CHRISTIANITY NEITHER ASCETIC NOR FANATIC.
Trinity Church, New Haven
16th SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY,
BY THE REV. D. R. GOODWIN D. D.,
PRESIDENT OF TRINITY COLLEGE.
Published by Request.
New Haven, 27th Sept., 1858.
REV. AND DEAR SIR:
The undersigned heard with much pleasure, the Sermon delivered by you on the morning of the 19th inst.; and believing its publication would subserve the interests of Christ and his Church, we beg the favour of a copy for that purpose.
With great regard, your friends and servants,
BERIAH BRADLEY, WM. W. BOARDMAN.
To the REV. PREST. GOODWIN,
Hartford, Sept. 29, 1858.
I cheerfully comply with your request; and remain,
D. B. GOODWIN.
Messrs. BERIAH BRADLEY,
WM. W. BOARDMAN,
New Haven, Conn.
CONTRASTED WITH SYSTEMS OF ASCETICISM
SCHEMES OF SOCIAL REFORM.
ST. LUKE VII. 33, 34, 35.
"JOHN THE BAPTIST CAME NEITHER EATING BREAD NOR DRINKING WINE; AND YE SAY,
HE HATH A DEVIL. THE SON OF MAN IS COME EATING AND DRINKING; AND YE SAY,
BEHOLD A GLUTTONOUS MAN, AND A WINE-BIBBER, A FRIEND OF PUBLICANS AND
SINNERS! BUT WISDOM IS JUSTIFIED OF ALL HER CHILDREN."
[*This Sermon was originally prepared for Sexagesima Sunday.
See the Morning Lessons for that day.]
THE most perfect human character is but a fragment. The best of men are limited and partial in their views, and, in their action, subject to manifold imperfections and infirmities. In their efforts at self-improvement and self-purification, they are liable to lose the right balance of simplicity and moderation, and to run into some extreme on one side or another; and still more, in their labours for social reform, for the moral improvement or elevation of mankind. The narrower the reach of their view on the one side, or the wider the field of their schemes and operations on the other, and the greater the earnestness and zeal with which they pursue their work in either case, the more do they seem exposed to extravagances. So that the indifferent and worldly-minded look on and say, "These men are fools," or, "they are mad," or, "they are actuated by a hypocritical and diabolical spirit."
Men, unreasonable men, vainly imagine that, if they should only see goodness at work, free from all excesses and extravagances, [3/4] at once sober and earnest, moderate and zealous, humble and dignified, simple in its methods and comprehensive in its views, prompted by hearty benevolence and guided by prudence and sound discretion, they should immediately yield it their cordial sympathy and efficient cooperation. But how egregiously do they deceive themselves! Christ presented such a character of goodness embodied in one person, in a form of absolute completeness and perfection. And the Christian Church, by the combination of the various tendencies, peculiarities, and characters of its different members into one body, animated and guided to one grand result by the indwelling Spirit of Christ himself, presents the same character, imperfect indeed, yet in the nearest approximation to perfection of which the world has any experience. Nevertheless, both Christ and his Church have ever been exposed to obloquy from men of the world on one hand, and from fanatics on the other. The one party finds fault with their aims and principles. They are too stern and strict and unbending, too exacting and absorbing, too visionary and impracticable. The other party finds fault with their methods and working. They are too gentle and moderate, too loose and accommodating, too considerate and conservative; in short, too much in sympathy with mankind and with human society as they are. But the children of heavenly wisdom, in their appropriate and seasonable diversities of character, judiciously adapting themselves to the place and the time, yet steadily pursuing the highest and noblest aims, do, all alike, and each with the rest, vindicate and justify their divine mother.
The text may naturally lead us to consider the relation which Christianity bears to Asceticism on the one hand, and, incidentally, to schemes of mere Social Reform on the other. And this is proposed as the subject of the present discourse; a subject of great importance, yet in these times, and at all times, of no little practical difficulty, and upon whose discussion a person may well enter with unfeigned diffidence. May the Spirit of Christ guide us into His truth.
In all religions and in all ages, wherever there have been [4/5] men in whom the reflective have preponderated over the active faculties, and the conscience has become morbidly sensitive, there have been ascetics and ascetical institutions. Such have been the Brahmins and the Faquirs of the East. Such were the Nazarites under the Old Dispensation. Such were the Rechabites. Such were the Essenes among the later Jews. Such were the hermits and anachorets of the Primitive Church. Such have been the monks, and nuns, and devotees of later Romanism; and such many sincere though fanatical sects in Protestant Christendom.
