Christianity as healing religion: Gary Ferngren on the roles and rationales of healing in the early church


As I have done my early research on the history of medical care in the Christian west, I have benefitted greatly from (and blogged extensively on) the work of Guenther Risse and Darrel Amundson (if you chuck those names into the search box at the upper right of this blog, you can see a number of posts of material from those scholars).

But I have still been left with questions unanswered about the theological underpinnings of Christian medical care. Didn’t early/medieval understandings of human dignity, rooted in a scriptural insistence that we bear the “image of God,” join the Matthean sheep-and-goats passage to set the table for a Christian imperative that all should serve the sick, the dying, the poor? I was looking for a smoking gun on those things in the secondary literature.

Well, now I’ve found it. It’s the wonderful and relatively new (2009) book by an Amundson colleague and collaborator, Gary B. Ferngren. The book is called Medicine & Health Care in Early Christianity. Though it is not medieval in its scope, I have no doubt that the rich theological rationales for an “imperative of care” that Ferngen discovers in the early church continued to be influential if not determinative right through the early modern period and beyond. This early tradition of Christian health care is, like so much else in modern western Christianity, our forgotten heritage. I’d love to launch a mini-conference at Bethel University, whose nursing department is one of the best in the Midwest, using some of this material and talking about “the Christian imperative of care” or something like that.

Christianity as “the healing religion par excellence

In his chapter 4; “Christianity as a Religion of Healing,” Ferngren outlines in just what ways healing became important in the life of the early Christian church, making a careful distinction between miraculous healing and “ordinary” healing—and therefore between “healing religions” of pagan Rome such as the cult of Asclepius and the different ways Christians approached healing, of both of these types. A taste of that chapter:

64           “Since the time of Adolf Harnack (1851 – 1930) it has been widely maintained that an emphasis on physical healing was, from the New Testament era to the end of antiquity, a major aspect of early Christianity. One might cite many authorities for this view. I merely adduce two. First, Harnack: ‘Deliberately and consciously [Christianity] assumed the form of “the religion of salvation or healing,” or of “the medicine of soul and body,” and at the same time it recognized that one of its cardinal duties was to care assiduously for the sick in body.’ In a somewhat different vein Shirley Jackson Case writes: ‘In the ancient world it was almost universally believed that the function of religion was to heal disease, and it was in just this world that Christianity took its rise. It need not surprise, us, therefore, to find that Christianity is from the start a healing religion.’ That this view has gained something of the status of an orthodoxy is evidenced by a statement made by Vivian Nutton, who referred to Christianity as ‘a healing religion par excellence’ and suggested that ‘this was one of the features that secured for Christianity the primacy among competing religions.’”

If you are familiar with the work of Rodney Stark, who provided the single, prominent blurb on the back jacket of this Johns Hopkins U Press book, then you know Stark makes this same argument in his The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders the Evidence. It was in Stark that I first encountered this idea of Christianity as a healing religion and healing as a determining factor in Christianity’s early spread.

Miraculous healing or “ordinary” healing?

Ferngren goes on to point out that “most scholars who have stressed the role of healing in early Christianity have emphasized . . . miraculous healing” over “physical healing through ordinary means.” He spends much of the rest of the chapter examining this claim. After examining the flourishing cult of saints and relics in the West and miracle-working holy men in the East, Ferngren says:

83-84     “The most persuasive argument against the thesis that Christians helped to create a mentality that was marked by the ubiquity of miracles and magic, in which they attracted proselytes by their success in miraculous healing, is that in spite of the appeal of magical charms and relics in the West in the late fourth century, as well as the popularity of ascetics in the Eastern Empire, there appears to have been no diminution in Christians’ seeking healing from physicians. While I shall reserve arguments in support of this assertion for a later chapter, it will suffice at this point merely to observe that the earliest hospitals began to be established by Christians in cities throughout the Eastern Empire at the same time that miraculous claims of healing were making their appeal—in the latter half of the fourth century—and that these hospitals were in some cases staffed by physicians and attendants. Even ascetics, as we shall see, were by no means averse to recommending the use of medicine when they believed it would be efficacious, though they were sparing in using it themselves. Miraculous healing did not replace for Christians their ordinary reliance on medicine.” [emphasis mine]

