Chapter 5: Toward A Contemporary Christian Theology Of Fasting
This chapter will suggest an integrative theological approach to fasting that is based on the scriptural and historical insights studied so far. These will first be set in the context of the renewal of fasting practices in certain Christian traditions, and then oriented toward an eschatological, christocentric understanding of the nature of the Christian age, in dialogue with some authors attempting similar or contrasting approaches.
With a view toward a contemporary renewal of ascetical theology and application, Margaret Miles has examined the history of asceticism rather thoroughly, categorizing its main forms into four major models.616 The first kind was the individual, rigorous asceticism of the early desert fathers, who retreated from worldly life to attempt to regain their spirituality through austerity. The second kind was the monastic movement, which promoted asceticism within a renewed vision of communal church life. The third model came from Augustine, and emphasized the gathering and focusing of energy away from the flesh and toward the spirit. The fourth model, from Ignatius of Loyola, emphasized the intensification and concentration of consciousness, so that a unified person would make life’s choices.617
Miles urges a critical eye toward evaluating and recapturing a renewed asceticism. She rightly urges us to “reject rationales for ascetic practice that are inconsistent with the Christian affirmation of the human body by the doctrines of creation, incarnation, and resurrection.”618 Additionally, the notion that we take upon ourselves the punishing of the body in expiating guilt should also be discarded as assuming God’s own prerogative.619 Since these two elements so often characterize perceptions of asceticism in general, it is little wonder that modern Christians have found little use for trying to value ascetic practices, including fasting.
On the positive side, Miles suggests what a “new asceticism” for our time might look like. She suggests that “First, any rationale for ascetic practice must assume that the human body is permanently and integrally connected with the soul.”620 This entails her second point, which is that ascetic practices must be as good for the body as they are perceived as being good for the soul. Third, “ascetic practices must be temporary,” suggesting that they are designed to work on particular issues.621 Finally, she allows for the perennial usefulness of some practices, such as fasting, in order to orient ourselves properly to our bodies and to the outside world and time, as well as other disciplines that might aid in overcoming the deadness of soul and body.622
This summary is helpful to the extent that it suggests the possible value of fasting in religious experience. But it will also be expanded through more specifically theological ideas that will be proposed below. In the following section Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and contemporary Evangelical Protestant fasting practices are examined. But further, a theological framework will help to integrate the scriptural teachings and the best of the historical models. Toward that end we now turn, beginning with an examination of the renewal of fasting before setting forward a constructive theological integration of fasting in the context of the nature of the age.
The Renewal of Fasting in Contemporary
Christians have reawakened to the possibilities of fasting in recent decades. The Eastern Orthodox tradition offers a long-term witness to fasting, grounding the practice theologically in their doctrine of theosis, as explained below. The Roman Catholic Church has reevaluated many of its longstanding fasting practices, investing them with renewed meanings and freedoms since the reform-minded Second Vatican Council. And many Protestants of the evangelical variety have incorporated fasting into a broadened understanding of the role of spiritual disciplines in the life of the believer.
Fasting in Eastern Orthodoxy to the Present:
Part of Tradition and Theosis
The Eastern Orthodox churches offer a living example of continuity in Christian fasting traditions. They place fasting within their doctrine of theosis, or divinization, as part of the sanctification (or for them, salvation) process. These aspects will be explored below, with attention to the contribution the Orthodox might make for developing an evangelical theology of fasting.
Fasting as Part of Christian Tradition
Eastern Orthodoxy has held the teachings and practices of the Church Fathers in high regard through the centuries. Without the earthquake of the Reformation that so affected Western Christianity, the Orthodox communities have transmitted ancient practices into the modern era in a rather organic way. Whatever the actual fasting practices may be on a local level, it is clear that official Orthodoxy has sought to maintain continuity with the past. For the Orthodox, “tradition is not something limited to that found in the Early Church. It is that which binds the past and present and which survives today.”623 The characters in Scripture, the Church Fathers, the councils and bishops, are all part of the same community that is alive and worships today. This idea, “that the Church is always identical with herself,” helps to shape the Orthodox approach to fasting.624 It is not surprising, then, to see Orthodox treatments of fasting begin with Scriptures, move through patristic teachers of authority (especially the Greek fathers), and then make fairly direct applications for the church.625
Fasting as Part of Theosis
Akakios says that to understand the importance of fasting for the Eastern Orthodox, one must understand the place of asceticism within its cosmology, and he notes these elements: “its view of human sin, salvation and restoration, and theosis (or divinization) and enlightenment.”626 Humanity’s fall from paradise is not viewed so much in Augustinian understandings of original sin, as in “a dynamic process of deviation which led to disobedience and which changed the course of human growth from something natural to something unnatural.”627 As a result, salvation is also viewed as more of a dynamic process, a restoration to the right path for humanity that has deviated from it. In a collection of Orthodox essays on fasting, Lazar Puhalo says this:
Fasting is a special keystone in our struggle to acquire the Holy Spirit and to become robed in the “wedding garment” of divine grace. To understand the fasts and to keep them is, therefore, fundamental to our salvation itself. To fail to keep the fasts in a true Orthodox fashion is to undermine our salvation and turn ourselves away from the Heavenly Kingdom.628
The transformation that takes place in the believer is theosis, the process of becoming like God; but more than like God, this is done through partaking in his nature, the Holy Spirit, so that there is a deep sense of one’s unity with God in this saving, transforming process. 629 While its full realization awaits death, the process of theosis divinizes a person by degrees throughout life. The Orthodox resist the judicial approach to justification prominent in the Western Christian tradition, because there fasting has been viewed as part of a legal covenant between man and God.630
In clarifying theosis, or deification, for Western Christians, Bishop Kallistos (Timothy) Ware makes six points:
1. Deification is not reserved for a few, but is intended for all alike.
2. Deification involves a continual attitude of repentance, and does not expect freedom from sin.
3. The methods for deification are not extraordinary, esoteric or mystical, but normal and moral.
4. Deification is a social process of loving God and neighbor.
5. Love of God and neighbor must be practical, issuing in good deeds.
6. Deification presupposes life in the church and sacraments, where the coinherence of believers with the Spirit can be realized.631
In this context of theosis, fasting is not seen as a negative act, but rather it “constitutes a constructive adherence to a practical therapy by which spiritual illness is cured. It is not a rejection of certain foods or of the body, but a realignment of our attitude toward food and the body.”632 This emphasis on the therapeutic role of fasting prompts theological interest in medical and scientific approaches to fasting, so that fasting basically becomes a kind of medicine for body and soul.633 In Orthodox fasting, the Christian is limited to those things that grew in Paradise when Adam and Eve were not yet fallen (i.e., abstaining from all animal products). Recalling themes in Tertullian, Basil, and Augustine already discussed, the Eastern believes Christian who fasts becomes “a living icon of the human person in the Paradise restored.”634
These idealistic visions of the role of fasting have prompted traditionalist Orthodox leaders to maintain a robust and fairly rigorous approach to fasting at the various levels of church calendar and ascetic life in monasticism, often in a manner that would make St. Basil proud. Ware says these rules “will astonish and appall many western Christians.”635 All the traditional fasts of the ancient ecumenical church are maintained, as well as the observance of stations on Wednesday and Friday, and even Monday in some monasteries. The rules are somewhat stricter in food choices allowed during fasting times than in Roman Catholicism. However, traditionalists also lament the modern deemphasis on fasting among the Orthodox, demonstrating that perhaps the ideals held up so strongly by conservative officials might not be as widely practiced as they would wish, or perhaps even lead us to believe.636
Contribution to a Fasting Theology
What might evangelicals learn from Orthodox fasting practices? First, we can appreciate something of the value of tradition that often we have lost. If the church is an organic unity of believers throughout the ages, then our theology and practice should be done in conversation with that tradition. This does not need to undermine Scripture’s authority or place the traditions of men above the Word of God, but rather evangelicals can enrich their understanding of God’s work by renewed appreciation of the great traditions of Christianity. Second, the Orthodox emphasis on the body as essential in the sanctification process contributes to a renewed awareness of us as whole beings devoted to God. Admittedly, evangelicals will have serious differences with the Orthodox over the role of works in salvation, as the Orthodox see fasting and other practices as contributing to the lifelong process of salvation. But evangelicals need not abandon the doctrine of justification by faith to appreciate the contribution an awareness of embodied spirituality can bring. These insights will be explored further below. Now we turn to the Roman Catholic tradition, where fasting has seen renewed emphasis and revitalization in the contemporary era.
Developments in Fasting in Modern Roman Catholicism:
Moving from Legalistic Forms to a Theology of Community Worship and Solidarity
In addition to the work of de Vogüé discussed in the previous chapter, and other scholarly works to be discussed below, there appears to be a growing popular interest in the discipline of fasting among Catholics in the past few decades.637 Régamey wrote of a hope that fasting could be revitalized by more reliance upon the guidance of the Spirit, which would produce more genuine and rigorous fasting in the context of community.638 As mentioned in the previous chapter, Alexandre Guillaume wrote of hope that fasting as an act between prayer and charity, following a renewed form of Leo the Great’s theology, could revitalize fasting in the modern church.639 This revitalization of fasting in the Roman Catholic tradition corresponds to sweeping changes that precipitated around the time of the Second Vatican Council. Not only were there changes in the liturgical requirements related to fasting, but more importantly, Catholic theologians and church leaders began examining the theological frameworks that underlay their own fasting practices. These emphases will be examined below, with special attention to the main emerging theological themes.
Canon Law and Vatican II: From Law, Structure, and
Ritual to Theology, Community, and Worship
In the modern era, Roman Catholic fasting practices have come under some scrutiny. Some of the rational hair-splitting over details has been modified to keep larger issues to the fore, and an attempt is being made to recover early church tradition in a context relevant to modern circumstances.
Marcellino Zalba writes of fasting in the Roman Catholic Church as having two primary theological emphases.640 First, fasting must start from the need to share one’s property with others (rather than beginning with the thought of managing concupiscence). Pope Paul VI connected this facet of fasting to the responsibility for social justice among the nations: “Nations who enjoy economic plenty have a duty of self-denial, combined with an active proof of love towards our brothers who are tormented by poverty and hunger.”641 Secondly, fasting helps integrate the body into the life of faith, which is a summary of the value tradition has placed upon it, as already seen clearly in Augustine and Aquinas.
