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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Self-Denial

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SELF-DENIAL.—Self-denial is undoubtedly an essential part of the religious life as set before men by Jesus Christ. ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself’ (Matthew 16:24). The word used (ἀπαρνέομαι) occurs elsewhere only in the parallel passages (Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23); in the accounts given by the four Evangelists of St. Peter’s denial (Matthew 26:34-35; Matthew 26:75, Mark 14:30-31; Mark 14:72, Luke 22:61, John 13:38); and in our Lord’s denunciation of apostasy (Luke 12:9). It is used in the LXX Septuagint to translation מָאַם. It is a strong word, and its meaning is best understood perhaps by comparing it with the corresponding expression of St. Paul, ‘I count as loss’ (ἡγοῦνγε ζημίαν, Philippians 3:7-8). It must be understood to include a conquest of the insistent and unruly demands of the body, denial of the lower self; and a bringing into subjection of the ambitions and emotions of the intellect and spirit, denial of the higher self.

1. The denial of the carnal self.—The practices by which men have sought to accomplish this kind of self-denial pass generally under the name of asceticism. There are five such kinds of discipline recommended or countenanced by our Lord’s teaching and example: (1) fasting, (2) celibacy and sexual restraint, (3) almsgiving, (4) vigils, (5) the refusal of luxury in the surroundings of life.

(1) Fasting was practised by our Lord Himself (Matthew 4:1 ff. ||). It was presupposed as likely to form part of the religious life by His disciples (Matthew 6:16 ff., Mark 2:20). It was practised by the Apostles and the Church in their time (Acts 10:9; Acts 10:30; Acts 13:3; Acts 14:23, 1 Corinthians 7:5), and traditions of the severity of their fasting survived into the 2nd cent. (Clem. Recog. vii. 6; Clem. Alex. [Note: Alexandrian.] Paedag. ii. 1; Can. [Note: Canaanite.] Murat. i. 11). In the sub-Apostolic age, probably as a result of the example of the Pharisees, fasting on stated days became a common form of self-denial (Did. viii.; Hermas, Sim. v. 1; Clem. Alex. [Note: Alexandrian.] Strom. vii. 12). The Lenten fast grew from an original 14 days (Tertull. de Jejun. 15) to 40 days, in imitation of our Lord’s fast in the wilderness. The Friday fast, the Lenten fast, and the custom of fasting before receiving the Communion, were very general, if not universal, in the early Catholic and the mediaeval Church. See art. Fasting.

(2) Celibacy is countenanced by our Lord, but not generally recommended (Matthew 19:12, Luke 14:26). It and temporary sexual restraint are recommended and even deemed specially honourable by the Apostles (1 Corinthians 7:29; 1 Corinthians 7:35, Revelation 14:3-4). In the sub-Apostolic age the idea of the superior sanctity of the virgin state grew rapidly (Did. xi. 11; Ignat. Ep. ad Polyc. v.; Just. Mart. Apol. i. 15; Athenag. 33, etc.). See art. Celibacy.

(3) Almsgiving, as a form of self-denial, is distinctly recommended by our Lord (Matthew 6:1 ff., Luke 11:41; Luke 12:33, Mark 12:43; cf. Luke 6:38, Matthew 5:42, Acts 20:35), and He Himself, though poor, practised it (John 13:29). The Apostles insisted on the duty of almsgiving, at first apparently indiscriminately (Acts 2:44-45), afterwards with more caution (Romans 12:8, 2 Corinthians 8:3, James 2:14 f., 1 John 3:17, Hebrews 13:16, James 1:27, 2 Corinthians 9:6-7, Galatians 6:9, 1 Corinthians 16:1, 2 Corinthians 9:1, Romans 15:26, Acts 11:27-30; cf. 2 Thessalonians 3:10). In the early Church, almsgiving, either weekly or monthly, was a recognized duty (Tertull. Apol. 39; Cypr. de Oper. et Elecm.). See Almsgiving.

