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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament
Introduction.-The whole of morality on its negative side may be included under Abstinence. Christian moral progress (sanctification) includes a holding fast (κατέχεσθαι) of the good, and an abstaining from (ἀπέχεσθαι) every form of evil (1 Thessalonians 5:21 f.). While Christianity has general laws to distinguish the good from the bad, yet for each individual Christian these laws are focused in the conscience, and the function of the latter is to discriminate between the good and the bad-it cannot devolve this duty on outward rules. With it the ultimate decision rests, and on it also lies the responsibility (Romans 14:5, Hebrews 5:14). The lists of vices and virtues,* [Note: See Dobschütz, Christian Life in the Primitive Church, Eng. tr., 1904, p. 406ff., for lists.] of ‘works of the flesh’ and ‘fruits of the spirit,’ given in the NT are not meant to be exhaustive, but typical; nor are they given to make needless the exercise of Christian discernment. The NT is not afraid to place in the Christian conscience the decision of what is to be abstained from and what is not, because it believes in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and because it exalts personal responsibility. It is necessary to make this clear, because, as we shall see, the ultimate tribunal of appeal in matters of abstinence in the ordinary sense (i.e. in the sphere of things indifferent) is the Christian conscience. The ideal of Christian conduct is sometimes said to be self-realization, not self-suppression; consecration, not renunciation. These antitheses are apt to be misleading. In the self with which Christianity deals there are sinful elements that have to be extirpated. Christian sanctification takes place not in innocent men, but in sinners who have to be cleansed from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit (2 Corinthians 7:1). To purify oneself (1 John 3:3) is not simply to realize oneself; it is to do no sin.
In all moral conduct there is suppression; in Christian conduct there is extirpation. This negative side of Christian conduct is abstinence. It is the crucifying of the flesh-death unto sin-and it is the correlative of ‘living to righteousness,’ ‘being risen with Christ,’ etc. Abstinence in this sense is an essential and ever-present moment in the Christian life.
More narrowly interpreted, abstinence is a refraining from certain outward actions-as eating, drinking, worldly business, marriage, etc. It is thus applied to outward conduct, while continence (ἐγκράτεια) is used of inward self-restraint. Cicero makes this distinction, though, from the nature of the case, he cannot always consistently apply it (see Lewis and Short, Lat. Dict., s.v. ‘Abstinentia’).
We may look first at the outward side of abstinence, and then try to find out what the Christian principles are (as these are unfolded in the apostolic writings) that determine its nature and its limits.
I. Ascetic practices
(a) Fasting, or abstinence from food and drink, may be unavoidable or involuntary (e.g. Acts 27:21-22, 1 Corinthians 4:11, 2 Corinthians 6:5* [Note: See Dobschütz, Christian Life in the Primitive Church, Eng. tr., 1904, p. 406ff., for lists.] 2 Corinthians 11:27,* [Note: These are sometimes explained as voluntary fasts-to use Hooker’s expression. (Ecc. Pol. v. 72. 8)-but the contexts seem decisive against that view.] Philippians 4:12). Such fastings have a religious value only indirectly. They may overtake the apostate as well as the apostle. If they are caused by devotion to Christian service, they are, like all other privations so caused, badges of fidelity; and they may be referred to with reasonable pride by Christ’s ministers (2 Corinthians 6:4 f.; 2 Corinthians 11:23). They ought to silence criticism (cf. Galatians 6:17, where St. Paul speaks of his bruises as στίγματα τοῦ Ἰησοῦ), and they enforce Christian exhortation (Colossians 4:18, Ephesians 4:1). On the principle that he who chooses the end chooses the means, such fastings are real proofs of fidelity to Christ. They are like the scars of the true soldier.
(b) An absorbing pre-occupation with any pursuit may be the cause of fasting. The artist or the scientist may forget to take food, in the intensity of his application to his work; or any great emotion like sorrow may make one ‘forget to take bread.’ Such a fast we have in Acts 9:9, where St. Paul, we are told, was without food for three days after his conversion. As Jesus fasted in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11), or at the well forgot His hunger (John 4:31 f.), so the ferment of the new life acted on St. Paul thus also. Fasting is not the cause of such pre-occupation, but the effect; and so its value depends on the nature of the emotion causing it.† [Note: This was probably what Jesus had in view in the saying in Matthew 9:15.] Such involuntary privations, however, are not fasting in the proper sense. In themselves they are morally indifferent, as they may overtake any one irrespective of moral conditions; but, when borne bravely and contentedly in the line of Christian duty, they are not only indications of true faith, but in turn they strengthen that faith (Romans 5:3-5, Philippians 4:11).
