Fasting in Subsequent Church History
In the early church, fasting was highly valued. Those who could do so fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays until 3 p.m. But in the fourth century, with the rise of Constantine and the end of persecution, the church changed dramatically. Worldliness and institutionalism increased markedly, bringing an emphasis on form, ritual, and liturgy. Fasting became more legalistic and, for many, works oriented. In spite of abuses, Augustine, the desert fathers, and other godly people continued to commend its frequent proper use as an important practice for spiritual life and growth.
In the sixth century, fasting was made obligatory at the Second Council of Orleans; during the Middle Ages, many additional obligatory fast days were added. This only worsened the problems of legalism and works righteousness for many people. On the positive side, however, the Irish monks who evangelized England and Northern Europe during this period practiced fasting and prayer to good advantage in their missions.
The Protestant Reformers rejected obligatory Catholic fast days but cautiously retained fasting as a valuable practice. Martin Luther and John Calvin praised its value and encouraged its proper use. Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley strongly commended it to everyone, especially to those in ministry. Wesley found fasting so important that he would not ordain anyone who did not fast two days a week. In England in 1756, Wesley saw and praised God’s remarkable response to the king’s proclamation for a national fast that averted an imminent invasion by the French.
In the twentieth century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and C.S. Lewis are among many leaders who practiced fasting and encouraged others to do so. In 1940 Lewis and all of England saw God’s incredible answer to the national day of prayer proclaimed by King George VI, which was manifested in the miraculous deliverance of 338,000 British troops at the Battle of Dunkirk. No doubt many of the faithful were also fasting in that desperate situation.
In all periods of history, there have been those who lacked money for alms and have fasted a day or two or three, using the food or money saved to feed those more impoverished than themselves.
Looking back over church history from his day, Princeton theologian Charles Hodge summed up the history of fasting this way: “All eminently pious persons have been more or less addicted to [i.e., often practiced] this mode of spiritual culture.”3
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