacus (Ladder of Divine Ascent) pointed to a spiritual silence of Eastern influence. But the Western tendency preferred spiritual perusal of texts and use of subjective imagintion, not strong self-discipline and contemplation. The tradition of lectio divina led to excessive reliance on reading and the twisting of scriptural sayings from their historical contexts to celebrate liturgical and theological dogma and ecclesiastical structure.

The era from 700 to 1500 represents  several upheavels and controversies for the Middle Ages. In the Christian East, iconoclasm opposed religious use of images of God and saints versus iconclasts who supported their use in litury and song. Iconophiles attributed non-clerically-channeled spiritual powers to icons. Coupled with the contemplative silence they represented, icons were seen as imbued with what MacCulloch calls "the holiness of a monk or a hermit." Not only did this view prevail but the iconstasis (a piece of furniture to display icons) was introduced in churches. By the 14th century, hesychasm, the practice of silence, had emerged definitively, championed by Gregory Palemas of Mt. Athos. Contemplation of icons focuses divine light into the soul, it was maintained, paralell to the scriptural Transfiguration. The dominant Orthodox practice was a practical asceticism, silent prayer, and practices for posture and breathing. Heyschasm recommended the Jesus Prayer as its normative expression after silence. 

Historically speaking, the rise of an inward spiritual life may have been conditioned in part by what MacCulloch calls a reflection on the "shortcomings of earthly institutions," for the Byzantine Empire was in clear decline: the blows of the Western Fourth Crusade, the Black Death, the Ottoman Conquest, and the popularity of Muslim Sufism were all strong influences. Furthermore, as the author notes, 

It is never wise to confine one's gaze to the Mediterranean; it should travel eastwards, as far as the Buddhism and Hinduism of India and China, because that is what ancient Christians themselves did.

In contrast, the West was busily centralizing church and state. The Gregorian reforms were institutional, compartmentalizing practice and clercalizing popular devotion. It took a hard line against "wandering ascetics" prominent in Orthodoxy. In short, "Western asceticism has classically been practiced in community or by carefully regulated hermits, given a fixed home, often virtually permanent enclosure." The asceticism of the Carthusians, for example, was isolated from ecclesiastical influence. As MacCulloch puts it:

Kings and noblemen paid for these stately buildings [Carthusian monasteries] because they valued the counsel of the solitaries; admiration from great men whose lives were mired in the everyday sordidness of politics was probably tinged with wistful envy of hermit simplicity.

Likewise, mendicant orders represented an implied criticism of monastic wealth and structure, and were largely excluded from direct influence. The Carmelite migration to the West aroused Church suspicion to the point that the Carmelites boasted a pseudo-history of being founding by the prophet Elijah. The Carthusian and Carmelite vlaues of the rural, of gardening and farming, revived the subject of nature in theological circles, but assured their exclusion from power and influence, The subject of nature was to influence Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, who likewise championed rural wilness and contemplation gardens.

In academic circles of the latter Middle Ages, the influence of Islam and Aristotle overrode spiritual and mystical threads for scholasticism. Lay spirituality, marriage, family, and women, were deemed subordinate to monastic and celebate vocations, such that regular clergy (still often married) were deemed "secular." Late in this period arose the devotio moderna as an alternative monasticism for lay people, popularized by Thomas a Kempis in his Imitation of Christ. Erasmus praised marriage against celibate monasticism and tried to legitimize lay piety, but this latter effort was abstract theologizing, no longer mysticism or contemplation.

With the Protestant Reformation (1500-1700) came the series of radical assaults to traditional concepts of silence. Luther opposed monastic piety as irrelevant to salvation, and opposed celebacy to clerical marriage. Piety was reduced to local parishes, and justification by faith welcomed with noise. The revival of Old Testment hostility towards silence characterized the centrality of the sermon, the pulpit and the vernacular hymnody, including an iconoclasm that destroyed furniture and religious art. Zwingli banned music and images both. Reformed churches were characteristically suspicious of private prayer and made churches settings for scheduled congregational worship, while locking them at all other hours.

Eckhart's Gelassenheit transmuted into an anti-mystical letting-go-of-guilt under Lutheranism. While the closing of monasteries ended lectio divina and the contemplation tradition, it substituted private reading of the Bible for literacy and self-examination, even to the promotion of diary-writing.  The primacy of Bible reading led Lutheran convert Sebastian Franck to say that Scripture had become a "paper pope."

Silence was resurrected by George Fox and Quakers (Friends of the Truth), along with Dutch Mennonites and the earliest English Baptists, however few. They opposed the noise of Protestant preaching as much as the structure and theology of the Catholic Church.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church response to Protestantism intensified the confessional, reaffirmed the monastic and celibate, and launched new orders for effective pastoral work, but without effectively rehabilitating themes of silence.

MacCulloch's fourth and final section turns to silence as a reaction and defense mechanism of oppressed groups of Christians. The definition of silence is here abruptly changed to a practical political sense radically different than the history previously covered, where silence represented a method for knowing the divine. This section could find a comfortable setting in a different book. But the author's conclusion is simply that no theology of silence was to reemerge in Christianity. Instead, groups employed silence in order to avoid persecution or execution, as had happened to Waldensians, Albigensians, or conversos (Iberian Jews).

Oppressed groups retreating into silence included Christians under Islam, self-exiled figures like Juan de Valdes or Michael Servetus, or Catholic recusants under Anglicanism. Calvin called silent dissenters Nicodemites (after Nicodemus, who only visited Jesus under the safety of night). MacCulloch adds personal comments about modern silence as survival in the Oxford Movement and homosexual Catholic men, and, conversely silence as a political tool of cover-up by authorities concerning scandals of child abuse, anti-Semitism, collaboration, and slavery.


Silence in Christianity from origins to Reformation is a rich topic for theology, philosophy, and psychology. Silence is a key tool for understanding the spirituality and methods of Christian eremitism, East and West, and reveals a bedrock for further areas of thought and practice still influenced by these historical movements. This book  offers a solid foundation for pursuing this exploration.