(c) Real fasting is purposive and voluntary. It is a total or partial abstinence from food for an unusual period, or from certain foods always or at certain times, for a moral or religious end. Such a fast is mentioned in Acts 13:2-3; Acts 14:23 in connexion with ordination. It is associated with prayer. Some hold that it was the form to ‘be permanently observed’ in such cases (Ramsay, St. Paul, 1895, p. 122). There is no mention, however, of fasting at the appointment of Matthias (Acts 1:24), or of the seven (Acts 6:6). We cannot, therefore, take it as inherently binding on Christian Churches at such solemnities. It is rather the survival of ancient religious practices (like the fasting on the Day of Atonement), which on the occasions referred to were adopted through the force of custom, and served to solemnize the proceedings. The Atonement fast (Acts 27:9) is mentioned only as a time limit after which navigation was dangerous. It is not said that St. Paul fasted on that day, though probably he did.
These Jewish survivals wore conserved without investigation by the Palestinian Church, though, after what Jesus had said on fasting, we may believe that the spiritual condition of the believer, rather than the performance of the outward rite, would be the essential element. Pharisaism, however, follows so closely on the heels of ritual that in some quarters it very early infuenced Christianity (cf. Did. i. 3: ‘Fast for those who persecute you; and Epiph. Haer. lxx. 11: ‘When they [i.e. the Jews] feast, ye shall fast and mourn for them’; cf. also Polycarp, vii. 2; Hermas, Vis. iii 10. 6; and, in the same connexion, the Interpolations in the NT [Matthew 17:21, Mark 9:29, Acts 10:30, 1 Corinthians 7:5]). Even the Pharisaic custom of fasting twice a week (Monday and Thursday) was adopted in some quarters, though these days were changed to Wednesday and Friday (Did. viii. 1). These are the later dies stationum or στάσεις (cf. Clem. Alex. Strom. vii. 12, p. 877). See Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics v. 844b.
To evaluate the practice of fasting, we must look to the end aimed at and the efficacy of this means to attain that end. (1) In many cases it would be mainly a matter of tradition. On any eventful occasion men might practise fasting, to ratify a decision or induce solemnity, as those Jews did who vowed to kill St. Paul (Acts 23:12). Under such a category would fall the Paschal and pre-baptismal fasts. Though not mentioned in the NT, they were early practised in the Christian Church (Eus. HE [Note: E Historia Ecclesiastica (Eusebius, etc.).] Acts 23:24; Did. vii.; Justin Martyr, Apol. i. 61). There can be no doubt that ordination and baptismal and Paschal fasts may serve to solemnize these events, yet there is no warrant for making them an ecclesiastical rule. In such traditional fasting there is often, consciously or unconsciously, implicated the feeling that God is thereby pleased and merit acquired, and the result in such cases is Pharisaic complacency and externalism. Jesus, following the great prophets (Isaiah 58:5-7, Zechariah 8:19), had relegated outward rites to a secondary place. He demanded secrecy, sincerity, and simplicity in all these matters, and the Apostolic Church never wholly lost sight of His guidance. St. James, while emphasizing the value of prayer (James 5:17-20), says nothing of fasting, and he makes real ritual consist in works of mercy and blameless conduct (James 1:27). Even when fasting was enjoined, the danger of externalism was recognized (Hermas, Sim. v. 1; Barn. ii. 10; Justin Martyr, Dial. 15). St. Paul had to prove that such fastings could not be redemptively of any value, that they were not binding, that they did not place the observer of them on a higher spiritual plane than the non-observer, that even as means of discipline they were of doubtful value, and that they were perpetually liable to abuse (Colossians 2:20 ff.).
(2) Fastings were used in certain cases to induce ecstatic conditions. This is a well-known feature in apocalyptic writings. Perhaps the Colossian heretics did this (cf. ἃ ἑόρακεν ἐμβατεύων, Colossians 2:18). St. John and the other Apostles with him are said to have fasted three days before writing the Fourth Gospel (Muratorian fragment). The Apocalypse, however, though a ὅρασις (vision), is lacking in the usual accompaniments of a vision, viz. prayer and fasting (contrast Hermas, Sim. v. 1). St. Peter’s vision (Acts 10:9-16) was preceded by hunger, but it was not a voluntary fast; nor is there any reference to fasting in the case of St. Paul’s visions (Acts 16:9; Acts 18:9 f., 2 Corinthians 12:1 f.), and the reference in the case of Cornelius (Acts 10:30) is a later interpolation. It was more when direct prophetic inspiration became a memory rather than when it was a reality that men resorted to fasting in order to superinduce it.
(3) Fasting was resorted to also that alms might be given out of the savings.
‘If there is among them a man that is poor and needy, and they have not an abundance of necessaries, they fast for two or three days, that they may supply the needy with necessary food’ (Aristides, Apology, xv.). Cf. also Hermas, Sim. v. 3. 7: ‘Reckon up on this day what thy meal would otherwise have cost thee, and give the amount to some poor widow or orphan, or to the poor.’
Origen (hom. in Leviticus 10) quotes an apostolic saying which supports this practice:
‘We have found in a certain booklet an apostolic saying, “Blessed is also he who fasts that he may feed the poor” ’ (‘Invenimus hi quodam libello ab apostolis dictum-Beatus eat qui etiam jejunat pro eo ut alat pauperem’).
This saying might legitimately be deduced from such passages as Ephesians 4:28 and James 2:16, but the practice easily associated itself with the idea of fasting as a work of merit.
‘More powerful than prayer is fasting, and more than both alms.’ ‘Alms abolish sins’ (2 Clem. xvi. 4; cf. Hermas, Sim. v. 3).
Fasting done out of Christian love to the brethren is noble; but, when done to gain salvation, it becomes not only profitless but dangerous. ‘Though I give all my goods to feed the poor and have not love, it profiteth me nothing’ (1 Corinthians 13:3).
(4) Again, fasting may have been viewed as giving power over demons (cf. Clem. Hom. ix. 9; Tertullian, de Jejuniis, 8: ‘Docuit etiam adversus diriora demonia jejuniis praeliandum’; cf. Matthew 17:21, Mark 9:29). Some find this view in the narrative of the Temptation (see Encyclopaedia Biblica , article ‘Temptation’). This view of fasting, grotesque as it appears to us, is akin to the truth that surfeiting of the body dulls the spiritual vision, and that the spiritual life is a rigorous discipline (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:24-27).
What strikes one in the apostolic writings generally, as contrasted with later ecclesiastical literature, is the scarcity of references to fasting as an outward observance. Nowhere is the traditional Church ascetic held up to imitation in the NT, as Eusebius (HE [Note: E Historia Ecclesiastica (Eusebius, etc.).] ii. 23) holds up St. James, or Clement of Alexandria (Paed. ii. 1) St. Matthew, or the Clem. Hom. (xii. 6, xv. 7) St. Peter, or Epiphanius (Haer. lxxviii. 13) the sons of Zebedee.
In the NT the references to fasting are almost all incidental, and apologetic or hostile. It is regarded as due to weakness of faith, or positive perversion. Neither St. John, St. James, St. Jude, nor St. Peter once mentions it as a means of grace. This silence, it is true, ought not to be unduly pressed; yet it is surely a proof that they considered fasting as of no essential importance. Its revival in the Christian Church was due to traditionalism and legalism on the one hand, and to ascetic dualism (Orphic, Platonic, Essenic) on the other. In the NT the latter influence is strenuously opposed (Colossians and Pastorals), and the former is as vigorously rejected when it makes itself necessary to salvation, although it is tenderly treated when it is only a weak leaning towards old associations. The whole spirit of apostolic Christianity regards fasting as of little or no importance, and the experience of the Christian Church seems to be that any value it may have is infinitesimal compared with the evils and perversions that seem so inseparably associated with it. According to Eusebius (HE [Note: E Historia Ecclesiastica (Eusebius, etc.).] v. 18), Montanus was the first to give laws to the Church on fasting. The NT is altogether opposed to such ecclesiastical laws. The matter is one for the individual Christian intelligence to determine (Romans 14:5).
St. Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians 9:24 ff. has been adduced in support of self-torture of all kinds; but, while we must not minimize the reality of Christian discipline, nothing can be legitimately deduced from this passage or any other in favour of fasting or flagellation as a general means of sanctification, nor is the Apostle’s view based on a dualism which looks on matter and the human body as inherently evil. It may be said that interpolations like 1 Corinthians 7:5 (cf. Acts 10:30, Matthew 17:21, Mark 9:29) reveal the beginnings of that ascetic resurgence which reached its climax in monastic austerities, and that there is at least a tinge of ascetic dualism in certain Pauline passages (e.g. Romans 8:13, 1 Corinthians 5:5; 1 Corinthians 7:1-8; 1 Corinthians 9:27, 2 Corinthians 4:10-11, Colossians 3:5); but even those who hold this view of these Pauline passages admit ‘that there is very little asceticism, in the ordinary sense, in St. Paul’s Epistles, while there is much that makes in the opposite direction’ (McGiffert, Apostol. Age, 1897, p. 136). We shall see, however, when we come to deal with the principles of abstinence as unfolded by St. Paul, that even this minimum residuum has to be dropped.
We may conclude, then, that, according to the NT, fasting is not enjoined or even recommended as a spiritual help. The ideal is life with the Risen Christ, which involves not only total renunciation of all sinful actions but self-restraint in all conduct. When the individual Christian finds fasting to be a part of this self-restraint, then it is useful; but one fails to find any proof in the NT that fasting is necessarily an element of self-restraint. When it is an effect of an absorbing spiritual emotion, or when practised to aid the poor, or involuntarily undergone in the straits of Christian duty, then it is highly commendable.
2. The use of wine.-While drunkenness as well as gluttony is sternly condemned, nowhere is total abstinence, in our sense, enforced. In one passage it has even been contended that St. Paul indirectly opposes it (1 Timothy 5:23), but his words in our time would be simply equivalent to medical advice to the effect that total abstinence as a principle must be subordinated to bodily health. Thus, while total abstinence is in itself not an obligatory duty, it may become so on the principle that we ought not to do anything by which our brother stumbles, or is offended, or is made weak (1 Corinthians 8:13). This principle, which is equally applicable to fasting, must be considered in deciding the Christian attitude towards all outward observances. While Christianity recognizes the indifferent nature of these customs, while its liberty frees Christians from their observance, yet cases may arise when this liberty has to be subordinated to love and the interests of Christian unity. In 1 Corinthians 8 the Apostle is dealing with the conditions of his own time; our conditions did not engage his attention. Christian abstainers can find an adequate defence for their position in the degrading associations of strong drink in our modern life. On the other band, total abstinence from strong drink is no more a universally binding duty than fasting is, nor are ecclesiastical rules called for in the one case more than in the other.* [Note: The ‘water-folk’ found in the Eastern Church in the 3rd cent. (who objected to wine at the Lord’s Supper), cannot appeal to NT principles for a justification of their actions.] Both these customs fall within the sphere of things indifferent, and are to be determined by the individual in the light of the nature of the Christian life, which is ‘neither meat nor drink, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost’ (Romans 14:17).
3. Marriage and celibacy.-We are not here concerned with the NT doctrine of marriage (q.v. [Note: quod vide, which see.] ) in its totality, but with the question as to whether celibacy is commanded as a superior grade of living, and as to whether this is based on a dualistic view which regards the sexual functions as in their very nature evil. To begin with, marriage is viewed by St. Paul as being in general a human necessity, as indeed a preventive against incontinency. It is a ‘port of his greatness that, in spite of his own somewhat ascetic temperament, he was not blind to social and physiological facts’ (Drummond, quoted in Expositor’s Greek Testament on 1 Thessalonians 4:4). He recommends those who can to remain single as he is himself. In view of the approaching world-end in which he believed, marriage meant the multiplication of troubles that would make fidelity to Christ more difficult; and perhaps in this light also the propagation of the race was undesirable. It is possible also that he may have been here influenced unconsciously by his Rabbinical training, and that he interpreted his own case as too generally applicable. He was a celibate for the Kingdom of Heaven’s sake (Matthew 19:10-12), and he may have made the mistake of desiring to universalize his own exceptional case.
