« Prev Heretical and Catholic Asceticism Next »

§ 105. Heretical and Catholic Asceticism.

But we must now distinguish two different kinds of asceticism in Christian antiquity: a heretical and an orthodox or Catholic. The former rests on heathen philosophy, the latter is a development of Christian ideas.

The heretical asceticism, the beginnings of which are resisted in the New Testament itself,707707    Tim. 4:3; Col. 2:16 sqq. Comp. Rom. 14.07 meets us in the Gnostic and Manichaean sects. It is descended from Oriental and Platonic ideas, and is based on a dualistic view of the world, a confusion of sin with matter, and a perverted idea of God and the creation. It places God and the world at irreconcilable enmity, derives the creation from an inferior being, considers the human body substantially evil, a product of the devil or the demiurge, and makes it the great moral business of man to rid himself of the same, or gradually to annihilate it, whether by excessive abstinence or by unbridled indulgence. Many of the Gnostics placed the fall itself in the first gratification of the sexual desire, which subjected man to the dominion of the Hyle.

The orthodox or catholic asceticism starts from a literal and overstrained construction of certain passages of Scripture. It admits that all nature is the work of God and the object of his love, and asserts the divine origin and destiny of the human body, without which there could, in fact, be no resurrection, and hence no admittance to eternal glory.708708    The 51st Apostolic Canon, while favoring ascetism as a useful discipline, condemns those who "abhor" things in themselves innocent, as marriage, or flesh, or wine, and "blasphemously slander God’s work, forgetting that all things are very good, and that God made man, male and female." The Canon implies that there were such heretical ascetics in the church, and they are threatened with excommunication.08 It therefore aims not to mortify the body, but perfectly to control and sanctify it. For the metaphysical dualism between spirit and matter, it substitutes the ethical conflict between the spirit and the flesh. But in practice it exceeds the simple and sound limits of the Bible, falsely substitutes the bodily appetites and affections, or sensuous nature, as such, for the flesh, or the principle of selfishness, which resides in the soul as well as the body; and thus, with all its horror of heresy, really joins in the Gnostic and Manichaean hatred of the body as the prison of the spirit. This comes out especially in the depreciation of marriage and the family life, that divinely appointed nursery of church and state, and in excessive self-inflictions, to which the apostolic piety affords not the remotest parallel. The heathen Gnostic principle of separation from the world and from the body,709709    Entwetlichung and Entleiblichung.09 as a means of self-redemption, after being theoretically exterminated, stole into the church by a back door of practice, directly in face of the Christian doctrine of the high destiny of the body and perfect redemption through Christ.

