20 November 2007

Certainly Fine Outward Training

Emily over on Children of God touches a rather sad point about her experience of Lutheranism: the lack of the Eucharistic fast. I confess to being more than a little astonished that something that is praised as "certainly fine outward training" in our Small Catechism has come to be so neglected among us. The Catechism couldn't be clearer that fasting does not render a person "truly worthy and well prepared." Faith alone in our Lord's promise: "for you, for the forgiveness of sins" does that. Yet the Catechism DOES speak highly of fasting precisely as what it is: "a fine outward training."

What does this "outward training" refer to? As usual, if we go to the Large Catechism it can give some help: "Since this treasure is entirely presented in the words, it cannot be received and made ours in any other way than with the heart. Such a gift and eternal treasure cannot be seized with the fist. Fasting, prayer, and other such things may indeed be outward preparations and discipline for children, so that the body may keep and bring itself modestly and reverently to receive Christ's body and blood. Yet the body cannot seize and make its own what is here given in and with the Sacrament. This is done by the faith in the heart, which discerns this treasure and desires it."

Now by mentioning, "for the children" Luther by no means suggests that as adults we give it up! He means that we train the young people that in this way we discipline our bodies to reverence the great gift of the Supper. It is a way of confessing bodily that "all we need is the Eucharist - the very Body and Blood of our Savior, given for our salvation." Coming hungry to the table we remember the Beatitude He once spoke: "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled."

And yet no amount of calling for the reverent and appropriate use of fasting can ignore the words of our Lord Himself that calls us to eat and to drink His body and blood for our forgiveness. He does not add "you who have kept the fast." His forgiveness is for all and is received by all who approach the Holy Sacrament in true faith. This ought not in any way lead us to neglect the "bodily training," but rather to put it in its place. Our body can use this reminder that the hunger behind all hungers is ultimately the hunger for Christ Himself.

Surely, surely it is possible to exhort our people to the discipline of the flesh without in any way falling into the error of assigning merit to our "fine outward training."


Mimi said...

You and she both bring up interesting points.

I didn't realize that Lutheranism had a tradition of fasting.

Pastor Beisel said...

We've done a fine job of abusing our liberty, eh?

William Weedon said...


We certainly DID have. And I rejoice that in places we still do. But it is spotty at best.

Pastor Beisel,

Yes, and I guess that CAN be a good sign. St. Paul's preaching apparently produced the same problem, and he exhorts against using our freedom as an opportunity for the flesh!

Paul T. McCain said...

I've noticed in the Augsburg Confession some of the most interesting comments about fasting are to be found. See:


Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Pehaps your average Lutheran would rather concentrate on some certainly fine inward thing, as being more important?

Outward thing, indeed! Harrrumph. (Mutters to self.)

Fasting is both an outward and inward thing.

When we fast, we meet Christ in His fasting. It's another way not only of being like Him, not only of obeying Him, but of participation in Him.

When we fast, we do so at the prompting of the Holy Spirit (hopefully), and when we do that, we are letting Him live and move and breathe in us. What deeper communion with Him could we imagine than His life being lived in our flesh?

"A certainly fine outward thing," seems to miss all this and barely skim the surface.


Emily H. said...

Thank you Father Weedon for bringing the discussion to your blog as well and fleshing it out a little more (especially in training our children in fasting)!

Mimi said...

It makes complete sense, Father, I'd just not contemplated it. Thank you again!

May you have a blessed Thanksgiving.

Christine said...

There is another sense in which fasting prepares us for the Bread of Heaven in that by abstaining from earthly food we are reminded to stop and contemplate that we are entering into the "eternal" -- the very act of refraining from eating and drinking is a powerful reminder that something extraordinary is going to happen - we are preparing to receive the true and Living Bread that the world cannot give.

christopher palo said...

Calling fasting merely an "outward preparation" is to reduce it to a mere legalism. Anastasia definitely has the correct take on this and why it should be made use of by more, Orthodox or non in preparation for any of the great seasons of the Church year.

William Weedon said...

