Ascetical Theology and Christian Psychology

“Ascetical theology is the study of the spiritual life or the study of the way of perfection. Classically, it traces its roots to the early fathers and mothers (desert and otherwise), but has been practiced by Christians of different stripes since the beginning. It could be said that our Lord Himself outlined the foundation principles of ascetical theology in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Here Jesus makes it plain that the spiritual life cannot be limited to outward behavioral conformity, but must include a transformation of an individual’s inward disposition. Murder and adultery can – spiritually speaking – be committed in the heart, with words, as well as in the body (Matthew 5:22-3, 28). Ascetical theology, like modern expressions of Christian psychology, takes seriously the notion that our inward and outer lives matter to God and that by the power of the Holy Spirit, each can of us can be transformed, inside and out (Romans 12:1-2).
These early pioneers of authentic Christian psychology lacked our modern worldview, insights, and technology. Yet, they possessed an entirely God-shaped anthropology of the human being and approached human pathology through a sacramental grid that measured human well-being against the image of Jesus Christ. Their practice of soul-care was not isolated to predetermined counseling appointments, though many of the fathers received “clients” for what we might call “therapeutic encounters.” For example, take this encounter between two desert fathers or abbas as presented in John Chryssavgis’ classic, Into the Heart of the Desert:
in the heart 2
Abba Isaac came to see Abba Poemen and found him washing his feet. As he enjoyed freedom of speech with the old man, he asked: “How is it that others practice austerity and treat their bodies harshly?” Abba Poemen replied: “We have not been taught to kill our bodies, but to kill our passions.”

Ascetical theology is deeply concerned with the removal of the passions, such as those enumerated by the Apostle Paul (Galatians 5:19-26). The ascetical theologians were almost always pastoral in their orientation, meaning their writing and their work was reflective of practical experience with struggling Christians. The progress of the Christian from immaturity to Christ-likeness was generally understood to be a slow process. God’s grace was essential to its development, while human cooperation could facilitate or hinder this development. Another example, from the same text:

Abba Poemen said of Abba John the Dwarf that he prayed to God to take his passions away from him so that he might become free from care. He went and told an old man about this: “I find myself in peace, without an enemy,” he said. The old man said to him: “Go, beseech God to stir up warfare so that you may regain the affliction and humility that you used to have. For, it is by warfare that the soul makes progress.” So he besought God, and when the warfare came, he no longer prayed that it might be taken away, but he said: “Lord, give me strength for the fight.””

From “Ascetical Theology and Christian Psychology” by Kevin Goodrich, O.P. at
The Rev’d Canon Dr. Kevin Goodrich, O.P., is the Third Master of the Anglican Order of Preachers (Dominicans).


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