The Scripture warns against asceticism and the earliest known Christian ascetics were known to be Gnostics. While the Scripture admonishes Christians to live a life of self-sacrifice and generosity, it never warns against creaturely enjoyments.
Paul admonishes Timothy to drink wine because alcohol feels good. In marriage, Paul commands Christians to have sex as much as possible and includes both marriage and food as things which Christians ought to enjoy: “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude” (1 Tim 4:4). From all of this we may surmise that ascetic self-denial is a pagan import into Christianity.
Now, as I have said before, I am no expert on this topic. I am merely coming to conclusions from the evidence I have at hand. If evidence exists to contradict these conclusions, I am open to being convinced otherwise.
Further, let me reiterate that none of this should be taken as a diminution of the great excellence of sacrificing food for the hungry, money for the impoverished, clothes for the naked, and marriage for the Lord. Giving up things that we may enjoy for the sake of one’s brother in Christ is of far greater value than creaturely enjoyment, and the calling of celibacy is far more excellent than that of marriage. However, marriage is still a good calling and is to be enjoyed like wine, food, and all the good things God has created.
Now, we have already covered that several ascetic doctrines (sex is only for procreation, remarriage is sinful) and the practice of monasticism were first found among eastern mystery religions and Gnostics. In this article, we will briefly cover what we know of the two earliest orthodox Christian ascetics: one left the Church (becoming a Gnostic heretic) and the other was defrocked of his eldership. Certainly, these are inauspicious beginnings for the Christian ascetic movement.
First, the example of Tatian. He was a companion of Saint Justin Martyr (Address to the Greeks, Chap 19). He wrote an elaborate defense of Christianity’s intellectual integrity in his Address to the Greeks and formulated the Diatessaron, which was a harmony of the four Gospels (and was usually the only Gospel many Syrian Christians had until the fourth century.) If this is all we knew about him, we would presume he was a saint.
However, there already was a chink in Tatian’s armor in his orthodox Address. In Chapters 13 and 15 he writes:
But the Spirit of God is not with all, but, taking up its abode with those who live justly, and intimately combining with the soul, by prophecies it announced hidden things to other souls. And the souls that are obedient to wisdom have attracted to themselves the cognate spirit…it becomes us now to seek for what we once had, but have lost, to unite the soul with the Holy Spirit, and to strive after union with God.
It would appear that Tatian is saying that one attains to spiritual union with the Holy Spirit by striving for and attaining righteousness. The immediate context would say otherwise, as later in chapter 15 Taitian writes that “men…have conquered death by submitting to death in faith; and by repentance a call has been given to them.” Repentance, and constantly repenting, could be properly seen as the previously mentioned”striving.” This would be in conformance with orthodox doctrine.
However, Tatian’s example and later writings would show that he took the former to heart and not exclusively the latter. According to Clement of Alexandria, in a work called Concerning Perfection According to the Saviour, Tatian wrote:
Consent indeed fits for prayer, but fellowship in corruption weakens supplication. At any rate, by the permission he certainly, though delicately, forbids; for while he permits them to return to the same on account of Satan and incontinence, he exhibits a man who will attempt to serve two masters— God by the ‘consent’ 1 Corinthians 7:5, but by want of consent, incontinence, fornication, and the devil.
God no longer assists the man who commits sin. Hence, the capacity to be righteous in Christ depends upon one’s righteous walk before God, which leads to His blessing. The clear implication is that one draws near to God through rigorism. Gnosticism’s ascetic streak would have a strong appeal to a thinker like Tatian. Irenaeus relates for us Tatian’s fall from grace perhaps only a decade or two after it had occurred:
Springing from Saturninus and Marcion, those who are called Encratites (self-controlled) preached against marriage, thus setting aside the original creation of God, and indirectly blaming Him who made the male and female for the propagation of the human race. Some of those reckoned among them have also introduced abstinence from animal food, thus proving themselves ungrateful to God, who formed all things. They deny, too, the salvation of him who was first created. It is but lately, however, that this opinion has been invented among them. A certain man named Tatian first introduced the blasphemy. He was a hearer of Justin’s, and as long as he continued with him he expressed no such views; but after his martyrdom he separated from the Church, and, excited and puffed up by the thought of being a teacher, as if he were superior to others, he composed his own peculiar type of doctrine. He invented a system of certain invisible Æons, like the followers of Valentinus; while, like Marcion and Saturninus, he declared that marriage was nothing else than corruption and fornication. But his denial of Adam’s salvation was an opinion due entirely to himself (AH 1.28.1).