In the collection of canon law done some fifty years before Vatican II, canons 1250-54 related to fasting and abstinence. These basically fell into two categories, the “law of abstinence” and the “law of fasting.” The law of abstinence forbade eating meat of mammals and birds and meat broth, but not animal products (eggs, milk, etc.) or fish and seafood. Everyone above seven years of age was subject to the law of abstinence, and everyone twenty-one to sixty to the law of fasting. Questions are submitted to local usage. The law of fasting permitted only one full meal per day, but this was not interpreted to mean the forbidding of small portions throughout the day, and such were subject to local custom. The single meal could be interchanged from noon to evening. The law of abstinence was to be practiced on all Fridays, and the law of both fast and abstinence on Ash Wednesday, Fridays and Saturdays of Lent, Ember Days, and the vigils of the feasts of Pentecost, Assumption, All Saints, and Christmas. The law of fast applied on all other days of Lent. Sundays were generally exempt from fasting, except on holydays during Lent.642
The early twentieth century collection of canon law brought a modern sense of order out of what may have been previously a rather chaotic approach. However, this order came under scrutiny within the Roman Catholic Church, so that even its own experts in canon law felt it needed a greater sense of theological grounding and less emphasis on the letter of the law.643 One can observe the almost dizzying discussions of rules and exceptions to fasting practice, and it is easy to imagine losing a sense of its significance.644
With the reforms of Vatican II came a revision in canon law, which affected the canons regarding abstinence and fasting in several ways.645 Canons 1249-1253 fall under the heading, “Days of Penance.” The age of those bound by the law of abstinence was raised to fourteen, and those subject to the law of fasting are described as adults up to sixty (though parents are to see to it that their children observe an authentic sense of penance in their own ways). Additionally, bishops could now substitute other forms of penance in place of laws of abstinence or fasting, “especially works of charity and exercises of piety.” Bishops can also substitute abstinence from meat for some other food.646 Pope Paul VI’s Apostolic Constitution Paentimini brought these changes into effect, and the Pastoral Statement of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, On Penance and Abstinence, interpreted them for Americans.647 The bishops preserved the tradition of fasting and abstinence from meat on Fridays in Lent, but for other Fridays, they terminated “the traditional law of abstinence as binding under pain of sin.”648 Great pains were taken to remind the faithful that they were not doing away with the need for penance or abstinence, but were encouraging people to apply the practices from a free conscience, and perhaps with wider applications to good works besides merely abstaining from eating meat. The guiding norms for such practices were laid out as solidarity with the church’s past, and the need to “preserve a saving and necessary difference from the spirit of the world.”649
In the twentieth century, the Roman Catholic Church began to alter its strict official approach to the Eucharistic fast. While in practice exceptions to the rules had grown to be interpreted rather widely, it was observed by a doctor of canon law in 1941 that it “obliges with a severity unknown in any other purely ecclesiastical discipline, not involving validity,” although he noted that changes in attitude had already been set in motion.650 In order to increase Eucharistic piety by making the celebration more flexible, Pope Pius XII issued the apostolic constitution, Christus Dominus, in 1953. This promulgation brought about “the most far-reaching changes in the law of the Eucharistic Fast since Apostolic times” for the Roman Catholic Church.651 This allowed concessions for the sick and hard working, and a three-hour fast before celebrations of the Eucharist at times other than morning.652 Pope Paul VI further reduced this in conjunction with Vatican II to simply one hour, which is the standing norm in the Code of Canon Law of 1983, with even exceptions to that for the infirm or those caring for them.653 The emphasis on the communion of the entire body of Christ in the Roman Catholic Church since Vatican II has resulted in these changes. While it may seem small, this alteration of centuries old, inflexible practice at its best could represent a shift in the Roman Catholic Church from law to theology, from structure to community, and from prioritizing ritual to prioritizing worship. However, for those who still see Catholic spirituality in terms of works-righteousness, these shifts might represent only a shift from strict laws to more lenient ones.
Contemporary Catholic Emphasis:
Fasting as Solidarity
And so, fasting has officially become for contemporary Catholics not only a means of identifying with the sufferings of Christ, but also a means of showing solidarity with the church of the ages, as well as those who need its ministry. These are the overriding themes of the papal sermons delivered for Lent in the decades following the publication of Vatican II.654 These sermons largely elaborate the imagery of the parable in Matt 25:35-40, where the righteous serve Christ in the needs of the poor and afflicted. The sermons address such contemporary issues as hunger, refugees, the environment, and political disorders. While fasting per se is not the emphasis, clearly themes of abstinence have been enlarged into this concept of brotherhood and solidarity in humanity. John Paul II urged the church in 1979: “Going without things is to free oneself from the slaveries of a civilization that is always urging people on to greater comfort and consumption.”655 With regard to hunger, he asks in 1985:
Within the same family, can some members eat their fill while their brothers and sisters are excluded from the table? To think of those who suffer is not enough. In this time of Lent, conversion of heart calls us to add fasting to our prayer, and to fill with God’s love the efforts that the demands of justice towards neighbour inspire us to make.656
Contribution to a Fasting Theology
One can only hope that these theological strides in the fasting practice of Roman Catholics will result in effecting the idealistic changes they envision. Perhaps even Protestants can find inspiration and some direction here for our own long neglect of fasting practices. It has become almost axiomatic for Protestants since the Reformation to characterize Catholic fasting as legalistic behavior. The changes in at least the official Catholic stance toward fasting since Vatican II show that they have seen this issue themselves, and made moves in the direction of correcting it.
It must be understood that legalism and ritualism are not matters restricted merely to church structures and hierarchies. Rather, these problems proceed from human hearts that prefer to aggrandize themselves through religious practices. Like the Pharisee of Luke 18:12, or the hypocrites of Matt 6:16-18, there will always be people who use fasting to bolster their opinions of themselves and their worth before God and others. The church must always warn against such things, and in promoting fasting, be on guard lest we encourage the very kinds of behaviors that have taken the Roman Catholic Church centuries to address.
Also, the renewed Catholic emphasis on fasting as subordinate to community life highlights the need to engage spirituality at a corporate level. Fasting is not merely about individual asceticism, but rather Christians are reminded that they are part of one another. Worship becomes more vital, and service becomes more heartfelt, when one of the purposes for fasting is Christian solidarity.
A final caution that might be offered here is that Catholics and evangelical Protestants are probably not yet ready come to agreement on the issue of viewing fasting as a penitential practice. The language of the Catechism of the Catholic Church continues to suggest that fasting is part of a complex of works that demonstrate penance, thereby bringing the believer into unity with Christ. The catechism describes fasting, prayer, and almsgiving as acts of “interior penance” that “express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others.”657 Even Catholic commentator Monika Hellwig says that this emphasis on penance in the catechism needs further revision: “By constantly addressing the issue of serious sin and loss of grace, the text achieves a burdensome and depressing effect which cannot be helpful to catechesis.”658 Clearly biblical fasting was often associated with repentance, at least in the old covenant. But in the age since the coming of Christ, can any fasting or other penitential practice procure forgiveness of sins? For Protestants who believe the order is reversed, and forgiveness is a free gift in Christ and repentance is part of believing, there may still be appropriate reticence about adopting a Catholic fasting theology wholesale. Nevertheless, it is hoped that the insights noted above can be integrated into a relevant evangelical Christian theology of fasting.659 As Daryl Charles says, “It is not insignificant that at present the Roman Catholic Church is emphasizing listening to Scripture in ways that are unprecedented, just as Protestants are simultaneously discovering tradition as they have never known it.”660
Reawakening to Spiritual Disciplines
Among Contemporary Evangelicals
A renewed desire to engage in spiritual disciplines has awakened among evangelical Protestants in recent decades, and this renewal has sparked increased interest in fasting. At the forefront are two prominent books: Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline and Dallas Willard’s Spirit of the Disciplines.661 Both books offer discussions of fasting in the context of spiritual disciplines. They are theologically grounded and offer practical direction, with Willard heavier on the former, Foster on the latter. Willard notes that the renewed emphasis on spiritual disciplines in his ministry “was only a part of something much larger that was happening in the flow of American Protestantism and the culture associated with it.”662 He attributes the change to a “widespread shift of religious consciousness and sentiment,” noting the contributions of reactions to the excesses of pop culture and the positive contribution of Christian psychology. Willard regards liberal Christianity as having become largely impotent spiritually, and conservative churches awakening to the fact that they often give lip service to biblical authority without functioning practically that way.663
Numerous other works (of varying quality) that discuss fasting as a discipline have been published in and around their wake in the latter half of the twentieth century, most of them being more pastoral and practical in orientation, often with a revivalist spirit about them.664 Several minor theses and dissertations have been written that could reasonably be related to this movement, exploring the origins of fasting and generally encouraging Christians in the practice.665 A few works by evangelical Protestants react in a basically negative manner to fasting, regarding it with ambivalence as a religious practice from the Old Covenant.666 All of this publishing activity by Protestant evangelicals follows a dearth of almost a hundred years, from the decline of public fast days following the Civil War era until basically the 1950s, when interest apparently began to flower.
It is clear, at least from the writings of Willard and Foster, that this evangelical resurgence has been aware of and borrowed from the broader heritage of church tradition, including monasticism.667 The fasting advocated in the spiritual disciplines movements generally has nothing to do with the church’s liturgical calendar, although occasionally those traditional themes may be drawn upon for inspiration. Rather, the fasting advocated seems to be of a more individualistic, ascetic variety. Generally fasting is viewed as abstaining from food for an entire day or even multiple days, advocating a rigorous austerity with regard to fasting might have made the early monks proud.668
Willard works hard to establish the link in spiritual disciplines to the imitation of and obedience to Christ. The “secret” to true spirituality “involves living as he lived in the entirety of his life—adopting his overall life-style.”669 So for Willard, the imitation of Christ is the adoption of the disciplined way in which he lived his earthly life. This noble ideal calls Christians to a life of humility in order that they, like Christ, may experience true dependence on the Father and share in some way in the power of his resurrection. The result is a Christian theology that is truly practical, embodying holiness in actual human life.
Amid all the good that this renewed emphasis on spiritual disciplines appears to be doing, there also seems to be a hazard of a formulaic approach to sanctification. Foster makes important qualifications about the need for grace and avoidance of legalism.670 When asked what he expects to happen to a person who faithfully practices the spiritual disciplines, Dallas Willard responded:
They will increasingly manifest the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Gal 5:22-23)—and this will be obviously easy for them; and there will be manifestations of divine power in conjunction with who they are and what they do.671
It must be kept in mind that the desired spiritual results of such disciplines are the blessings that come ultimately from God for his own good purposes and glory in our lives. If these qualifications are kept in mind, Christians can avoid pursuing spiritual disciplines from improper motives. Tradition has shown that many problems spring from the desire to promote ourselves before others as “spiritual,” in violation of the spirit of Jesus’ words about fasting in Matt 6:16, “to be seen fasting by men.”
Is it possible to develop the insights and practices of the spiritual disciplines movement beyond the basically ascetic approach to a thoroughgoing theology of fasting? If so, this theology should be set in an overarching framework of what it is that God has done and will do in Christ, and what he is doing through Christians when they fast. Such a theology will affirm the various contributions of the spectrum of positive fasting practices as component parts of a larger whole. To that end we now turn, in developing a theology of fasting in the context of God’s work in Christ in the Christian era of redemptive history.
Fasting and the Nature of the Age
The primary focus of Christian fasting must be on the person and work of Christ. This comes from the fact that central NT passages related to fasting specifically use fasting as a way of highlighting Christ and his messianic work, as discussed in previous chapters and integrated below.672 This is consistent with, and helps to inform, an eschatological understanding of the nature of the age, one caught between fulfillment and anticipation of fulfillment. In such a context, the biblical examples of fasting can find proper expression, and Jesus’ teachings can be implemented. A christocentric, eschatological approach to fasting will allow for a full integration of the biblical theology of fasting that has already been examined in the first two chapters.
In addition to the biblical theology, the study of fasting in Christian history and the contemporary movements to renew fasting examined above call for a further, integrative, theological understanding of the possible value of fasting in a contemporary, evangelical Christian context. Reviewing the results of the previous two chapters’ study, one can see that from the earliest days of the church, Christians have practiced fasting. Early Christians imitated biblical characters that fasted, and sought to follow Jesus’ instructions about fasting in their lives. Leaders as important as Basil and Augustine wrote about the spiritual and physical benefits of fasting, urging their parishioners to practice discipline of the flesh. Even after all the abuses of fasting by medieval monasticism and church formalism, the Protestant Reformers unanimously affirmed that fasting could find a proper role in Christian practice, and their followers sought ways to implement these ideals. The Church of England sought to balance fasting traditions with the Protestant emphasis on a free conscience, which if practiced, could result in a powerful testimony to Christian unity and spiritual discipline. John Wesley was the epitome of practicing such a balance, and he promoted fasting in both private and churchly devotion. Although fasting seems to have declined in the modern era, the spiritual disciplines movement calls evangelicals to renew a practice that has biblical warrant and thorough support from every wing of Christian tradition.
