« Ascension of Paul Asceticism Aschheim, Synod of »



New Testament Teaching (§ 1).

Asceticism in the Early Church (§ 2).

Attitude of the Reformers (§ 3).

True Value and Uses of Asceticism (§ 4).

1. New Testament Teaching.

The term “asceticism” (Gk. askēsis) originally meant “practise,” especially the training of an athlete. In philosophical language it denotes moral exercise and discipline (e.g., Epictetus, Dissertationes, iii, 12; Diogenes Laertius, VIII, viii, 8), and in this sense passed into ecclesiastical language (Eusebius, Hist. eccl., II, xvii, 2; Martyres Palæstinæ, x, 2, xi, 2, 22). In the history of almost all religions, as well as in ancient moral 310philosophy, asceticism plays an important part, evidenced by phenomena like self-mutilation, circumcision, tattooing, fasting, flagellations, penance, etc., and by the ethics of the Buddhists, Stoics, Pythagoreans, and Neoplatonists. The Old Testament manifests, on the whole, few tend encies toward outward asceticism; but later Judaism, in its Pharisaic as well as in its Hellenistic form, cultivated it, especially in the practise of fasting (cf. Dan. x, 3; Tobit xii, 8; Matt. vi, 16, ix, 14; Luke xviii, 12). Primitive Christianity kept free from this externalizing asceticism. The custom of fasting was retained (Matt. iv, 2; Acts xiii, 2, xiv, 23, xviii, 18, xxi, 24, xxvii, 9; II Cor. xi, 27), but, as in the Old Testament, it was only auxiliary to prayer (Esther iv, 16; Dan. ix, 3; Tobit xii, 8; Luke ii, 37; Acts x, 30, xiii, 2, xiv, 23), and no merit was attached to it. In place of a legal and meritorious asceticism the Lord demands watchfulness, sobriety, and prayer (Matt. xxiv, 42, xxv, 13; Mark xiii, 37; cf. Acts xx, 31; I Cor. xvi, 13; II Cor. vi, 5, xi, 27; Eph. vi, 18; Col. iv, 2; I Thess. v, 6, 8; I Pet. i, 13, v, 8; II Pet. iii, 11-12; Rev. iii, 3, xvi,15), as well as a readiness to resign everything to follow him and to take up the cross (Matt. viii, 21-22, x, 38-39, xvi, 24, xix, 21; Mark viii, 34, x, 28, 39; Luke ix, 57-58, xiv, 27). In the morals of Jesus everything depends upon the disposition and free deed. Thus Matt. vi, 17-18, ix, 15, xix, 12, are not to be understood as outward, ascetic regulations. The thoughts of Paul move along the same lines. In the moral struggle one must become master of the old man who has been put off (Rom. vii, 23, xiii, 14; Gal. v, 17; Eph. vi, 12-18; Col. iii, 5-8; I Tim. vi, 12), and discipline is also necessary to bring the body into subjection (I Cor. ix, 25-27). This is the true notion of asceticism as expressed in I Tim. iv, 7, 8. Remarks like I Cor. vii, 5, 8, 25-40 have not the value of generally received ethical laws; the legalism of Jewish life, the contempt of marriage, the worshiping of angels, and neglect of the body are all rejected (Gal. ii, 12-16; Col. ii, 16-23; I Tim. iv, 3). The New Testament, therefore, offers the following thoughts as bases for the notion of asceticism: the obligation of the Christian to crucify the flesh; the demand to bear the cross, to be sober and ready; and the exhortation to ” exercise” the body and to fashion it into an organ fit for the ends of the Christian.

2. Asceticism in the Early Church.

Hellenistic and Jewish influences worked together to introduce, with ” moralism,” in the old catholic time an ascetic order of life. The institution of certain fast-days, fixed hours of prayer, the restricted use of food, abstinence from marriage, withdrawal from the world, characterise this tendency. Asceticism, no less than ” knowledge,” came to be considered as belonging to Christianity (Clement, Strom., vi, 12). At an early period ascetics are found who retire into the desert and leave the Church from moral considerations (Irenæus, Hær., III, xi, 9; IV, xxvi, 2, xxx, 3, xxxiii, 7). As ascetic tendencies enter more deeply into the Church (cf. the case of Origen, Eusebius, Hist. eccl., vi, 2), and as the Church comes to know the world more intimately, it becomes easier to understand the origin of ascetic societies (cf. the pseudo-Clementine Epistles, De virginitate; Hieracas, in Epiphanius, Hær., lxvii, 13; Athanasius, Vita Antonii, iii, 14; Cyril, Catecheses, iv, 24, v, 4, xii, 33; Methodius, Convivium, vii, 3; Aphraates, Hom., vi). Here was the beginning of the later anchoretic and monastic system (see Monasticism).

