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Asceticism (2)

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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ASCETICISM.—Asceticism may be defined as a form of self-discipline which consists in the habitual renunciation of the things of the flesh, with a view to the cultivation of the life of the spirit. It is a deliberate attempt to eliminate and uproot the sensuous, to banish it altogether from the sphere of consciousness. It is not content with a doctrine of mere subordination. It does not stop short with teaching men to govern their wants, to subject them to the service of a higher end and purpose. It bids men stifle and suppress them, or at least resist them to the utmost of their ability. The body is represented as the enemy of the soul, and the way of perfection is identified with the progressive extirpation of the natural instincts and inclinations by means of fasting, celibacy, voluntary poverty, and similar exercises of devotion. Hence asceticism may be described as the gospel of negation,—negation of the world and negation of the flesh, each of which is apt to be confounded with negation of the devil.

It is the purpose of the present article to inquire what traces, if any, of such asceticism are to be found in the practice and preaching of Jesus. As a preliminary, however, it will be necessary to notice briefly the main forms of asceticism which were prevalent in Palestine in the time of Christ.

The Jewish ascetics of the 1st cent. may be divided roughly into three classes. (1) First, there were the Essenes, who lived together in monastic colonies, shared all things in common, and practised voluntary poverty. Philo says that they were indifferent to money, pleasure, and worldly position. Their food was limited in quantity and carefully regulated in respect of quality. They ate no animal flesh, drank no wine, and abstained from the use of oil for purposes of anointing. The stricter members of the brotherhood eschewed marriage. The idea of this rigorous asceticism seems to have been that the objects of sense, as such, were unholy, and that man’s natural cravings could not be gratified without sin. Hence the Essenes may be said to have prepared the way for the Gnostic doctrine of dualism and of matter as the seat and abode of evil. In this place, however, the principles of the Essenes need not further be discussed. They are not referred to in the Gospels, and the suggestion that John the Baptist or Jesus Himself came under their influence cannot for a moment be entertained. (2) Secondly, there was a class of hermit ascetics who fled away from the allurements and temptations of society, and gave themselves up to a life of rigid self-discipline in the solitude of the wilderness. We meet with an example of this class in the Banus, mentioned by Josephus, who lived in the desert, clothed himself with the leaves of trees, ate nothing save the natural produce of the soil, and bathed day and night in cold water for purity’s sake (Josephus Vit. 2). A hermit of a somewhat different type was John the Baptist. He, too, dwelt in the desert, wore for dress a rough garment of camel’s hair with a leathern girdle, and subsisted on carob-beans (?) and wild honey. We learn from a saying of Jesus that his rigorous mode of life astonished the people, who gave out that he was possessed by a demon (Matthew 11:18, Luke 7:33). But the asceticism of John seems to have been an incident of his environment and vocation, and was not regarded as an end in itself. He made no attempt to convert his hearers into ascetics. While it is true that his immediate disciples were addicted to fasting, presumably with his sanction (Matthew 9:14, Mark 2:18, Luke 5:33), yet in the fragments of his popular sermons which have been preserved there is no trace of any exhortation to ascetic exercises. The moral preparation for the Kingdom, by repentance and works of righteousness, was the substance of his teaching (Matthew 3:7-12, Luke 3:1-14). (3) Lastly, there were many pious Jews who cultivated asceticism of a milder and less striking kind, who, like Anna, ‘served God with fasting and prayers night and day’ (Luke 2:37). The more strict among the Pharisees paid particular attention to abstinence from food, and, in addition to ordinary fasts, were accustomed to observe all Mondays and Thursdays in the year as days of fasting (Luke 18:12). The asceticism of the Pharisees, however, was a formal performance which resulted naturally from their legal and ceremonial conception of religion. It expressed itself chiefly in fasting, and did not include either voluntary poverty or abstinence from marriage.