Christopher and Anastasia,

I think your argument is with St. Paul, not Dr. Luther. It was the apostle who wrote that "while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way." (1 Timothy 4) In the same chapter he warns us of those in the last days "require abstinence from food that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth." The same Apostle who also wrote to the Colossians: "If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations - "Do not handle, Do not taste, To not touch" (referring to things that all perish as they are used) -- according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed the appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, *but they are of no value in stopping indulgence of the flesh.*"

Fasting is certainly a godly practice and one that we should practice, but we should not exaggerate its value. It's great use is the taming of the body and bringing it into subjection. "But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified" the same Apostle says in 1 Cor. 9. Which is to say: it is indeed a fine, outward training.

William Weedon said...

Today's first reading at Matins was from Deuteronomy 8, and I thought how THIS is the point of fasting:

"And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna which you did not know nor did your fathers know, that he might might you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord."

The body doesn't believe this. The stomach protests against it. Fasting is one way to train the body that something vastly more important than stuffing the tummy is hearing and heeding the Word.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

It's always a mistake to interpret St. Paul in a manner that contradicts his Lord.

Fasting is not a human institution; Christ Himself set the example for us (Luke 4:2), told others His disciples WOULD fast (Matthew 9:14-14, Mark 2:18-19), and gave us at least some instruction in fasting (Matthew 16:6). So it won't do to equate this with what St. Paul is talking about in I Timonty, which is the teaching of those "speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their conscience seared with a hot iron." Such a description hardly fits Christ!

Nor is *Christian* fasting something to be contrasted with godliness; it is rather one of the ways in which godliness grows in us.

Nor is *Christian* fasting only a bodily exercise, the way that of heretics is. It has the inner aspects I sketched in my previous comment.

Plus, we cannot give to Christ what is not ours to give; that is, what is not in our own control; we therefore seek to master our own bodies, that we may truly offer them to Him, together with our whole selves. This is what St. Paul calls "Your reasonable sacrifice," the sacrifice offered by a reasoning creature viz., this offering is a spiritual act.


William Weedon said...


What on earth makes you think that I would fasting not to be a divine institution? Our Lord clearly assumes that it will be practiced. What He does not lay down are the parameters that define it. I think holding such parameters as divine is precisely what Paul is objecting to - perhaps in the face of judaizing.

Of course, fasting (like just about everything else) can be used in a broad or a narrow sense. The broad sense is what God defines in Isaiah 58 - and which St. John Chrysostom alludes to also. But the SC does not have such fast as its reference, but the stricter interpretation of the word: "going hungry." Going hungry is the fine outward training. It trains the body. And our Lord assumes that we will all do it; his holy apostles practiced it; and the Church has always commended it to her children.

But what the Church cannot do without being unfaithful to the Lord's apostle is to make out not eating meat on Fridays as some kind of divine law.

As for your last paragraph, referring as it does to the broader sense of the term, the offering of the whole self as a living sacrifice, Amen and Amen!

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

From Luke 4:

1 Then Jesus, being filled with the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit [fn1] into the wilderness, 2 being tempted for forty days by the devil. And in those days He ate nothing, and afterward, when they had ended, He was hungry.

Is this the broad or narrow sense of fasting? Sounds like the narrow to me. And it was Spirit-led. Cannot therefore have been a mere outward exercise, unless you deny the Spirit is within Christ or within us.


William Weedon said...

Your comment is not connecting to me. I am perplexed by the implication that if the Spirit leads us to do something it is by nature "inward." The putting to death of the old man is surely an impulse of the Spirit and yet it involves some very outward things. Fasting is one such outward thing. The Spirit's realm is both inward and outward; He's the Spirit of Christ and not of Plato.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

What I said was, it could not have been a *mere* outward exercise. Fasting is both, outward and inward.


Christine said...

Pastor Weedon, if you are still reading this thread:

In the same chapter he warns us of those in the last days "require abstinence from food that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth."

Seems to me this may be a reference to the Gnostic sects that restricted the eating of certain foods as leading to a spiritually superior wisdom.

The Catholic Church has never taught that absence from meat on Friday was a "divine" law even though even many Catholics have held this mistaken idea. It is a church discipline that the church, by the power of the keys, can change. Refraining from meat on Fridays is a spiritual reminder that our Lord was crucified on that day -- our fast is meant to recall the tremendous sacrifice He made on our behalf.

Susan said...