Nor is this all. As the undue preponderance of the contemplative and meditative tendencies is liable to lead to asceticism, so, on the other hand, the preponderance of the busy and active faculties tends to engender special schemes of external and social reform. Both tendencies, when extreme, may terminate alike in fanaticism.
If now, before entering on our principal inquiry, the preliminary question be asked, what was the position of the Old Testament in respect to asceticism? we may reply that the Ancient Dispensation was essentially distinguished from the New by the minuteness and the rigour of its ceremonial rites, restraints and observances; and thus, in its very nature, it bordered more upon the ascetic character, and that, before it was corrupted and caricatured by the fancies of the Talmudists, the traditions of the Elders, and the punctiliousness of Pharisaic bigotry. But even under the Mosaic law, the Nazarite vow,—such as that under which John the Baptist lived,—was neither commanded nor forbidden, neither recommended nor disapproved. It certainly was not intended or expected that all the Lord's people should take it. The vow was entirely voluntary; only, if made, it was to be strictly kept; the general rule being, that it was better not to vow, than to vow and not pay.
Neither was the ascetic rule of the Rechabites enjoined upon the Jews, or even upon the Rechabites themselves, or recommended to them upon Divine authority; nor were the Jews reproved at all by the prophet Jeremiah for planting vineyards or drinking wine. They were reproved for their apostacy, idolatry, and gross iniquities; for breaking the law of their God and Heavenly Father, and trampling under foot [5/6] the very soul and substance of duty and moral obligation; while the Rechabites had kept the law of their earthly father, even in regard to a thing, in itself of pure indifference. It is the impiety and disobedience of the Israelites that is reproved. It is the obedience, and not the abstinence, of the Rechabites which is commended.
The aspect of Christianity towards ascetic vows and habits may, I think, be expressed in three propositions:—
First; it does not positively forbid them, but provided they are embraced from tenderness of conscience, and from pure and benevolent motives, though it may be with narrow and mistaken views, it treats them with indulgence, and even awards them some degree of credit.
Second; it regards, nevertheless, those who are addicted to them as "weak" and puerile, as occupying an inferior stage of spiritual development; and it presents its followers a more excellent and manly way of divine charity and human sympathy, of inward purity and outward freedom:
Third; while it requires all to walk charitably with such weak brethren, to avoid grieving them, wounding their morbid consciences, or putting any occasion to fall in their way; yet, if they undertake to set themselves up as a rule to others, or arrogate the credit of any supereminent degree of holiness or Christian perfection,—then, Christianity rejects them and their claims with scorn and reprobation.
This last proposition applies equally to the aspect of Christianity towards the over-zealous advocates of special Social Reforms.
In confirmation of the first proposition we may appeal to the Apostolic declaration, "He that eateth not, to the Lord he eateth not, and giveth God thanks;" and to the Apostolic injunction, "Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not."
We may perhaps regard the text and context as a further illustration of the same proposition. John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine. He did not live in [6/7] society like other men, but came preaching in the wilderness. He did not dress like other men, but wore a covering of camel's hair and a leathern girdle about his loins. He did not use the food of other men, but his meat was locusts and wild honey. Truly, he was "no reed shaken with the wind," but was stern, severe, unbending in his character and in his demands. No princely courtier he, clad "in soft raiment," and sipping delicate viands, but rude and rough, abstemious and ascetic in all his outward appearance and habits. All this was fitted to the times, a natural antithesis to the license, corruption and effeminacy which were then so prevalent. It was fitted to his mission,—which was to preach repentance in anticipation of the dawning of the kingdom of Heaven; and it seemed meet that men should see an illustration of the extreme rigour of the ancient dispensation embodied, as it were, in the person and preaching of John, before the contrasted mildness of the new dispensation were ushered in. It was fitted to the degree of light which John enjoyed. He knew that he was sent to bear witness to the greater light, to the true light, which was coming after him; but, of its mild and gentle radiance, he himself had as yet no conception. He had no conception of the nature of true Christian freedom. He had not seen the ideal of a perfect Christian character. Yet John claimed no peculiar sanctity for his asceticism, nor did he seek to impose it upon others. He was not proud. No. He bowed himself in the deepest humility before the greater one who succeeded him. He even rejoiced that his own light, brilliant as it had been, paled and grew dim before the approaching radiance of a light greater than his. "He must increase," John meekly said, "but I must decrease." Such was John the Baptist.