Such being the principal types of contemporary asceticism, it remains to inquire, What attitude did Jesus Himself take up in relation to this asceticism? How far did He identify the life of righteousness with that ‘vita religiosa’ which has found its fullest expression in Monasticism? To answer this question we must consider (1) the practice of Jesus, and (2) the teaching of Jesus so far as it bears upon the subject.

1. The practice of Jesus.—Now it cannot be denied that from very early times there were circles of Christian ascetics who pointed to Jesus as the Founder and Example of the ascetic life (Clem. Alex. [Note: Alexandrian.] Strom. iii. 6). They emphasized His forty days’ fast, His abstinence from marriage, His voluntary poverty, and leaped to the conclusion that the highest life, as exemplified by Jesus, was the life of asceticism or world-denial. Complete renunciation of the things of the present was ‘the way of perfection according to the Saviour.’ Even now large numbers of people are of this way of thinking; but a closer and more detailed examination of Jesus’ mode of life seems scarcely to bear out such a conclusion. Offering, as He did, a most wonderful example of self-forgetfulness and self-denial in the service of others, Jesus exhibited nothing of that asceticism which characterized the Essenes, or John the Baptist, or Christian saints like St. Bernard, St. John of the Cross, and even St. Francis, who of all ascetics approached most nearly to the spirit of his Master. He showed no disposition to flee from the world, or hold aloof from it; He did not eschew the amenities of social life. He accepted the hospitality of rich men and poor, He was present at meals, He contributed to the gaiety of a marriage-feast, He permitted very precious ointment to be poured upon His feet, He had a love for children, welcomed the society of women, and clearly enjoyed the domestic life of the home in Bethany. There is no trace in the records that Jesus frowned on innocent pleasures. His life, entirely devoted to His mission, was undoubtedly hard and laborious in the highest degree; but the motive of His renunciation—e.g. of marriage or property—seems to have been, not the desire to avoid these things as in themselves incompatible with spiritual perfection, but the desire to leave Himself perfect freedom in the prosecution of His work. He did not, so far as we know, impose upon Himself unnecessary austerities, or go out of His way to seek suffering. He accepted pleasures and pains as they came, neither avoiding the one nor courting the other, but, with a sublime serenity, subordinating both to His main end and purpose. The so-called ‘forty days’ fast’ need not cause us to modify our view. This fast is not mentioned in the oldest authority (Mark 1:13); and at any rate it can scarcely have been a ceremonial observance of fasting, but was rather a necessity imposed on Jesus by His situation in the wilderness. The key to its meaning may perhaps be found in St. Luke’s expression, ‘in those days he did eat nothing’ (Luke 4:2), with which we may compare Christ’s own description of the life of John the Baptist, ‘John came neither eating nor drinking’ (Matthew 11:18). The phrase as applied to Jesus may, as in the case of John, mean merely that He ate no ordinary food, but supported life on such means of subsistence as the wilderness afforded. But even if St. Matthew’s νηστεύσας (Matthew 4:2) be taken literally, yet, in the face of Christ’s teaching on the subject (to be mentioned below), we cannot believe that He attributed any great importance to this abstinence from food. He was supremely indifferent to the traditional practices of asceticism; in the sphere of self-renunciation in which He moved, no one-sided principle of world-negation could find a place. Hence, while Jesus is presented to us by the Evangelists as the living type and embodiment of absolute self-denial,—self-sacrifice, as it were, incarnate,—yet the marks of the ascetic are not found in Him. And it is interesting to note that His unascetic deportment and manner of life attracted the observation of His contemporaries. ‘John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He hath a devil. The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous and a wine-bibber, a friend of publicans and sinners’ (Matthew 11:18-19, Luke 7:33-34). There can be no question that the Jews were right when they pointed out the absence of asceticism from the practice of Jesus. We have but to contrast the life of the Son of Man, who ‘came eating and drinking,’ with that of such an one as St. John of the Cross, and the fact will immediately become apparent.

