Alois Koch SJ
The Christian View on Sport:
Its Foundations in the Holy Scriptures and in the Church Fathers' Writings

German Version

Lecture with the seminar “The Christian View on Sport”
in Mainz on 2 March 2007


A. Preliminary Remarks

A first remark: The subject given to me, to explain the foundation of the Christian understanding of sports according to its foundations in the Holy Scriptures and in the writings of the Church Fathers, reminds me of the theses of dogmatic theology with which I was made familiar in my studies of theology. There the usual way to argue was based - apart from the actual “theological reason” - on the testimony of the Holy Scriptures, the tradition and the church's teachings. Those points belonged of course to a proper thesis, not last also the “adversarii”. But it is difficult for our topic that the subject of the considerations here does not occur in such a way in the Holy Scriptures and in the early Christian tradition. The modern sport, about which it is here, has e.g. with the agonistic and athletics of Greece and Rome at most outward similarities. It has other roots. It is also to be taken into account that neither the Holy Scriptures nor the early Christian writers explicitly and thematically deal with the contemporary ways of “Leibesübungen” (physical exercises) - apart from Tertullian and Novatian. But they talk in their writings “De spectaculis” - among other “spectacles” - only about athletics.

A second remark refers to the course of my considerations. I deal in a first main point with the attempts of a Christian substantiation of today's sport: in a first step with the Biblical statements about the physical nature of man and with the reference to pictures and comparisons from the world of the antique athletics in St Paul's writings. In a further step I will deal with some Church Fathers' distinctive statements on man's physical nature, on physical exercises and the contemporary athletics. A second main point refers to some found guidelines, with the help if which one can perhaps better recognize and interpret precarious developments of today's sport.


B. Attempts of a Christian Substantiation of Sport

1. Reference to Biblical Statements on Man's Physical Nature.

With the exception of two remarks in the Maccabees (1 Mac 1,13 f and 2 Mac 4,7 ff) the Holy Scriptures do not deal with the contemporary physical exercises. That is why one from Christian side - to substantiate one's sporty engagement today - refers back to statements of the Bible on man's physical nature in general. But these statements are usually taken out of their context. One does not pay attention to the fact that they serve for other truths.

That applies e.g. to the time and again quoted passages from the two Creation stories of Book Genesis, man's “body” too was well created by the good God: “God saw everything that it had made, and look: It was very good.” (Gen 1,31) With man's creation it is not - as it is often and still assumed - about a “double creation” (of body and soul), but man as a whole owed its existence to God. As this one and whole 'being man' man is creature and “image of God” (Gen 1, 27).

The Bible is primarily concerned with this fundamental relation of man to its creator, and not with its body opposite to its "Geistseele" (soul). What man is, that is it in this its being related to God. When man is called “image of God”, then is stated that s/he is "image of Got" not only in his/her spiritual nature, but in his/her totality. And when man becomes a “living being” while God breathes into it the divine “breath”, then with this is not meant the creation an immortal soul. “Breath” means only that man is a living thing. Hence the words “soul” and “body” are not used to denote components, they are only taken as different viewpoints under which the one and whole man is seen.

All the more it applies to the time and again quoted passages from the New Testament that they are taken out of their context. St Paul's text from the First Letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 6:19f) with the statement “Glorify God in your body!”, to which one time and again refers back, does not want to give reasons for the body care but is directed against views in Corinth which regard the sexual liberality for Christians as ethically irrelevant. But these verses of St Paul are time and again quoted by theologians, also by Popes. Two examples: Pius XII says in his message of greeting to the Catholic sportswomen of the Olympic Games in Melbourne in 1956: “When at that time the Greek athletes began the celebration of Olympia with a ritual act, it is today far more meaningful to turn at the beginning of the Olympic Games to the one and true God in order to dedicate to it your young strengths and to recognize its title to our body and our life: ‚Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, … and that you do not belong to yourselves? … Glorify thus God in your body!“ (1 Cor 6:19f)” Johns Paul II too quotes St Paul's statements of the First Letter to the Corinthians: “The sport is first an appreciation of the body, the effort to achieve optimal physical conditions. … 'Or do you not know that your body is the temple the Holy Spirit living in you and which you have got from God? … Glorify thus God in your body!' (1 Cor 6:19f)“ (Speech from 12 April 1984)

For the Apostle it is about something else with his statement. In the context he turns against the body despising Gnosticism in the Corinth parish. What concerns him is that the body is not regarded as a reality, as an “area” that is irrelevant for man's moral behaviour (In the actual case: One may as Gnostic also have intercourse with a whore!). For St Paul it is also not about escaping the slavery of the “flesh”, i.e. man's lower urges, but for him it is about one's totally, i.e. in all dimensions of one's life, devoting oneself to the service of God.

