The Ascetic Ideal and the New Testament

It is a well-known feature of the Reformation, and Protestantism in general, that it did away with monasticism. And in so doing, it did away with the core of Christian practice: the asketical disciplines. Archpriest Georges Florovsky wrote an essay on the New Testament and the inherently asketical nature of Christianity: The Ascetic Ideal and the New Testament (also here and here, and here as a pdf file). Almost the entire article is an examination of nearly every New Testament book to demonstrate that Chrsitianity is at its core an asketical religion. I have excerpted his main points. Go to the preceding links to explore his examination of specific NT books.–cdh

TemptationofStAnthony182x248.jpgIf the monastic ideal is union with God through prayer, through humility, through obedience, through constant recognition of oneís sins, voluntary or involuntary, through a renunciation of the values of this world, through poverty, through chastity, through love for mankind and love for God, then is such an ideal Christian? For some the very raising of such a question may appear strange and foreign. But the history of Christianity, especially the new theological attitude that obtained as a result of the Reformation, forces such a question and demands a serious answer. If the monastic ideal is to attain a creative spiritual freedom, if the monastic ideal realizes that freedom is attainable only in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, and if the monastic ideal asserts that to become a slave to God is ontologically and existentially the path to becoming free, the path in which humanity fully becomes human precisely because the created existence of humanity is contingent upon God, is by itself bordered on both sides by non-existence, then is such an ideal Christian? Is such an ideal BiblicalóNew Testamental? Or is this monastic ideal, as its opponents have claimed, a distortion of authentic Christianity, a slavery to mechanical “monkish” “works righteousness”?

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE DESERT

When our Lord was about to begin his ministry, he went into the desert. Our Lord had options but he selectedóor rather, “was lead by the Spirit,” into the desert. It is obviously not a meaningless action, not a selection of type of place without significance. And thereóin the desertóour Lord engages in spiritual combat, for he “fasted forty days and forty nights.” The Gospel of St. Mark adds that our Lord “was with the wild beasts.” Our Lord, the God-Man, was truly God and truly man. Exclusive of our Lordís redemptive work, unique to our Lord alone, he calls us to follow him. “Following” our Lord is not exclusionary; it is not selecting certain psychologically pleasing aspects of our Lordís life and teachings to follow. Rather it is all-embracing. We are to follow our Lord in every way possible. “To go into the desert” is “to follow” our Lord. It is interesting that our Lord returns to the desert after the death of St. John the Baptist. There is an obvious reason for this. “And hearing [of John the Baptistís death] Jesus departed from there in a ship to a desert place privately” When St. Antony goes to the desert, he is “following” the example of our Lordóindeed, he is “following” our Lord. This in no way diminishes the unique, salvific work of our Lord, this in no way makes of our Lord God, the God-Man, a mere example. But in addition to his redemptive work, which could be accomplished only by our Lord, our Lord taught and set examples. And by “following” our Lord into the desert, St. Antony was entering a terrain already targeted and stamped by our Lord as a specific place for spiritual warfare. There is both specificity and “type” in the “desert.” In those geographical regions where there a no deserts, there are places which are similar to or approach that type of place symbolized by the “desert.” It is that type of place which allows the human heart solace, isolation. It is the type of place which puts the human heart in a state of aloneness, a state in which to meditate, to pray, to fast, to reflect upon oneís inner existence and oneís relationship to ultimate realityóGod. And more. It is a place where spiritual reality is intensified, a place where spiritual life can intensify and simultaneously where the opposing forces to spiritual life can become more dominant. It is the terrain of a battlefield but a spiritual one. And it is our Lord, not St. Antony, who as set precedent. Our Lord says that “as for what is sown among thorns, this is he who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceit of riches choke(s) the word, and it becomes unfruitful.” The desert, or a place similar, precisely cuts off the cares or anxieties of the world and the deception, the deceit of earthly riches. It cuts one off precisely from “this worldliness” and precisely as such it contains within itself a powerful spiritual reason for existing within the spiritual paths of the Church. Not as the only path, not as the path for everyone, but as one, fully authentic path of Christian life. . . .ChristBound233x315.jpg

THE WRITINGS BY ST. PAUL AND THE
INTERPRETATION OF THE REFORMATION

The writings by or attributed to St. Paul form a critical point in the entire great divide between the churches of the Reformation and the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Church. The Epistle to the Romans is one of the most important references of this controversy. This epistle and the Epistle to the Galatians formed the base from which Luther developed his doctrine faith and justification, a doctrine that he himself characterized in his preface to his Latin writings as a totally new understanding of Scripture. These two works continue to be the main reference points for contemporary theologians from the tradition of the Reformation. It was this new understanding of the Scriptures that the rejection of monasticism obtained in the Reformation In general it is not an exaggeration to claim that this thought considers St. Paul as the only one who understood the Christian message. Moreover, it is not St. Paul by himself nor St. Paul from the entire corpus of his works, but rather Lutherís understanding of St. Paul. >From this perspective the authentic interpreters of our Lordís teaching and redemptive work are St. Paul, as understood by Luther, then Marcion, then St. Augustine, and then Luther. Marcion was condemned by the entire early Church. St. Augustine indeed does anticipate Luther in certain views but not at all on the doctrine of justification and Lutherís specific understanding of faith. It is more St. Augustineís doctrine of predestination, irresistible grace, and his doctrine of the total depravity of man contained in his “novel” to quote St. Vincent of Lerinsódoctrine of original sin that influenced Luther, who himself was an Augustinian monk.