2. The teaching of Jesus.—Passing now to the consideration of the teaching of Jesus, we remark at the outset that, from first to last, it is instinct with the spirit of self-denial. ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself,’ is the refrain which continually recurs. The principle laid down by Jesus is that the doing of the will of God and the promotion of His kingdom is the absolute duty of man, to which all private and particular aims must necessarily give place. ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God’ (Matthew 6:33, Luke 12:31) is the categorical imperative. The Kingdom of God is the highest good, and as such establishes a claim on man’s exclusive devotion. Hence all desires and strivings which have not righteousness as their ultimate goal must be ruthlessly suppressed; all lesser goods and blessings which hinder and obstruct a man in the pursuit of the summum bonum must unhesitatingly be sacrificed. Thus a man must sell all that he has in order to purchase the field with the treasure, or the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:44-46). If necessity arise, he must surrender all his possessions to come and follow Jesus (Matthew 19:21, Mark 10:21); he must even renounce the closest ties of earthly relationship,—father and mother, children and wife (Matthew 10:37, Luke 14:26), the last imperative duties of affection (Luke 9:59-60), the courtesies of farewell (Luke 9:61-62); nay, the most indispensable goods, the hand, the foot, the eye, must be abandoned if they cause offence (Matthew 5:29-30, Mark 9:43-47); and, at the call of God, the very life itself must be laid down (Matthew 16:24 f., Mark 8:34 f., Luke 9:23 f.). ‘Whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple’ (Luke 14:33). No teaching could be clearer or more forcible than this. With the greatest possible plainness Jesus declares that every earthly blessing must be made subordinate to the service of God and contributory thereto. All lesser goods which come to be sought for their own sake, whether in preference to, or even independently of, the highest good, must be instantly sacrificed. In other words, when the individual realizes that the gratification of any desire will impede or distract him in the performance of his duties as a member of the Kingdom, he is bound to forego such gratification if he would still be in truth a disciple of Christ.

It is important to notice that, in all Jesus’ precepts about the sacrifice of earthly goods, there is a condition, explicit or implied. The condition in any given case is, that the particular good to be sacrificed shall have been ascertained to be an obstacle to the attainment of righteousness on the part of its possessor—‘if it cause thee to stumble.’ Thus the necessity of every sacrifice is determined by the special circumstances of the particular case. The rich young man is bidden to part with all his possessions and follow Jesus; Zacchaeus gives half, and is told ‘this day is salvation come to this house’ (Luke 19:9); Martha and Mary are not asked to leave their home. To one man Jesus denies permission to bid farewell to his relatives (Luke 9:62); to another He says, ‘Return to thine own house’ (Luke 8:39). A sacrifice which is imperative for one man need not necessarily be the duty of another, but the general rule is laid down that all must be prepared, if occasion arise, to surrender their dearest and most cherished blessings for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

Now the note of this doctrine is self-denial, not asceticism. Jesus nowhere teaches that earthly goods are of the devil, or that the gratification of the natural cravings is fraught with sin. He does not recommend men to treat their bodies with contempt. He does not suggest that flight from the world and disengagement from physical conditions is sanctification. He does not say that those who, for duty’s sake, renounce the world, are on a higher spiritual level than those who do their duty in the world. He does not hint that the only way of avoiding sin lies in an austere renunciation of all those things from which an occasion of sin might arise. He nowhere implies that the lower goods are of no value in themselves, or that they ought under all circumstances to be foregone. The doctrine of Jesus is a doctrine not of annihilation, but of subordination. He admits, indeed, that special circumstances may make it incumbent on an individual to abstain from certain things which others, otherwise situated, may lawfully enjoy; but He does not say that earthly goods, as such, are irreconcilable with righteousness. His teaching on the subject may be summarized in the word subordination. The main point is that earthly goods are not to be retained or enjoyed for their own sake, but must be made subordinate and subservient to a higher end, and must ultimately be directed towards the promotion of the righteousness of the Kingdom of God.