Hence it becomes also clear: The limitation of St Paul's text to the physical nature, in the sense of man's physical reality, is untenable and does not justice to St Paul's comprehensive view. For man belongs in its totality to God. So Christ's salvation, which embraces all dimensions of man, is to be committed the memory of the faithful.

Hence the reference to the texts of the Old and New Testament as reason of the value of sporting physical exercises proves to be doubtful or not tenable according to the exegesis. Obviously one is looking for Biblical passages which then are taken out of their context, in order to justify theologically one's own understanding of physical exercises and the church commitment to the sport.

But with it is by no means said that the Holy Scriptures nevertheless give a view of man's physical reality that is far from any contempt and debasement. Just because the conception of man of Old and New Testament does not know any metaphysical dualism, i.e. man's separation into body and soul, hence into two unequal halves, also the physical dimension is wholly integrated into man's being. Hence sense and value of physical exercises are logically not the result of certain Biblical statements about man's physical nature, no, they are owed to the nature of the one and whole man, as far as in all its doing - i.e. in play and sport too - this one and whole nature of man is expressed respectively wants to be represented.

One has called play and sport “expressive actions” of the one and whole man, activities “out of the impetus of being alive” (Bamberg 1984, P. 17). In play and sport this unity of body and soul within the one being man is actually expressed in a specific way. There is in no way needed to refer back to passages in the Bible in order to endorse or practise as a Christian the physical exercises, play and sport. Christians - as people who know they are God's creatures - answer physical exercises in the affirmative because of the fact that they are human beings.


2. Reference to St Paul's Pictures and Comparisons from the Antique Agonistic.

When one talks about modern sport in the church, about its fascination and its problems then the reference to the pictures and comparisons with the antique agonistic used in St Paul's letters are rarely missing. St Paul had known the antique sport from his own experience and had had a positive view on this sport: “St Paul, grown up in the Hellenistic culture area, referred repeatedly to the sporting life as example and comparison for the religious life and set so a wonderful example of the value world of sportsmanship” (Weiler 1996, P. 23). “In St Paul we meet also that Biblical authority that proves in numerous ... passages its exact knowledge of the happening in the stadium and in the palestra. … From the synopsis of St Paul's texts, especially in the First Letter to the Corinthians, can be won a comprehensive picture of the sport from the view of the New Testament.” (Schwank 1998, P. 85)

Also in speeches of the Popes the references to St Paul's comparisons are much liked. Pius XII says about the so-called “Sport Epistle” from that First Letter to the Corinthians: “Those words throw rays of mystical light on the sport” (Söll, M. 1964, P. 22). And John Paul II says in a speech: “The Apostle of the nations does not hesitate to count the sport among the human values which served him as point of reference for the dialogue with people of his time. He recognized thus the fundamental validity of sport, which did not only offer him a possibility of comparison, in order to describe a higher ethical and ascetic ideal, but he saw it also in its inner reality as educational factor of man and as component of culture and society.” (Speech from 12 April 1984)

Even exegetes refer time and again to Corinth as place of the Isthmic Games, when they come to talk about the comparisons from the antique sport: “The reader knew such competitions from the Pan-Hellenic Isthmic Games held in their city” (Kremer 1997, P. 196 f). Characteristic for it is also Uta Poplutz's statement: “One can assume that the Apostle, who grew up in the Diaspora, was acquainted with the agonistic practice of his time.” (P. 264)

First is to be said: The pictures and comparisons used by St Paul are not ab “invention” of the Apostle. They draw our attention to a contemporary literary style, which was particularly used first by the Greek sophists, later by the cynical and stoical philosophers. This literary style is the so-called “diatribe”. Just in the time in which the St Paul's letters originate, the practice of virtue and life's moral struggle are compared with the efforts and sacrifices of the athletic competitions - for instance with Seneca and the Alexandrian Jew Philon († about 50 A.D.) - by the way far more graphically and precisely than with St Paul!