(4) Vigils.—Watching and wakefulness as a form of self-denying service to God were no doubt suggested by our Lord’s commands (Matthew 24:42; Matthew 26:41, Luke 12:37) as well as by His own practice (Matthew 14:23; Matthew 26:38), and in this sense were understood many of the Apostolic exhortations (1 Corinthians 16:13, 1 Thessalonians 5:6, Ephesians 6:18). Examples of vigil services are to be found in the records of the Apostolic Church (Acts 12:12; Acts 20:7) and in the practice of St. Paul (2 Corinthians 6:5; 2 Corinthians 11:27). The heathen Pliny’s description (Ep. x. 97) of the Christians as ‘meeting before daybreak’ probably points to nothing but a desire for privacy and a feeling of the necessity for avoiding public notice, but we have certainly allusions to vigils in the strict sense of the word in the writings of several of the early Fathers (Clem. Alex. [Note: Alexandrian.] Paedag. ii. 9; Tertull. ad Ux. ii. 5; Cypr. de Laps. 34 ff.; Lactant. vii. 19; August. Ep. ad Januar. 119; Socr. i. 37, v, 21; Sozom. ii. 29, iii. 6).

(5) Refusal of luxury.—Another region in which self-denial might be exercised was found in the surroundings of life, clothes, household arrangements, etc. Our Lord’s own example (Matthew 8:20) was appealed to, and certain hints in His teaching were felt to have a bearing on the subject (Matthew 10:10; Matthew 11:8, Luke 16:19). The teaching of the Apostles was more detailed and definite (1 Timothy 2:9, 1 Peter 3:3 f.). The question of the amount of luxury permissible to Christians came up in the Montanist controversy (Euseb. v. 18. 4; Tertull. de Coron. Mil. 5, 10, 11). It occupies a considerable part of the Paedag. of Clem, of Alex. [Note: Alexandrian.] (see especially ii. 11, ii. 8–12, iii. 2, etc.), and is discussed by Cyprian (de Virg. vel. and de Cult. fem.).

2. The denial of the higher intellectual and psychical self.—When we consider the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are at once struck by His definite and marked departure from the ethics of classical antiquity. For Him there is no such word as ἀρετή (cf. Ἄρης, and the Lat. vir-tus) with the sense of elevated manliness. Nor has He anything to correspond with the classical tetrad φρόνησις (or σοφία), ἀνδρεία, σωφροσύνη, δικαιοσύνη. These express the completest development of the higher, better self in man, and proclaim as the ideal the attainment of the truest ‘manliness’ in the face of an appreciative and admiring world. For our Lord the ideal is a different one. His life fulfils the conception of the prophet. He has no beauty that men should desire Him. He is despised, rejected, a Man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. He is ‘meek and lowly of heart’ (cf. Zechariah 9:9, 2 Corinthians 10:1, Philippians 2:7). He is ‘one that serveth’ (Matthew 20:28, John 13:13-17). It is ‘the poor in spirit,’ ‘they that mourn,’ ‘the meek,’ and those that ‘are reviled’ whom He calls blessed (cf. Matthew 18:3-4; Matthew 19:30; Matthew 20:14, Mark 10:27 ff., Luke 1:48). It is quite evident that the ideal here set up is wholly difterent from that of the classical philosophers. The two are, in fact, in fundamental opposition. The one is the ideal of the development, the other the ideal of the denial of the higher self. The Apostles understood the Master very well and taught as He did (but see the use of ἀρετή in what may be its classical sense in Philippians 4:8 and in 2 Peter 1:5). Indeed, they insisted with even more than His iteration on the denial of self (1 Corinthians 1:28-29, 2 Corinthians 1:5; 2 Corinthians 6:10, Philippians 2:6-8, 2 Corinthians 10:1, 1 Peter 2:21, Galatians 5:23; Galatians 6:1, Ephesians 4:2, Colossians 3:12, James 1:21; James 3:13, 1 Peter 5:5, 2 Corinthians 12:21).

Literature.—1. Historical: Zöckler, Askese und Mönchtum (1894), Die Tugendlehre des Christentums (1904); Mayer, Die Christl. Askese, ihre Wesen und ihre histor. Entfaltung (1894); A. Ritschl, Gesch. des Pietismus (1880–86); W. Bright, Some Aspects of Primitive Church Life (1898); J. O. Hannay, The Spirit and Origin of Christian Monasticism (1902); Migne, Dictionnaire d’Ascétisme, Encycl. Théol. vols. 45, 46; Bingham, Antiquities of the Christian Church.

Theological and Devotional:—Rothe, Theol. Ethik, iii. (1848); Dorner, Syst. d. chr. Sittenlehre; Newman Smyth, Christian Ethics (1894); Jeremy Taylor, Holy Living and Holy Dying; J. Keble, Letters of Spiritual Counsel; J. H. Newman, Historical Sketches; Bp. Paget, The Spirit of Discipline; J. O. Hannay, The Wisdom of the Desert (1904); Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ; Baxter, Self-Denial.

J. O. Hannay.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Self-Denial'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/s/self-denial.html. 1906-1918.

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