At a broadly conceived level, this theology of fasting can begin with an understanding of the nature of the age in which Christians find themselves.673 This theology takes Jesus’ response to the synoptic fasting query of Matt 9:14-15/Mark 2:18-20/Luke 5:33-35 as its central integrating motif: “You cannot make the wedding guestsfast while the bridegroom is with them, can you? But those days are coming, and when the bridegroom is taken from them, at that time they will fast” (Luke 5:34-35). The fasting Jesus responded to there was from the old covenant, in anticipation of eschatological fulfillment. Jesus was that fulfillment, the “bridegroom,” and his companions in his presence could not fast. Yet he foresaw the present era as a time when the bridegroom would be taken away, and he said this would be a time for fasting. So we find ourselves in an age of fulfillment, while still being in an age of anticipation. In his profoundly integrative recent work, Covenant and Eschatology, Michael Horton writes:
We proclaim as a present reality the “new creation” of which Jesus Christ is the firstfruits, and yet we cannot point to the present state of the world or any part of it (including the church) and indicate univocally what this means. This fuels the now-not yet dialectic in our own Christian experience and activity. Capable neither of resting nor of waiting, we are driven by the historical fulfillment and the eschatological hope to act in the liminal space in which faith, hope, and love are simultaneously inflamed and threatened.674
While we profess our faith that the bridegroom has come, we acknowledge his absence as we await him again. So the Christian era is an age of fasting and feasting, of holding the tension of unfinished business, while confessing in faith to the outcome. The “already but not yet” character of the age calls for both expressions in the rhythm of our spiritual seasons, which can move from dry to satisfied, to dry to satisfied again. In this way, fasting both reflects and contributes to the eschatological understanding of Christian thought and practice.
So, as laid out below, a Christian theology of the nature of the age will be centered first on Christ. Christ represents the apex of God’s revelation (Heb 1:2), and this makes any attempt to know God or reflect his ways necessarily christocentric. As Dallas Willard suggests, our approach to Christian living will be characterized as “Christ-centered piety.”675 In fasting, he can be remembered, imitated, and anticipated, and these three aspects will form the basic outline for the theology of fasting in the first section.676 Spiritual blessings from properly motivated Christian fasting may be anticipated, as “your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you” (Matt 6:18). Second, recalling the insights of Basil, Augustine, and the Orthodox traditions, Christian fasting requires a view of sanctification that embraces the human body as the arena of personal sanctification. In this way, Christian fasting requires a view of spirituality that must embrace the whole person, and fasting can help engage the self in the rhythmic seasons of life lived in human flesh. Finally, the spiritual body that is Christ’s church will need to balance the renewed awareness for fasting as Christian solidarity and the Protestant emphasis on the freedom of the conscience. This will encourage discipline without mandating the exact methods the Spirit will use, and Christians who fast will remember one another’s needs while remembering their Lord.
A Christocentric Approach to Fasting: Remembering,
Imitating, and Anticipating Him
The practice of fasting can play a role in a balanced understanding of the nature of the age. Not only do we have explicit teaching that should guide our understanding of our time, but we also have a tangible practice that at least potentially links us to both ancient and contemporary communities of faith that wait for God’s redemption. There is continuity with the Old Covenant in that both fasting and feasting mark our experience. But since Christ has come, their significance has been reversed. Where once the faithful feasted in hope, we may feast in realization of hope fulfilled. Where once the community fasted in mourning, we may fast because of Christ’s absence and in anticipation of the return of our beloved.
Michael Horton describes this shifting of the tenses of the eschatological horizon as a “trialectic.” He writes, “the present activity of the Spirit involves the application not only of the work of Christ in the past, but the work of Christ in the future. Together, these points of origin define the work of Christ in the present, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to the glory of the Father.”677 Such an approach becomes intrinsically christocentric, locating Christian religious practices within the overarching theological context of what God has done in Christ.
Taking as our cue the NT theology that uses fasting as a messianic motif, a basic christocentric approach to fasting in this age can be laid out as follows. First, as the Christian tradition has practiced since basically its inception, fasting can help us to remember Christ, especially his incarnate humiliation and the work of his passion. Second, fasting can help us to imitate Christ in his discipline of the flesh and connection to spiritual realities. And third, fasting will remind us of our need for Christ during this time between his appearances, and of our dependence on the Spirit as we anticipate his presence again.
Christian Fasting Remembers Christ
As suggested in the previous chapters here on fasting in biblical theology, one of the main functions of fasting in the biblical literature is to point out Jesus as the fulfillment of the eschatological hopes of Israel. His forty-day fast in the wilderness (Matt 4:1-4; Luke 4:1-4) especially demonstrated that point, linking him in the messianic, prophetic line as the one who would come. Keith Main is right to point out that Jesus is pictured by the NT as the fulfillment of the mourning fasts of Judaism, but he assumes that this christological fulfillment basically means the end of fasting as a practice.678 Yet when Christians remember the joy of Christ’s presence, are we not also reminded of his absence at the present time? Is it not possible to do both, to hold this eschatological tension together, by recognizing that the historical Christ event both fulfilled all things, and also inaugurated an age that still experiences sorrow?
As previously discussed, Church tradition memorialized that forty-day time period for fasting in Lent, placing it on the calendar so that it climaxed through Christ’s passion to his resurrection, when the fast was broken. Additionally, the traditional half-day fasts on Wednesday and Friday, which came to be known as the station fasts, were infused with memorial meanings of his passion, marking the days of his arrest and crucifixion. Similarly, the Eucharistic fast was necessarily linked to Christ’s passion, as we are told that its inception came from the command of Jesus, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19; 1 Cor 11:24). And just as the resurrection follows the passion, Christians also celebrate the Lord’s Supper in remembrance of his death “until he comes.”679 It is clear that Christians from the earliest days and throughout history have in the liturgical calendar and in their celebration of the sacrament viewed fasting as memorializing the work of Christ, while building toward eschatological realization.680
In this framework, we see that the church at least implicitly, if not always explicitly, saw itself functioning in a similar way to the people of the Old Covenant, in that the liturgical seasons reflect the theological understanding of redemptive history. Willem VanGemeren writes of the purpose of seasonal holidays in the Old Covenant:
Through the framework of the feasts and festivals, the Israelites transmitted their redemptive history. They passed on from generation to generation the stories of the exodus from Egypt, the miraculous happenings in the wilderness, the revelation of the law and covenant, and the conquest of Canaan. Through these celebrations they developed a consciousness of being God’s people and of having been specially blessed.681
Church tradition has sought to do a similar thing for Christians, only in the New Covenant context of remembering Christ’s work. While perhaps the Catholic traditions had a tendency to inflate fasting practices, it should also be recognized that Protestants have had a tendency to truncate them.682 Fasting practices could contribute to a renewed sense of participation in redemptive history in the future, if the churches would continue to foster a christocentric approach.
Christian Fasting Imitates Christ
But since Jesus’ salvific mission was unique, should imitation of him be central to Christian spirituality? Does this somehow reduce him to a teacher or example at the expense of him being a redeemer? When this question was posed to Dallas Willard, his cogent return was this:
The question is, how can you trust Jesus as Redeemer and not trust him in what he says to do? And of course what he says to do is what he did. People who say they trust Jesus as Redeemer and do not bend every effort to obey him are self-deceived.683
Memory of Christ should trigger imitation of Christ. The believer will want to be as much like his or her Lord as possible. Fasting, at least to some extent, helps the believer to identify with Christ in his humanity, in his willingness to renounce the privileges of his natural high rank to become humble and lowly. In commenting on Paul’s theological approach to obedience, Herman Ridderbos writes, “The religious, theocentric character of the new obedience surely finds its most pregnant expression in the concept of sanctification.”684 The sanctifying work of God must be understood primarily as his work of making his children to be like his Son, Jesus Christ, a work which has already been decreed and vicariously applied, and now is being worked out in anticipation of the consummation.
Often fasting practices have been geared toward a restoration of Eden, a focus on humanity in its created goodness. But perhaps an even deeper, more authentic focus of human restoration is to identify our fallen humanity with the one true savior who took upon himself our fallen humanity. What is the believer to model in this age between the times? Are we to recapitulate the unstained innocence of paradise, transcending the fallen world through a superceding form of sanctification? Instead, it would be better for Christians to find their model of sanctification in the one who lived in the fallen world among us, yet without sin. All of the effects of fallenness came upon him, even to the point of sharing in death with humanity.
So as Christians fast in imitation of Christ, it may not be primarily about doing exactly what Christ did when he fasted, as if we were setting ourselves up as messianic figures. Rather, it must be seen as signifying something larger. The Christian takes on humility in imitation of Christ, who “learned obedience through the things he suffered” (Heb 5:8). When Christians fast, they experience some measure (albeit even a small measure in comparison) of the nature of that needed humility that comes from willing submission, and by doing so they might learn something of the obedience of Christ. This kind of imitation of Christ reminds believers that we, like Christ, are incarnate beings, dependent on food and drink for pleasure, normalcy, and even our physical lives. Yet fasting reminds us of how much we need something else even more—we need to depend on the living word of God, the one who is the source of all that is truly alive. Fasting reminds us that there is more to life than food, and like Christ, we are learning to live that sanctified life in the body.
It is in this context of humility and dependence on the Father that Christians can display the consistent connection between humble, sorrowful prayer and fasting. Jesus’ fasting in the desert (Matt 4:1-4; Luke 4:1-4) can indeed be seen as an example of personal humbling that believers can follow, at least to some extent. While he did not fast in repentance from sin, his fasting was certainly connected to the resistance of temptation from the devil. Jesus made the point in that context that “Man does not live by bread alone” (Luke 4:4), and Christians through the ages have taken that statement as an instruction to fast. But this imitation is also qualified by the fact that Christ also knew how to enjoy the good gifts of God in life, so much so that he was thought of as “a glutton and a drunk” (Matt 11:19).685 His disciples were not known for their fasting, even though Jesus instructed them in how to fast and assured them that days were coming when they would fast (Matt 6:16-18, 9:15).
In this way, Christians find themselves in a long line of saints from the Hebrew Bible like Hannah (1 Sam 1:7-8), David (2 Sam 12:16-23), Nehemiah (Neh 1:4), Esther (Esth 4:16) and Daniel (Dan 9:3) fasted and prayed when they felt sorrow, showing their dependence on God and seriousness in humbling themselves to beseech him. Such times certainly come to believers in the new covenant as well, and there does not seem to be any legitimate theological reason why fasting could not continue in a similar role. While Christ came to bring joy and comfort to those who mourn, Christians should not forget that human experience is indeed one of mourning. Anything less would be a tacit denial of the ongoing presence of sin and death and their effects, symptoms of an over-realized eschatology. Christ identified with those who mourn, so Christians should imitate Christ and “weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15).
So fasting is more than just imitating the concrete actions of Jesus (though that may be a commendable part). The imitation of Christ involves the believer in a patterned representation of the work of Christ. William Isley writes:
Most broadly conceived, the Christian’s imitation of his master is to participate in the pattern of redemptive history. Both Hebrews 3 and 4 and Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 understand Israel’s wilderness wandering as a type of the Christian life. Christ, God’s Son called out of Egypt (Mt. 2:15/Hos. 11:1) and our representative, successfully resisted temptation in the wilderness and through his cross and resurrection accomplished our exodus. We now follow him into the wilderness to be tested and journey towards the promised land, the final resurrection and the coming of the new heaven and the new earth. It is a time for fasting in which we express sorrow over our, humanity’s, sinful state. It is most likely not without significance that the book of Revelation’s descriptions of the consummation of the ages employs figures of a wedding feast (19:9) and the abundance of food and drink which had been found in the primeval paradise (22:1-3). Then there shall be no reason to fast for there shall be no mourning (21:4).686
Horton sees this aspect of Christian practice as the “community theatre” of the “divine drama”:
Equipped with a set, a script, performers, and props, the divine drama takes on concrete form not only as a redramatization, but as the enactment of that redemptive-historical reality. Unlike the performers of King Lear, contemporary actors in the covenant renewal ceremony actually participate in the reality that is indicated by the performance.687
While Horton most centrally applies this to the performance of the sacraments and church discipline, it seems reasonable to extend the theology to wider religious practices that are entailed in our pursuit of sanctification, such as fasting. Then it is clear that fasting must also reflect the third aspect of this eschatological perspective, as discussed below.
