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Orthodox understanding of asceticism and Colossians 2:16-23


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#1 Michael Du.

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Posted 10 June 2012 - 06:29 PM

Hello,

I know Orthodox Christians place a lot of emphasis on asceticism, and the importance of fasting as a way to strengthen the spirit and to help put to death the sinful passions. I am for fasting (and the ascetic life) and believe it has value, especially when done with the right attitude and disposition. However, the other day I read the following passage found in Colossians 2:16-23:

"16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, 19 and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. 20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh."

I am wondering how Orthodox Christians understand this passage? On the one hand Orthodox Christians emphasize asceticism and fasting and special "days", yet here the apostle Paul seems to be saying that in terms of stopping the "indulgence of the flesh", all this has no value. Any help would be much appreciated. Thanks in advance.

#2 Rdr Daniel (R.)

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Posted 10 June 2012 - 10:37 PM

Dear Michael Du,

Just a quick reply as I have to go to bed, I think there is an issue in the translation the word translated asceticism in Greek is ταπεινοφροσυνη meaning low mindedness normally in the sense of humility/humbleness given the context I would say it could mean in the sense of false humility. (Note: From what I know the first part of the Greek word can also mean low as in lowering to being servile to others in a bad sense, but I am not sure whether that meaning would come through here.)

Either way it does not mean asceticism.

In Christ.
Daniel,

#3 Herman Blaydoe

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Posted 10 June 2012 - 11:39 PM

The same Apostle Paul also says "It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak." (Romans 14:21), and "Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble." (1 Corinthians 8:13). And our Lord Himself says "“Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. (Matthew 6:16). Note He does not say "if" you fast, but WHEN you fast. Evidently He appears to be assuming that fasting is a normal aspect in the lives of His disciples, don't you think? He also says "Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast." (Matthew 9:15). He even practiced a rather severe asceticism Himself by fasting for forty days and praying with such effort that He sweated blood. Seems our Lord sees some value in the activity.

As Daniel points out, we do indeed need to be careful when reading a translated document, especially thousands of years after it was written. This brings up the importance of the time-honored understanding that the cumulative and consistent wisdom of the continuing Church brings to the table. Taking one verse in isolation can lead to all sort of misunderstandings and when you add to it cultural and translational issues, how can one even hope to make any sense of it at all without some help? Do we really know what the author was specifically referring to in context? Greek is indeed a bit more "subtle" language than English. The same word has very different meanings depending on how it is used and this is not always captured in the English, or perhaps helps explain why there are so many different English translations?

So, fasting and prayer ARE expected activities for Christians. However, the Apostle is warning us that these activities, in and of themselves, for their own sakes, do not "accomplish" anything. We do not "earn" salvation through them, but that does not mean they are of no value at all. In the correct context they are the means by which we discipline ourselves and make ourselves to be more receptive vessels for God's grace to be poured into us. Observing Holy Days does not save us, but it is good to celebrate the conquering of time and space by the Resurrection of Christ and to participate in an active way in His Life. Through asceticism we show that we love Christ more than the things of this world and we hold what we have with an "open hand", not a clenched fist. These activities have been found, through the centuries, to help us transform our lives, by imitating Christ and what He did.

There was less emphasis on asceticism in the early Church in the Apostolic Age because the mere act of being a Christian was a struggle in and of itself. Active persecution by the Jews and the Romans meant that merely declaring yourself to be a Christian literally meant putting your life in Christ's hands and many died doing so. That is struggle, that is asceticism in the truest sense. Later, Christianity because "easier" and the literal struggle of persecution came to be replaced by the inner struggle represented by asceticism. This struggle—the contest, as the Apostle Paul is wont to call it—is what makes the spiritual athlete stronger. It is fighting the good fight, it is running the race. It is the struggle that makes us stronger. We don't get physically fit by watching sports on TV. We don't become spiritually fit merely by merely saying bedtime prayers and being nice to other people. We must be ACTIVE Christians, not passive ones. You have to get up and DO. Asceticism is one thing that we can DO to be spiritually fit, just like exercising is one thing we can do if we want to be physically fit. Being a couch potato or a pew potato is not going to get the job done.

#4 Rdr Andreas

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Posted 11 June 2012 - 10:42 AM

There was less emphasis on asceticism in the early Church in the Apostolic Age because the mere act of being a Christian was a struggle in and of itself.


It's getting like that in our times. It is said that in the last times simply holding to the faith and patristic tradition will count for more than martyrdom in the arena.

#5 Owen Jones

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Posted 11 June 2012 - 01:59 PM

Why was St. Paul writing to the Colossians? Were they overdoing it?

#6 Bryan J. Maloney

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Posted 21 July 2012 - 02:01 PM

I don't think it was a matter of "overdoing". I think it was a matter of prideful asceticism--making ascetic practice, in and of itself, a mark of spiritual superiority.

#7 Owen Jones

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Posted 22 July 2012 - 01:54 PM

OK, but perhaps that's a distinction without a difference. The point is, what problem is St. Paul addressing in this particular case? He's not dealing with abstractions but real people in real situations.




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