3. Attitude of the Reformers.

On this road the Middle Ages proceeded. The ascetic practises were extended more and more, and their extension naturally produced among the monks a state of dulness. There are two things especially which mark the history of medieval asceticism: the institution of penance with its works of satisfaction, and the idea of imitating the poverty and suffering of Jesus. The first shows a descending evolution, but the second an ascending one, tending to introspection, as in the circle of the Friends of God. The way of asceticism was considered as the way of perfection. The Augsburg Confession (art. xxvi, 8) says of the medieval period: ” Christianity was thought of as consisting solely of the observance of certain holy days, rites, fasts, attire.” On the other hand, the Reformation abolished on principle the medieval estimate of asceticism, because the solemn ascetic works are not enjoined by God, but by worthless human commandments (art. xxiii, 6 sqq., 19 sqq., xxvi, 18; Apol., xxiii, 6, 60, xxvii, 42-57), and can even be regarded as suicide and tempting of God (Luther, Werke, Erlangen ed., iv, 380, vii, 40, ix, 289, xi, 104). The ascetic system is also abolished by the concept of righteousness by faith which is opposed to meritorious works, which are therefore to be rejected (Augs. Con., xx, 8, 9 sqq., xxvi, 1 sqq., 8, xxvii, 3, 44; Apo1., xv, 6 sqq.; Art. Schmal., iv, 14; Luther, xx, 250, xvii, 8, xlii, 262, xliii, 193, lxv, 128, xxi, 330). Thus it is asserted that the ascetic works answer not the will of God and are not meritorious. For ” Christian perfection” ascetic works are not necessary; indeed, moral conduct is the more certain evidence of God’s presence (Augs. Con., xvi, 4 sqq., xxvi, 10, xxvii, 10 sqq., xv, 49, 57; Apol., xv, 25-26, xvii, 61; Longer Catechism, precept iv, 145). But asceticism is hereby not done away with. The ” mortification of the flesh” ever remains a Christian duty (Augs. Con., xxvi, 31 sqq.). But by this is not meant a weakening and destruction of the natural powers, but the self-discipline by which the natural powers are made subject to the soul, thus becoming fit for serving God. Outward fast-regulations are therefore very useful, but should never become a law (Luther, xliii, 197-199, lxv, 128). The Protestant view is briefly this: ” Every one can use his own discretion as to fasting and watching, for every one knows how much he must do to master his body. Those, however, who think to become pious through works have no regard for fasting, but only for the works and, imagining that they are pious when they do much in that direction, sometimes break their heads over it and ruin their bodies over it” (Luther, xxvii, 27, 190, xliii, 199, 311201, x, 290, xxi, 240, x, 250). It is useless to continue the historical review, since no essentially new types of asceticism have appeared in the Church. The Roman Catholic Church adheres on principle to the medieval conception, yet in the Jesuitic “Spiritual Exercises” the purely sensual asceticism strongly recedes, and there is accommodation to the modern spirit. Mysticism and pietism in evangelical Christendom have demanded renunciation and seclusion in a one-sided manner (cf. C. E. Luthardt, Geschichte der Ethik, ii, Leipsic, 1893, 154 sqq., 248 sqq., and the histories of pietism by Ritschl and Schmid; see Pietism).