The Alexandrian fathers furnished a theoretical basis for this asceticism in the distinction of a lower and higher morality, which corresponds to the Platonic or Pythagorean distinction between the life according to nature and the life above nature or the practical and contemplative life. It was previously suggested by Hermas about the middle of the second century.710710    Pastor Hermae. Simil. V. 3."If you do any good beyond or outside of what is commanded by God (ἐκτὸς τῆς ἐντολῆς τοῦ θεοῦ), you will gain for yourself more abundant glory (δόξαν περισσοτέραν), and will be more honored by God then you would otherwise be."10 Tertullian made a corresponding opposite distinction of mortal and venial sins.711711    Peccata irremissibilia and remissibilia, or mortalia and venialia.11 Here was a source of serious practical errors, and an encouragement both to moral laxity and ascetic extravagance. The ascetics, and afterwards the monks, formed or claimed to be a moral nobility, a spiritual aristocracy, above the common Christian people; as the clergy stood in a separate caste of inviolable dignity above the laity, who were content with a lower grade of virtue. Clement of Alexandria, otherwise remarkable for his elevated ethical views, requires of the sage or gnostic, that he excel the plain Christian not only by higher knowledge, but also by higher, emotionless virtue, and stoical superiority to all bodily conditions; and he inclines to regard the body, with Plato, as the grave and fetter712712    Τάφος, δεσμός12 of the soul. How little he understood the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith, may be inferred from a passage in the Stromata, where be explains the word of Christ: "Thy faith hath saved thee," as referring, not to faith simply, but to the Jews only, who lived according to the law; as if faith was something to be added to the good works, instead of being the source and principle of the holy life.713713    Strom. VI. 14: "When we hear, ’Thy faith hath saved thee’ (Mark 5:34), do not understand him to say absolutely that those who have believed in any way whatever shall be saved, unless also works follow. But it was to the Jews alone that he spoke this utterance, who kept the law and lived blamelessly, who wanted only faith in the Lord."13 Origen goes still further, and propounds quite distinctly the catholic doctrine of two kinds of morality and piety, a lower for all Christians, and a higher for saints or the select few.714714    In Ep. ad Rom. c. iii. ed. de la Rue iv. p. 507: "Donec quis hoc tantum facit, quod debet, i.e. quae praecepta sunt, inutilis servus. Si autem addas aliquid ad praeceptum, tunc non jam inutilis servus eris, sed dicetur ad te: Euge serve bone et fidelis. Quid autem sit quod addatur praeceptis et supra debitum fiat Paulus ap. dixit: De virginibus autem praeceptum Dominiai non habeo, consilium autem do, tamquam misericordiam as-secutus a Domino (1 Cor. 7:25). Hoc opus super praeceptum est. Et iterum praeceptum est, ut hi qui evangelium nunciant, de evangelio vivant. Paulus autem dicit, quia nullo horum usus sum: et ideo non inutilis erit servus, sed fidelis et prudens."14 He includes in the higher morality works of supererogation,715715    Opera supererogatonia.15 i.e. works not enjoined indeed in the gospel, yet recommended as counsels of perfection,716716    Matt. 19:21; Luke 14:26; 1 Cor. 7;8 sq. 25. Hence consilia evangelica in distinction from.16 which were supposed to establish a peculiar merit and secure a higher degree of blessedness. He who does only what is required of all is an unprofitable servant;717717    Luke 17:10.17 but he who does more, who performs, for example, what Paul, in 1 Cor. 7:25, merely recommends, concerning the single state, or like him, resigns his just claim to temporal remuneration for spiritual service, is called a good and faithful servant.718718    Matt. 25:21.18

Among these works were reckoned martyrdom, voluntary poverty, and voluntary celibacy. All three, or at least the last two of these acts, in connection with the positive Christian virtues, belong to the idea of the higher perfection, as distinguished from the fulfilment of regular duties, or ordinary morality. To poverty and celibacy was afterwards added absolute obedience; and these three things were the main subjects of the consilia evangelica and the monastic vow.

The ground on which these particular virtues were so strongly urged is easily understood. Property, which is so closely allied to the selfishness of man and binds him to the earth, and sexual intercourse, which brings out sensual passion in its greatest strength, and which nature herself covers with the veil of modesty;—these present themselves as the firmest obstacles to that perfection, in which God alone is our possession, and Christ alone our love and delight.

In these things the ancient heretics went to the extreme. The Ebionites made poverty the condition of salvation. The Gnostics were divided between the two excesses of absolute self-denial and unbridled self-indulgence. The Marcionites, Carpocratians, Prodicians, false Basilidians, and Manichaeans objected to individual property, from hatred to the material world; and Epiphanes, in a book "on Justice" about 125, defined virtue as a community with equality, and advocated the community of goods and women. The more earnest of these heretics entirely prohibited marriage and procreation as a diabolical work, as in the case of Saturninus, Marcion, and the Encratites; while other Gnostic sects substituted for it the most shameless promiscuous intercourse, as in Carpocrates, Epiphanes, and the Nicolaitans.

The ancient church, on the contrary, held to the divine institution of property and marriage, and was content to recommend the voluntary renunciation of these intrinsically lawful pleasures to the few elect, as means of attaining Christian perfection. She declared marriage holy, virginity more holy. But unquestionably even the church fathers so exalted the higher holiness of virginity, as practically to neutralize, or at least seriously to weaken, their assertion of the holiness of marriage. The Roman church, in spite of the many Bible examples of married men of God from Abraham to Peter, can conceive no real holiness without celibacy, and therefore requires celibacy of its clergy without exception.

« Prev Heretical and Catholic Asceticism Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection