Tag Archives: Early Christianity

Birth of the hospital in the West – the first stirrings in the early church


The plague in Rome. Painting by Jules Elie Delaunay

The plague in Rome. Painting by Jules Elie Delaunay

Moving on in the “hospitals chapter” in my Getting Medieval with C S Lewis:

What does a distinctively Christian practice of mercy look like?

To see what a distinctively gospel-centered approach to care for the body looked like in the early and medieval church, we turn to a case study: the early development and medieval rise of the hospital

Early

What, then, did this distinctively Christian practice of mercy look like in the early and medieval church? A key case is that of the hospital. Before Christianity, there were no hospitals in the Roman Empire. Within a few centuries of Christ’s coming, an institution that would later develop into the hospital begin to emerge as a unique new form of religious philanthropy on the face of the earth.

Church parish networks

Before it did, however, there was plenty of Christian healing and helping going on—with healthcare usually happening in the context of needy members: widows, orphans, the poor. But it was happening in the church. Specifically, it was happening within parish networks. As a regular part of their worship, the earliest Christians gathered alms to be distributed by deacons for the help of those in need. By the mid 200s, the benevolence mission of the church had birthed a complex of minor clerical orders, and a report from Cornelius, bishop of Rome, in 251 described a strategic system that involved dividing the city into seven districts, with deacons and subdeacons appointed to care for the people in each one. Gary Ferngren relates that the Roman church in that day spent up to a million sesterces a year—a huge amount of money—in supporting and caring for 1,500 needy people. Continue reading

Yes, even New Years resolutions have a Christian history


New Years sparklers 2013

Early in my training as a church historian, I learned the important fact that here in the West, pretty much everything has a Christian history. So I wasn’t surprised to find that New Years resolutions are rooted in old Christian practices too. Here’s what I discovered about the subject. Enjoy, and Happy New Years!

How important was the closing of the NT canon to the early church?


St Athanasius at Clarence Gate

St Athanasius at Clarence Gate (Photo credit: Lawrence OP)

In a recent short paper on the topic of Scripture and tradition, a student of mine wrote the following:

“While combating the Arian heresy, Athanasius, the Egyptian bishop of Alexandria, was exiled under false pretenses.  In 367, just returning from exile, he wrote perhaps the most important document to the early church, the Festal Letter. In it was a list of Christian books he said were inspired of God. Christians had long debated which books should make up the New Testament, but Athanasius’s list of 27 writings marks the first time a church leader identified the very books Christians today called the New Testament. (Stephen M. Miller, “How we got our Bible A Gallery of Mavericks and Misfits,” http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/1994/issue43/4318.html). The books, which were declared as ‘sacred scripture,’ “were confidently believed to be inspired writings, divinely dictated word by word.”[1]“

This insistence that the Festal Letter was the most important document of its age seemed to me a typically Protestant misemphasis. Not that the books of the New Testament were unimportant. They were central to the life and thinking of the early church–indeed, in ways that we can only palely imitate. However, I wrote in the margin:

“Note that many other documents, including proto-creeds, were considered more important to the church at the time than the Festal Letter, which was something of a “blip” on the early church’s radar. Canon formation was just not a major issue for Christians of the time; they felt comfortable that the bishops, the church itself, the Holy Spirit superintending, the “rule of faith” in the proto-creeds . . . all of these would guarantee apostolic truth. It wasn’t that important to them whether this or that book was declared “canonical.” They were all edifying. They all had a certain authority. Whether some were of the highest authority or not (canonical) was a matter open to discussion, but they didn’t feel this threatened the integrity of the faith.”

I based my response to the student on understandings gained from Baptist patristics scholar D. H. Williams (Baylor University). I don’t think I am overstating the case: tradition, including the rule of faith and the teaching role of the bishops, was simply the primary guarantor of apostolic truth in those early years. Canon had not yet taken on that role, as it does with Protestants today.

What do you think? Did I overstate my case in the response to this student? I am not a Patristics scholar–hence my reliance on Williams (and other things I have read). I am open to correction and constructive debate on this.


[1] Evans, G.R., Faith in the Medieval World. 49.

 

A little introduction to early Christian thought, for beginners


Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.

Icon representing the Council of Nicea

Back in the late 1990s, when I was a doctoral student at Duke, they used to give us PhD hopefuls “preceptorials.” That meant you helped a senior professor in their courses, as a teaching assistant. The professor did the lectures, and you led discussion in weekly seminar sessions for the same course.

Digging through some old files the other day, I found this little talk I gave to a group taking Dr. David Steinmetz’s CH13: Church History to the Reformation, on the day of their first seminar session. Dr. Steinmetz taught in the mode of “intellectual history”: opening up to his students some of the more important, and often difficult, theological discussions that engaged the great minds of the early church.

This talk of mine is intended to give students who didn’t necessarily have any background in historical or theological studies some strategies to get through the experience of the course, and to learn and grow along the way. Part of it is in “talking ‘em off the ledge” mode, recognizing that the study of early Christian theology can look pretty arcane and intimidating. And part of it suggests some intellectual and practical strategies to get the most out of their studies. 