Now our Lord does not reprove or disparage his great Forerunner in the slightest degree. On the contrary, he denominates him "a burning and a shining light," the greatest of mere human prophets. Yet John's chief distinction consisted in his introducing the Messiah and preparing the way of the Lord. And it is significantly added, "he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he,"—greater, that is to say, in position and privilege, in spiritual light and liberty, but not necessarily [7/8] and always greater in character and personal holiness. But whoever, being in the kingdom of Heaven, i. e., enjoying the light and privileges of the Christian revelation, and of the Christian Church, will take John the Baptist as the ideal for his imitation, rather than him whom John the Baptist came to announce and introduce, abandons the high position, shuts his eyes to the glorious light, and foregoes the inestimable privileges, to which he has been called, and renders himself inferior in character, incomparably inferior, to John the Baptist himself.
This leads us to our second proposition; which was, that Christianity regards those within its pale who are addicted to asceticism as occupying an inferior stage of spiritual development, as "weak," i. e., sickly or morbid Christians; at the same time that it presents a more excellent and manly way, and sets before us a perfect ideal of human character.
This proposition also is confirmed by the words of the Apostle, "Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations. For one believeth that he may eat all things; another who is weak, (i. e., sickly or morbid in the faith,—peradventure,) eateth herbs;" feels bound, on principle, to confine himself to a vegetable diet; and would be condemned by his own conscience were he to eat anything else, because he would not eat of faith, i. e., believing it to be right; and whatsoever is not of faith, whatsoever is done in conscious doubt, whether it be right, is sin. "I know," adds the Apostle, "and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him that esteemeth anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean." St. Paul certainly was not himself one of those unfortunate weaklings.
Our text shows us the more excellent way, which Christianity presents, in the person and example of its Divine Founder.
"John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine; but the Son of Man came eating and drinking;" i. e., plainly, eating bread and drinking wine, eating and drinking like other men, using the ordinary diet of the country and the [8/9] times;—temperately and modestly, beyond all doubt, yet without any of the conscientious scruples or self-imposed burdens of the Nazarite who separated himself from the common usages of human life, or of the Ascetic who mortified himself with penances.
It does not appear that our Lord sought, either in forms of speech, or mode of dress, or outward gesture, to be personally distinguished from other men. He mingled freely with human society; in the city and in the country; in the house, by the way-side, and in the places of public resort; at the wedding festivity, at the dinner party, at the abode of mourning, of sickness, and of death. He talked with men in their daily employments and in the assemblies for public worship. He associated with all classes, the high and the low, the rich and the poor, the virtuous and the vicious;—though, it is true, he had a special mission to labour with and for the poor and degraded; so that it was cast upon him as a reproach, that he was a "friend of publicans and sinners." Yet, wherever he came, he was more than an angel of love, and hope, and purity. There was nothing harsh, stern, or forbidding about him. His overflowing human sympathies made him accessible to all. Greater than Jonah and than Solomon, he was greater, too, infinitely greater, than Moses; yet who can imagine Moses, with all his meekness, taking the little children up in his arms and blessing them?
The character of Christ, in its harmonious fulness, its perfect balance, its quiet depth, and broad comprehensiveness, is the greatest wonder, in its sort, that the world has witnessed, and one of the most irrefragable proofs of His divine mission. No other reformer has ever exhibited such a character, even though he may have had Christ's example and some infusion of Christ's spirit to guide him. All other great Reformers and moral Teachers have lost the balance on one side or the other; have fallen into the excesses of asceticism or of license, have exalted one truth or one virtue at the expense of the rest, the outward to the neglect of the inward, or the inward to the contempt of the outward; have become so absorbed in the end as to be reckless about the means;—in short, have [9/10] been one-sided and fanatical in a greater or less degree, running into one extreme or another, or vacillating between them.
Not so with Jesus. And yet no Teacher or Reformer was ever provoked by greater excitements and temptations.
He lived in a country which was groaning under the iron oppression of a foreign yoke; yet He said not a word against the oppressor, but taught His countrymen to render to Caesar the required tribute; and many a flaming Pharisaic zealot may have stigmatized his destitution of patriotism and his want of a manly ardour in the cause of liberty. Yet if you would know how truly and tenderly and fervently he loved his country and the city of her pride and glory, see him, as he descends the slope of Mount Olivet, weeping with bitter tears and touching expostulations over devoted Jerusalem.
He was surrounded by prisons, and by severe punishments, even unto death, inflicted upon the innocent often as well as upon the guilty; yet he said no word, aimed no act, wrought no miracle, against the right of governments to imprison, or punish capitally or otherwise;—though he was ever ready to sympathize with all who were in sorrow or suffering from whatever cause.
