Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism

Askesis over Aesthesis

When we come to read the Bible, the best parts of the Christian theological tradition–from the ancients to Calvin to, in the contemporary world, John Webster–bear witness that the one thing really needful is not a literary aesthetics, but a literary ascetics.

Here is an example from the eponymous essay in John Webster’s recent collection The Domain of the Word. In this passage, Webster is speaking about the sufficiency of Scripture, and goes on later to connect his view of God’s Word in human words to an ascetics of reading.

We must not ask about the sufficiency of Scripture as if it were a matter awaiting our judgement. The children of Adam do not know what they need to know; they are not competent to determine what gifts they must receive at the hands of God; they must simply receive what has been given, in all its apparent incompleteness and limitation. There is a necessary chastening of curiosity here; sufficiency goes along with teachableness, deference, self-distrust and the fear of the Lord. It is part of our unredeemed condition that we hate the knowledge which God offers and prefer other counsel (Prov. 2.22, 29). Healing and refreshment (Prov. 3.8), however, come from not being wise in our own eyes (Prov. 3.5, 7) and from trust in the fact that ‘the Lord gives wisdom’ (Prov. 2.6). This gift entails on the creature’s part a certain concentration: ‘Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you’ (Prov. 4.25). This we might call the pathos of singularity: these words–not, probably, what we would have chosen, not at first glance especially satisfying–must suffice. (p. 18)

For a profitable and saving hearing of the Word to be realized, we must be put to death. We must deny ourselves and abandon our trust in our own abilities and capabilities in order to hear the reconciling and vivifying Word of God aright. “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.'” This is not a one-time act. As Luke puts it more expansively, “And he said to all, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.'”

The point can be generalized into a gloss about how we are to come to the triune God and henceforth serve him: that is to say, one might argue that the impulse of the Reformation was not so much to stamp out monasticism as it was to universalize and sublimate it into something truly spiritual and therefore truly accessible to all Christians.

In other words, the goal of askesis is not so much to withdraw from the world physically, or to create communes that are completely insulated from external forces, but to have one’s desires reformed, refined, and cleansed: to put to death self-will, self-sufficiency, self-satisfaction, self-preservation, and to put on Christ, which in this life is a cruciform process–that is, it requires self-denial and  daily cross-bearing, not away from the world, but in the midst of it. In this respect, just as all Christians are saints and are called to be saints, so also all Christians are called to be ascetics. Mortification and vivification have their place in specie in the reading of Scripture. Likewise, they also have their place in genere in the Christian life.

The proper object of askesis, then, is not the world as such, but its–and our–evil passions and sinful desires. And thus Christian askesis is demanded of the Christian–of every Christian in every station–as part of his being called out from the dominion of the prince of the powers of the air. And for such askesis, God’s grace is sufficient, for to his own he gives what he commands.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

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