Christian Fasting Anticipates
Christ During His Absence
If Christian fasting is done in imitation and remembrance of Christ as suggested above, then it follows that this also anticipates something. Anna, an old covenant saint at the dawn of the new covenant, fasted and prayed in anticipation of the messiah she met just as she, and the old covenant she represented, were getting ready to pass away (Luke 2:37). So too, Christians now may fast in anticipation of the end of the ages, longingly awaiting the new creation when all will be made right. Like Basil said, “Once we have thoroughly taken our fill, may we also be found worthy of the exhilaration that comes in the bridal chamber of Christ Jesus our Lord!”688 As Isley noted above, the depictions of creation’s consummation in Revelation are more oriented toward feasting, signifying the end of mourning. Surely that is related to the fact that the presence of God is in clear manifestation for his people there, and that Christ himself is among them (Rev 21:22-23, 22:4-5).
But since this is the time of his absence, then we must understand fasting now as a sign of our need of his presence. We long for him, and fasting reminds us of our anticipation of his return.689 “Fasting helps us to focus on and to experience that reality of hopeful living between the times by reminding us of the not yet. Jesus is not yet with us. He has not yet returned; so we should be longing for his return.”690
But more than just anticipating Christ’s personal return in the eschaton, anticipating Christ in this time between the times must mean that he can manifest himself to us through his Holy Spirit, who is in us and among us. So when Christians fast and pray, we may anticipate the Spirit moving and guiding as a token and genuine blessing of the coming presence of Christ. Is that not the picture of the apostles praying in Acts 13:2-3? This body of believers, living so close in temporal proximity to the realized eschatology of the first advent, still fasted in anticipation of God moving. The divine response was to guide the believers in their ministries, and so the disciples repeated this pattern as they went out among the fledgling Gentile churches (Acts 14:23). In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ said that his disciples should fast in secret before the Father, “and your Father who sees in secret will repay you” (Matt 6:18). Clearly this suggests that, like prayer or almsgiving, fasting with proper spiritual motives will lead to spiritual blessings from God. So while fasting may at times seem mournful, Christian fasting is also never completely separated from the anticipation of God’s Spirit breaking into our experience even now. As our attentions are lifted from sole concentration on material needs to the often unseen, secret world of God’s kingdom, the believer anticipates connecting with the God who can operate beyond our normal experience. This points us forward on the larger trajectory of anticipating the consummation of all things, an eschatologically future reality that we are in organic connection with even in the present.
Now that a christocentric framework has been set out, fasting also raises some anthropological issues that remain to be discussed. Specifically, the implications of fasting on the Christian view of the body need to be explored, and to that we now turn.
Christian Fasting and the Body
Fasting quite naturally raises the question of the body’s place in Christian spirituality. Familiar verses like Rom 12:1 remind Christians to “present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God,” and 1 Cor 6:19 reminds Christians that “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit” (NASB). Although the question of the body’s place in spirituality has perhaps been implicit in much of the discussion above, some explicit interaction may be necessary. It will be shown that Christian fasting can be a means of embracing the body in the process of sanctification, rather than rejecting it in favor of some kind of mental picture of a disembodied spirituality. This can provide a healthy corrective to excessive or abusive forms of asceticism in which the body is punished for sins, as well as the other side, that of neglect of fasting and the role of the body in sanctification and spirituality in the modern era. Dallas Willard reminds us that true spirituality includes bodily behaviors, and “whatever is purely mental cannot transform the self.”691 The following approach will then show that the embodied, spiritual Christian can use fasting to reflect the rhythms and seasons of life.
Christian Fasting Embraces the Embodied
Nature of Spirituality
Was fasting, as part of the ascetic impulse in Christian tradition, related to a deprecation of the human body? There is certainly some truth to that charge, as the abuses of asceticism mentioned in the previous chapter have shown. Yet the whole picture may require a nuanced understanding of the Christian theology of the body. A response to Veronika Grimm’s view of Christian fasting as a renunciation of the goodness of creation appears below. This is followed by a more positive integration of the works of Shaw, Bynum and others who emphasize the role of the body and spirit together in Christian asceticism. But beyond that, this leads to a constructive theology of the potential role fasting can play in an embodied spirituality for Christians.
A Response to Viewing Christian Fasting as a Renunciation of the Goodness of the Body. Veronika Grimm promotes a rather dim view of Christian fasting in her recent, academically important monograph on fasting.692 She suggests that early Christianity misunderstood Jewish fasting and adopted body-soul dualism from the surrounding cultures that merged into a heightened asceticism. According to Grimm, Jewish fasting was for a diversity of purposes, with ascetic purposes rising in prominence in the inter-testamental period.693 For Grimm, the NT allows for fasting even though it does not generally advocate the practice. But with Paul a new element is introduced, and that is abhorrence of sexuality—a conclusion drawn from a psychologically driven reading of his epistles. She says that Paul, in contrast to the balanced Jewish view of the flesh as neither inherently good nor bad, “felt the power of sin ‘in the flesh,’ which for him meant in the sexually charged body.”694 She says that Paul himself does not advocate fasting, but his negative view of the flesh and body informs later Christianity. Throughout the Christian tradition asceticism gains renewed vigor in the attempt to quench the power of the fleshly appetites, and fasting becomes an important part of the quest. Much of this impetus is seen as emerging not from Christianity’s Jewish roots, but rather from the Greco-Roman culture as the empire’s power base shifted from pagan to Christian.
Grimm’s analysis of Jewish material is helpful, but her negative opinions of the NT and early Christian material are clearly overstated. She argues that the apostles are relatively indifferent to food’s role in their theology, only worrying about whether food practices cause dissension.695 She mentions that there is teaching about food in some of Paul’s disputed epistles, but she never really integrates the positive nature of texts like 1 Tim 4:1-5 into the discussion of Paul or early Christianity. This text warns against false teachers who forbid marriage or advocate abstaining from eating certain foods, and concludes: “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with gratitude; for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim 4:4-5, NASB).
Also, Grimm’s psychoanalysis of Paul is less than convincing. The fact that Paul highlighted singleness and mentioned fornication frequently as a sin to shun does not necessarily mean he had an aversion to sexuality as Grimm suggests. The actual Pauline texts that Grimm cites provide several statements that contradict her thesis on Paul. For instance, she describes the mental anguish of Rom 7:22-25, but she leaves out the joyous declaration of deliverance of Rom 7:25 by means of an ellipsis.696 She also mentions the importance of 1 Corinthians 7 as if it is restrictive, without calling our attention to the fact that Paul tells couples not to sexually deprive one another (7:5), and that if singles lack self-control it is better to marry than to burn with lust (7:9). Apparently Paul himself was not “burning” in his struggle, as Grimm’s analysis of Romans suggests, nor does the text support her idea that his singleness derives from his aversion to sexuality as a whole. It seems more consistent to say that Paul cared deeply about morality and believed his calling, with the Spirit’s aid, was to fulfill his vocation in singleness.
Grimm is certainly right that elements of platonic dualism crept into the Christian tradition, and she demonstrates some of that in her discussion of the Church Fathers. But Grimm’s main thesis is called into question, not only because of her reliance on a dubious turn of emphasis toward sexuality in Paul, but also by her latent assumptions about Christianity as a rejection of the beauty of the world and the human body.697
One should not assume that Christian asceticism somehow implied an essentially negative view of the body and humanity, or of creation in general. In fact, there would appear to be a growing number of voices that see fasting and ascetic practices by Christians generally as having a positive goal for the human body. Margaret Miles says that in the best of asceticism, “The body is a prize that the spirit and the flesh must struggle to possess.”698 Samuel Rubenson comments:
The close relation of body and soul in the Bible and the dogma of the incarnation of the divine in Jesus Christ contributes to an understanding of the body as sanctified, a temple of the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, it excludes any kind of asceticism that is based on contempt for and negation of the body. Even the most rigorous ascetic practice characteristic of early Eastern monasticism has as its goal the sanctification and transformation of the body.699
If that is the case, then perhaps fasting (and asceticism generally) do not need to be viewed as primarily negative practices, that necessarily disparage a healthy view of the body. Now we turn to integrating some more positive approaches into the theology of an embodied spirituality.
Integrating More Positive Approaches to Fasting and the Spiritual Body. Teresa Shaw has provided an important historical analysis of fasting and virginity in the history of ancient Christianity. While she is not specifically advocating a particular normative theological view of fasting, her understanding of the role of the body in early Christianity provides a helpful corrective for the too facile assumption that Christians are plagued with a heritage of platonic body-soul dualism. In some contrast to Grimm, Shaw suggests that the kind of dualism found in early Christianity is one in which the fleshly appetites are controlled by means of the body itself.700 In other words, fasting and sexual abstinence for the early Christians were not so much issues of mind over matter (as in traditional dualism), but rather release of the body itself for its fullest pursuit of pleasure in God. The life of the early Christian ascetic is one that looks back to the unfallen state of paradise and forward to the restored body of the new creation:
Fasting and virginity are, according to the several texts examined in this chapter, ways of imitating the original blessed human condition in paradise before the fall and life in the paradise to come. By fasting and sexual abstinence one also imitates the ways of the angels.
… [I]n Christian ascetic theory both eating and sexual activity take on the weight of the fall and its consequences of mortality, hierarchy, labor, and pain in human life. Thus the one who takes up a life of chastity and dietary renunciation becomes identified with original purity and immortality, and the ascetic body anticipates—or even returns to—the condition of original creation.701
Whether or not all of the specifics of this understanding are correct, the main thrust of Shaw’s argument, that early Christian ascetics had the former paradise of Eden and the future paradise of the resurrection in view, is clearly substantiated by her work in the historical texts (and as seen in previous chapters above in Tertullian, Basil and Augustine).702 Shaw goes on to show that in the early Christian ascetic tradition, fasting (along with chastity as a prime example of ascetic renunciation) in the body becomes a “medicine of the soul.” Christian theology absorbed not merely the negative aspects of a body-soul distinction from the Greco-Roman context, but also the more positive aspects of contemporary medical theories that linked body and soul in close interaction.703 If such an analysis is correct, one can see that the ascetic Christians of the late classic and medieval periods may not always have been denouncing the body. In their own way, they were honoring it and seeking to restore it, even if their methods may appear to our modern eyes to have sometimes moved toward the dysfunctional.704 If the basic insights of sanctifying the body can be reintegrated into our theology today, we could advocate a Christian fasting that values the body while avoiding the hazards of pathological renunciation (such as viewing physical pleasures as evil, as done by the false teachers Paul denounced in 1 Tim 4:1-5, or the eating disorders that so plague contemporary life).