He lived in the midst of centurions and soldiery, in times when fleets and armies and fortresses were familiar, when the moral, political, and social evils consequent upon past wars were rife and rampant around him, and men stood ready to fight again, if occasion should require; yet, though he was the very Prince of Peace, and though if his Gospel were truly received and truly followed in all places, wars would doubtless cease from under the whole heaven, yet, I say, he uttered not a syllable against the right of nations to wage war; he preached no sermon upon its horrors, its wrongs, or its wickedness; he advised no soldiers to leave their standards and return home to their peaceful occupations.
He lived in a society and body politic, in which slavery of the most oppressive kind existed, and prevailed to an almost incredible extent; yet he never made it his business to declaim against it in either a political or moral aspect; he is nowhere recorded to have so much as mentioned or recognized it specifically [10/11] either as an evil or a wrong. Far be it from me to intimate, however, that this silence of our Saviour implied a justification of slavery either in its system or its details. If he did not express its condemnation, no more did he imply its justification. His silence shows only that he thought it no part of his mission to preach either for slavery or against it.
He lived in times of as great moral and social corruption as the world has ever known; when licentiousness and gluttony and drunkenness, and all manner of excesses and vices, were as prevalent in the then civilized world, and particularly in Judea, as they have ever been anywhere since; yet, though he taught and practised the strictest temperance, in the proper sense of that word, he came eating and drinking, and companying with publicans and sinners; he did not teach his followers to avoid the contact of such a corrupt society, and fly to the desert, or the cell, or the mountain cave; he established for them no rule of abstinence or asceticism.
He looked through and beyond all social, external, accidental and temporary distinctions and evils. He saw in each man a man—a man with a soul to save. He aimed directly at the heart, and suffered himself to be diverted or disturbed by no side-issues. If the heart were once set right, the life would be reformed of course. If each individual were set right, society would be regenerated; all domestic, social, and political evils, of whatever sort or degree, would die out of themselves. He did not propose to work from the surface inward, but from the centre outward; and herein lies the key to his character, and the secret of his power. He doubtless saw as clearly and felt as keenly as any one,—nay, a thousand times more clearly and more keenly than any other,—the various forms of corruption, pollution, and oppression, of outward sin and evil, by which he was surrounded; and he saw and chose the best way and the only way for a radical, thorough, and permanent cure.
Here, then, we have a test whereby we may determine how far the professed Social Reformer on the one hand, and, on the other, the ascetic, whether hermit, monk, or doer of penance, is or is not possessed of the true spirit of Christianity. And we shall find, upon trial, that they have missed the [11/12] true centre, and lost the true balance; and, if indeed Christians, as they may certainly be, they must needs be deformed and lame, of a weak, sickly, and morbid constitution.
Not that all acts of mortification or efforts for social reform are prohibited by the spirit of Christianity. God forbid. Rather, self-denial and universal benevolence are its two leading characteristics.
Fasting, for example, is recognized by our Saviour as a duty which his disciples would of course perform at certain appropriate seasons, and on certain appropriate occasions, as men in general had been naturally led to do in all ages; and he gives them directions how they should fast that so it should be a sincere expression of penitence and sorrow, an act of humility and not of ostentation. But their fasting was not prescribed by any ascetic rules of frequency or of strictness, as in the case of John's disciples, but was left to suggest and regulate itself spontaneously according to the season and the occasion. They were to fast with the spirit of sons and not of slaves. Neither was fasting intended to be a mark of rank or distinction among Christ's disciples, a duty to be especially performed by any particular society, community, order or profession, or a badge of any peculiar sanctity, but both the natural duty and the Christian privilege of all alike.
So likewise with Social Reforms. They are doubtless to be wrought out by the spirit of Christianity; and by nothing else will they or can they be wrought out effectually. But, in Christian preaching and effort, they are never to be made the principal or prominent aim. They are always to be kept in subordination to the primary end and object of the Gospel which is the sanctification of the human heart, the salvation of the human soul. They are to be pursued, not noisily and violently, not proudly and boastfully, not with loud denunciation and fanatical zeal; but, after the spirit and example of Christ, in love and meekness and wisdom; quietly, humbly, unobtrusively; indirectly, for the most part; and gradually, as men are able to bear them.
But, finally, though both fanatics and ascetics may be honest and conscientious, [12/13] and may do some good in their way; and though they are to be treated, as weak brethren indeed, but with all possible forbearance, indulgence and gentleness; yet, if they undertake to set themselves up as a rule to others, to impose upon all the yoke they feel bound to wear, or the special work which absorbs their hearts and energies, or if they assume to themselves the credit of any peculiar sanctity or spirituality or Christian benevolence;—then Christianity rejects them and their claims with scorn and reprobation.