Hence Poplutz's reference St Paul had “in his native town Tarsus as also during the Pharisee training in Jerusalem … surely got to know the local athletic competitions” (P. 409) cannot be proved. Also the assertion the Isthmic Games had been “the concrete object lesson, the familiar background for the metaphorical use” in the First Letter to the Corinthians, chapter one (P. 288 f) can also not be proved. The knowledge of the cynic-stoical diatribe could be a quite sufficient reason for the use of agon metaphors.

An important criterion is usually not dealt with, but it was of decisive importance for the early Christian authors and probably also for St Paul, even if it is not mentioned in his comparisons: it is about the fact that the antique agonistic was closely connected with the pagan cult. The award ceremony with the presentation of the victory wreath, made of a tree dedicated to a god (in Olympia the wreath of the branches made of the holy olive-tree) was e.g. a ritual act; the award of the wreath meant the veneration of the god. That's why it was unacceptable for the early Christians to attend and support such rituals, as the testimonies of the early Christian authors show.

In this context also the fact is to be taken into account that the refusal of the Greek agonistic was natural for the strict Jews, in particular for Pharisees. When Poplutz points out that “the Greek physical culture seemed suspicious to pious Jews” (P. 410 notes), then the reason was not that one rejected the “physical exercises”, no, one was afraid of the danger to desert the Jewish religion. About St Paul it is said in the Acts of the Apostles: “I am a Jew, born at Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city (Jerusalem), at the feet of Gamaliel, taught according to the truth of the law of the fathers, zealous for the law” (Acts 22:3). And in Cäsarea St Paul admits before Agrippa and Festus: “All Jews ... witness that I lived as Pharisee according to the strictest movement of our religion.” (Acts 26:4f) Hence it is hardly to comprehend that St Paul - be it as participant or as spectator - had got knowledge of the agonistic combined with paganism.

The most detailed comparison in St Paul's writings is the well-known passage in the First Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 9. To two points notes are necessary. The athletes' “abstinence from everything” only meant that their entire life-style was subjected to a strictly regulated way of life: Training after the tetrad system (see Jüthner 1968, P. 195), diet, sleep and (apparently) sexual abstinence. The contemporary criticism at these athletic practices proves that these were not undisputed. Philostratos and Lukian of Samosata do not only clearly dissociate themselves from it. There are also passages in Seneca's letters which pull the athletes' way of life to pieces: “With me from the range of the 'free arts and sciences' have to be ruled out: Wrestlers and the whole crowd of ‚artists' who are only concerned with oil and dirt. … I ask you, what has that to do with ‚fine arts' yet, all those poor ‚puke fellows' whose physical function is the fattening of their bodies, but whose minds suffer permanent emaciation and somnolence.” (Letters to Lucilius 88, 18 - 19) When Seneca mentions the “enkrateia”, i.e. the athletes' “regulated way of life” addressed then only in this sense: to arrange his life as philosopher; to work by his whole conduct of life towards the aim to be achieved; to free oneself of passions that oppose reason; to bring the sensual impulses and longings under control of the mind. But St Paul and the Christians use the word “enkrateia” in a different sense than the stoical philosopher. For the Christian it is about a way of life according to the will of God and in his service.

The second “topic”, to which a note is appropriate, refers to the verse 27a. Poplutz translates it so: “I blow my body (= hypopiazo mou to soma)”. Hence the aim of the blows is the “soma”. With this term here (as also in other places in St Paul) is not meant the “body” (“brother donkey”), also not the “physical nature” of man. The term “soma” is here identical with the term “sarx = flesh” and means here not only the one and whole man in its physical nature, but man's missing orientation towards God, i.e. the sinful attitude: the turning away from God as man's salvation. The expression: “to live according to the flesh”, is synonymous with sin for St Paul. Hence when he directs the punches to the “soma”, then his doing does not mean “the beating up of the body”, but that he hits its weakest, most sensitive point (hypopiazein: to punch below the eyes): the egocentric attitude, the God oblivion, the sin. Hence one would have to translate verse 27 A: “I direct all my efforts against what is only human, what is godless in me.” For St Paul this is identical with “enkrateia”, the orientation of one's whole way of life towards the service of God.