Further to illustrate this point of view, we may briefly allude to Jesus’ teaching on three prominent characteristics of the ascetic life—voluntary poverty, celibacy, and bodily discipline as exercised in the practice of fasting.

(1) No one could have been more alive than Jesus was to the dangers of wealth, and to the peculiar psychological difficulties which hinder the rich from entering the Kingdom. His warnings on the subject are more than usually vigorous. Wealth is represented as an idol; care about material things as a kind of heathenism. He even goes so far as to say that, humanly speaking, it is impossible for a rich man to be saved (Matthew 19:26, Mark 10:27, Luke 18:27). ‘Woe unto you that are rich!’ He cries again, ‘for ye have received your consolation’ (Luke 6:24). He bids men not lay up treasures upon earth (Matthew 6:19), but rather sell what they have and give alms (Luke 12:33). He says, ‘Ye cannot serve God and mammon’ (Matthew 6:24). Jesus knew that men tend to become absorbed in their property, to give their heart to it, to become its slaves instead of its masters; and the idea of such bondage filled Him with horror. Hence to those who were in danger of falling beneath the tyranny of money and material things He had but one word to say: ‘Go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor … and come, follow me’ (Matthew 19:21, Mark 10:21, Luke 18:22). This, however, is not a precept of universal validity; it is not, as some of the Fathers have wrongly conceived (e.g. Hieron. circa (about) Vigilant. 14; Baeda, Exp. in Marci Ev. iii. 10), a consilium evangelicum of poverty. It was addressed primarily to a particular person, and it can properly be applied only to those who are in danger of forgetting that ‘a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth’ (Luke 12:15). The parables of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-12), of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30), or the Pounds (Luke 19:12-27), prove that Jesus was far from regarding wealth as evil in itself, or requiring that people in general should renounce its use. On the contrary, He insisted that riches are a deposit from God, which can and ought to be employed in His service; and He even declared that fidelity in such employment would be the standard for testing a man’s capacity for higher tasks. ‘If ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches?’ (Luke 16:11). There is nothing ascetic in such teaching. What Jesus reprobates is not wealth, but the abuse of it; what He recommends is not alienation of wealth, but subordination of it. He recognizes, indeed, that there may be special cases where the retention of wealth is incompatible with the service of God, but in general He bids men keep and use it in accordance with the purposes of Him who has bestowed it on them. Neither wealth nor poverty is in itself meritorious: only the disposition which makes either minister to the coming of the Kingdom.

(2) So, too, in respect of marriage. Jesus certainly teaches that a spiritual vocation is sometimes inconsistent with the married state. ‘There be ennuchs which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it’ (Matthew 19:12). ‘This,’ says Jerome, ‘is the voice of the Lord exhorting and urging on His soldiers to the reward of chastity.’ But to write thus is an exaggeration, if not a perversion of the truth. Nothing is more noticeable than the extremely guarded form of Christ’s utterance here, in striking contrast with His very explicit injunctions concerning renunciation in other matters. Jesus weighs His words with the greatest care. He makes no general exhortation to celibacy. He merely points out that some people, in the enthusiasm of their heavenly calling, have suppressed the very instincts of nature, so that they have, as it were, undergone an operation of ethical self-emasculation, being dead to sexual desire; and He recommends those who have received the gift of abstinence, in this sense, not to neglect it. Just as elsewhere, in His pregnant, paradoxical way, Jesus bids men ‘hate’ father, and mother, and wife, and children (Luke 14:26), if their claims tend to supersede the claims of God (Matthew 10:37); so here He bids those who are convinced that God’s claims demand the whole of their time and energy, to refrain altogether from entering the marriage state. But this is no ascetic doctrine of celibacy. The Master who taught that matrimony was a divinely ordered condition, and emphasized in the strongest terms the sanctity of the conjugal relation (Matthew 5:32; Matthew 19:3-9, Mark 10:2-12, Luke 16:16), who practised (Luke 2:51) and inculcated the duty of filial obedience and love towards parents (Matthew 15:4-6, Mark 7:10-13), who habitually used the symbolism of the family to express the profoundest and holiest truths of religion, certainly did not mean to teach that family life, as such, was irreconcilable with righteousness. He uttered no word in disparagement of it; He never implied that the married attain a lower grade of perfection than the continent. On the contrary, it is clear that Jesus regarded marriage as the right and natural course for the majority of people, and He even chose a married man as the chief of His apostles. In short, while recognizing that through special circumstances the individual might be called upon to renounce the gratifications of marriage, Jesus appears to indicate that such renunciation is an exceptional duty imposed on the few, not a general rule for the many. Marriage in itself is not to be avoided as a thing debasing; it debases only when men refuse to subordinate it to the claims of the Kingdom.