The rejection of monasticism ultimately followed from the emphasis placed upon salvation as a free gift of God. Such a position is completely accurate but its specific understanding was entirely contrary to that of the early Church. That salvation was the free gift of God and that man was justified by faith was never a problem for early Christianity. But from Lutherís perspective and emphasis any type of “works,” especially that of the monks in their ascetical struggle, was considered to contradict the free nature of grace and the free gift of salvation. If one was indeed justified by faith, thenóso went the line of Lutherís thoughtóman is not justified by “works.” For Luther “justification by faith” meant an extrinsic justification, a justification totally independent from any inner change within the depths of the spiritual life of a person. For Luther “to justify”ódikaionómeant to declare one righteous or just, not “to make” righteous or just*óit is an appeal to an extrinsic justice which in reality is a spiritual fiction. Luther has created a legalism far more serious than the legalism he detected in the Roman Catholic thought and practice of his time. Morever, Lutherís legalistic doctrine of extrinsic justification is spiritually serious, for it is a legal transaction which in reality does not and can not exist. Nowhere was the emphasis on “works” so strong, thought Luther, as in monasticism. Hence, monasticism had to be rejected and rejected it was. But Luther read too much into St. Paulís emphasis on faith, on justification by faith, and on the free gift of the grace of salvation. St. Paul is directly in controversy with Judaism, especially in his Epistle to the Romans. It is the “works of the law,” the law as defined by and interpreted by and practiced by Judaism in the time of St. Paul. Our Lord has the same reaction to the externalization and mechanical understanding of the “law.” Indeed, the very text of the Epistle to the Romans revels in every passage that St. Paul is comparing the external law of Judaism with the newness of the spiritual understanding of law, with the newness of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ through the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of our Lord. God has become Man. God has entered human history and indeed the newness is radical. But to misunderstand St. Paulís critique of “works,” to think that St. Paul is speaking of the “works” commanded by our Lord rather than the Judaic understanding of the works of the “law” is a misreading of a fundamental nature. It is true, however, that Luther had a point in considering the specific direction in which the Roman Catholic merit-system had gone as a reference point similar to the Judaic legal system. As a result of Lutherís background, as a result of his theological milieu, whenever he read anything in St. Paul about “works,” he immediately thought of his own experience as a monk and the system of merit and indulgences in which he had been raised.

It must be strongly emphasized that Luther does indeed protect one aspect of salvation, the very cause and source of redemption and grace. But he neglects the other side, the aspect of manís participation in this free gift of Divine initiative and grace. Luther fears any resurgence of the Roman Catholic system of merit and indulgences, he fears any tendency which will constitute a truly Pelagian attitude, any tendency that will allow man to believe that man is the cause, the source, or the main spring of salvation. And here Luther is correct. Nygrenís Agape-Eros distinction is correct in this context, for any spirituality that omits Agape and concentrates only on Eros, on manís striving to win Godís influence, is fundamentally non-Christian. But the issue is not that simple. Both extremes are false. God has freely willed a synergistic path-of-redemption in which man must spiritually participate. God is the actor, the cause, the initiator, the one who completes all redemptive activity. But man is the one who must spiritually respond to the free gift of grace. And in this response there is an authentic place for the spiritually of monasticism and asceticism, one which has absolutely nothing to do his the “works of the law,” or with the system of merit and indulgences. . . .

THE LIFE OF THE EARLY CHURCH

The life of the early Church as described in the Acts of the Apostles is so clear that no analysis or presentation of texts is necessary to demonstrate that the essentials exist for a form of spirituality similar to that of monastic and ascetical Christianity. Mention should also be made of the life of St. John the Baptist: “It is on solid grounds that a student of monastic origins like Dom Germain Morin upheld his apparent paradox: it is not so much the monastic life which was a novelty at the end of the third century and the beginning of the fourth, but rather the life of adaptation to the world led by the mass of Christians at the time when the persecutions ceased. The monks actually did nothing but preserve intact, in the midst of altered circumstances, the ideal of the Christian life of early days … And there is another continuous chain from the apostles to the solitaries and then to the cenobites, whose ideal, less novel than it seems, spread so quickly from the Egyptian deserts at the end of the third century. This chain is constituted by the men and women who lived in continence, ascetics and virgins, who never ceased to be held in honor in the ancient Church.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s