Ferngren admits that “a dramatic explosion of accounts of healing occurred in the late fourth century [after the legalization of Christianity under Constantine], as Christians increasingly sought miraculous cures” (85). He has a number of explanations for this, which I won’t go into here. But he again concludes:

85           “The new resort to miraculous forms of healing in late antiquity did not, however . . . lead to a decreasing reliance on medicine by Christians. Probably the majority of Christians continued to seek out physicians or employ home or traditional remedies, while the establishment of hospitals extended medical care to the indigent, particularly to the urban homeless who were previously without the means to obtain it. Christianity was never a religion of healing in the sense that Harnack described it, comparable to the great healing religions of Asclepius and Serapis. At no period was healing central to the early Christian message, and it always remained peripheral to a gospel that offered reconciliation to God and eternal salvation to sinners.”

So how did Christians organize healing, and why did they make healing a theological imperative on all Christians? For they did. Ferngren examines this in chapter 6, “Health care in the early church”:

Church-based healing ministry in early Christianity

113        “. . . [B]y the third century the rapid growth of Christianity in the cities of the Roman Empire led to the parochial [i.e. parish-based] organization of benevolent work on a large scale. The plague of Cyprian, which beset the empire in the mid-third century, greatly extended its philanthropic role, marking a considerable advance over the organization of medical charity that preceded it and preparing the way for permanent nonparochial medical institutions, especially hospitals, in the fourth century. But the creation of the hospital did not end the role of the urban churches in administering medical charity, which continued for several centuries.”

113-114               “From the very beginning Christianity displayed a marked philanthropic imperative that manifested itself in both personal and corporate concern for those in physical need. In contrast to the classical world, which had no religious impulse for charity that took the form of personal concern for those in distress, Christianity regarded charity as motivated by agape, a self-giving love of one’s fellow human beings that reflected the incarnational and redemptive love of God in Jesus Christ. At the same time that ordinary Christians were encouraged privately to visit the sick and aid the poor, the early church established some forms of organized assistance. . . .”

114        “Although their numbers and resources might be small, Christians were equipped, even in the most adverse circumstances, to undertake considerable charitable activity on behalf of those who were ill. Owing to a combination of inner motivation, self-discipline, and effective leadership, the local congregation created in the first two centuries of its existence an organization, unique in the classical world, that effectively and systematically cared for the sick.”

From this and other material in Ferngren, I draw a number of conclusions:

  1. Physical ministry to the poor and ill was an integral part of early church life
  2. It was grounded in the local congregation before, during, and even after the founding of the first hospitals (e.g. Basil’s famous Basilaea in the 4th c.)
  3. Parochial  (parish) ministry laid the groundwork for the later development of the hospital as a mode for care of those in physical need
  4. Agape was the motivator, vs. the pagan world, which had no religious motive for charity; as Ferngren says, no “personal concern for those in distress” (though surely even pagans had concern for family members in distress!)
  5. Also “a combination of inner motivation, self-discipline, and effective leadership” allowed local congregations to “effectively and systemically care for [their] sick.” (114)

There is much more, and I am just beginning to read the book. I look forward to learning, and sharing, more of Ferngren’s work.

4 responses to “Christianity as healing religion: Gary Ferngren on the roles and rationales of healing in the early church

  1. Chris,

    This post jogged me to write about the Beatitudes and healing. Some of it is below, and I’ve left a link for anyone who cares to read further.

    One more note on Christianity as a healing religion: wasn’t it the Council of Trent that solidified Church teachings on the annointing of the sick/extreme unction? The teaching would have come from James. Close proximity between the dying and their clergy would have been critical during the plagues.

    Balance in the Beatitudes

    Christ went up on the mountain to heal the multitudes. The topic of healing would have been appropriate on this occasion. The beatitudes are eight in number, suggesting healing to the ancient and medieval mind.

    In the Hebrew tradition, Beatitude, or blessing, carries the meaning of “to verbally call into existence the power for something to be what it was intended to be.” In this sense, blessing is parallel to healing.

    Hippocrates lived 400 years before Christ and his ideas about healing had spread throughout the ancient world by the time Christ taught the Beatitudes. His ideas were practiced by Greeks and Hebrews alike.

    In the ancient world, healing was approached through a balance of the four humors; four fluids which led to the process of correct digestion of food within the body. With exception of traumatic injury or an affliction from birth, all disease was said to originate from an imbalance of the humours. With four humours, there are eight ways to be unbalanced: therefore, eight beatitudes.