From the explanations results logically that one cannot read any evaluation or an approval of the contemporary athletics into the comparisons and pictures from the antique Agonistic. And it must not be allowed to see in these comparisons “a beautiful example of the world of values of sport” (Weiler 1996, P. 23); and also the opinion St Paul counted “the sport among the human values” and regarded it “in its inner reality as educational factor for man and as component of culture and society” (John Paul II, in 1984), cannot be proved from the use of those comparisons.

St Paul wants rather to clarify the trouble and effort that the service at the gospel asks of him as Apostle, but also of each Christian. Hence the comparisons illustrate the moral effort to which the Christian committed itself in baptism. The life as Christian is not conceivable without this striving; just as a quite determined way of life is demanded from the athlete, if he wants to gain the victory in the contest.


3. The Views of the Church Fathers.

After the treatment of the Biblical topic now the time of the Church Fathers is to be dealt with. I will take four points: 1. the position of the Church Fathers to man's physical nature; 2. the approval of physical exercises; 3. the refusal and condemnation of the contemporary athletics; 4. the pictures and comparisons from the athletics in the writings of many Church Fathers.

A. The View on the Nature of Man.

In early Christianity it comes to the meeting or confrontation of the Biblical view of creation and man with the views of Greek philosophy, in particular with the philosophy of Plato and Stoicism. The uninhibited view of the body and the physical nature, which is characteristic to the Bible, is replaced by suspicion of the physical nature. Nearly all representatives of the early Christianity succumbed to this “epochal obligation” of thinking, and consequently find their refusal to the physical nature even confirmed in the Biblical writings. Thus it does not surprise when opinions are stated that oppose each other. Here only some texts may be quoted typical for these opposite views.

Thus e.g. Basilius of Cäsarea (+ 378) writes: “Who does not want to bury itself in the mud of sensual desire must despise the body in general. … Plato says the same as St Paul, who warns against caring for the body and arousing the desires (Rom. 13, 14). … One is to punish … the body and to hold it down like the impetuosity of an animal; and one is to calm with the scourge of reason the chaotic stirrings which it arouses in the soul, but must not let sensuality take its course.” (On Reading Pagan Writers, chapter 8)

Such statements are also found in Ambrosius of Milan (+ 397). In his commentary on St Luke's Gospel the human body is e.g. called in a good platonic way “the garment of our soul” (V. 107); in the body “our soul is, as it were, locked up like in a dungeon” (VIII. 48). Hence the demand is made “the soul may not let itself bend down by aberrations of the flesh” (VII. 91). In the funeral oration on his deceased brother Satyrus Ambrosius says the soul urged “to escape from this prison of the body” (II. 20); the soul is to learn “to free itself from the physical desires; … because the law of the flesh fights against the law of the spirit and hands the soul over to the law of the aberration.” (II. 40)

There are however not only these body-derogatory statements of Church Fathers, which conflict in striking way with the doctrine of the goodness of all created things. Tertullian's (+ 220) reference to the Incarnation - i.e. the statement “caro cardo salutis”, the flesh is the pivot of salvation (De carnis resurrectione 51) - is characteristic for the opposite view. Cyrill of Jerusalem (+ 387) summarizes in his “Catecheses”, as it were, the Christian teaching about man's physical nature created by God: “Do not tolerate any of those who say God had nothing to do with this body. For those who believe God had nothing to do with this body and the soul lived in a vessel that did not belong to it, abuse it easily for lewdness. What then don't they like about this marvellous body? What does lack its perfect beauty? What is not artful in its building?” (4. Catechesis 22)

Particularly in John Chrysostomus we find expressions that are far from any inferiority of man's physical nature. Thus we read in a homily on St Paul's letter to the Romans: “The nature of the flesh is not bad. For Christ accepted no other flesh than the original and changed nothing in its nature when he got ready for the fight with it. He left it in its natural condition and got it the laurel of victory over sin. And after the victory he let it rise from the dead and made it immortal.” In the same homily he says to Rom 8, 8 (“Those who are in the flesh cannot please God."): “Are we supposed to cut the flesh to pieces so that we please God? Are we to move out of the flesh? Do you tell us to become mass murderers by giving us guidance to virtue? You see what nonsense comes out when we take the words literally. Here the Apostle calls ‚flesh' not the body, also not the nature of the body, but the fleshly and earthly life that lets man become … completely absorbed in the care for the flesh. … 'Striving of the flesh' means sinful doing; it can always be something bad only; for it is not subjected to the law of God.” (See 14th homily on St Paul's letter to the Romans chapter 5 and 7). By the way, in this text of Chrysostomus the fundamental difference between the Antiochian and Alexandrian exegesis becomes apparent, whose exponent was Origenes, and whose Platonic convictions exerted large influence on Basilius and Ambrosius.


b. The Approval of Physical Exercises.