4. True Value and Uses of Asceticism.

Asceticism is a special moral act. Christian moral acts are free, devoted to the acquisition of the highest good or the realisation of the kingdom of God. They have for their object the reformation of one’s own personality (conversion and sanctification), as well as the influence on the surrounding conditions to be realized by this personality. The Christian life is a continual fight with sin, but is to overcome it by virtue of the effects of grace. This task can not in itself be called an “exercise,” since it rather denotes the self-preservation of the Christian. To effect this self-preservation in the struggle against sin the Christian must indeed exercise and stretch his powers for the struggle. The object of morality is opposition to sin and the positive exemplification of the good. To bring this about it is necessary to have the mastery over the natural gifts and powers of man, which is obtained by attention to self, by watchfulness, and by accustoming one’s own nature to subjection to the moral will. Asceticism is not directly a struggle against sin and realization of the Christian good, but it aims at such a rule over the natural powers that one is qualified to follow the good will readily in the struggle against sin and in the positive moral exemplification. The typical forms of asceticism (fasting, self-denial, etc.) show that the question is not directly the overcoming of sin or of doing good works, but the training of the natural powers for both. This is the specifically evangelical conception of asceticism. On the other hand, the Roman Catholics define asceticism as a direct moral act and as “the summary of all which serves to promote moral perfection” (Pruner, in KL, i, 1460); or asceticism is explained as that part of theology which “develops the principles of Christian perfection and points out the practical rules which bring about the soul’s elevation to God” (J. Ribet, L’Ascétique chrétienne, Paris, 1888). Here the various exercises of asceticism are moral self-interest and good works, whereas, according to evangelical conception, asceticism is self-discipline to make one fit for good works; in this subordination it is a moral deed itself. Asceticism is therefore self-control in the true sense of the word.

Upon a closer examination the point here is this: (1) The task is to exercise nature in patience, watchfulness, self-denial, and sobriety, so that it becomes fit to bear the sufferings of the cross sent by God as a blessing. These are given to man from God for “the mortifying of the flesh “; the question is not of self-mortification and invited martyrdom. The cross is not to incite the Christian to sin, but to restrain the sinful lust. From this point of view the Christian is to consider the suffering and be affected by it. (2) Our nature in consequence of the sinfulness of man is exercised and ready to walk the ways pointed out by the evil will. In concrete things it exemplifies chiefly the dominion of the sensual desires over the spiritual will. Over against this, it is a Christian duty to accustom nature to subjugation under the spiritual will, to the regulation of the desires, to regularity and propriety of life, to steadfastness in useful work, to the proper relation between labor and recreation. Here one has to deal with moral gymnastics, which are to fit human nature to obey the good moral will imparted by grace. (3) For each man exist certain thoughts and incentives which in themselves are morally indifferent, but, as experience teaches, may become a temptation to the individual. To restrain these is the further object of asceticism; and herein it includes fasting in the ardent sense, e.g., with reference to society, eating and drinking, matrimony, sexual intercourse, novel-reading, the theater, dancing, total abstinence. etc. The question here is of a moral dietetics. With this the field of asceticism is circumscribed. Only it should be added that the ascetic practica1 proof must never become a law; it calls only for individual self-restraint. This, however, as little precludes ascetic habits in the individual as ascetic customs in communities. It must also be emphasized that the question can not be as to the meritorious character of asceticism; for, in the first place, this thought has no place in evangelical ethics; in the second place, because the necessity of ascetic exercises proves not man’s moral maturity, but immaturity. Finally, it must be remarked that in the concrete life the ascetic practical proof can not be separated from sanctification and the moral struggle.

R. Seeberg.

Bibliography: G. Nitsch, Praxis mortificationis carnis, Gotha, 1725; E. Kist, Christliche Ascetik, 2 vols., Wessel, 1827–28; O. Zöckler, Kritische Geschichte der Askese, Erlangen, 1863 (contains a bibliography); idem, Askese und Mönchtum, 2 vols., Frankfort, 1897; DCA, i. 147–149; Schaff, Christian Church, i, 387–414; J. Mayer, Die christliche Ascese, Freiburg. 1894; R. Seeberg, in GGA, clx (1898). 506 sqq.; C. E. Hooijkaas, Oudchristelijke Ascese, Leyden, 1905; a detailed treatment of asceticism, Jewish and Christian, of the latter in all periods is given in Neander, Christian Church, consult the index; also the works on ethics and Christian morals, such as those of Reinhard, Rothe, Dorner, Martensen, Harless, Vilmar, Oettinger, Frank, H. Schultz, Luthardt, Wutke, and Smyth, and see Ethics, and Monasticism.

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