Free Online Bible Library | Asceticism

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The Greek askemsis, “training,” was used of both athletic exercises and, especially among Stoics and Cynics, moral training through education, mastery of passions, and beneficence. Greek antecedents for ascetic renunciation and privation, however, are few and probably insignificant. The OT, particularly the Wisdom tradition, also emphasizes self-discipline, but asceticism is only marginally evidenced in Judaism. Fasting was thus a mark not of asceticism but of piety.

In the NT, detachment rather than abandonment (e.g., of property) is the basis for asceticism, though apocalyptic- eschatological contexts import a puritan radicalism, e.g., in warnings to the wealthy. The NT attacks dualist-Gnostic contempt for the body and foods (cf. Col. 2:21-23; 1 Tim. 4:3-4). Jesus, an example for ascetic imitation in several regards, e.g., homelessness (cf. ascetic ideals of wandering, exile, and removal to alien territory), taught that self-denial might involve celibacy, but as a charisma, not self-willed (Matt. 19:11,12). More influential for Christian asceticism was the Lukan form of His statement that “those who are considered worthy of taking part in . . . the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels” (20:35,36), which restricted marriage to this (fallen) world and was readily applied to present experience of the Resurrection. Paul's letters, as well as instilling spiritual discipline (e.g., 1 Cor. 9:25-27), had the effect of boosting virginity and depreciating marriage as belonging to the old aeon, but they condemned an anticipated resurrection-celibacy at Corinth (cf. 1 Cor. 7:1, NEB mg., and passim).

By the second century, virginity had become the basis of asceticism. The superiority of the unmarried is prominent in apocryphal writings, especially acts of apostles. In Syria celibacy was required for baptism. The underlying theology, discernible in the Coptic Gospel of Thomas, ascribes to Adam's fall the origins of sexual differentiation and marriage, which Christ therefore came to abolish (cf. the agraphon in the Gospel of the Egyptians, “I am come to undo the works of woman”). The paradisal state to which the baptized is restored approximates to angelic existence (cf. Luke 20:36), which includes bodilessness, asexuality, and absence of need of food. Marcion's prohibition of marriage reflects such beliefs, but his case illustrates the difficulty of assessing the alternative influence on asceticism of a Hellenistic or Gnostic flesh-spirit dualism.

The eschatological orientation, whether of imminence (Paul and the Montanists) or realization (Syria), easily fuses with a dualist hostility to the body that was virtually universal in Gnostic and Manichaean groups and tended to develop in Hellenistic philosophy. Such enmity towards the flesh may be an introjection of disgust for the material world as a whole. Mortification of the flesh, which among the hermits of Egypt, Syria, and Celtic Ireland assumed bizarre forms, even self- destruction (cf. too the Circumcellions*), releases the imprisoned soul and prepares for discarnate angelic life. The anchorite* asserts, “I am killing the body because it is killing me.” The ascetic-especially in the desert, the demons' home territory-fights the same battle as the martyr. He prepares for death by despising the body and may see himself hastening the kingdom by conquering the flesh.

Encratite* (Gr. enkrateia, “self-restraint”) was the title given to heretical groups which insisted on continence and practices like abstinence from animal flesh held to mark life before the Fall, but encratism was more widespread than condemned sects. Behind Syrian encratism probably lay a Jewish-Christian outlook elaborating traditions concerning Adam. The Qumran* covenanters were perhaps crucial generators of Jewish eschatological asceticism.

It has been argued that the Greek monachos in pre- monastic contexts meant “celibate,” solitary as lacking a spouse, and the Syriac ixhixdamya, literally “beloved,” and Greek monogenems, “only (begotten),” and agapemtos, “beloved,” were similarly used to designate the ascetic's true following of Christ, the Only Beloved Son who was unmarried. The Gospel of Thomas uses monachos also in the sense of “unified,” i.e., restored to asexuality.

Clement of Alexandria* and Origen,* drawing on Philo (who described the Therapeutae and depicted Jacob as the model ascetic), developed a more permanent basis for asceticism, while rejecting the dualistic foundation for Gnostic antagonism to the world. Under Stoic influence, Clement stressed apatheia, the “passionlessness” of inward detachment and purification from passions as a condition for the soul's ascent to God. Origen's approach was more radical (cf. his self-castration and zeal for martyrdom), and his works were widely read by monks. The Alexandrian understanding of salvation as divinization (cf. 2 Pet. 1:4) provided a ground similar to the angelic view for purification from everything corruptible in anticipation of divine life. The Alexandrians perpetuated a double standard by regarding ascetics as the pneumatikoi, the “spiritual” elite. In the long tradition of Byzantine mystical theology, Origen and Neoplatonism were major sources of ascetic themes, and the latter also influenced Augustine* and others in the West. The holy ascetic's conquest of the material order gave him an exalted role in Eastern society, while from the mid-fourth century most church leaders in East and West were committed to ascetic ideals.

Others of note among ancient writers on asceticism are Methodius of Olympus,* Evagrius of Pontus,* Ps-Macarius and Gregory of Nyssa,* John Cassian,* Nilus the Ascetic,* and Dorotheus* of Gaza, with Aphraates* and Ephraem* among the Syrians and the historians Palladius* and Theodoret of Cyrrhus.*

Later centuries displayed forms of asceticism more refined or simple (cf. the friars), more Christ-centered (cf. the imitatio Christi motif), more “secular” (cf. the Calvinist-Puritan tradition), but the early centuries provided the patterns basic to all subsequent manifestations.

J. de Guibert et al. in Dictionnaire de Spiritualité, I (1937), pp. 936-1010; texts in M.J. Rouet de Journel and J. Dutilleul, Enchiridion Asceticum (2nd ed., 1947); and H. Koch, Quellen zur Geschichte der Askese und des Mönchtums in der alten Kirche (1933); A. Vöobus, History of Asceticism in the Syrian Orient (2 vols., 1958, 1960); G. Kretschmar, “Ein Beitrag zur Frage nach dem Ursprung frühchristlicher Askese,” in ZTK 61 (1964), pp. 27-67; P. Nagel, Die Motivierung der Askese in der alten Kirche und der Ursprung des Mönchtums (TU 95; 1966); H. von Campenhausen, Tradition and Life in the Church (1968), chs. 4,11; R. Murray, “Features of the Earliest Christian Asceticism,” in Christian Spirituality (ed. P. Brooks, 1975).

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