(Gk. exercise, practice, a term used by Gk. philosophers to denote moral discipline). Practiced by Essenes,* (see Pythagoreanism), Therapeutae,* and other religious and philos. cults in pre-Christian times; found in varying degrees in almost all religions.
Outward asceticism was seldom practiced in OT (but cf. Nazarenes: Nm 6:2, 3, 13; Ju 13:5; 1 Sm 1:11; Lm 4:7; Am 2:11). In later Judaism it became a frequent practice (Tob 12:8; Mt 6:16; 9:14; Lk 18:22). The NT opposes work-righteous asceticism (Cl 2:1623; 1 Ti 4:13). On the other hand, the Savior's command to each disciple to deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Him (Mk 8:34) brings out both aspects of an authentic Christian asceticism, the negative side of self-denial* and the positive side of the imitation of Christ (see Mt 9:15; 10:38, 39; 19:12, 21; 24:42; 25:13; Mk 10:28; Lk 9:5762; Jn 12:25; Ro 8:13; 1 Co 9:26, 27; Gl 5:24; Col 3:5; 1 Jn 2:15, 16).
Some Gnostics and the Manichaeans practiced ascetic disciplines to free the soul from its entanglement in matter, which they regarded as evil. In varying degrees, these movements as well as others in the surrounding Gk. and Jewish world combined with the NT emphases to shape the ascetic practices of the early ch. and to influence the development of primitive and medieval monasticism.* Thus there were fixed times for fasting, fixed hours for prayer, regulations regarding food, abstinence from marriage, withdrawal from the world and similar practices (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, VI, xii). Ascetic disciplines were widely used in the Middle Ages, often in reaction to the laxity and worldliness of both ch. and soc. Their proponents tended to emphasize, among others, the following notions: 1. the body's enjoyment of material things is evil; 2. the individual's duty is to gain his own blessedness; 3. satisfaction is accomplished through ascetic practices; 4. it is a God-pleasing work to imitate the suffering of Christ.
In Freedom of the Christian Man Luther opposed artificial asceticism by showing that works cannot justify and that the Christian can use all God's creatures but must obey the moral law. In addition, Luther often censures monks for work-righteousness (WA 40 I, 608, 609), for considering their mode of life higher than that of others (WA 31 I, 240; 20 I, 8; 33, 101; 46, 25; 40 II, 76), for leaving difficulties and duties of normal life for an invented mode of existence (WA 40 III, 208; 40 I, 342).
The Luth. Conf. oppose ascetic disciplines undertaken to merit grace and forgiveness and emphasize obedience to the moral law (e.g., AC XX 9, 10; XXVI 8). Positively, they teach that Christians will bear with patience, repentance, and faith the crosses that God sends them (Ap XV 45) and that they are to discipline themselves with bodily restraints, fasting, voluntary continence,* almsgiving, and similar exercises as the Scriptures direct and for the kingdom of heaven's sake (AC XXVI 3339; Ap IV 211, 277284; XII 143; XV 46, 47; XXIII 3640, 43, 44, 55, 65, 6769; XXVII 9, 21, 22; SC VI 10; LC V 37). The revival of interest in an ev. and Biblical asceticism in non-RC Christianity is a significant phenomenon of the mid-20th c. EL, ACP
O. Zöckler, Askese und Mönchtum, 2 vols. (Frankfort, 1897); H. C. Lea, History of Sacerdotal Celibacy in the Christian Church, (New York, 1957); O. Hardman, The Ideals of Asceticism (New York, 1924); P. Pourrat, Christian Spirituality, various translators, 4 vols. (Westminster, Maryland, 195355); A. Brunner, A New Creation, tr. R. M. Bethell (New York, 1956); Frei für Gott und die Menschen, ed. L. Präger (Stuttgart, 1959); M. Thornton, English Spirituality (London, 1963); O. Wyon, Living Springs (Philadelphia, 1963).
Edited by: Erwin L. Lueker, Luther Poellot, Paul Jackson
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