(3) So, once more, towards the traditional discipline of asceticism Jesus took up an attitude of indifference. In His view, the value of such exercises depends solely upon the spirit in which they are undertaken. As forms through which devotion seeks to find expression, He does not condemn them; but, on the other hand, He does not suggest that they are the necessary or inevitable concomitants of the holy life. This will appear from His teaching on fasting—one of the most distinguishing characteristics of the Jewish piety of His time. Jesus points out that true fasting is not a parade of piety before the eyes of men, but an outward expression of a personal relation of the individual soul to the ‘Father which seeth in secret’ (Matthew 6:16-18). Hence fasting is not a matter of compulsion or prescription or external ordinance; it has value solely as the appropriate manifestation of a state of mind. Thus Jesus refuses to impose fasts on His disciples in their days of gladness, but He foresees that ‘the days will come when the bridegroom shall be taken from them,’ and then the sorrow of their heart will seek an outlet through the forms of sorrow (Matthew 9:15, Mark 2:19-20, Luke 5:34-35). In justification of His refusal to lay down fixed rules upon the subject, Jesus goes on to say that, just as no wise man would sew a new patch on to an old garment, or pour new wine into old bottles, so it would be foolish to graft the new-found liberty of the gospel on to the mass of old observances, and still more foolish to attempt to force the new system as a whole within the forms of the old. The new piety must develop new forms of its own (Matthew 9:16-17, Mark 2:21; Mark 2:23, Luke 5:36-38). From all this we gather that Jesus refuses to bind religion to external acts of asceticism, or to declare such acts to be of obligation. Such performances as fasting, flagellation, or restriction of sleep may certainly have a conditional worth as the sincere expression of a sad and contrite spirit, but they are not of the essence of devotion. Jesus emphasizes the state of the heart, the self-denying disposition, the bent of the soul towards God; with anything besides this He is not concerned.

Hence in answer to the question, Was Jesus an ascetic? we are bound to reply in the negative. Neither in His practice nor in His teaching did He adopt the tone of asceticism. He called indeed for self-denial, self-sacrifice, self-forgetfulness. He demanded that all lower goods should be subordinated to the highest good, that all human strivings should be directed ultimately towards righteousness. But He does not condemn the lower goods or attempt to tear out the human instincts and cravings. Nor does He make fellowship with God depend on any kind of outward ascetical observances. Indeed, as Harnack writes, ‘Asceticism has no place in the gospel at all; what it asks is that we should struggle against mammon, against care, against selfishness; what it demands and disengages is love; the love that serves and is self-sacrificing. This struggle and this love are the kind of asceticism which the gospel means, and whoever encumbers Jesus’ message with any other kind fails to understand it. He fails to understand its grandeur and importance; for there is something still more important than “giving one’s body to be burned, and bestowing all one’s goods to feed the poor,” namely, self-denial and love’ (Harnack, What is Christianity? p. 88). See also art. Self-denial and the Literature cited at end of that article.

F. Homes Dudden.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Asceticism (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament.​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​a/asceticism-2.html. 1906-1918.