Yet there is no ground for the view that celibacy in itself is a superior form of life.* [Note: Harnack (on Did. xi. 8) thinks Ephesians 5:32 recommends celibacy as a higher life for the Christian. See, however, Schaff, The Oldest Church Manual, 1885, p. 202.] St. Paul does not say that it can produce that life or is necessary to it, but when it is a consequence of it, then it is of value. It is the supremacy of single-hearted devotion to Christ that ho holds out as an ideal, and his view is that in some cases marriage endangers this. Again, marriage is not to him simply a preventive against uncleanness (see article Soberness). It is also the object of sanctification, and its relations have their own honour (1 Thessalonians 4:4; see Marriage, Virginity). He uses it as an illustration of the highest relationship; he opposes those who prohibit it (1 Timothy 4:2) owing to a false asceticism. It is true he does not there give reasons, as he does in the case of abstinence from food, because the same principle applies to both cases, While, then, we may admit that on this question his view was narrow, we may say with Sabatier (The Apostle Paul, Eng. translation , 1891, p. 164) that ‘this narrowness, for which he has been so greatly blamed, does not arise from a dualistic asceticism. There is no dualism to be found in Paul’s doctrine.’
4. World-flight is not encouraged in the NT. Slaves even are warned to abide in their situations, knowing that they are God’s freemen (see article Abuse). The necessity of labour is unfolded in the Thessalonian Epistles, against the practice of those who had given up work under eschatological influences. World-flight is not conquering the world, but rather giving up the idea of conquering it, abandoning the battlefield, and, as such, is contrary to the apostolic view. St. Paul did not, it is true, expatiate after the manner of modern moralists on the dignity of labour,† [Note: See Harnack’s What is Christianity? (Eng. tr., 1904, p 123ff.) for remarks qualifying the idea underlying the phrase, ‘the dignity of labour.’] but he did insist on ‘the divineness of those obligations and ties which constitute man’s social life.…’ The institutions of society-‘marriage, the state, the rights of possession-are of Divine appointment, and must be upheld and honoured, however short the time before the order to which they belong shall pass away forever’ (Stevens, Theol, of NT, 1899, p. 454).
II. Ascetic principles.-Abstinence is wider than fasting or outward observances; it implies principles by which these external actions are determined, and it keeps in view also the inner reality of which they are the expression. It includes character as well as conduct. Indeed, it is this inward reality which is mainly of value in the Christian ideal of abstinence.
1. The verb ἀσκεῖν occurs only once in the NT (Acts 24:16), in this sense of a life whose activities ore explained, in the way both of omission and commission, by an inner principle. St. Paul was accused of deliberately offending Jewish legal susceptibilities. He denies the charge. While he adheres to the heresy of ‘the Way,’ he does so without intentionally coming into collision with the customs or prejudices of others. Not only so, but his plan is a studied attempt to conform to all customs of Jew and Gentile, of ‘weak’ and ‘strong,’ consistently with his faithfulness to God and his being under law to Christ. This is his ἄσκησις for the gospel’s sake (1 Corinthians 9:19-22). His whole life is an illustration of this. He yielded to Jewish susceptibilities (Acts 16:3; Acts 18:18; Acts 21:26), and bore with Gentile immaturity (1 Thessalonians 2:7-12). This conduct was not due to fickleness or guile (1 Corinthians 2:15, 1 Thessalonians 2:3), but to love (2 Corinthians 5:13 f.), and it was done in simplicity and godly sincerity of conscience (2 Corinthians 1:12, Acts 24:16). It was different from the loveless superior liberty of Corinthian liberalism, and from the servile man-pleasing of weak Judaism (Galatians 1:2). It was, in short, a reproduction of that κένωσις of self (so different from selfish human acquisitiveness) which was the great feature of the life of Christ (Philippians 2:8).
To St. Paul this involved very real asceticism. In striking language he figures himself as in the course of his Christian race undergoing privations, abstinences, and self-discipline as great as any runner for the Isthmian prize or as any pugilist. It is not simply that this asceticism involved abstinence from sin-Christianity demands that from all; it involved also the giving up of privileges and rights, and the denial to self of anything that would hinder his being sure of the prize or that would weaken others or cause them to stumble. It is a warning to Christian liberalism in Corinth not to degenerate into licence and so to fall. Christian asceticism is the remedy against this. We are not to infer that St. Paul practised bodily torture, that he went, as it were, out of his way to invent austerities, self-imposed fastings, or flagellations. What he refers to here is the effect on his whole life of his absorbing passion for men’s salvation. That was the expulsive power which made him an ascetic in this sense, which made him abnegate his rights of maintenance at Thessalonica and Corinth, which made him work at night though preaching through the day, which overcame his bodily weaknesses, which brought him into dangers by land and sea without being deterred by the fear of pain or privation.
Nor was this ἄσκησις of his a superior form of life which was binding only on a few choice souls. St. Paul has no double morality. No one can empty himself too much for Christ or endure too much for Him. In this way must we explain the manifold passages where the Christian life is compared to a race, to an athletic contest, to military life and warfare. Just as these involve abstinence, so also does Christianity. This asceticism is, however, not arbitrarily imposed or cunningly invented; it is the consequence of fidelity to Christ’s cause. It arises out of the very nature of the Christian life. Its outward manifestation is accidental. What is essential is the presence of the self-denying spirit, which spends and is spent willingly out of love to Christ. It is a complete perversion to suppose that outward austerities can create this spirit. Outward hardships of any sort must be effects, not causes. This Christian asceticism is not due to any disparagement of the body or undervaluation of earthly relationships or a false view of matter. The asceticism born of these is at best only a σωματικὴ γυμνασία* [Note: This σωματικὴ γυμνασία is not athletics in our sense; it is a bodily discipline dictated by a philosophico-religious view of the body-a dualistic view of things (cf. 1 Timothy 4:3).] (1 Timothy 4:7 f.), while Christian asceticism is one whose end is piety. The one is of little profit, the other of eternal worth. This gymnastic for holiness arises out of the providential disciplines furnished copiously by a strict adherence to the line of Christian duty. It is the κοπιᾶν καὶ ὀνειδίζεσθαι, the exhaustive labouring, and the abuse (or earnest conflict. [ἀγωνίζεσθαι of the man who sets his hope on the living God (1 Timothy 4:10).
2. What, then, are the principles that determine the nature and limits of Christian abstinence? We may learn these by considering the general word for ‘abstinence’ (ἀπέχεσθαι) in the NT (Acts 15:20; Acts 15:29, 1 Thessalonians 4:3; 1 Thessalonians 5:22, 1 Timothy 4:3, 1 Peter 2:11). These principles did not disengage themselves all at once in the Church’s consciousness. The first real attempt at such a disengagement is found in the so-called Apostolic Decree (Acts 15). This was nothing more than a working compromise to ease the existing situation. Attempts have been made often and early to moralize it and so find in it a valid basis for Christian abstinence. Thus ‘blood’ was explained as ‘homicide,’ and ‘things strangled’ were omitted, as in Codes D; but such attempts are beside the point as surely as the attempts to judaize the document completely by making ‘fornication’ mean ‘marriage within the prohibited degrees.’ For our purpose the Decree is valuable historically rather than morally. It is a land-mark in the liberating of Christianity from ceremonial Judaism, similar to the evangelizing of Samaria by Philip and his baptizing of the eunuch, or the dealing of St. Peter with Cornelius. It does not, however, supply a logical or lasting basis for abstinence. Such a basis is furnished by St. Paul (1 Thessalonians 4:1-8, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, Galatians 5:18 etc.; cf. 1 Peter 2:11). The ground of Christian abstinence is found in the nature of the Christian life, which is a holy calling-a fellowship with the Holy One-whose animating principle is the Holy Spirit. The Christian man-body, soul, and spirit-is in union with Christ. Hence the very nature of the Christian life gives a positive principle of abstinence. Everything carnal is excluded. ‘The carnal mind is enmity against God, it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be’ (Romans 8:7). This determines positively what is of necessity to be avoided, and lists of these sins are given in the NT (see above, Introduction). These are ‘the works of the flesh.’ At the very lowest foundation of the Christian life there must be personal purity. ἁγιασμός is wholly opposed to ἀκαθαρσία (1 Thessalonians 4:7).
Some have maintained that St. Paul tends to regard sanctification as mainly absence from sensual sin (Wernle, Beginnings of Christianity, Eng. translation , 1904, ii. 334), and others that he, possibly from his own bitter experience of this sin, emphasized this aspect of sanctification (A. B. Bruce, St. Paul’s Conception of Christianity, 1894, p. 264). But St. Paul’s view of sanctification includes the whole personality. He was keenly alive to the ‘inconceivable evil of sensuality,’ although he himself had the charism of continence (1 Corinthians 7:7). The reason for his emphasis on personal purity is found in the immoral state of Grecian cities-‘the bottomless sexual depravity of the heathen world’ (Schaff, op. cit. p. 202)-and in the sensual bias of human nature. Christians had to learn this grace of purity (1 Thessalonians 4:4).
The Christian life, then, is a positive life-a life that is being sanctified; and this includes all along a negative element, for Christianity does not deal with innocent men, but with sinners. Hence the crucifying of the flesh, with its affections and lusts, and the mortifying of the bodily members are just the negative side of advance in holiness.
It is sometimes held that at first St. Paul’s teaching on this point was tinged with dualism, and that he tended to regard the body itself as essentially evil, and that it was only later on, when the full consequences of his early views were carried into effect, as in Colossians and the Pastorals, that he came to repudiate this dualistic asceticism (Baring Gould, A Study of St. Paul, 1897 [see Index, under ‘Asceticism’]), or it is maintained that his attitude towards the flesh changes-that at times he views it as something to be extirpated, while at other times and oftener ‘his exhortations to his Christian readers have reference commonly not to the Christian’s attitude towards his fleshly nature, but to his relation to Christ or the Divine Spirit within him’ (McGiffert, Apostol. Age, p. 137f.). The truth is that the change was not in St. Paul’s principle, but in the circumstances and conditions with which he happened to be at any time dealing, and that this opposition between a negative and a positive attitude is not a contradiction, but only exhibits the opposite sides of the one Christian principle of sanctification. Abstaining and retaining, pruning and growth, are not contradictories but complements. Even McGiffert, as we have seen, admits that ‘there is very little asceticism, in the ordinary sense, in Paul’s epistles, while there is much that makes in the opposite direction’ (op. cit. p. 136). These distinctions, however, are largely irrelevant. To St. Paul the Christian life was a life of sanctification, and this included both aspects.
This positive principle, then, of Christian abstinence is found in the very nature of the Christian life, which includes the affirmation of all the personality and its relationships as instruments of the spirit, and also the negation of the flesh and the world, or of personality and its relationships as alienated from the Spirit of God.
This principle, just because it contained these two moments, was apt to be misunderstood. Its twofold unity was apt to be disrupted, and we may well believe that the later Gnostic dualism and licentious libertinism may both have appealed to the authority of St. Paul. The Apostle, however, had a second principle of abstinence which helps us to correct this antagonism. He clearly distinguished between those things that in their very nature were hostile to the Christian life and those things that were indifferent. The neglect or abuse of this principle is apt to confuse the whole question of abstinence. The difficulty is intensified by the fact that in this region of the indifferent we are dealing with the application of a universal principle to changing conditions, so that, to use logical language, while the major premiss is the same, the minor premiss varies, and thus the right conclusion has to be discovered from the nature of the conditions with which we are for the moment dealing. Thus we find that the conditions at Rome and Corinth were not the conditions present in Colossians or the Pastorals, and accordingly St. Paul deals with each according to its merits. His general principle in regard to indifferent things is, ‘All things are lawful.’ This is universally applicable only inside this universe of discourse. It is not applicable to our relation to those things that by their very nature are inimical to the Christian life. To apply the principle to the latter sphere is to degenerate into libertinism such as St. John, St. Jude, and St. Peter had to face.
While St. Jude and St. Peter are content with combating this libertinism mainly by denunciation and exhortations to Christians, St. John applies St. Paul’s positive principle of abstinence to refute it. He points out the inadmissibility of sin (1 John 2:29 f.). By this neither he nor St. Paul means perfectionism, nor yet are they speaking ideally of the Christian life. It is not true, as the Gnostics say, that the gold of Christianity is not injured by the mud of impurity (Irenaeus, c. Hœr. i. 6. 2). Some so explained the saying ascribed to Nicholas (cf. Revelation 2:6; Revelation 2:15), δεῖν παραχρῆσθαι τῃ σαρκί (‘the flesh must be abused’). According to Clem. Alex. (Strom. ii. 20), ‘abandoning themselves like goats to pleasure, as if insulting the body, they lead a life of self-indulgence.’ It is this that St. John is confuting in these perfectionist passages, just as St. Paul confutes ascetic severity towards the body in Colossians, by pointing to the nature of the new life the Christian has in Christ.