As much as the early Christian writers were influenced by the philosophical thinking of the time, that does however in no way mean a refusal of care for the body care and of physical exercises. The vital matters of course of the everyday life are further practiced also after the conversion to Christianity. One omitted or replaced pagan customs, which - by the close connection of life in the classical antiquity with paganism - often determined the religiously neutral occupations.

That become e.g. apparent with regard to the attendance of baths. Clemens of Alexandria (+ about 220) writes in his “Paidagogos”: “For the use of the … there can be four motives: to cleanse oneself, to warm oneself up, to further one's health, and at last pleasure. To bathe for the sake of pleasure is wrong; a shameless pleasure is completely to be eradicated. Women are to take a bath only in the interest of cleansing, the men in the interest of health.” (III. 9) It is known about Tertullian that he regularly visited the baths, except at the time of the Saturnalia (see Apologeticum 42). Gregor of Nyssa (+ about 395) counts the use of baths among the natural comforts in everyday life (7. homily on the Sermon on the Mount). John Chrysostomus sees the punishment of locking the Antiochian baths by Emperor Theodosius as a Draconian measure (16th homily on the picture pillars 6); in his deportation the “comfort of a bath” is denied to him. (Palladius: Life of John Chrysostomus, chapter 11)

Also gymnastics and palestra are fully accepted by Clemens of Alexandria: “Young people need the palestra in spite of the baths, and it might be correct when men like it to visit above all these palestras. … They are useful for young people regarding their health; they awaken eagerness and ambition to have not only a healthy body but also a healthy soul. … We will not forbid physical exercises to women too, but will not ask them to wrestle or race each other. … But of the men these may wrestle with naked bodies, others play with the ball, particularly the Phaininda game. … But wrestling … is to be practised not for the sake of vain contest. … Everywhere one is to be moderate.” (Paidagogos III. 10)

But the reasons given for body care and physical exercises clearly show the influence of Stoicism. The moment of desire in any activity is as far as possible to be ruled out. Reason alone is to determine man's action, not pleasure or joy in the gymnastic exercise or in bathing. This kind of reasons for physical exercises will mould the Christians' view until today.


C. Criticism of Contemporary Athletics.

From the favourable attitude to body care and physical exercises the early Christian writers' devastating criticism of the actual athletics is clearly distinguished; above all wrestling, pugilism and pancration (a combination of wrestling and pugilism) cast their spell over the public in the arenas. Out of the many negative statements two authors may be mentioned: Tertullian and John Chrysostomus, since in them the main points of criticism are mentioned in a special way.

Tertullian's decisive argument in his writing “About the Plays” is their proximity and combination with the pagan cult. Christians have in their baptismal vows rejected in principle the idols, the “pompa diaboli”. In this connection he expressly mentions also the Olympic, Nemeic and Isthmic Games, in which the entire milieu is “besmirched” by idolatry: “What then is remarkable in it when even the outside apparatus of the contests is stained by idolatry, by "sinful" wreathes of victory, by the chairman of the priesthood, the serving cooperatives and finally by the sacrificial blood of an ox?” (De spectaculis XI)

Add to it: Wrestling but also the different races, throw and jump exercises are for the Christian not acceptable, in particular because of - also criticized by the contemporaries - the forcible diet: "You will not applaud to the stupid races, throw and jump exercises; dishonourable and vain show of strength will never find your favour, as little as the care for forced corpulence, because it wants to surpass the shape made by God; and you will abhor these people who have been fattened for the sake of Greek leisure." Finally he points to the brutality of the athletic exercises: "You will be unable to deny that what happens in the arena is unworthy of your sight: the punches, the kicks, the blows into the face, the impudent behaviour of the fighters' hands and all the disfigurements of the human face, this image of God." (De spectaculis XVIII) It is said further: "Will also the master in pugilism … remain unpunished? Has he probably got already his scars from the scourge, his bumps from the punches, and his knots behind the ears in his creation by God? Has God given him healthy eyes that he loses them in the punch-up?" (De spectaculis XXIII)

