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How Did the Early Church Fathers View "Holiness?"

June 30th, 2007

Over the past three weeks we [my small group] have been talking about sanctification, and what it means to be “sanctified” or “holy”. We talked about “positional sanctification” and “progressive sanctification” and we even got into a little Wesleyan theology with “entire sanctification.” …. I am interested in how the early church viewed “sanctification” and “holiness” and “being in the world, but not of the world,” and what it meant to them to leave “worldly pleasures” behind…and how that can relate to us today. Should we all become monks, or hermits??
(Shane in Alabama)

____________________

Shane,

I do not want rain on the party, but it’s very difficult to give straight answers from early church history regarding what the church believed. The early church was not one unified group - there were about as many different positions as we have today. We have so many “experts” (like David Bercot) who are quick to tell us what the early church believed - most of the time they are simply not relating credible history, or are at least not giving the full historical context. There are hundreds of articles on this topic and I am not an expert on this particular issue, but of course, that will not stop me from telling you what I do know.

A good place to start would be The Didache
(http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/didache-roberts.html) where the ethics revolve around “dos” and “don’ts.” It sounds much like the OT and the Sermon on the Mount combined.

The next stop would be The Shepherd of Hermas (http://www.churchhistory101.com/century2-p2.php). This document is very lengthy and not so easy to read, but Hermas suffers from a real sense of guilt for his sins. You should read my article on “Second Repentance” (http://www.churchhistory101.com/century2-p4.php) and
(http://www.churchhistory101.com/docs/Hermas-2ndRepentance.pdf).

Basically there was a sense of the need to stay away from sin, but typically it’s not the idea that you can be sinless - it’s more about staying away from serious sins, being ready to be martyred, and making sure that you participate in the church. For the most part it did not include the concept of being without sin…until you come to Clement of Alexandria. Even Tertullian, the one holiness preachers/writers like to quote, says this in his tract “On Purity,”

It is a fact that there are some sins which beset us every day and to which we all are tempted. For who will not, as it may chance, fall into unrighteous anger and continue this even beyond sundown, or even strike another or, out of easy habit, curse another, or swear rashly, or violate his pledged faith, or tell a lie through shame or the compulsion of circumstances? In the management of affairs, in the performance of duties, in commercial transactions, while eating, looking, listening how often we are tempted!? So much so that if there were no pardon in such cases, no one would be saved.? For these sins, then, pardon is granted through Christ who intercedes with the Father.?
But there are also sins quite different from these, graver and deadly, which cannot be pardoned: murder, idolatry, injustice, apostasy, blasphemy; yes, and also adultery and fornication and any other violation of the temple of God. For these Christ will not intercede with the Father a second time.” On Purity 19

I think even the most ardent holiness preacher would have difficulty agreeing with this: sins that “cannot be pardoned.” Of course, one must understand here that Tertullian is not saying God will not forgive - he IS saying that a bishop cannot assume God’s forgiveness. This is a text I cite in my paper on Second Repentance - you have to know the historical context when you read these early fathers.

When we come to Clement of Alexandria we have one of our first Christian writers who mixes philosophy with his theology and comes up with something not 100% like NT teaching, but also not so different that it is rejected.

Clement had studied Plato and Zeno (Stoicism) prior to becoming a Christian. He had also been influenced by the Gnostics in second century Egypt as well. Sanctification and holiness for Clement went beyond the avoidance of “sins” listed in the NT and had alot to do with denying pleasure and comfort. This was his Stoicism coming out in his theology. He urged young believers to avoid sexual sins with young women, do not steal, and in addition, stay away from sauces when you eat.

The best meal is bread and the best drink is water. If you eat meat, do not use any “fancy sauce” for that makes a person crave the nice things in life that are not helpful for the soul. Since gluttony is a sin, the person desiring to be righteous should try to eat as little as possible - just eat enough to keep your body from wasting away. Since arrogance is a sin, and an arrogant person will typically walk around with their head wagging and arms flailing about to gain attention from others, the righteous man walks in a very measured pace, head bent slightly down, not glancing back and forth to see who might be watching him, but looking intently at only the few feet in front of him. The righteous man will not swing his arms when he walks, but should clasp his hands together behind his back. Since the arrogant person will typically wear jewels and fine clothing to gain the attention of others, the righteous man will wear plain clothing and abstain from jewelry and other superfluous adornments.

Origen follows in Clement’s footsteps and it is not surprising that as the monastic tradition developed both Clement and Origen were widely read. Some of the “Desert Fathers,” the first monks who lived in the caves of the Egyptian desserts, were known to have copies of Clement and Origen with them in their caves. These were called by some “the athletes of God” for they seemed to have superhuman strength - they lived for years on diets of stewed cabbage, dry bread, and water. When they wanted to treat themselves they would eat their bread with some salt sprinkled on it.

Just from this short summary you can probably see the trajectory of influences from Stoicism to Clement, to the Desert Fathers, and finally to what most of us think of as monasticism. Most of us know enough about monasticism to know that living in strict discipline and the rejection of pleasures and comforts was part of their vow. The problem that developed, of course, was that embracing these disciplines and this lifestyle oftentimes led these monks to see their righteousness bound intrinsically to those disciplines. Yet this is NOT what Paul gives us in his schema - righteousness through faith. Interestingly, Benedict gives some indication of this in the preface of his rule. After citing text after text about our having to live blamelessly in order to enter the house of the Lord and please Him, etc. Benedict writes this,

Now, brethren, that we have asked the Lord who it is that shall dwell in His tabernacle, we have heard the conditions for dwelling there; and if we fulfil the duties of tenants, we shall be heirs of the kingdom of heaven. Our hearts and our bodies must, therefore, be ready to do battle under the biddings of holy obedience; and let us ask the Lord that He supply by the help of His grace what is impossible to us by nature. And if, flying from the pains of hell, we desire to reach life everlasting, then, while there is yet time, and we are still in the flesh, and are able during the present life to fulfil all these things, we must make haste to do now what will profit us forever.

Notice, “let us ask the Lord that He supply by the help of His grace what is impossible to us by nature.” Interesting. Benedict tells the initiates that they cannot do it without the grace of God. Unfortunately the reality of the monastic history is not consistent with this principle we find in Benedict.

My final thought is to say that we have traced one historical thread on this topic. I think that we could do the same thing with 2-3 other schools of thought or patristic threads. So this is my first attempt at answering your question.

Al B.


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