This was our third and last proposition. And it will be perceived that, under this proposition, I have been led to treat reforming fanaticism as a counterpoise and pendant to ascetic mortification; and to endeavour to rescue Christianity as well from the encroachments of the one as from the seductions of the other. Our danger is perhaps even greater from the former than from the latter. If Romanism has a tendency to degrade Christianity into a system of ascetic penance, Protestantism has no less a tendency to pervert it into a mere engine of social reform. But even Protestantism has its Romish side; and a spirit of asceticism is sometimes unduly developed within its bosom.
That Christianity rejects and repudiates the claims of asceticism, whether it endeavour to impose its yoke upon others, or arrogate a peculiar sanctity for its votaries, and whether it present itself under the form of Romish penance or celibacy, or of any self-imposed abstinence,—is evident from the example of Christ, as set forth in the text and elsewhere, and from the express words of St. Paul: "Stand fast, therefore, in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage." "Now the Spirit speaketh expressly that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of devils, forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. For every creature of God is good and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving." "Wherefore, if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, [13/14] are ye subject to ordinances, (touch not, taste not, handle not; which all are to perish in the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men? Which things have indeed a show of wisdom in will-worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body; not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh." "Mine answer to them that do examine me is this: 'have we not power to eat and to drink? Have we not power to lead about a sister, a wife, as well as other Apostles, and as the brethren of the Lord, and Cephas?'" Thus the claims of Judaizing, and in principle, of Romanizing, and all other asceticism, are emphatically spurned and rejected by the great Apostle of the Gentiles.
When, on the other hand, the zealous social Reformer denounces the Church, because she does not espouse, with her whole energies, the work in which she is especially interested, and pursue it in his way; because she does not devote herself with an all-absorbing zeal like his, to the cause of political freedom, or of prison reform, or of peace, or of temperance, or of emancipation; let him remember that his denunciations rebound from the Church upon her Divine Founder, and upon those Scriptures which we receive from the inspiration of God. If such reformers think that they have more of the spirit of Christianity than the Church, they may think also that they have more of the spirit of Christianity than Christ himself. With those who cannot be reached or startled by such a consideration, who not only contemn the Church and its ministry, but openly and impiously trample upon the Holy Scriptures and Jesus Christ, and God himself, I hold no argument.
Meantime, the Church, unmoved by obloquy must steadily follow in the footsteps of her Blessed Lord;—encouraging no vice, but condemning all vices, disparaging no virtue, but inculcating all virtues in their due harmony and proportion; opposing, undermining, and, in due time, eradicating all social wrongs and ills; but always aiming first and chiefly at the regeneration and salvation of the souls of men. This last is her great central work. This done, the rest, as I have said, will follow of course. But if, neglecting this her proper work, she embark in some special scheme of social reformation, [14/15] however good that scheme and its objects may be in themselves, she will be sure only to make shipwreck of herself and of the precious freight and treasure which God has committed to her charge for the regeneration and redemption of the world.
Let it not, then, be thought or represented that I would set up Christianity or the Church as opposed to temperance or peace or any moral reformation, or to any judicious or successful efforts for their promotion. Nothing could be a grosser perversion of the spirit and letter of all that I have said. The Church absolutely insists upon temperance and benevolence, and upon all moral virtues and moral reforms; and not only does she heartily sympathize with all that is done or can be done effectually for their permanent advancement, but she recognizes such efforts as an integral and essential part of her own work and mission, which she cannot neglect without being recreant to her highest trust. The Church repudiates only that fanatical spirit of narrow and exclusive zeal which fastens upon one thing to the neglect of all others, making some minor and incidental point of morals or of religious duty the grand centre of all thought and effort, thus disturbing and destroying the harmony, consistency and wholeness of spiritual truth and practical character, naturally exciting proud, violent and unholy passions, and making them, in effect, the moving principles of moral life;—while she indignantly repels the groundless charges of lukewarmness and of sympathy with sin which such blind zealots so often heap upon her. The Church has no one particular reform to accomplish, but all reforms; and they are all to be accomplished on one simple principle, in the spirit of her Lord, and in His appointed way.
Let us then, my brethren, unite in cheering her on in her work, by first giving our own hearts to Christ, to holiness and virtue, and then labouring humbly in our lot, with Christ and His Church, in purifying the hearts and saving the souls of others, and thus hastening on the ultimate and permanent renovation of human society.
"Lord, we beseech Thee, let Thy continual pity cleanse and defend Thy Church; and because it cannot continue in safety without Thy succour, preserve it evermore by Thy help and goodness, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."
Collect for the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity.