Tag Archives: early church

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!

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

New from Christian History magazine: The history of hell


The editorial team at Christian History magazine is working away on our Issue #101 on Healthcare and Hospitals in the Mission of the Church, which will release this fall.

Meanwhile, project editor Jennifer Trafton and a writing team including myself, Jennifer and Edwin Woodruff Tait, and Jennifer Trafton have finished work on “The history of hell: A brief history and resource guide.” You can check it out here.

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

To creed or not to creed?


Cover of

Luke Timothy Johnson, in his book The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters (Doubleday, 2003), deals concisely with objections to the “novelties” presented by the Nicene Council and its creed, and answers anti-creedalists on the importance of creeds:

The creed formulated at Nicea was an innovation in at least three ways

  1. “It clearly brought the church into a position of cooperation—it could even be argued cooptation—with the state”
  2. “It imposed a universal creed to take precedence over treasured local versions” (though note this creed was not actually made universal until the later Council of Constantinople)
  3. “It used philosophical language within a profession of faith that was supposed to articulate the Christian story in the language of Scripture.” Continue reading

Ancient and medieval historical theology: Ur doin it wrong?


The subhead above should have read: “A group dedicated to doing it right.” But then I couldn’t have used this lolcat picture. And I have a weakness for lolcats.

Once in a while a bright seminary student will come to me and tell me that they want to “go on” and study historical theology, in the service of the church. What theology doctoral program should they enter?

I think of Duke and UVA, and then I’m flummoxed. Now, I know there are other good programs out there. I’m not the best-connected academic. So I suggest that the student email their question to one of the prominent senior historical theologians–UVA’s Robert Wilken is one–who are in fact pursuing their field in the explicit service of the church (may Jaroslav Pelikan rest in peace).

But it has seemed to me that the field has never quite recovered from the mid-twentieth-century assimilation of theology to the “religious studies departments” of the major universities, nor from the academy’s quite proper dismissiveness of the squabbling “my dogma is better than your dogma” confessionalism that marked the field in the decades leading up to that assimilation. Certainly, as theology still languishes far from her erstwhile status as “queen of the sciences,” historical theology as the queen’s handmaiden has also fallen on hard times.

Now I discover that a group of historical theologians at Boston College have, for the past few years, been dedicating themselves to leading their field of historical theology back to the pursuit of (this will shock you) the history of theology–instead of defense of dogma, study of philosophy, or other things only tangentially related to the health of the church. Continue reading

The Spirit of Early Christian Thought–Robert Wilken


Cover of "The Spirit of Early Christian T...

Run out and get it, & read it now!

Bryan Bademan over at the University of Minnesota‘s MacLaurin Institute has begun blogging on one of my favorite books, Robert Louis Wilken’s The Spirit of Early Christian Thought:

In his book The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (Yale UP, 2003), Robert Louis Wilken explains that “Christianity is more than a set of devotional practices and a moral code: it is also a way of thinking about God, about human beings, about the world and history.” Indeed, “for Christians, thinking is part of believing” (xiii). Wilken’s important work is centered on this great theme of early Christianity—that far from the faith banishing reason and clear-eyed analysis of the world, early Christians were obsessed with such intellectual practices and bequeathed to the world a faith tradition that was inextricably bound to (and yet creative with) the best of the classical past. For Augustine, this point was axiomatic: “Not everyone who thinks believes, since many think in order not to believe; but everyone who believes thinks, thinks in believing and believes in thinking” (xiv).

Wilken’s book is helpful for Christian scholars today precisely because he’s interested in “how a Christian intellectual tradition came into being.” Continue reading