    Hippocrates’ first aphorism would have been as familiar to the multitudes who sought healing as the witticisms of Benjamin Franklin are to us today. It is most likely that physicians taught this saying, or an equivalent, to the families of the sick so they could take an active part in the healing process of their loved ones. Christ’s audience may have recognized the allusion readily:

    “Life is short, and Art long; the crisis fleeting; experience perilous and decision difficult. The physician must not only be prepared to do what is right himself, but also to make the patient, the attendants, and externals cooperate.” –First Aphorism of Hippocrates

    Hippocrates’ famous aphorism diffuses responsibility for the healing process from the doctor to the patient himself, his attendants, and his environment. It does not excuse the doctor, but it does point to the ways we can help ourselves and others heal. The Beatitudes follow this same general structure; starting with balance within the individual, moving us to provide balance to others who are afflicted, urging us to create a balanced environment that leads to healing for all; and in the last resort, in the face of hostility, trauma, and even death, offering the ultimate remedy of resurrection.

    Among the key Koine Greek terms used in the Beatitudes, nearly all have an application to disease, recovery from disease, and affliction.

    Ptosso (poor) afflicted, fallen
    Pentheo (mourning) mourning the dead
    Praus (meek) describes a fever breaking
    Peinao (hunger) appetite, the basis of good health in ancient medicine
    Elelo (mercy) to help one afflicted
    Kathoaros (pure) the cleansing process employed by a physician
    Eirene (peace) The Goddess of natural balance, who was said to guard the gates of Heaven and was herself said to be a daugther of Zeus.*

    In the final beatidue I can find no reference to healing, except the promise of the Kingdom of Heaven, and the ultimate healing offered there.

    In addition, Christ lays out his list in a culturally familiar way. From the first beatitude to the last, he follows the order of the Tripartate Soul established by Plato in Timeaus. Leading the list, spirit is associated with the head. Mid-list, hunger is associated with the belly. Nearing the end of the list, cleansing applies to the lower organs.

    I beleieve when he gave the Beatitudes, Christ may have relied on culturally shared ideas about healing like the ones mentioned in order to stimulate his audience to consider the value of spiritual healing, which has both immediate and eternal value.

    Although the eighth Beatitude does not seem to touch on healing in a direct sense, I love the imagery when I look at the Greek: Jesus urges those who are being pursued, driven, who are fleeing because of persecution for righteousness to be glad, to take a flying leap (paraphrase mine!) right up to the sky where they belong (translated “theirs is the kingdom of heaven”). He goes on in the next verse to make light of those who “talk down” to the citizens of the sky.

    * * * * * * * *

    The definition of blessing I gratefully ascribe to Dr. Stephen Hooks. These opinions are all my own. I have been a student of ancient medicine for more than ten years, without anything to show for it except a greater appreciation of how medicine was viewed in ancient and medieval cultures. I do not practice any form of medicine.

    *I’m not saying Jesus told his audience to worship Eirene; he told them that by making peace, they themselves would be called “children of God,” making such a goddess/guardian of the heavens obsolete.

  2. I’ll have to look for this book. I wonder whether this author, or someone else out there has approached the Beatitudes as a prescription to heal our spirits?

    First, “blessing” is a lost concept, I think. Dr. Stephen Hooks, Rich Mullins’ and my favorite professor at CBC, defined it as “To call (verbally) into being the power for something to become what it is intended to be.” He was studying for his doctorate at Hebrew Union at the time. His definition sounds a lot like healing to me.

    Next, the context. Jesus went to the mountain to heal the multitudes.

    Third, the details: The number eight signifies healing in the ancient world. it remarks the four kinds of humoral imbalances: too much or not enough of each. For clarity, the four humours are better described in terms of the four virtues. Something to consider, perhaps.

  3. I think youa nd I ar emoving on the same lines here, myself as prist and herbalist. How great a heresy were the ‘witch hunts’ of the inquisition years that attempted to wipe out the indigenous healers?

    • If I knew more about the indigenous healers, I could better answer your question, but it doesn’t look on the face of it like this would be a “heresy”–which is a problem of belief. Rather, perhaps, a very poor Christian practice involving violence.

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