Early Christian Asceticism and Nineteenth-Century Polemics

Essay by aainaUniversity, Bachelor'sA+, April 2010

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Early Christian Asceticism and Nineteenth-Century Polemics


This essay explores how two nineteenth-century writers who opposed the asceticizing aspects of the Oxford Movement and Roman Catholicism appealed to patristic writings. Anglican Isaac Taylor and Episcopalian Arthur Cleveland Coxe employed different rhetorical strategies: Taylor attempted to shock unsuspecting Christians about the "true" nature of Tractarian devotion to patristic Christianity, while Coxe, conversely, sought to explain away the asceticism promoted by the Fathers and align early Christianity with nineteenth-century domesticity. Coxe, American editor of the Ante-Nicene Fathers series, advanced his cause by adding anti-Catholic footnotes and "elucidations" to the Fathers' writings.

Introduction: Early Christian Asceticism and Ninetenth-Century Protestantism

Nineteenth-century Protestant scholars and divines faulted early Christian asceticism as contrary to God's plan for humanity and to sound Biblical interpretation. Renewing the Protestant Reformers' attack on the "ascetic body," they lauded domesticity, nineteenth-century style, as a supremely [End Page 281] Christian virtue.1 Asceticism in the patristic era, they charged, manifested Christianity's "decline" from an apostolic purity,2 while its resurgence in "Catholicizing" currents of their own day called for a new assault.

This essay explores two nineteenth-century instances (one in England, one in America) of the eruption of anti-ascetic, pro-familial rhetoric against twin perceived threats: the Oxford Movement and Roman Catholicism.

Asceticism, nineteenth-century Protestants charged, exhibited a cowardly and selfish spirit, exhorting Christians to flee "the world" rather than to work for its improvement.3 Encouraging "works-righteousness," asceticism opposed the doctrine of justification by grace and faith alone, and the essential "inwardness" of Christian spirituality. It fostered an elitism that distinguished Christians on the basis of degrees of renunciation, contrary to Protestant notions of universal human sinfulness. Encouraging superstition, it denigrated the role of women, home, and family.

How then to account for asceticism's rise, if it were so foreign to the true spirit of...