Hence Tertullian emphatically rejects the athletic exercises; above all however the nourishing practices liked and practised by the athletes. In this point he knows his criticism in agreement particularly with the Stoic philosophers who called the “fattening” of the athletes by “forcible diet” degrading and inhumane. Thus Philostratos makes in his “Writing on Gymnastic” fun of the athletes by caricaturing them as “crammed full like Libyan and Egyptian flour bags” (Gymnastic 44); and Seneca calls the athletes in a letter to his friend Lucilius “poor puke fellows, whose physical function goes not beyond the fattening of their bodies, but their spirit constantly suffers emaciation and sleepiness.” (Letters to Lucilius 88, 19)

It is surprising that also still for John Chrysostomus, who worked about the end of the fourth century, just idolatry was crucial point of criticism against athletics and agonistic of his time - surprising also for that reason: generally we assume the Olympic Games had in 393 found an end by the prohibition by Emperor Theodosius. The great preacher knew Olympic Games, but not those in Olympia, but the Olympic Games that took place in the exclusive residential district of Antiochia, in Daphne, namely up to 520 A.D. Because of the combination of those Games with the Apollo cult these contests taking place in Daphne were not acceptable for Chrysostomus. In a homily he mentions for instance a festive procession (= pompe): "After the thirty days (of preparatory training) those who take part in the Olympic contests are led into the suburb." (PG 51, P. 76) In these fights "the devil celebrated his triumphs (= pompeuein)" (PG 49, P. 370). And further it is said: "During those bad spectacles the procession of the devil takes place. … There the demons dance." (PG 50, P. 645) And again: "The demons' festive meetings may not be the places of human spectator. … Since it is not allowed to enter the temple of an idol, how much more is it wrong to go to a satanic celebration." (PG 59, P. 188) Apart from the Olympic matches, "which were dedicated to the devil" is (PG 60, P. 613), Chrysostomus includes also the horse races in the hippodromes and "the other satanic spectacles" (PG 48, P. 1047) and "satanic processions" (PG 59, P. 321). Also the contests are called affairs of the devil (see PG 60, P. 69).


D. The Use of Pictures and Comparisons.

In the early Christian literature we meet from the outset time and again pictures and comparisons from the contemporary agonistic and athletics. They occur in large numbers e.g. also in Basilius of Cäsarea and Ambrosius of Milan. But in the use of comparisons John Chrysostomus is unsurpassed. In his writings the sequence of the individual contests, for instance with the Olympic Games, can be e.g. proved without any gaps. For this reason I restrict myself to him - but I'll give a few distinctive examples only.

In the 71st homily on the gospel of St. Matthew Chrysostomus refers to the importance of alms giving: "Tell me first: Who is the great master in the art of doing good deeds? Obviously God, who is teaching us this virtue! He is most experienced in it; he does it in infinite measure. When you learn now wrestling toward whom do you direct then your attention? Before whom do you show yourself in the palestra? Before the greengrocer and fishmonger or before the coach (= paidotribes)? … Or when you learned the fist-fight, would you not pay attention to what your teacher says to you? … Isn't it a foolishness to pay attention in all remaining arts only to the master and in the art of doing good to do the just the opposite?" (PG 58, P. 665 f)

With reference to a verse from the Letter to the Galatians (“Carry each other's burden! In this way you will fulfil the law of Christ": Gal 6, 2) is said: “Do you not see that the athletes stand in the middle of the arena at the Olympic contests; at midday they are as in a furnace on the battlefield (= skamma) and with naked body they endure the sunbeams; like iron statutes they fight with the sun, with dust and sultriness, in order to wreathe their head with the branches of laurel (= phylloi daphnes). Not such a laurel victory wreath is prepared for you, but the victory wreath of justice as reward for listening." (PG 51, P. 125)

