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.
Ed: This article was made when I was a Protestant and upon greater learning and reflection my thoughts may have evolved.
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:
Thecla said: Only give me the seal in Christ, and temptation shall not touch me. And Paul said: Thecla, wait with patience, and you shall receive the water.
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?
“Abstinence from the use of some creatures, because they were thought to be intrinsically evil, is much older than Christianity.”
That, there in bold, is a key difference between pagan and Christian asceticism. Christians must hold the teaching of Gen 1 that God created all things good.
Certainly, pagans had ascetic practices before Christ came (Pythagoreans especially come to mind). But what do you mean when you say, “Scripture never warns against creaturely enjoyments”? If you mean, as such, then sure: to enjoy the good is essentially good. But excesses of creaturely enjoyments are surely warned against.
Lk 16:25, Lk 6:25, 1Jn 2:16, Rom 8:1-13, Rom 13:14, Gal 5:19ff, Eph 2:3, and so on. I would cite texts on self-denial, but you admitted in the beginning that we are admonished to self-sacrifice. I do not know what this would entail if not some renunciation of goods for the sake of higher ones.
I recommended works of Christian asceticism to you before, but I will highly recommend again the Moralia of St. Basil, which is basically just New Testament quotes. Although it is interesting to see parallels with pagans, it might be more fruitful to read a thoroughly Christian approach to the matter. St. Basil’s work remains the basis for most of Eastern monasticism, and it had an impact on Benedict’s work, which is the basis of most Western monasticism.
You can find it starting on page 71 in the volume here:
We are going a little outside the purview of the article. Simply stated, the article makes the point that far before Benedict and Anthony there were Christian ascetics. The problem is that they were condemned men–inauspicious beginnings to say the least.
As for ascetic practices themselves, which I am in fact quite fond of on several levels, I am not trying to denounce self-denial. However, as I made clear in the article, if we sell everything we have, it ought to be to help our poor brothers, not to commend us to God. While good things may serve as a temporary distraction from God, as in 1 Cor 7 sex may be fasted from and obviously we fast from food for the same reason–to devote ourselves to prayer, the Scripture nowhere endorses denying oneself these things on a permanent basis UNLESS one forgoes food, clothes, and a wife for the sake of serving his or her brothers in Christ. While priests and centain monks may fit this criteria, surely the Christian hermit does not and ironically Christian hermits started orthodox monasticism. So, the intellectual basis for it is all wrong.
As to commending oneself to God:
What do you think of Matthew 6? Our Lord seems commend doing works of alms and prayer secret, for “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Not that any work will commend us to God apart from an upright heart (which is made so by the Spirit, etc.), but it seems such rightly established will commend.
I do think the solitary vocation is rather rare, but I think it most excellent when a man or woman set aside all cares in this world to be wholly attentive to God in prayer. In some ways it provides a service to the brethren by witnessing to them that there is something, nay, someone for whom it is worth dedicating every word, thought, and breath.
In general, the early (and even later) condemned ascetics are so condemned because they deny the goodness of creation or condemn those who use creatures rightly. If they are condemned for a practice, this is usually because of unorthodoxy more than simple asceticism. For example, I believe Tatian was among those who attempted to use water instead of wine for the Eucharist. Now if he only drank water with meals, that’s a fine ascetic practice, but he is condemned for it when it runs counter to orthodox practice.
“I do think the solitary vocation is rather rare, but I think it most excellent when a man or woman set aside all cares in this world to be wholly attentive to God in prayer”
But, this is inconsistent with the Scriptural call to love one neighbor (which, quite honestly, requires real human interaction, not mere words in solitude.) Jesus went into solitude to pray, but only for a time. We see this of every Biblical example, and every early church example until the third century.
It’s not that inconsistent. Take Saint Anthony. He hears the call of the Gospel, sets aside so much wealth for his sister and then gives the rest away in alms. Love of neighbor. And then in the midst of his solitude, he receives visitors as they come (albeit rarely) with Christian charity. Certainly if one went into solitude because he despised the brethren, then he would deserve every reproof. But there’s nothing inconsistent between loving one’s neighbor and seeking God in silence.
As for precedence, it seems John the Baptist lived as a solitary in the wilderness until his mission began. And Anna, mentioned in Luke 2 spends day and night in the Temple, in fasting and prayer. Between martyrdom and mission, there’s enough to keep the saints busy until about the 3rd century, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that eremitic life does not flourish until then.
Eremitic life, however, is more unique and extraordinary than monastic life, which clearly intends to model itself on the earliest times of the Church, Acts 2:44-45.