Mary Timothy Prokes makes the point that “Christian faith is embodied faith, deriving from the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, and the Revelation that he lived out bodily, but principally through his passion, death and resurrection.”705 As human beings, we are necessarily embodied; in Christ’s incarnation, he became human, taking our flesh upon himself. It is entirely reasonable then, that Christian theology should reflect on the embodied nature of human life for Christian practices. It is the Christian in the body that must become holy, be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ. Samuel Powell writes:
[M]embership in this body of Christ (1 Cor 12:27) and participation in the body of Christ (1 Cor 10:16) imply something about the holiness of the individual Christian’s body (1 Cor 6:19-20). So, the physical bodies of believers are clearly subjects of holiness, as the many exhortations of Paul’s letters remind us. The physical body of Jesus Christ is of capital importance in holiness, both because of its central role in the doctrine of the atonement and because of the exemplary value of Jesus’ life for Christians. The church as the body of Christ looms large in any discussion of holiness, not only because it is the church as such that Christ wishes to make holy, without spot or wrinkle, but also because the church is the living context in which the Christian becomes holy. Finally, the sacramental body of Christ is important for holiness because thereby Christ is incorporated into us and we into him. In short, the centrality of the body to the concept of holiness is plainly a teaching of the new Testament.706
While it is not my purpose here to develop a thorough Christian anthropology, it is enough to note that fasting can and should be conceived as a bodily act of spirituality.707 The act of renouncing food for a time is not necessarily a renunciation of physicality itself, but rather it can be a means of sanctifying the body, of symbolically presenting it as a vessel for God’s divine presence. Adam and Eve were created in God’s image, with bodies that were part of a creation that was deemed “very good” (Gen 1:26-31). Though our humanity, and thus our bodies, are fallen and subject to sin, Christ took on our flesh, and bore our sins in his body (1 Pet 2:24). He ascended to heaven, and Paul says in the present tense that “in him all the fullness of deity lives in bodily form” (Col 2:9). It should come as no surprise, then, that believers are called to offer their bodies as “a sacrifice—alive, holy, and pleasing to God” (Rom 12:1). As we anticipate the resurrection and glorification of our bodies, we can exercise our bodies for spiritual discipline and growth. As Paul said in 1 Cor 9:25, “Each competitor must exercise self-control in everything. They do it to receive a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one”. With this purpose in mind, Paul said he beat his body and made it his slave for the sake of the ministry (1 Cor 9:27). Hopefully, fasting can play a role in the future of evangelical theology’s appropriation of embodied spirituality. Perhaps that can be done by understanding something of how fasting engages the Christian person in the embodied, temporal nature of life, and to that discussion we now turn.
Christian Fasting Engages the Self in
Transformation of Temporal Life in the Flesh
The eschatological formulation for understanding redemption history helps Christians to understand their place in the seasons of life in the flesh. Such a doctrine necessarily entails praxis that reflects the continuities and discontinuities of embodied life in the Spirit. Horton writes, “In the redemptive-historical model, doctrine is a creature of time, not a denizen of the disembodied res cogitans. Doctrinal or ethical formulations ignore the discontinuities and new, specific situations in redemptive history at their own peril.”708 In the situation Christians find themselves, theology as well as life in the world requires a mature ability to alternate between the poles of realization and anticipation.
The spiritual disciplines movement has recognized this dynamic to some extent. Willard differentiates between “disciplines of abstinence” and “disciplines of engagement.” Together, these are “the outbreathing and inbreathing of our spiritual lives, and we require disciplines for both movements.”709 In acts of abstinence (like solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, secrecy, and sacrifice) the Christian is trained for “sober and moderate use of all God’s gifts” and learns to combat temptations to excess.710 Acts of engagement (study, worship, celebration, service, prayer, fellowship, confession, and submission) lead to growth and development.711 There is here a tacit recognition of the eschatological nature of the age, an innate awareness that life is lived in cycles and patterns. What the historic Christians did by embedding patterns in the church’s liturgical calendar, contemporary evangelicals may be seeking to do through practicing spiritual disciplines.
In the section below, the classic therapeutic function of fasting as an ascetic discipline will be suggested. This will be done by noting that we live in an age that demands a certain measure of discipline, even renunciation, due to its focus on physical excess. Then, a few suggestions will be made as to how fasting might contribute to transformation in the practical arena of life in the flesh in a sensate age.
The Sensate Nature of the Age. Paul clearly taught that rules about abstinence, in themselves, could not produce spirituality, criticizing them in Col 2:23: “They have the appearance of wisdom with their self-imposed worship and false humility, by an unsparing treatment of the body, but they are thoroughly useless when it comes to restraining the indulgences of the flesh”. Coupled with the reminder that “every creation of God is good and no food is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim 4:4), a Christian might conclude that there is no need, and hence no place, for fasting in the battle against sin in the flesh.
But on the other hand, it is also clear that the NT urges Christians to develop virtues like self-control, which is listed as a fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:23), and to avoid such vices as those listed in Gal 5:19-21.712 It is clearly reasonable that the long tradition of Christian fasting to counter vice has some merit, provided that the trust for the empowerment comes from God and not the deed itself. With these thoughts in mind, fasting should be considered as a means of lifting the believer’s mind from earthly things to engaging the whole self in pursuit of God’s spiritual blessings.
What are some contemporary cultural focuses that fasting might address? One item for reflection is that while our theology has traditionally not focused on the body, our cultural context is marked by an almost overwhelming fixation on the body. Medicine and fitness have become gigantic business enterprises, largely trying to fix some of the problems caused by the rise of other business like the prepared food, restaurant, tobacco and alcohol industries. Indeed, the dauntingly large majority of references to fasting in academic databases today (that are essentially repositories of Western culture’s literature) are strictly medical or biological, and texts that deal with the spiritual implications of fasting are few and far between.713
Plus, Christians can hardly view the gratification of the sexual urge that is mass marketed so dominantly as a healthy approach to human behavior. After amassing mounds of historical data on major civilizations, sociologist Pitirim Sorokin decades ago pronounced that Western culture is in the decadent stage of the “sensate” phase of culture.714 This analysis is followed by evangelical Harold O. J. Brown and appears to be basically sound.715 Material wealth and pleasure are the driving forces of our culture, and even those spiritual and “ideational” values we have left are often driven to cooperate with the sensate ideals. Thus our churches and institutions are forced to run like businesses, Christians dress, eat and drink like everyone else, and we largely suffer the same maladies of body and soul as the world. As Christians awaken to the renewed need for fasting, perhaps it is because, as Margaret Miles suggests:
We feel the longing to be ‘truly alive,’ and we are learning to look for deadness in precisely those aspects of experience identified by the Christian tradition… . We are beginning to look at our own materialism and that of our culture, as well as our ways of constructing self-esteem. We are learning to recognize deadness in exploitive sexuality.716
In an article wonderfully titled “To Hell on a Cream Puff,” Frederica Mathewes-Green addresses the topic of gluttony, which she ironically says will “make you soft and huggable. It’s the cute sin.”717 She rightly concludes that “Gluttony is not wrong because it makes you fat; it is wrong because it is the fruit of self-indulgence.”718 Food is a powerful force, largely because we must have food to physically survive. But the overtones of what food can provide—comfort, pleasure, escape—can become tools in the hands of the enemy.
Fasting as Transformation. Fasting cuts across the cultural grain and says, “I refuse to constantly acquiesce to my body’s control. I believe that the Spirit has other values, and I wish to hear them.” This does not seem too different from the situation addressed by Paul in Phil 3:17-21, in which Christians are enjoined not to follow those whose god is their appetite and who mind earthly things, but to focus on their heavenly citizenship and the future transformation of their bodies.719 This kind of fasting focus is found up to and through the Reformation in the Christian tradition, although it was largely forgotten in the modern era and has only been recently reawakened in the last few decades. Kathleen Dugan reminds us that the monastic ideal of fasting had to do with finding fullness outside of the decadence of the later Roman Empire: “They lived in a moment of history that was fraught with indications of social decay and moral bankruptcy, and they responded by seeking wholeness and new life.”720
Perhaps as the Christian tradition has so long suggested, fasting can play a practical role in combating our material addictions. Dennis Okholm, an evangelical professor from Wheaton College who is also an oblate of the Roman Catholic order of St. Benedict, suggests that ascetic practices, like fasting, need to again be used by Christians in order to help overcome some of the attachments people develop to the material world in this age.721 To put it as bluntly as he does, we need to develop fasting as a therapy for gluttony. To this end Okholm offers six guidelines:
1. Associate fasting with meditating on Scripture.
2. Rely on community.
3. Aim at moderation and temperance.
4. Tailor the regimen to the individual.
5. Remember progress occurs one step at a time.
6. Attend to the body by honoring, but not worshiping it.722
In a similar, though more abstracted vein, Bernard Tyrell has linked fasting to psychotherapy from a Roman Catholic perspective, which he calls “Christotherapy,” though his “spirit feasting” and “mind fasting” is more metaphorical than literal.723 Still, these examples show that fasting has potential as a tool in the hands of Christians who wish to counteract the obsessive grip of the sensate nature of the age in which we live.
Christine Gardner has recently highlighted the growing role of fasting in evangelicalism.724 From Lenten fasts to Bill Bright’s “Fasting and Prayer” conferences to World Vision’s youth-oriented “30 Hour Famine,” fasting is riding a wave of growing popularity. Interest in the spiritual disciplines is high, and mentioning fasting in conversation almost always gets surprisingly interested responses.
In such an age, the abuse of fasting is a constant danger. Christians certainly need to be reminded that the Bible warns about fasting that becomes hypocritical. Isaiah and Jeremiah denounced the fasts of Israel as hypocrisy when social justice did not accompanied them (Isa 58:3-6; Jer 14:12). Jesus warned his disciples not to fast for the purpose of being seen by others to emphasize their own piety (Matt 6:16-18), and he set up the Pharisee who boasted that he fasted twice as a counter-example to true righteousness (Luke 18:12).
The editorial that accompanies Gardner’s article challenges readers to consider the problems associated with some of the popular fasting emphases.725 The main cautions given are: results are not the point (that is, pragmatism that promotes apparent spiritual success based on unreliable, quantifiable statistics); America is not equivalent to the church (referring to the frequent refrain that we need revival in our country), and the priority of feeding the hungry and putting outward action to our intentions. Additionally, there are those who abuse their bodies through eating disorders, having unfortunately associated weight loss with a false bodily image of skinny perfection. In such a climate, Christians may be more likely to think of fasting in terms of weight loss for the sake of appearance rather than as a means of expressing our desire for fellowship with our Lord. Dugan writes, “When fasting becomes a symptom of pathology in persons afflicted by eating disorders, the very question of fasting’s value is endangered.”726 She offers this trenchant conclusion:
In particular, the attention given to the body in our times would seem to necessitate a spiritual response to all the negative images that abound. And the healthy rediscovery of the role of the body in the spiritual life heralds a new stage in Christian awareness (and a welcome one). I return to a thought in the beginning of this paper—that fasting in Christianity is only truly itself when it realizes the sacredness of the body. Like its foundational insight, that humanity was created for Incarnation, I often think that this still remains only partially accepted and understood by most Christians. If we did understand it, then we would regard the body and human life as holy, good, and capable of wonderful transformation. Fasting is the door to that transformation.727
The quotation above proceeds from Dugan’s own pilgrimage as a Catholic woman who has long practiced spiritual disciplines and has been maturing in theological reflection. We evangelicals are not used to viewing the body as “sacred,” yet some of our favorite biblical passages suggest that. In Rom 12:1 Paul urges believers to present their bodies as living sacrifices to God, which certainly could be understood as a sacred act.728 Paul calls believers’ bodies the “temple of the Holy Spirit” in 1 Cor 6:19, and temples would normally qualify for the description of sacred places. To be sure, evangelicals will want to affirm that this sacredness is derived from the believer’s relationship with God, and not inherent in the self. While fasting may not be the only or even primary door to spiritual transformation, evangelicals would do well to consider the possibility that fasting can help us to reconnect to a more holistic approach to spirituality.
