Perspectives on Fasting: Historical Perspectives

Lesson 1998
Tags: Fasting
Excerpted from Perspectives on Fasting

Highlights from Church History

  • The early Christians practiced fasting due to the influence of Jewish customs as well as their understanding of Jesus’ approval of the practice.
  • By the end of the first century, it was fairly common for Christians to fast two days a week, on Wednesdays and Fridays, This custom constituted both an endorsement and a rejection of Jewish custom, which prescribed fasting twice a week, though not on the same days (Hinson 344; Achelis 4:281).
  • In the early centuries of church history the practice of fasting was formalized, with various fast days and periods being established in various areas of the world. Initially, fasting practices differed significantly from place to place (4:282; Maclean 5:765-69), but gradually they came to some consensus. One of the controversies concerning fasting emerged between the Montanists of Phrygia and the remainder of the Christian world (5:766).
  • The fasts celebrated by most Christian communities in the early centuries of church history included the weekly fasts; Lent (observed in the weeks preceding Easter); and the Advent fast (observed in the weeks leading up to Christmas) (Achelis 4:281-83; M’Clintock 3:490-91).
  • In the Middle Ages, when Christianity was divided into Eastern and Western camps led by the Greek and Roman churches, respectively, fasting practices developed in each group (3:491; Hinson 344). The prescriptions of the Greek Church were so strict that the calendar came to call for half the year’s days to be spent in fasting (Achelis 4:283).
  • The mode of fasting has not been uniform through church history. A normal fast is currently understood to be complete abstinence from food but not from water. This conception of fasting was not shared by early and medieval Christians, however. Achelis notes that “fasting was generally understood abstinence from all food till evening, or one meal a day; and this was to be as simple as possible” (4:283). The forty-day fasts of medieval Christianity seem more reasonable in the light of this loose definition of fasting.
  • With the association of the Catholic faith and the Roman Empire there emerged “a much greater stress on form, ritual, and liturgy. Fasting thus became increasingly linked with a legalistic theology and the concept of meritorious works” (Linder 406).
  • The sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers repudiated the use of fasting as a means of earning God’s favor, but did not condemn its private or public practice provided that it expressed the genuine sentiments of the heart (407; M’Clintock 492-93). John Calvin stated that “it were far better that fasting should be entirely disused, than that the practice should be diligently observed, and at the same time corrupted with false and pernicious opinions” (qtd. in M’Clintock 493). The Westminster Confession approved of the appropriate use of “solemn fastings” (493).
  • The Anabaptists of the Reformation “relegated fasting once more to the private sphere, leaving it up to the individual believer to determine its appropriateness for enhancing self-discipline and prayer” (Linder 407).
  • Since the Reformation, most mainline denominations have generally adhered to a liturgical approach to fasting, prescribing specific fast days and laying down explicit restrictions and permissions (Achelis 283-84). However, “fasting is not made imperative as a term of membership in the Church, but is generally recommended as a Christian duty . . .” (M’Clintock 491).
  • Fasting has been emphasized to varying degrees in modern Christian circles. John Wesley not only practiced it himself but imposed it on his followers (Wallis 34). Some contemporary charismatics regard fasting to be of considerable importance to spiritual life (Linder 407). Overall, however, fasting seems to be neglected by most Christians today (Wallis 10-11).

Lessons from Church History

  • Throughout Christian history the church has suffered from both the inappropriate and insufficient practice of fasting. According to Arthur Wallis, in our rejection of medieval asceticism, “[w]e have not yet recovered the spiritual balance of New Testament Christianity” (11). In seeking to achieve this balance, we can learn several useful principles from church history.
  • Institutionalized fasting has historically led to the violation of biblical teaching:
    • by exaggerating the significance of fasting
    • by measuring spirituality by outward exercises rather than inward commitment
    • by causing unnecessary divisions among believers
    • by binding Christians’ consciences in an area of personal liberty
    • by attempting to legislate spirituality
    • by creating cultural forms that exceed biblical prescriptions and conferring upon them the status of divine mandates
  • The recent de-emphasis of fasting has likely hindered Christians from living holy lives and praying effectively.