Fasting is one of eight books in “The Ancient Practices Series” published by Thomas Nelson under the general editorship of Phyllis Tickle. The idea behind this series is that there are seven ancient practices, or disciplines, coming out of Judaism and taught and observed by the ancient church, that need to be incorporated into the lives of Christians today. Brian McLaren wrote the initial book in the series, mapping out the purpose and direction for the other volumes on individual disciplines. Fasting is McKnight’s assignment.
McKnight‘s approach and emphasis concerning fasting is somewhat unique among Christian thinkers, both past and present. He attempts, with limited success, to develop three stages of fasting which he labels “A,” “B” and “C.” The idea is that fasting is merely the natural, inevitable response of a person (“A”) to a grievous or sacred moment (such as sorrow or spiritual desire) (“B”), which may or may not lead to a desired result (“C”) (pp. xxi-xxii). “Fasting,” then, “is not a manipulative tool that guarantees results” (p. xxi). McKnight will spend much of the book trying to prove this thesis but he has a number of obstacles in his pathway:
1. While the author tries to draw his theory from scriptural inferences he repeatedly admits that many of his views cannot be supported by the Bible (e.g. p. 22).
2. Although he quotes from many proponents of fasting (e.g., Augustine, Calvin, Murray, de Vogue, Jerome, St. Anthony, St. Francis, Wesley, John Caspian) all emphasize the benefits of fasting. That is, they fast for a result (“C”), which is their motivation in contrast to McKnight’s thesis.
3. All major modern supporters of fasting (e.g., Dallas Willard, John Piper, Richard Foster) are firmly in the “C” camp. They fast for results.
4. McKnight is unable to remain consistent even though he makes great effort to twist all motivation for fasting to the “A” → “B” category (i.e. a natural response to a grievous or sacred moment). The fact is that even he cannot hold that line. He fasts for the same reasons that his heroes fast(ed)—for some benefit. It might be to become more compassionate (p. 32), to gain clarity (p. 48) or a blessing (p. 48), to grow spiritually (p. 70), to draw closer to God (pp. 87, 110, 152), to develop love for God and others (p. 139), to overcome temptation (p. xvii) or to get answers to prayer (p. 154). The interesting thing is that he will offer these benefits as motives on the one hand and attempt to take them away on the other by such statements as, “Fasting is not an instrument that can be utilized to get what we want” (p. 155).
McKnight knows that the Bible gives very limited instruction on fasting (pp. 20, 122). For example, the New Testament epistles never mention fasting and they certainly do not prescribe or give instruction on the subject. But McKnight believes that, based on Old Testament Jewish practices and the witness of church history, fasting is vital for the church today. “Who are we,” he questions, “to neglect what God’s people have always done?” (p. 97) He admits, however, that ancient Jews in response to grievances or sacred moments also wore sackcloth, pulled their hair out, tossed dust on their heads, and tore their clothing as well as fasted (p. 55). Who are we, we might ask, to pick and choose which of these ancient practices to incorporate into our Christian life while rejecting the rest?
Ultimately, for any practice we must turn to Scripture for guidance, not practices of Jews or church history. When McKnight does so it is disastrous. Some examples:
• He believes that since pious Jews of the first century fasted twice per week, we should do the same. He seems to forget that this was practiced by the legalistic Pharisees and Jesus did not condone or follow their practice. Nor did the Old Testament Scriptures prescribe such fasts.
• He claims Psalm 77 is the faster’s prayer, even as he admits that fasting is never mentioned in the psalm (pp. 55-57).
• He draws conclusions from silence (at best) for Jesus’ explanation as to why He and His disciples did not fast (Luke 5:35), (pp. 60, 70-71, 85, 124-127).
• He claimed Paul fasted twice using two references about persecution which were examples of forced starvations not fasts (pp. 69-70).
• He conveniently sidesteps Matthew 6:16-18 and Jesus’ command to fast in secret.
• He uses five Old Testament examples of fasting, most of which do not meet the definition of a voluntary fast (pp. 112ff).
• He repeatedly attempts to use Isaiah 58:6-7 as the basis for fasting, but takes the text out of its context and therefore twists its meaning (pp. xvi, 100-111, 133, 154).
Bottom-line: when we attempt to elevate certain practices to the status of necessary disciplines for Christian living, those practices must be derived directly from the teaching of Scripture not from inferences and tradition. While Fasting is more balanced, and honest, than many books on the subject, it lacks biblical foundation. Practices, especially Old Testament ones, which lack scriptural command and/or instruction, can be pondered but they must never be promoted to levels not taught in the Word. In the New Testament, fasting is neither commanded nor forbidden and is therefore left to the convictions of individual believers. But it certainly cannot be lifted to mandatory or essential status on the basis of what we find in the New Testament.