If I had to do the talk today, I’d make some changes–and indeed I do cover some of these things in my courses now. But other things I had forgotten, and will be reviving in my courses. So here it is: a “little introduction to early Christian thought, for beginners”: Continue reading

The Hospitals Issue of Christian History is almost here! A taste . . .


The Hotel-Dieu, a Paris hospital founded by the church in the Middle Ages

Well, I’ve been a ghost on my own blog, but it’s been for a good cause: Christian History Issue #101, on Healthcare and Hospitals in the Mission of the Church, is headed to the printer this Friday, Sept. 30. (To see it when it goes online in the coming weeks, watch this space.)

A small taste of the issue, my editor’s note:

Christian History’s founder, the late Dr. Kenneth Curtis, thought and wrote a lot about what our faith has to say to those who suffer illness and those who care for them. As the magazine returned to the red barn in Pennsyl­vania in 2010, Ken made several lists of topics he hoped the revived Christian History could address in future ­issues. At the very top was this one: the church’s role in the history of healthcare. I resonated with this topic from the start, but I did wonder, What kind of story is there to tell here? As it turns out, quite a powerful one.

As I began studying the topic I discovered two unexpected things: first, the church was much more influential in the history of healthcare than I had expected; and second, the modern hospital can be traced directly back to ancient and medieval Christian institutions. Continue reading

Summer 2011 confab of (early and medieval) historical theology wonks


Boston College: The Old World's enduring influ...

Boston College, with its Old World architecture

Folks, what’s the Boston Colloquy in Historical Theology? Why, it’s a group based at Boston College with a unique mission to rehabilitate historical theology as a discipline in service of the church. As it says on their website, ” The Boston Colloquy in Historical Theology (BCHT) is a professional organization of scholars devoted to the study of early and medieval Christian theology. Organized by Khaled Anatolios, Stephen F. Brown, and Boyd Taylor Coolman in the Theology Department at Boston College, the BCHT annually brings together scholars from these disciplines to foster conversation, stimulate thought, and promote scholarship.”

This summer’s meeting of the Colloquy looks to be an interesting one–see the list of papers below. Continue reading

Stuff Chris Armstrong likes, #1


Picture of Benny Beaver (en), mascot of the at...

Yes, this is the mascot of OSU. Yes, it's a beaver. Don't anger it.

Some links I’ve run across and would like to share.

First, the Oregon State University historian of science, medicine, and ancient Greece & Rome Gary Ferngren (who I’ve quoted many times on this site–go ahead, search on his name–and am hoping can help us out on Christian History issue #101 on healing in the early church & the Christian invention of the hospital) was captured on video three years ago debating OSU colleague Marcus Borg at a meeting of the OSU Socratic Club. A straightforward, clear presentation of “traditional Christianity.” Worth watching.

Second, an interesting article on Salon.com about a question that has occupied my mind over the years: Why are Christian movies so awful? The “presenting symptom” here is the movie Soul Surfer.

Third, a poem by my creatively and intellectually outstanding future daughter-in-law, Hannah Sauerwein, on being sick. It moves in a different, perhaps more reflective, ambit than this poem by the master of humorous poetry, Ogden Nash. But it certainly has its own charm. Proud to know Hannah!

Ta ta for now!

Social justice, early-church style


Giotto's Franciscan allegory of poverty: Poverty is a winged gaunt woman dressed only in rags, at whom children throw stones or brandish sticks. Christ himself marries this woman to St Francis. Numerous angels, as well as the personifications of Hope and Chastity, are present as witnesses. As offerings, two angels carry worldly goods heavenwards. The reactions of the world are depicted at either side: on the left a young man imitates Francis, and on the right the rich express ridicule.

The most recent issue of neoconservative Acton Institute‘s organ, Religion & Liberty, brings an interesting interview with “paleoorthodox” pundit Thomas C. Oden. Actually it is an excerpt of the interview; other bits of interview, dealing with Marxist liberation theology and the current condition of Oden’s United Methodist Church, can be found here.

The excerpt printed in Religion & Liberty ranges from early Christian treatment of the poor to global South missionaries coming to the West. Here are some of Oden’s comments on the value of patristic exegesis for today’s Christians–in particular where such exegesis was applied to social issues:

Why do you think many evangelicals, in their searching, are drawn to patristic thought and commentary? What can churches do to encourage those that are searching?

They’re drawn to patristic thought because it is wise. They are hungry for wisdom. They are looking for reliable Christian teaching and, in many cases, evangelicals have not been exposed to these documents because they have been focused on Christian doctrine since the Reformation. Continue reading

“The polemical nonsense about Constantine”: A follow-up on Peter Leithart’s new book Defending Constantine


Head of the colossal statue of Constantine I, ...

Image via Wikipedia

After my sympathetic post today about Peter Leithart‘s new book, Defending Constantine, my Anabaptist friend Mark Van Steenwyk responded as follows:

*in steps Mark, who has been lurking in the shadows*

Could you give an example of some commonly asserted “polemical nonsense being spouted these days about Constantine?” I get that there is more to the story than Constantine, and that he isn’t the lone Villain responsible for developing a sort of pro-War, nationalist Christianity. But doesn’t he play his part? Is Yoder being unfair?

*returning the shadows* Continue reading

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. Continue reading