In the 13th homily on the Letter to the Philippians is said, the Christians are to follow the example of the athletes' way of life: "Do you see how the runners depend in their way of life on certain regulations? How they do not anything allow themselves by which their strength could be weakened? How they daily exercise in the palestra under the supervision of a coach and under adherence to the regulations? You too copy this! … For an incomparably higher victory prize is your prospect. Great is the number of those who want to stop you (in the race). … There are a lot of things that threaten to weaken your strength. Try to give your feet strength and stamina. … Let us get for it the ease in the motion, so that the ponderousness of our body does not impair the nimbleness of our feet. Accustom your feet to steady tread. For there many slippery places, and when you fall down you lose thereby importantly. Even when you should fall stand up quickly! Also so you can still achieve the victory. Do never dare you on slippery soil; then you will not fall down. Run always on a firm course! Raise your head and eyes! Also the coaches shout so to the runners. Strength is so held in balance. But if you bend your head downward, you fall down and become exhausted. Direct your view upward where the victory prize is. Already the mere sight of the prizes increases the eagerness. The anxious expectation lets not feel the strains and lets the far distance appear short." (PG 62, P. 271 f)


C. Aspects of a Christian View on Sport

I come - further to the explanations about the Biblical and patristic “foundations” - to some suggestions or insights relating to the criteria of assessment in meeting modern sport from the Christian view. These guidelines (or “guardrails”) could point out, as it were, the "room to move" with its boundaries, hence they could take over the function of what the theologians call "norma negativa".

1) The effort to justify today's sport from the Biblical writings is understandable; but according to my opinion it is a "waste of effort". Since there are and cannot be direct points of reference, one refers back to Biblical statements on the physical nature of man in general. Since they are usually used in a context, i.e. to state other truths (than the value of sport), these aforementioned Bible quotations do not lead to the desired result, sport was Christian recommendable and morally valuable. Such an expectation proves to be an illusion.

But that does not mean that the Biblical writings do not offer a fundamental view to us about what is intended in all human behaviour in the end. Man is related in its whole existence as a physical being to the absolute God. The Bible speaks of man as "image of God". This relation to God is constitutive for man. But in its "wanting to be like God", in man's claim to be not in need of a transcendental Absolute, just this is - according to the Christian view - the cause for the obvious "Heillosigkeit" (hopelessness) of the world. "Heilsein" (health of body and soul), for which we Christians use the term "salvation", and the basic words of which are "mercy", "love" and "grace", cannot be achieved by man. Here we meet the fundamental difference between the Christian message and the conception which our secular society and concomitantly the modern sport have of itself.

As criterion of assessment for todays sport results from these considerations: Does sport remain “open” for this final (Christian) meaning? Or does it move toward a “secular religion”, which operates the “cult of man”?

2) From the pictures and comparisons of the antique agonistic in St Paul's writings not any assessment or approval of the contemporary athletics can be derived. It is improbably, yes, in my opinion impossible that St Paul gave his approval for instance to pugilism, this “life-and-death struggle” (Poliakoff, 2004). All the more one cannot get from the use of this comparison a fundamental valuation of modern sport. The apostle Paul wants only to illustrate the trouble and effort which the service to the gospel requires of him as apostle, but also of each Christian. As a life of privation is demanded of the athlete, if he wants to achieve the sporty victory, so in baptism the Christian committed himself to an appropriate effort.

3) As far as the views of the early Christian writers are concerned, it is to be made perfectly clear that they - because of their moulding by the philosophical thinking of their time - relating to the human nature represented as a rule a anthropologic dualism, hence a lower valuation if not even a contempt of the body. But the doctrine about God's good creation moderates these body-devaluing statements of many Church Fathers, not least by the reference to the Incarnation.

Despite these certainly dualist positions body care and physical exercises are endorsed by the early Christian authors. One sees the justification of this positive attitude in the reasonableness of those doings; not the motives of pleasure or fun, but only the motives of cleaning and health are reasonable and therefore determining. This rational justification of physical exercises, which found its expression up to our time in moral-theological manuals, in lectures etc., is to be corrected or supplemented. Health is for the sense of sport not the primary motivation for people, but pleasure and joy in the movement. These elements are best expressed in the moment of playing and show above all there to their best advantage. The bodily play is an “activity out of an internal need, of the impetus of being alive” (C. Bamberg).

4) Decidedly however the different forms of athletics are rejected by the early Christian authors, in particular wrestling and pugilism, not only because of their cruelty, yes, brutality, but also because of the nourishing practices associated with them. But the decisive argument against athletics is its combination with idolatry. This applies not only to the Olympic Games but also to the contests at all. They are regarded as meetings of demons, as meetings which are dedicated the devil. In his baptismal vows the Christian has rejected these activities, this “pompa diaboli”.

Here we should not be afraid of criticizing not only the Olympic idea. From its founder Pierre de Coubertin but also from his epigones (begun with Carl Diem up to Antonio Samaranch) the Olympic Games are conceived as cultic celebrations for the idolization of man and its achievement. Does this not also apply to other areas of modern sport? Can such a "sport" (especially the top-level sport), which has nothing or hardly something to do with educational and ethical values, still be reformed, yes, is it still worthy to be reformed? How and why should the church cooperate with this degenerated sport, or even commit itself to it? Are we not to agree to Eugen König's assessment that the top-level sport became “in its internal structure an a-moral, nihilistic sport”, “a sport that proves to be completely immune and resistant to all … ethical fits” (König 2004, P. 203)?

5) As far as the often detailed pictures and comparisons from the antique agonistic are concerned, which can be found in the writings of the early Christian authors, then here the identical judgement applies as for St Paul's writings: no assessment or approval of the contemporary athletics may be read into them. All the more this applies to the modern sport, particularly since this picture language is accompanied by the decisive refusal of the different athletic exercises. The pictures and comparisons serve particularly in the homilies and lectures to admonish the listeners and to encourage them by the example of the well-known and popular athletic exercises to a Christian life.

6) As result of my statements on the biblical and patristic foundations for sport in Christian view it be again made perfectly clear: I see only within three areas help for argumentation or standards for assessment:

Without the acknowledgement of man's relation to the transcendental God the sport becomes a “substitute religion”. The “cult of man”, yes, the claim of sport to be a “system that communicates sense” to today's people, is decidedly to be rejected.

The certainly still existing body-devaluing (not body-hostile) opinions are to be corrected. The monistic view of man of the Old and New Testament shows play and sport as “expression” of the one, holistic human being, as expression of being alive.

All views, in particular all practices in modern sport that are directed against life, health and the holistic development of man, are to be exposed as inhuman and to be categorically rejected.


E. Reference Works

Bamberg, C.: Von Wert und Würde menschlicher Muße. In: Geist und Leben 57 (1984), P. 14 - 28.

Koch, A.: Der hl. Paulus und der Sport. In: W. Schwank (and other editors): Begegnung, volume one, Aachen 1999, P. 42 - 74, 123 - 126.

Koch, A.: Das biblische Menschenbild und seine Bedeutung für die Wertung der Leiblichkeit und der Leibesübungen. In: W. Schwank (and other editors): Begegnung, volume two, Aachen 2000, P. 51 - 78.

Koch, A.: Sport als säkulare Religion. In: Stimmen der Zeit 127 (2002), P. 90 - 102.

Koch, A.: Leibwertung und Leibpflege im Werk des Kirchenvaters Johannes Chrysostomus (349 -407). In: W. Schwank (and other editors): Begegnung, volume 4, Aachen 2003, P. 36 - 64.

König, E.: Ethik und Zweckrationalität des technologischen Sports. In: C. Pawlenka (editor): Sportethik. Regeln - Fairneß - Doping. Paderborn 2004, P. 199 - 211.

Kremer, J.: Der Erste Brief an die Korinther. Regensburg 1997.

Metz, J. B.: Caro cardo salutis. Zum christlichen Verständnis des Leibes. In: Hochland 55 (1962), P. 97 - 107.

Poliakoff, M. B.: Kampfsport in der Antike. Das Spiel um Leben und Tod. Düsseldorf 2004.

Poplutz, U.: Athlet des Christentums. Freiburg 2004.

Schwank, W. : Christentum und Sport. In: O. Grupe und D. Mieth (editor): Lexikon der Ethik im Sport. Schorndorf 1998, P. 84 - 91.

Söll, G.: Theologie des Sports? In: Münchener Theologische Zeitschrift 23 (1972), P. 97 - 130.

Tongeren, P. J. M. van: Artikel "Sinn". In: O. Grupe und D. Mieth (editor): Lexikon der Ethik im Sport. Schorndorf 1998, P. 450 - 456.

Weiler, I.: Der Sport bei den Völkern der Alten Welt. Darmstadt 1981.

Weiler, R.: Sportethik. Graz 1996.