Hermitic life does not model acts 2:44-45. Are there any vocational hermits in the Bible?
Indeed, I intended to cite the Acts passage as a basis for monastic life rather than eremitic life. And in general, I think it is easier to establish monastic life as closely following the counsels of the Gospel.
I provide two examples: John the Baptist and Anna. Indeed because of the uniqueness of eremitic life, you probably won’t find two examples that look quite the same. Thus you have John, in the wilderness from his youth, but eventually bearing witness and dying for the truth. And then with Anna, she is in the Temple rather than the wilderness, but her mode of life since her marriage reflects that of a hermit: continual prayer and fasting.
Even the example of Christ is worth noting: We cannot always do all that Christ did. “He gave some to be apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists…” So indeed, if some imitate his life in the wilderness, then this is builds up the body.
A question: Would you disparage someone for living such a way of life? If they held the faith truly and kept the commandments, what charge could you bring against them?
John was not a hermit, he had disciples. He just “lived off the land” so to say, though it appears he had a somewhat permanent Nazirite vow. Further, being that Anna is in public, in a city, the claim she is a predecessor to a hermit is tenuous at best.
“Would you disparage someone for living such a way of life?”
Yes, I would correct someone for living such a life on a permanent basis unless they were so out of control with their sin that they are of no practical, material use to their brother. Simply praying for people is something that both James and John write against. One’s good towards one neighbor must be tangible to honor God. The prayers must be backed by actions.
“If they held the faith truly and kept the commandments, what charge could you bring against them?”
Failure to love one’s neighbor, vainglory, and coveting.
Vainglory and coveting? As these are interior dispositions, a hermit could surely be guilty of them. But there is no connection that stands out to me. Indeed, a man who had some prestige in the world would seem to be spurning vainglory. And someone who renounces possessions and a spouse seems to do quite the opposite of coveting.
And even the neighbor thing. As I said before, they provide the best example to the world by their act of faith. “Must be tangible to give honor to God.” Bogus, dude. Teaching isn’t tangible. It gives glory to God. Prayer on behalf of the brethren–you seriously don’t think that gives glory to God?
If a solitary when confronted with another were to act uncharitably (there are notable cases of hermits getting into quarrels with presbyters and bishops), then that’s a bad sign. But if they have an upright disposition and act charitably as the occasion occurs, then there is nothing to judge.
I reiterate again the key teaching in Matthew 6: “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” If you respond to anything in this whole reply, do respond to Matthew 6. Our Lord is teaching that alms, prayer and fasting receive a reward from God precisely because they are done for Him alone. You are also probably well aware of Luke 10:42 as well, “Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” Do respond to this as well, as I think it pertains directly to this matter.
Love for one’s neighbor is tangible, not mere prayer. Anyone who dedicates his life to not physically meet the needs of others has no love in him. His deisre to be holy is vainglory, and if he covets the station of concerning Himself only with God (something only God can do, as He did before creation), then he sins doubly.
” Teaching isn’t tangible.” Yes, there is a student who learns.
If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, [o]be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? 17 Even so faith, if it has no works, is [p]dead, being by itself.
But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his [g]heart [h]against him, how does the love of God abide in him? 18 Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.
As for the author of Paul and Thecla, it doesn’t seem that he was convicted for the ascetic content of his book, but rather for making the forgery. Tertullian’s complaint is also against it being used as a defense for women preaching, again having nothing to do with asceticism.
This is true, but 1. Tertullian questions the whole of its content because it is a forgery and 2. the man still stood condemned. It is just strange that the first orthodox Christians to espouse asceticism were both scandalized and condemned for one reason or another.
“Christians must hold the teaching of Gen 1 that God created all things good.”
But it no longer is. We no longer live in Garden Eden. We know that this world is not the way God intended. We even read it’s evil (Gal. 1:4) and wicked (1 Johng 5:19), a vale of tears (Ps. 84:6). You don’t need salvation in paradise.
What about the “later” ascetics? You seem to have a lot of chagrin, a love-and-hate relationship with church history (which you didn’t study beyond Late Antiquity, by the way). But feel free to censor my comments, as usual.
Being that this comment does not have a random insult or strange, stalker-like behavior, I’ll let it fly.
To answer your question, my last two articles on asceticism pertain to how it originates, so this is why I do not cover the middle ages. I am not specifically against monasticism, celibacy, or what not. The issue is why people choose celibacy and monastic living. If the motivation is to serve one’s fellow man and decrease distractions to sin, then great! If the motivation is to separate oneself from creaturely enjoyments as if they were bad in of themselves, this is a great evil.