I don’t mean to be dense, but I am confused by this conversation since I come from an evangelical/Pentecostal influenced background and I would appreciate any help you can offer. I was never taught to fast in accordance with the church calendar/seasons since they did not observe them. This view of fasting is all new to me. Do you not fast during these seasons in order to better appreciate who the Lord is and what He has done for us? Which would be the appreciation of the gift of His birth, life, death, and resurrection, plus a grateful reception of the Eucharist?

We were taught to fast anytime during the year as one felt “led by the Spirit” in accordance to Isaiah 58 with an emphasis on verses 6-7 and seeking an inner change of heart from the Lord asking for Him to remove our bondage to sin and to regain focus on the Lord as primary in our lives.

6 “Is this not the fast that I have chosen:
To loose the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the heavy burdens,
To let the oppressed go free,
And that you break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out;
When you see the naked, that you cover him,
And not hide yourself from your own flesh?

It was for inner changes and not merely the discipline of the body. We were taught that the fast did not necessarily need to be food, but anything that was taking a major place in our lives/hearts/minds and/or tended to cause us to lose focus on God. Therefore, one could fast TV, harmless guilty pleasures or habits, a specific food like soda or chocolate, or pretty much anything that seemed to dominate one’s time or thoughts or seemed out of control in order to spend that time in prayer or devotions or merely being reminded that He was Lord of my life (e.g. not chocolate – I’m picking on chocolate because my flesh wants it to be a daily major food group). The point was to seek the Lord for the heart to change, to stop being so selfish/self-centered, to be more generous to family/neighbors, and to put God in His rightful place as Lord of my life/heart. Is this Gnostic? Or is this a skewed view of fasting (seeking a change of heart and self-control over the flesh)? Is this a flat-out wrong view? Could you recommend any good reading materials so I can understand fasting?

William Weedon said...


I'm running short on time this morning. I will write more on this, God willing, this afternoon or evening. In short, fasting is, I believe, an outward training that serves a spiritual purpose.

Susan said...

Please answer at your convenience, there is no hurry on my account. As I read you answer, I’m wondering if I’m confused because of the evangelical/pentecostal emphasis on obedience, prayer, and fasting as a means God uses to change us versus the Lutheran emphasis on Word and Sacrament as God’s means to change us? I am pretty much completely confused and wondering if I am somehow trying to insert sanctification into this subject? What I was previously taught and practiced in fasting is still deeply ingrained at this point and Anastasia makes more sense to me than you do at this point.

William Weedon said...


I don't think it's a skewed view of fasting at all - it's a view that recognizes that the outward training - apart from faith - is of limited value. But that when combined with faith - aching after God - has enormous value.

The idea of fasting by seasons is very helpful in one way in particular: it reminds the Christian that this effort is not something we accomplish alone; we accomplish it in the community of the Church. So this Advent when I restrict the amount of food on Wednesdays and Fridays I know I'll be doing this with a whole community of fellow baptized who are also struggling against their flesh. We do it together that we might also come to feast together at the Lord's Nativity and Epiphany.

As for good resources, well, on the Ember days, you can find some stuff on St. Paul's website. Fr. Fenton used to have a great article up about fasting on Zion's website, but I'm not sure it's still there. Fr. Schmemann's *Great Lent* writes about fasting not just from an Orthodox, but an early Christian perspective, and is very worthwhile. But more than reading about fasting, is simply the doing of it. The hunger that trains us to see that the hunger behind all hungers can never be satisfied by the food of this world, but only by the Incarnate Lord Jesus Christ, giving us His very flesh and blood to eat and drink. HE'S the one we're aching for - whether we realize it or not.

Wish you a blessed Advent fast and the joy of the Feast at Christ-Mass!

Susan said...

“HE'S the one we're aching for - whether we realize it or not.” And a whole-hearted amen!

Pastor Weedon:

Many, many thanks for answering my question. I was very confused on what you were talking about in the seasonal fasts and whether I was completely off in what I understood and practiced. I also appreciate the resources so I can gain a better understanding and participate with the church. Coming from a church background that is very individualistic and non-sacramental, there is much to learn about being group-minded and the sacraments. I am very grateful for the confessional church and it’s preservation of the holy traditions. Yet, I would still recommend individual fasts – a 40 day fast of an item (such as chocolate) can be quite wonderful too! There is only One thing that is truly needed – the rest is just a craving for earthly comforts (comfort is a want not a need)!:)

And a very blessed Advent fast and the joy of the Feast at Christ-Mass to you and yours too!