I am continuing my response to my friend’s defense of John Paul II’s spiritual practice of whipping himself. Here is my original post on this issue. Here is the first part of my response to my friend’s response.
My friend’s reply continues:
Probably the greatest Biblical scholar of all time was St. Jerome, who beat his breast with a stone to overcome the passions of the body.
Jerome might have been the greatest Biblical scholar of all time, but that does not mean that he is infallible. Perhaps he misapplied this verse. Why did he beat his breast with a stone? To inflict pain? What about cutting himself? Would that have been allowed?
I don’t ask the latter question to be extreme, but rather to make a point: where is the line between inflicting pain through beating yourself with a stone (or whipping yourself) and more severe forms of asceticism? What would be useful about the former but not the latter?
My friend says:
He [St. Jerome] certainly had a different interpretation of this passage.
He might have. I’ve searched through New Advent’s collection of St. Jerome’s writings, and I cannot find anything about that verse. So I don’t know what his interpretation was. Perhaps he was inconsistent on this point. Or perhaps he misinterpreted the verse. The Church Fathers did misinterpret verses. Catholics believe that.
My friend then says:
How can a condemnation of the Judaizers be used to condemn self-flagellation?
I’m not sure if it is Judaizers that Paul is condemning. I don’t have the commentary in front of me, but F. F. Bruce thought that Paul was addressing some form of Jewish mysticism. After all, in Col. 2.18, Paul says that the false teachers were promoting the worship of angels. That’s not something the Judaizers from Galatians were teaching.
Frank Thielman, in his Theology of the New Testament, identifies the heresy as belonging to some form of Jewish gnosticism, though he doesn’t think we can pinpoint the heresy more specifically then that. In An Introduction to the New Testament, D. A. Carson, Douglas Moo, and Leon Morris identify the false teachings as some blend of Hellenic and Jewish speculation. So I’m not convinced it’s the same issues that appear in Galatians.
Nonetheless, I do not see why a condemnation of this Jewish mysticism could not imply a condemnation of its means to holiness (namely, the self-abasement, self-made religion, and harshness to the body). If Paul’s issue with the false teaching he opposes in Colossians is simply that it relies on the Mosaic Law, then why does he condemn their harshness to the body as useless?
Paul is condemning (i) their misunderstanding of the work of Christ -and- (ii) the self-made religion, self-abasement, and harshness to the body. Accepting the second part of the heresy is still wrong, even if one does reject the first.
Do you really want to condemn all forms of asceticism except for fasting?
It depends on what you mean by asceticism. If you mean severity to the body, then yes. If you simply mean any spiritual practice which deprives the body of satisfying its pleasures, then no. I have no problem with someone depriving himself of otherwise legitimate sexual pleasure in order to devote himself to God (see 1 Corinthians 7:5). But I see no Scriptural warrant for spiritual practices such as sleeping on the floor, beating your chest with rocks, or whipping yourself.
The Psalmist says “my eyes prevented the night watches, because I hoped in your word” (Psalm 119), which would seem to imply depriving one self of sleep for the sake of prayer. This would also seem to be a discipline for the body.
The verse you refer to is Psalm 119:148. I will quote verses 145-152 so that we can see the context of this.
145 I call with all my heart; answer me, LORD,
and I will obey your decrees.
146 I call out to you; save me
and I will keep your statutes.
147 I rise before dawn and cry for help;
I have put my hope in your word.
148 My eyes stay open through the watches of the night,
that I may meditate on your promises.
149 Hear my voice in accordance with your love;
preserve my life, LORD, according to your laws.
150 Those who devise wicked schemes are near,
but they are far from your law.
151 Yet you are near, LORD,
and all your commands are true.
152 Long ago I learned from your statutes
that you established them to last forever.
Notice that the context is the Psalmist’s life being threatened. This is not a spiritual discipline, in which he deprives himself of sleep in order to quell his body’s desire for sleep. (Where is the body’s normal desire for sleep ever identified as a sinful desire in the Scriptures?) The context is his life being threatened, the wicked sinners being near to the Psalmist (verse 150). The Psalmist is calling to God for help (verse 145), and he is reminding himself of the promises of God (verse 148), namely God’s promise to deliver his people.
Nothing in this passage suggests that staying up during the night is useful for quelling bodily passions. Nothing in this passage suggests that the Psalmist is staying up in order to fight bodily passions.
Everything in this passage suggests that the Psalmist is staying up out of urgency to cry out to God. Everything in this passage suggests that the Psalmist’s efforts are focused on God and not upon his own passions.
So I do not find this reply to my previous post at all convincing. I still find no Scriptural support for John Paul II’s practice of whipping himself. I still believe it should be condemned as a departure from the Scriptural means of sanctification.