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What is Fasting All About?

fasting1Many people “give something up” for Lent.  This is certainly a noble bodily discipline.  But is this a biblical, Lutheran practice?  To the possible surprise of many, Lutherans have historically approved of fasting.  One of the theologians I have been studying wrote about this.  Conrad Dieterich (1575-1639, “archdeacon” of Marburg, professor in Giessen, and superintendent of Ulm), discussed fasting in his Institutiones Catecheticae (Catechetical Institutes).  This work, which is more like a short systematic theology book than an explanation of the Small Catechism, was reprinted around twenty times between its debut and the 18th century.  It was also popular with early generations of the LCMS.  In 1892, an abridgment was published by Concordia Publishing House under the title “Dr. Martin Luther’s Small Catechism Thoroughly Explained in Question and Answer by Dr. Johann Conrad Dietrich.”[1]  This work was the predecessor of our blue synodical catechism.  Four years later, a German translation of the entire work was published in St. Louis under the title, “Catechetical Institutes, that is, Thorough Explanation of Dr. Martin Luther’s Catechism in Question and Answer, Provided with Notes.”[2]

As an appendix to his explanation of the Lord’s Prayer, Dieterich includes six pages on fasting.  He defines it as “the voluntary, complete abstinence from every food for the purpose of more meaningful devotion, whether it happens from one’s own will or at the arrangement of one or the other Christian congregation, as often as necessity demands it.”[3]  In explaining what he means by voluntary, he says, “The abstinence is, furthermore, voluntary; therefore it is not bound to particular commands and orders, much less to particular days, manners, and customs; it is also not necessary in the sense that it would bind all the faithful together, but rather it is undertaken out of one’s own will and choice.”[4]

But what about this concept of total abstinence from all food?  Isn’t that a bit extreme?  Precisely.  To fast is to abstain from all food, according to Dieterich, “not just this or that food, such as meat, eggs, butter, milk and others, but all food.  For fasting, according to the standing linguistic usage of Scripture and the custom of the saints of the Old as well as of the New Testament means literally: to abstain from all nourishment, whether it lasts for a day, as the people of God generally practiced it (Num. 29:7; Judges 20:26; 2 Sam. 1:12; 3:35, etc.) or for several days, (two days, Neh. 1:4; or three, Esther 4:6; or even four, Acts 10:30).  In a non-literal sense it is called fasting when one lives off of scanty and meager fare and at least takes to himself no breakfast or no lunch, and also consumes cheaper and rougher food and drink for a long period of time (see 1 Sam. 31:13; Dan. 10:3).  Therefore it is not fasting in the literal sense when one abstains from breakfast, but takes lunch and supper with a certain limitation in the choice of foods.”[5]  Note that for Dieterich, the goal is not to do away with the discipline of fasting, but to restore its biblical rigor!  He sees the “giving up” of one or the other food as not being strict enough.  But he would by no means reject a distinction of foods, as long as it was undertaken freely and had some rigor to it.  Giving up merely one choice food (such as chocolate) in favor of other foods would, on the other hand, by no means count as “fasting,” either in the literal or the non-literal sense.

Next, Dieterich discusses the purpose for fasting.  Fasting awakens a more fervent devotion which consists in 1. the mortification of the lust of the flesh, 2. true humility of the heart before God, 3. more serious sorrow over sins, 4. a blessed contemplation of heavenly things, and 5. devotional prayer.  Dieterich caps off his discussion of the benefits of fasting with a quote from the early church father Augustine.  “Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one’s flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of desire, quenches the fire of lust, kindles the true light of chastity.”[6]  It is obvious that Dieterich is throwing out neither discipline nor an appreciation for the early church fathers.

What about necessity?  Is fasting “necessary”?  Here Dieterich gives a nuanced answer.  Fasting is generally commanded to us in Scripture (Joel 1:14; Matt. 17:21; 1 Cor. 7:5).  He writes, “I say ‘generally,’ because both the public fasts as well as the private ones are, to be sure, prescribed generally in God’s Word, but definite times for fasting, definite manners and ceremonies for fasting are nowhere commanded in the New Testament.”[7]  So fasting itself is commanded, but the “when” is a matter of free choice, along with the other “manners and ceremonies” which accompany fasting.

Dieterich has much to say about the Roman Catholic manner of fasting, which I must omit here for the sake of space.[8]  Suffice it to say that Dieterich protests against the stereotype that Lutherans do not fast, and have “banned fasting from the Church completely.”  “They have not banned it, but have only condemned its unbearable abuse.”[9]  Meanwhile, the Lutheran Church is free at any time to institute a public fast, especially when an emergency may require it, but always to the exclusion of superstitious abuse.  If Dieterich had been here on September 11th, 2001, he might have seen a public fast, instituted by and for the whole church, as being completely appropriate in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

In the absence of special emergencies, however, fasting is a free discipline.  We are free to make use of it as a spiritual exercise in connection with prayer.  Fasting is like doing exercise, for example, lifting weights.  Exercise is not what keeps one alive, but is a way to grow stronger.  Likewise, prayer and fasting is not how God keeps us alive in faith.  He does that through the Gospel and Sacraments.  But prayer and fasting are disciplines, exercises to help strengthen us in our Christian life.  Fasting is not for children, the sick, the elderly, or those with special dietary needs.  Fasting should not be undertaken if it would be dangerous to your health.

So, should we “give up something” for Lent?  Sure, why not?  Giving up something, such as coffee, alcohol, or sweets, is a bodily discipline.   But I would suggest that we also, at some point, practice true, biblical fasting—giving up all food and drink except water.  The oldest of Christian fasts was for a day or two in preparation for Easter.  Therefore I suggest that we all give up something for Lent, and then fast on Holy Saturday, breaking our fast with the Holy Feast of Easter.  This is a free discipline, but one that can help us to appreciate Easter all the more.

[1] Dr. Martin Luthers Kleiner Katechismus in Frage und Antwort gründlich ausgelegt von Dr. Johann Conrad Dietrich (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1892).

[2] Conrad Dieterich, Institutiones Catecheticae: das ist, gründliche Auslegung des Katechismus D. Martin Luthers in Frage und Antwort und mit Anmerkungen versehen, trans. Friedrich Wilhelm August Notz (St. Louis: F. Dette, 1896).  In my presentation, I follow the Notz translation.  This work is worthy of further study, especially in his treatment of the Keys and the Office of the Holy Ministry.

[3] Dieterich, Institutiones Catecheticae, 403.

[4] Dieterich, Institutiones Catecheticae, 403.

[5] Dieterich, Institutiones Catecheticae, 403.

[6] Augustine, Sermon 230, in Dieterich, Institutiones Catecheticae, 403.

[7] Dieterich, Institutiones Catecheticae, 404.

[8] See Dieterich, Institutiones Catecheticae, 405-408.

[9] Dieterich, Institutiones Catecheticae, 408.

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