In short, Tatian copied the system of Aeons from Valentinius* and forbade sex, which led him to take the view that Adam was not saved.
The ideological basis of the Encratist movement, though traditionally ascribed to Tatian, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia predates Christianity itself:
Abstinence from the use of some creatures, because they were thought to be intrinsically evil, is much older than Christianity. Pythagorism, Essenism, Indian asceticism betrayed this erroneous tendency, and the Indian ascetics are actually quoted by Clement of Alexandria as the forerunners of the Encratites (Stromata I.15)… St. Paul refers to people, even in his days, “forbidding to marry and abstaining from meats” (1 Timothy 4:1-5).
Like other eastern rites, Encratism was Christianized by the Gnostic movement. Origen, Clement of Alexandria, and others opposed the sect’s view of marriage and vegetarianism (something whose origin is found in Indian and Greek philosophies according to Clement of Alexandria in Stromata Book 1, Chapter 15).
*Both Origen and Clement of Alexandria write that Tatian interpreted “let there be light” in Gen 1 to be a prayer from the Demiurge to the Proprator (the chief deity of Gnosticism.) However, Hippolytus wrote that the Encratites “acknowledging what concerns God and Christ” had much “in like manner with the Church; in respect, however, of their mode of life, passing their days inflated with pride.” It is possible that Tatian himself taught Christological heresy, but the name of the group as a whole was a catch-all for Christianized ascetics before asceticism itself became commonplace in Christianity from its origins in Egyptian monasticism in the late third century.
Now, the example of the nameless author of The Acts of Paul and Thecla. The apocryphal book had some traction in the early church–enough traction for Tertullian to criticize its author and argue against using it as a basis for formulating doctrine:
But if the writings which wrongly go under Paul’s name, claim Thecla’s example as a licence for women’s teaching and baptizing, let them know that, in Asia, the presbyter who composed that writing, as if he were augmenting Paul’s fame from his own store, after being convicted, and confessing that he had done it from love of Paul, was removed from his office (On Baptism, Chapter 17).
The book which the elder lost his position over taught that Paul exhorted a woman named Thecla to “fear God and to live in chastity.” While Paul obviously teaches in favor of celibate life, the celibacy spoken of in the book is conflated with ascetic living. The girl runs away from her mother and fiancee who want her to get married. After surviving certain martydom the book ends saying:
She was cast, then, into the fire when seventeen years old, and among the wild beasts when eighteen. And she was an ascetic in the cave, as has been said, seventy-two years, so that all the years of her life were ninety.
The obvious inference one may draw from this book is that asceticism, and forswearing marriage, is a positive good. Further, the book also has a preoccupation with baptismal regeneration, and though the idea is not fleshed out it shares similarities with Gnostic and cultic teachings:
Compare this with the washings of the eastern mystery religions:
Two new things in particular were brought by the Oriental priests : mysterious methods of purification, by which they claimed to wash away the impurities of the soul, and the assurance that a blessed immortality would be the reward of piety (p. 71).
The authority of Paul was invoked to add weight to these novel teachings and this led to the author being spiritually disciplined (though he probably avoided excommunication via repentance.)
Conclusion. It should be a matter of concern for modern Christian ascetics that (1) the Catholic Church’s own encyclopedia admits pagan asceticism predates Christian practice and (2) the first orthodox Christians to teach ascetic doctrines were condemned.
Now, from none of this may we draw the conclusion that Christians in the second century would have condemned everything about modern monasticism. However, it is important to ask ourselves whether the asceticism that undergirds Christian monasticism is even proper in light of both Apostolic and early Church condemnation. And, if condemned by the early Church but commended by the pagans of the day, why have Christians adopted the practice of pagans and imported it into Christianity?