Christian Fasting and the Body
Which Is Christ’s Church
The Eastern Orthodox have strongly emphasized the unity of the church in their fasting tradition, and Roman Catholics since Vatican II have emphasized the church’s solidarity in fasting practices. Evangelicals also need to see that individual Christians can never remove themselves from that fact that they are part of a spiritual community, that their bodies are participants in a greater body, the church of Jesus Christ. What fasting does for the individual Christian, then, will also be reflected and have impact on that larger body. From the other direction, the church as a body affects its individual members. Leaders who set the corporate tone of the church influence how the church body functions. So some consideration should be given about how fasting fits into the communitarian aspects of the functioning of Christians in the body of Christ. Below, two summary considerations are offered: that Christian fasting should cause believers to consider others who share (or even potentially share) in the body of Christ, and that the church can and should encourage proper forms of Christian fasting at the corporate level with respect to the Spirit’s leading and calling of various Christians.
Christian Fasting Reminds Us of One Another
Taking Jesus’ words in Matt 6:18 about not being seen fasting as a cue, fasting might be relegated to a privatized realm.729 Yet one need only reflect on that passage’s context to see that similar injunctions about private prayer and almsgiving are made, yet these were still de facto community actions. The Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9-13) is addressed to our Father, not merely to my Father, and the rest of its referents are in the plural. Additionally, most of the fasts described in Scripture were actually corporate in nature.730 In OT history narratives, Israel frequently was called to corporate fasts, and these are generally held out as positive examples.731 The ringing cry of the prophet Joel to consecrate a fast in a time of distress reminds us of how the community responded to threats of disaster (Joel 1:14, 2:12-15), and the classic story of the Ninevites’ repentant response to Jonah’s preaching was demonstrated with a city-wide fast (Jonah 3:5). It was this kind of corporate fast that John Calvin and John Knox saw as so valuable for their Reformed communities, and they set about finding practical ways to implement fast days whenever their communities faced serious difficulties.
The corporate fasts of the Bible most generally appear to receive divine commendation in their scriptural narratives. Yet one is also reminded by certain texts to go even further. Isaiah 58 criticizes the corporate fasts of Israel, but the reason is that their fasting was not accompanied by, or producing, a truly corporate spirit of social justice. The people were urged to fast truly by remembering the oppressed and loosening their burdens, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked (Isa 58:6-8). Similarly, Zechariah criticized the post-exilic community’s mournful fasts because they did not reflect a just social situation (Zech 7:8-14). The prophet held out the eschatological ideal of fasting turned to feasting when the nation would reflect a true spirit of community justice that would even extend to the nations (Zech 8:16-23). As previously discussed, Calvin, Knox and the Puritans urged and practiced this kind of fasting in their communities.
Additionally, some of the NT references to fasting assume corporate contexts. Jesus’ response to the synoptic fasting query uses plural references to describe the disciples in a time when “they will fast” (Matt 9:15; Mark 2:20; Luke 5:35).732 The apostles were doing exactly that when they were fasting and praying together, in a corporate context, when the Spirit spoke to them (Acts 13:2-3). The early church seemed to see fasting and prayer as an appropriate way to solemnize the ordination of new leaders for their communities (Acts 14:23). When Paul lists “fastings” as part of his trials, he emphasizes that he went through these things for the sake of the ministry, on behalf of the churches (2 Cor 6:3-5, 11:27-28).733 In light of these references, it would be difficult to maintain the idea that fasting is merely an individualistic concern without a potential corporate dimension.
A regular risk of the spiritual disciplines movement, as so often typified by ascetic movements, is to emphasize individual spirituality at the expense of the community. Richard Foster makes room for “corporate disciplines” like confession, worship, guidance and celebration, but fasting is grouped with prayer, meditation and study as “inward disciplines.” His other category is “outward disciplines” of simplicity, solitude, submission and service.734 While perhaps these distinctions may be helpful on a practical level, they tend to obscure the communitarian nature of all sanctification.
The Roman Catholic emphasis since Vatican II on fasting as solidarity demonstrates a move toward emphasizing community. While Protestants will want to understand Christian solidarity through a more spiritual and less strictly ecclesiastical bond than Catholics, the ultimate unity of all true believers is a biblical ideal toward which to strive.735 This is especially valuable and relevant since the onset of the modern age of the individual. Since the beginnings of the Christian era, as in the Shepherd of Hermas, St. Basil, and others, Isaiah 58 has stood as a model, if not the very definition, of proper fasting. When one voluntarily experiences hunger in fasting, perhaps one will think also of those who experience hunger and need involuntarily because of their social situations. When one learns by fasting to live with less, perhaps one will have more to share with those in need—not only from the relatively minor effects of the actual savings, but even more because of the increased capacity for sharing that could come from learning to live with less. Scripture, tradition, theology, and ethics unite in calling Christians to associate fasting with concern for others.
Christian Fasting Encourages Discipline
Without Mandating Methods
When the church considers the subject of spiritual disciplines, and fasting in particular, the inherent danger of legalism always lurks nearby. The reasoning could move fairly easily from the idea that if fasting is a useful tool for spirituality, then all Christians should practice it, and a sense of obligation could begin to dominate the practice. One might reasonably argue, as the 17th century Anglo-Catholic Peter Gunning did, that the church’s members have chosen to submit to the church’s authority, and this submission entails willing obedience.736 But even modern Catholicism has moved more toward seeing fasting as a voluntary act, and has gone to great pains to try and rescue fasting from the grip of empty ritual. Too much historical baggage has associated with this practice, and the NT seems to regard the use of foods in religion as a matter generally left to the conscience of believers (Rom 14:17; 1 Cor 10:31; Col 3:16-17). So, it would be preferable for the church to hold out fasting as a useful discipline, encouraging people to practice it, perhaps even suggesting times and purposes, but to stop short of requiring fasting as an obligatory Christian duty.
Depending on one’s view of the value of tradition, this may take differing forms. For instance, the Church of England has historically taken this approach in a liturgical context, urging traditional Catholic fasting practices without mandating them. In less liturgical environments, it may take effort to promote the positive virtues of fasting without laying burdens on people, and creativity will be in order. Perhaps the evangelical emphasis on spiritual disciplines will become a doorway to further renewal of the positive effects of fasting. The great traditions of the church could help to guide us toward more unity in this. Would there be anything wrong with suggesting that Christians might initiate fasting with relatively mild half-day fasts (like the traditional Christian fasts known as “stations” on Wednesdays or Fridays), as practiced by that evangelical here, John Wesley? Would it be all right to suggest that Christians might fast in anticipation of the Lord’s Supper on a given Sunday in order to set apart the observance as special, as Augustine urged? This could remind Christians of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper that he would not eat it or drink from the fruit of the vine “until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (Luke 22:16, 18), and our people could receive sound eschatological teaching about the nature of the age. Maybe teaching concerning Lent could be considered, as a way of understanding what is of value in the Christian tradition and of memorializing Christ’s passion. At least there would be benefit in understanding Christians who worship in liturgical environments as a sign of our solidarity with them. Protestants, and especially evangelicals, need to seriously consider the possibility that our tradition rejected these practices simply because they were too closely associated with a Catholicism whose doctrinal system could not be accepted. In this wholesale rejection, we may have made ourselves poorer by not considering the possible positive effects of such simple fasting practices.
And yet, in line with the Protestant Reformers’ emphasis on the liberty of the believer’s conscience in matters not commanded by Scripture, the Christian should be left free to follow the Spirit in individual calling, or vocation, within the body of Christ. Some Christians may be called to more extensive fasting, and these Christians may have lessons to teach the body as a whole. Some Christians may not be called to these practices, and they need not be coerced or cajoled into them. In these matters, “each of us will give an account of himself to God” (Rom 14:12).
Contemporary evangelical Christians have reawakened to the possibilities of fasting after long years of relative neglect. We may learn from the Orthodox about the value of fasting in tradition, and about rediscovering something of the importance of the body in spirituality. We may learn from post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism about the need for a theological orientation toward the community and a willingness to reform practices to honor the movements of the Spirit. And contemporary evangelical Protestants are already teaching a renewed form of spirituality in the application of the spiritual disciplines. In this climate, an integrated theology of fasting is needed that holds scriptural teachings in authority in conversation with tradition. Fasting has therefore been set within the context of God’s work in Christ, and Christian practice is understood within the context of the eschatological nature of the age in which we find ourselves.
Any Christian fasting must be centered on Christ. An understanding of our place in redemptive history should prompt Christians to remember Christ, imitate him, and anticipate his presence and blessing. The bridegroom has been taken away, and in these days we will fast. In our fasting we are reminded of the body’s basic goodness and the enjoyment that life in Christ can bring. We are reminded that Christ moves through his Spirit in and through us to others, and we see our bodies as part of a larger body that is his church. In Christian fasting we follow our Lord, who instructed us not to live “by bread alone” (Matt 4:4; Luke 4:4).
616 Margaret R. Miles, Fullness of Life: Historical Foundations for a New Asceticism (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1981), 135-54.
617 It is a bit difficult to see this as very distinct from the Augustinian approach, except that Miles stresses Augustine’s emphasis on freedom from the carnal distractions of the world (perhaps owing to his neoplatonism), while she apparently sees Ignatius as more holistic.
618 Miles, 156.
620 Ibid., 159.
621 Ibid., 160.
622 Ibid., 160-63.
623 Archimandrite Akakios, Fasting in the Orthodox Church: Its Theological, Pastoral, and Social Implications (Etna, Calif.: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 1990), 14.
624 Ibid., citing Sergei Bulgakov, The Orthodox Church [no other information available].
625 This kind of methodology can be seen in Akakios; Basil Nagosky, “The Purpose and Meaning of the Fast in the Orthodox Church” ([Masters?] thesis, Saint Vladimir’s Seminary, 1959); Lazar Puhalo, “The Spiritual and Scriptural Meaning of the Fasts,” in On Fasting: The Spiritual and Scriptural Meaning of the Orthodox Christian Fasts, Point of Faith 4 (Dewdney, B. C.: Synaxis, 1997); George Mastrantonis, Fasting (www.st-anthony.org/fasting, accessed June 28 2002; available from the Greek Orthodox Website www. goarch.org; Internet); Bishop Demetri, His Grace Bishop Demetri’s Message for Great Lent 2002, Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America (accessed June 28 2002, available from www.antiochian.org/midwest/Bishop/GreatLent_2002.htm, Internet).
626 Akakios, 43.
627 Ibid., 45.
628 Lazar Puhalo, “Foreward,” On Fasting: The Scriptural and Spiritual Meaning of the Orthodox Christian Fasts, Point of Faith 4 (Dewdney, B. C.: Synaxis, 1973), 1.
629 Akakios, 46-48; Kallistos (Timothy) Ware, The Orthodox Church, New ed. (New York: Penguin, 1997), 231-38; Michael Henning, “Man: ‘a God by Grace?’” in On Fasting: The Scriptural and Spiritual Meaning of the Orthodox Christian Fasts, Point of Faith 4 (Dewdney, B. C.: Synaxis, 1997).
630 Henning, 34-35.
631 Ware, 236-37.
632 Akakios, 49.
633 Constantine Cavarnos, Fasting and Science: A Study of the Scientific Support and Patristic Foundation for Fasting in the Orthodox Church, trans. Bishop Chrysostomos and Hieromonk Auxentios, Monographic Supplement Series 3 (Etna, Calif.: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 1988).
634 Akakios, 59.
635 Ware, 300.
636 Akakios, 73-79; Ware, 300-301.
637 Adalbert de Vogüé, To Love Fasting: The Monastic Experience, trans. Jean Baptist Hasbrouck (Petersham, Mass.: Saint Bede’s, 1989); cf. George A. Maloney, A Return to Fasting (Pecos, N.Mex.: Dove Publications, 1974); Thomas Ryan, Fasting Rediscovered: A Guide to Health and Wholeness for Your Body-Spirit (New York: Paulist, 1981); Slavko Barbaric, Fasting (Steubenville, Ohio: Franciscan University Press, 1988).
638 P. R. Régamey, Redécouverte du jeûne (Paris: Les éditions du cerf, 1959), 386-436.
639 Alexandre Guillaume, Prière, jeûne et charité: des perspectives chrétiennes et une espérance pour notre temps (Paris: S. O. S., 1985).
640 Marcellino Zalba, “Fasting,” Sacramentum Mundi: An Encyclopedia of Theology, ed. Karl Rahner (New York: Herder and Herder, 1968), 2: 334-35.
641 Paul VI, Paentemini (Apostolic Constitution), AAS 58 (1956): 177-98; also as cited in Zalba, “Fasting,” 335.
642 John A. Abbo and Jerome D. Hannan, The Sacred Canons: A Concise Presentation of the Current Disciplinary Norms of the Church, vol. 2 (St. Louis: Herder, 1952): 505-9.
643 Peter Shannon, “The Code of Canon Law: 1918-1967,” Canon Law Postconciliar Thoughts: Renewal and Reform of Canon Law, Concilium 28 (New York: Paulist, 1967), 49-57.
644 For a summary of regulations and exceptions, see P. M. J. Clancy, “Fast and Abstinence,” New Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967), 5: 847-50.
645 Barbara Siebrunner, Die Problematik der kirchlichen Fasten- und Abstinenzgesetzgebung: eine Untersuchung zu dem im Zuge des zweiten Vatikanischen Konzils erfolgten Wandel, European University Studies Series 23, Theology 736 (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2001), 100-132, 157-221.
646 Canon Law Society of America, Code of Canon Law: Latin-English Edition (Washington: Canon Law Society of America, 1983), 446-47.
647 Paul VI, “Paentemini (Apostolic Constitution),” AAS 58 (1956), 177-98; National Conference of Catholic Bishops, On Penance and Abstinence: Pastoral Statement of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (1966).
648 National Conference of Catholic Bishops, On Penance and Abstinence, 1.
650 Thomas Francis Anglin, The Eucharistic Fast: An Historical Synopsis and Commentary, The Catholic University of America Canon Law Studies 124 (Washington: Catholic University of America, 1941), 165.
651 James Ruddy, The Apostolic Constitution Christus Dominus: Text, Translation and Commentary, with Short Annotations on the Motu Proprio Sacram Communionem, The Catholic University of America Canon Law Studies 390 (Washington: Catholic University of America, 1957), vii.
652 Ibid., 1-20. Joseph C. Dieckhaus, “The Eucharistic Fast and Frequent Communion in the West: A Canonical and Liturgical Perspective” (Licentiate in Canon Law Dissertation, Catholic University of America, 1991), 54-55.
653 Can. 919; Dieckhaus, 59-60.
654 Paul VI and John Paul II, Fasting and Solidarity: Pontifical Messages for Lent (Vatican City: Pontifical Council Cor Unum, 1991).
655 Ibid., 17.
656 Ibid., 29-30.
657 Catechism of the Catholic Church (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist, 1994), 360, §1434. Cf. also §540, §1438, and §2041-2043.
658 Monika K. Hellwig, “Penance and Reconciliation,” Commentary on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, ed. Michael J. Walsh (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical, 1994), 286.
659 This conclusion accepts the methodology of D. H. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), and is believed to be in line with the spirit of “The Gift of Salvation” (Richard John Neuhaus, ed., First Things no. 79 (Jan. 1998): 20-23; Timothy George, “Evanngelicals and Catholics Together: A New Initiative,” Christianity Today 41 (Dec. 8, 1997): 34-38), the second major statement of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together movement. This statement, signed by prominent evangelicals and Roman Catholics, affirmed that “We understand that what we here affirm is in agreement with what the Reformation traditions have meant by justification by faith alone (sola fide)” (21). That document itself recognizes ongoing debate over the implications of justification on several aspects of doctrine and practice, and fasting as part of penitential practice could reasonable be seen to fall into that category. Not all evangelicals are satisfied with this statement, as the following articles show: Timothy George, Thomas C. Oden, J. I. Packer, “An Open Letter About ‘The Gift of Salvation,’” Christianity Today 42 (April 27, 1998): 9; Art Moore, “Does ‘The Gift of Salvation’ Sell Out the Reformation?” Christianity Today 42 (April 27, 1998): 17, 21; Mark A. Seifrid, “The Gift of Salvation: Its Failure to Address the Crux of Justification” (paper presented at the 50th annual conference of the Evangelical Theological Society, Orland, Fla., 1998).
660 J. Daryl Charles, “Assessing Recent Pronouncements on Justification: Evidence from ‘The Gift of Salvation’ and the Catholic Catechism,” Pro Ecclesia 8 (1999): 461.
661 Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988); Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988).
662 Ibid., 20-21.
663 Ibid., 22-23.
664 These include Angus Dun, Not By Bread Alone (New York: Harper, 1942); James Miller, Systematic Fasting (Apollo, Pa.: West, 1951); David R. Smith, Fasting: A Neglected Discipline (Fort Washington, Pa.: Christian Literature Crusade, 1954 [perhaps this is the book Foster refers to as the first published since 1861]); Arthur Wallis, God’s Chosen Fast: A Spiritual and Practical Guide to Fasting (Fort Washington, Pa.: Christian Literature Crusade, 1968); Derek Prince, Shaping History through Prayer and Fasting (Old Tappan, N. J.: Revell, 1973), and How to Fast Successfully (Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.: CGM Publishing, 1976); Charles W. Johnson, Jr. “The Mysteries of Fasting,” Spiritual Frontiers 5, no. 1 (1973): 44-51, and Fasting, Longevity, and Immortality (Turkey Hills, Pa.: Survival Publishing, 1978); Eric N. Rogers [Pseudonym], Fasting: The Phenomenon of Self-Denial (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1976); Andy Anderson, Fasting Changed My Life (Nashville: Broadman, 1977); Jerry Charles, God’s Guide to Fasting: A Complete and Exhaustive Biblical Encyclopedia (Madison, N.C.: Power Press, 1977); Gordon Lindsay, Prayer and Fasting: The Master Key to the Impossible (Dallas: Christ for the Nations, 1977); Jerry Falwell, Fasting: What the Bible Teaches (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale, 1981); John E. Baird and Don DeWelt, What the Bible Says About Fasting, What the Bible Says Series (Joplin, Mo.: College Press, 1984); Bob and Michael W. Benson, Disciplines for the Inner Life (Waco, Tex.: Word, 1985); Wesley L. Duewel, Mighty Prevailing Prayer (Grand Rapids: Francis Asbury, 1990); Bill Bright, The Coming Revival: America’s Call to Fast, Pray, and ‘Seek God’s Face’ (Orlando: NewLife Publications, 1995); Ian Newberry, Available for God: A Study of the Biblical Teaching and the Practice of Fasting, trans. Peter Coleman (Carlisle: OM/Paternoster, 1996); Elmer L. Towns, Fasting for Spiritual Breakthrough: A Guide to Nine Biblical Fasts (Ventura, Calif.: Regal, 1996); John Piper, A Hunger for God: Desiring God Through Fasting and Prayer (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1997); Ronnie W. Floyd, The Power of Prayer and Fasting: 10 Secrets of Spiritual Strength (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1997.
665 William Loftin Hargrave, “Fasting in the Early Church: Being a Study of Fasting Based Upon References to the Subject in the Old and New Testaments, and Upon the Writings of Some of the Ante-Nicene Fathers” (S. T. M. thesis, University of the South, 1952); David Eddle Briggs, “Biblical Teaching on Fasting” (Th. M. thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1953); Wayne Barton, “Toward an Understanding of Fasting in the New Testament” (Th. D. diss., New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, 1954); Frederick Gordon Moore, “The New Testament Concept, Practice, and Significance of Fasting: Its Historical Background and Present Implications” (B. D. thesis, Western Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary, 1955); Frederic R. Dinkins, “The Biblical Practice and Doctrine of Fasting” (Th. M. thesis, Columbia Theological Seminary, 1966); James W. McAfee, “The Practice of Fasting” (Th. M. thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1973); Donald Vinson Winter, “Fasting: A Biblical and Practical Approach” (M. A. thesis, Columbia Bible College Graduate School of Bible and Missions, 1976); Thomas Wilson Jacob, “The Meaning and Importance of Fasting in the Teaching of Jesus” (M. A. thesis, Wheaton College, 1976); Stanley D. Nairn, “Identification and Purposes of Fasting” (M. Div. thesis, Grace Theological Seminary, 1976); William Lee Johnson, “Motivations for Fasting in Early Christianity” (Th. M. thesis, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1978); Gary D. Dehnke, “Fasting: Practice and Function in the New Testament and in the Early Church” (M. Div. thesis, Concordia Theological Seminary, 1983); Daniel Edward Wickwire, “The Role of Prayer and Fasting in Binding and Loosing with Special Reference to the Problem of Reaching the Unreached People of the World Today” (Masters thesis, The Columbia Graduate School of Bible and Missions, Columbia, S. C., 1983); R. D. Chatham, Fasting: A Biblical Historical Study (South Plainfield, N.J.: Bridge Publishing, 1987); Charles W. Quinley, “Not By Bread Alone: A Study in the Christian Discipline of Fasting” (D. Min. diss., Asbury Theological Seminary, 1989).
666 Thomas H. Felter, “The Relevance of the New Testament Treatment of Fasting to Modern Life” (M. A. thesis, Wheaton College, 1960); Keith Main, Prayer and Fasting: A Study in the Devotional Life of the Early Church (New York: Carlton, 1971); Marion Michael Fink, Jr., “The Responses in the New Testament to the Practice of Fasting” (Ph.D. diss, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1974).
667 See esp. Willard, 130-150. Foster’s work does not deal specifically with tradition in any section, but is permeated with quotations and evidence of interaction.
668 Foster, 56-61.
669 Willard, 5.
670 Foster, 6-11.
671 “Spiritual Disciplines and Means of Grace: Contrast or Continuum? An Interview with Dallas Willard,” Modern Reformation, July/Aug 2002, 42.
672 This is especially seen in the temptation narratives in Matt 4:1-4 and Luke 4:1-4, and the response to the fasting question in the synoptic Gospels that discusses the bridegroom in Matt 9:14-15, Mark 2:18-20, and Luke 5:33-35.
673 Kent D. Berghuis, “Fasting and the Nature of the Age” (paper presented at the ETS annual meeting, Boston, 1999).
674 Michael S. Horton, Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 223.
675 Dallas Willard, “Christ-Centered Piety,” in Where Shall My Wond’ring Soul Begin? The Landscape of Evangelical Piety and Thought, ed. Mark A. Noll and Ronald F. Thiemann (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 27-35.
676 This combines several elements mentioned by Doriani’s discussion of deriving doctrine from narrative (161-212). Remembering Christ recalls the redemptive acts of God in history. Imitating Christ illustrates his point that “the ‘imitation of Christ’ motif uses narrative to guide behavior” (201): “Whether explicit (his prayers) or implicit (his fellowship with sinners), Jesus’ life generally sets patterns for kingdom life. Those who imitate him also become patterns for righteousness” (206). Anticipating Christ is an example of what O’Collins and Kendall, 7, 31, refer to as “The principle of eschatological provisionality.”
677 Horton, 224.
678 Main, 43.
679 Cf. 1 Cor 11:26; Matt 26:29; Mark 14:25; Luke 22:18.
680 William Isley, “Fasting: The Discipline for the in-between Time” (paper presented at the National Spiritual Formation Conference, Dallas, 2001), 8.
681 Willem VanGemeren, The Progress of Redemption: The Story of Salvation from Creation to the New Jerusalem (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 161.
682 In many Protestant environments, Christmas and Easter alone stand out as specifically Christian holidays. American evangelicals are more likely to follow the Hallmark calendar than the Christian one.
683 “Spiritual Disciplines and Means of Grace: Contrast or Continuum? An Interview with Dallas Willard,” 41-42.
684 Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, trans. John Richard De Witt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 265.
685 It is interesting to note the balance in this context, as Jesus also commends John the Baptist, who “came neither eating nor drinking” (Matt 11:18). The real focus here is on those who rejected the witness of them both.
686 Isley, 7.
687 Horton, 271.
688 About Fasting 2.7.
689 John Piper, A Hunger for God: Desiring God through Prayer and Fasting (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1997), 83-96.
690 Isley, 9.
691 Willard, Spirit of the Disciplines, 152.
692 Veronika E. Grimm, From Feasting to Fasting, the Evolution of a Sin: Attitudes to Food in Late Antiquity (London: Routledge, 1996).
693 Ibid., 23.
694 Ibid., 64.
695 Ibid., 60-61.
696 Ibid., 63. Rom 7:24-25 (NASB) in full reads, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.” (The italicized sentence is omitted by Grimm.)
697 The book’s jacket illustration, which pictures “The Temptation of St. Hilarion” by Dominique Papety, aptly illustrates the basic thesis of Grimm’s book. A beautiful, nearly nude woman with a table full of wine and luscious foods appears before the emaciated, pale saint. His arms reach out in desperate refusal while he looks up to the sky, his meager rations at his side.
698 Miles, 158.
699 Samuel Rubenson, “Asceticism: Christian Perspectives,” in Encyclopedia of Monasticism, ed. William M. Johnston (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2000), 93.
700 Teresa M. Shaw, The Burden of the Flesh: Fasting and Sexuality in Early Christianity (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 1998).
701 Ibid., 25.
702 For instance, in contrast to Shaw’s comments above, labor and hierarchy might arguably be seen as part of the unfallen state in Gen 2:15-25. It should be remembered that Shaw is doing an analysis of early Christian texts, so these themes may have been present in some ancient references even if analysis of the biblical texts does not seem to justify them.
703 Shaw, 27-64.
704 Caroline Walker Bynum finds a similar emphasis in her study of medieval women and food rituals. She argues “that medieval efforts to discipline and manipulate the body should be interpreted more as elaborate changes rung upon the possibilities provided by fleshliness than as flights from physicality” (Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women [Berkely, Calif.: University of California, 1987], 6). For Bynum, fasting is a way of using food to control the self through renunciation. This theme of control of the body in fasting and chastity, particularly against outside, antagonistic forces is also discussed by Gail Paterson Corrington, “The Defense of the Body and the Discourse of Appetite: Continence and Control in the Greco-Roman World,” Semeia 57 (1992): 65-74. The extreme asceticism and literalism in the spirituality of the medieval women Bynum examined “were not, at the deepest level, masochism or dualism but, rather, efforts to gain power and to give meaning” (Bynum, 208). While her study has a decidedly feminist interest, at least this shows that Christian fasting and ascetic practices do not have to be viewed through the negative lens of an inherent Christian rejection of the physical body. Christians have tried to engage the body in spirituality through history, through ways that are sometimes commendable and other times insupportable.
705 Mary Timothy Prokes, Toward a Theology of the Body (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 25.
706 Samuel M Powell, and Michael E. Lodahl, ed., Embodied Holiness: Toward a Corporate Theology of Spiritual Growth (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1999), 8.
707 The intricacies of such a study of biblical anthropology can be seen in Robert Jewett, Paul’s Anthropological Terms: A Study of Their Use in Conflict Settings, ed. Otto Michel and Martin Hengel, Arbeiten zur Geschichte des antiken Judentums und des Urchristentums 10 (Leiden: Brill, 1971). After an exhaustive study of several key terms, he concludes that the terms themselves are not used by Paul with regular, technical meanings, but more typically in polemical contexts. The result is that the terms themselves cannot really be used to develop a consistent anthropology, but rather need to be more carefully related to the contexts in which they are found (cf. 447). A sound (if older and more constrained) view is that of Ridderbos, who speaks of “body” and “flesh” in pauline anthropology denoting “approximately the earthly human life with the inclusion of death,” and notes the more inward terms as constituent (but often overlapping or synonymous) terms as members of the self (Ridderbos, 114-26). For more recent treatments of biblical theological anthropology, see John W. Cooper, Body, Soul and Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate, updated ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000); David E. Aune and John McCarthy, eds., The Whole and Divided Self: The Bible and Theological Anthropology (New York: Crossroad Herder, 1997).
708 Horton, 243.
709 Willard, Spirit of the Disciplines, 175.
710 Ibid., 158-60.
711 Ibid., 175-76.
712 Gal 5:19-21: “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity, depravity, idolatry, sorceryhostilities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish rivalries, dissensions, factions, envying, murder, drunkenness, carousing, and similar things. I am warning you, as I had warned you before: Those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God!”.
713 Perhaps it should also be noted that references to religious fasting in Islam, especially related to Ramadan, greatly outnumber references to Christian fasting.
714 Pitirim Sorokin, The Crisis of Our Age (Oxford: Oneworld, 1992; reprint, 1941 ed.).
715 Harold O. J. Brown, The Sensate Culture: Western Civilization between Chaos and Transformation (Dallas: Word, 1996); Kent D. Berghuis, “Pitirim Sorokin as Cultural Physician: His Diagnosis, Prognosis and Prescription,” (Paper presented at the 1997 ETS meeting, Santa Clara, Calif., 1997).
716 Miles, 159.
717 Frederica Mathewes-Green, “To Hell on a Cream Puff,” Christianity Today 39 (1995): 44.
719 This interpretation is in line with the majority of critical commentators on this passage (see statements to that effect in William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of Philippians [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1962], 178, who lists Alford, Barclay, Barnes, Braune, Beare, Ellicott, Erdman, Johnstone, Kennedy, Laurin, Lightfoot, Meyer, Michael, and Rainy as supporting his opinion that sensualists, or antinomians, are in view; cf. also Gordon D. Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, NICNT [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995], 369-72; Moisés Silva, Philippians, The Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary [Chicago: Moody, 1988], 208-9). Since Paul has been addressing the problem of Judaizers and circumcision in the previous context, there is a minority view that sees Phil 3:18-19 as referring to them (Homer A. Kent, Jr., Philippians, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 11 [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978], 147, lists Lenski, Müller, and Barth as in favor of this interpretation, although Kent himself believes the adversaries to be antinomians; Markus Bockmuehl, The Epistle to the Philippians, BNTC [Peabody, Mass.: 1998], 231, who also prefers the antinomian interpretation, says the Judaizer interpretation goes back as early as Ambrosiaster and is found later in Erasmus and Bengel, however, “the immediate context suggests no other connection with Jewish Christians; Paul never equates Judaizing dietary observance with idolatry; and the respective terms are used nowhere else in this allusive sense. What is more, the Jewish-Christian proselytizers of 3.2-11 seem on the face of it most unlikely to subscribe to the moral laxity condemned in the ‘enemies of the cross’ of 2.18-19. A closer parallel exists with the Jewish apostates who in 3 Macc. 7.11 have abandoned faithfulness to the commandments of God ‘for the sake of the belly’, and with ‘the servants of their belly’ in Gen. Wisd. 17.5 [cf. 14.6; 15.7; also Sir. 37.5].” Cf. John Calvin, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians, trans. T. H. L. Parker, Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. 11, ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972], 281-82; Gerald Hawthorne, Philippians, WBC 43 [Waco, Tex.: Word, 1983], 166; Peter O’Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGCT [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991], 454; Jeremy Moiser, “The Meaning of koilia in Philippians 3:19,” ExpTim 108 : 365-66, following J. Behm, koiliva, TDNT 3: 186). The language of this passage is similar to Rom 16:17-18, and so the interpretation adopted would likely be the same for both.
720 Kathleen Dugan, “Fasting for Life: The Place of Fasting in the Christian Tradition,” JAAR 63, no. 3 (1995): 543.
721 An oblate can be a layman who does not take vows, but lives periodically under the rules of the community.
722 Dennis L. Okholm, “Being Stuffed and Being Filled,” in Limning the Psyche: Explorations in Christian Psychology, ed. Robert C. Roberts and Mark R. Talbot (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 329-35.
723 Bernard J. Tyrrell, Christotherapy II: The Fasting and Feasting Heart (New York: Paulist, 1982).
724 Christine J. Gardner, “Hungry for God: Why More and More Christians Are Fasting for Revival,” Christianity Today 43 (April 5, 1999): 32-38.
725 Editorial, “Not a Fast Fix: It’s Hard to Fast, and Even Harder to Do It for the Right Reasons,” Christianity Today 43 (April 5, 1999): 30-31.
726 Dugan: 547.
727 Ibid.: 548.
728 Evangelicals frequently associate terms like “consecrated” and “sanctified” with a commitment of life to God, and this language suggests that the act of presenting the body to God is a sacred thing.
729 As in Curtis C. Mitchell, “The Practice of Fasting in the New Testament,” Bibliotheca Sacra 147, no. 588 (1990): 169.
730 The comprehensive list of biblical fasting passages in the Appendix has been marked to highlight the fact that the majority of the instances of fasting in the Bible clearly refer to corporate contexts.
731 Cf. the corporate contexts of Judg 20:26; 1 Sam 7:6, 31:13; 2 Sam 1:12; 2 Chr 20:3; Ezra 8:21-23; Neh 9:1; Esth 4:3, 16, 9:31.
732 This could of course include the sum of individuals who fast on various occasions, not requiring corporate contexts per se. Yet, the fact that groups of Pharisees were associated in Jewish fasting practices, and that the disciples of John were treated as a group in their fasting, would suggest that there would at the least be a kind of corporate awareness of the need of the members of the group to fast.
733 As discussed above in chapter 2, Paul’s fastings here were likely something less than intentional, religious fasts. Rather, he willingly entered into situations where he would be forced to forego food for the sake of the ministry, and the word “fasting” could apply to such an activity for Paul. The point being made here is that it was the sake of the ministry (a corporate context) that impelled him into these fastings.
734 Foster, v.
735 Cf. Eph 4:1-6. Additionally, the Roman Catholic Church has officially recognized something of its spiritual bond to all those who profess Christ in Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” (Austin Flannery, ed., Vatican Council II: Volume 1, The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents [Northport, N.Y.: Costello, 1996], 366-67): “The Church knows that she is joined in many ways to the baptized who are honored by the name of Christian, but who do not however profess the Catholic faith in its entirety or have not preserved unity or communion under the successor of Peter. For there are many who hold sacred scripture in honor as a rule of faith and of life, who have a sincere religious zeal, who lovingly believe in God the Father Almighty and in Christ, the Son of God and the Saviour, who are sealed by baptism which units them to Christ, and who indeed recognize and receive other sacraments in their own Churches or ecclesiastical communities… . these Christians are indeed in some real way joined to us in the Holy Spirit for, by his gifts and graces his sanctifying power is also active in them and he has strengthened some of them even to the shedding of their blood.”
736 Peter Gunning, The Paschal or Lent Fast: Apostolical and Perpetual, new ed. (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1845), 110-15.
Related Topics: Fasting