This Christian principle of abstinence, then, ‘All things are lawful,’ does not apply to sin. It has further limitations. These are unfolded in 1 Cor. and Romans. The abstainers in both these cases were in the minority. They did not base their views on a material dualism. They were under the influence of an atmosphere rather than a system, and they were apt to be treated in a high-handed fashion. They were not endangering the very basis of Christianity as a free service of God, as the Galatians were. Hence they had to be defended rather than condemned. St. Paul says all he can in their favour, although he ranges himself in principle on the other side. He tells the advocates of liberty that love is superior to the Christian’s freedom towards things indifferent, that it makes liberty look as much on the weakness of others as on its own strength. The interests of brotherly love and Christian unity make liberty impose restraints on itself. This restraint is a noble asceticism. ‘The liberty of faith is found in the bondage of love’ (Sabatier, Paul, p. 163). He warns the advocates of liberty also that they may apply this principle to matters that are essential and not indifferent. This warning was necessary, because idolatry was so identified with all social functions that it was difficult to escape it. Why not-to advert to the coming conditions-adore the image of the Emperor? Why not throw incense into the fire? Just because by so doing the first and major principle of Christian abstinence was destroyed, viz. that it was a holy life in fellowship with the risen Christ; and its second principle of freedom in things indifferent did not consequently apply.
Yet this second principle was distinctly valuable. It was a great step in advance to have it clearly enunciated. For the weak brother, as in Galatia, might become intolerant; he might become the victim of false views, which would look on the observance of indifferent rites as a necessary qualification of full salvation and Christian privilege. Then Christian liberty in its fullness must be maintained (Galatians 5:1). This liberty-rightly understood-contains in itself the real principle of abstinence from what is sinful. Nowhere have we fuller lists of the works of the flesh given than in the Galatian Epistle.
Or, again, as in Colossians and the Pastorals, a false asceticism might be present which regarded matter and body as evil, in which case both principles would be used to destroy such a view.
(a) In regard to indifferent matters like food and drink God has given freedom. The argument is the same as that used by Jesus when He purified all meats (Mark 7:19). These minutiae of fasting are human inventions, not Divine commands; and to respect them casuistically is to blur the distinction between the essential and the indifferent. We get what God meant us to get from perishable meats when we joyfully use them with a thankful spirit towards God. They, like the bodily appetites which they satisfy, do not belong to the eternal world, but to the natural. Yet the natural world and its relations to us, our bodies and their requirements, are of God and can all be used to His glory. Our bodies, souls, and spirits are His. It is not by using severity towards the body or by abstaining from marriage or leaving our earthly callings that we can gain further sanctification. In fact, St. Paul says that this ἁφειδία σώματος-severity towards the body-is of little practical value (Colossians 2:23). Its aim is to destroy the body, not to fit it for God’s service. Logically carried to its issue, this false asceticism would not only enfeeble the soul by debasing the body, but would destroy the body and matter altogether. But God’s ideal for the body is different (cf. Philippians 3:21), so that what is to be aimed at by the Christian is the destruction of the flesh (σάρξ), not of the body as such (σῶμα).
But (b) the Apostle uses the primary principle of Christian abstinence to refute this dualistic asceticism. He shows that Christianity is not a matter of prohibitions, but of a renewed life-a walking in the Spirit. Asceticism at its best leaves the house empty. It is doubtful from history and physiology if it can even do that, but the new life in Christ has an expulsive power against sin and a constructive power of holiness.
These, then, are the principles that govern Christian abstinence: (1) The Christian life as a ‘holy calling’ demands abstinence from all sin. This prohibits not only sinful actions but sinful thoughts. This is what may be called essential abstinence. (2) Besides this, there may be abstinence in indifferent matters, but it rests with the individual conscience to determine when this is necessary for the furtherance of the new life in Christ. This sphere by its very nature is not subject to obligatory ecclesiastical rules, nor must such abstinence be made the basis of salvation or of a higher moral platform, nor must it be based on a false view of matter or of the human body or of human relationships.
See also articles Self-denial and Temperance.
Literature.-Consult the books referred to in the article and the various Commentaries. Sue also J. B. Lightfoot, Colossians3, 1879, p. 397ff.; C. E. Luthardt, Christian Ethics before the Reformation, translation Hastie, Edinburgh, 1889; O. Zöckler, Kritische Gesch. der Askese, Frankfurt am M., 1897; A. Harnack, History of Dogma. Eng. translation , 1894-99., H. J. Holtzmann, NT Theologie, Tübingen. 1911, bk. iv. ch. vii.; A. B. D. Alexander, The Ethics of St. Paul, Glasgow, 1910; A. Ritschl, Entstehung der altkathol. Kirche, Bonn, 1857, p. 173ff.; E. Hatch, The Influence of Greek Ideas and Usages upon the Christian Church (Hibbert Lecture, 1888), London, 1890, Lecture vi.
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Hastings, James. Entry for 'Abstinence'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​a/abstinence.html. 1906-1918.