A Sketch of Christian Spirituality: From the Patristic Period to the Evangelical Era (Part 2 of 5)

Different Forms of Spirituality

The discourse of Christian spirituality may be grouped denominationally into four categories: Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, and Evangelical spiritualities. In this essay however, the following historical approach will be followed: patristic, medieval, Protestant, and Evangelical spiritualities.


Patristic Spirituality  

William Harmless, a member of the Society of Jesus and professor of historical theology and patristic studies at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, has noted: “The Church Fathers rarely discuss ‘spirituality’ separate from biblical interpretation or doctrinal debate or liturgical mystagogy. For them, Christian theology was all of a piece.”[1]

The eminent Catholic historian Robert Louis Wilken, an early Christianity expert, also supports this statement. In his book The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, Wilken contends that the essence of early Christian thinking was “Seeking the Face of God,” derived from Psalm 105:4, which is the subtitle of his book. Wilken observes that the intellectual work of the church fathers “was at the service of a much loftier goal than giving conceptual form to Christian belief. Its mission was to win the hearts and minds of men and women and to change their lives.”[2] In other words, the ultimate end of the pre-medieval thinkers in searching the Bible was not to produce a set of dogma, but to lead people “to holiness of life.”[3] For the church fathers life and doctrine were integrally connected and the “goal of life came to be understood as likeness to Christ.”[4]

Wilken’s purpose in The Spirit of Early Christian Thought is to show the spirituality of the church fathers through their apologetical writings. Wilken asserts that “[w]hether the task at hand was the defense of Christian belief to an outsider, the refutation of the views of a heretic, or the exposition of a passage from the Bible, their [the church fathers’] intellectual work was always in service of praise and adoration of one God.”[5] For instance, the Christian philosopher and apologist Justin Martyr, in his polemical piece First Apology, demonstrates his spirituality. Written to the government as a plea for justice on behalf of Christians who were mistreated because of their faith, Justin states that sound “reason directs those who are truly pious and philosophical [i.e. lovers of wisdom] to honour and love only what is true.”[6] Christians were being charged with crimes that were based on traditional and superstitious opinions and senseless rumors. Justin maintains that a truly pious person will not love such opinions and gossips, but the truth—and only the truth. For Justin, as well as for other church fathers, piety and truth are intertwined; they believed that piety is, in fact, rooted in the truth. In the last part of this treatise, Justin also stresses piety in worship, prayer, baptism and the Eucharist.

In his book, Wilken refers mostly to four church fathers: Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, and Maximus the Confessor, because according to Wilken “in the early church these four stand out as the most rewarding, the most profound, and the most enduring.”[7] Wilken also quotes from the writings of the eighth century Christian authors such as John of Damascus, who is commonly regarded by some historians as the last church father.

When studying the church fathers, some patristic scholars are only concerned with the mind of these fathers, neglecting the heart of their spiritual life. As Wilken notices, “[T]he study of early Christian thought has been too preoccupied with ideas.”[8] Consequently, the reading of early Christian thinkers becomes boring to many. In contrast to these scholars, Wilken, while dealing with doctrines and debates, engages with the spiritual life of the church fathers. Wilken’s book is scholarly, and yet very devotional, doxological, and pastoral. Thus, this masterful piece can be read for both scholarly enrichment and spiritual enjoyment and profit.

Moreover, since Wilken, especially in the last two chapters of his book, gives special attention to patristic spirituality, it is a considerably useful resource for the study of the spirituality of the church fathers. In Wilken’s mind, one unique feature of patristic spirituality is thinking coupled with living. He singles out Gregory the Great for whom “union of life and thought, of contemplation and action, gives him an honored place among church fathers.” “For Gregory,” adds Wilken, “as for all the figures who have made an appearance in the pages of this book, thinking about the things of God, like grammar, was not an end in itself; its aim was the love of God and holiness of life. He [Gregory] did not construct a world of ideas for others to admire but one to live in.”[9] Further, Wilken mentions that often the treatises of the fathers “ended with a doxology to God, as in Augustine’s On the Spirit and the Letter: ‘to whom be glory forever. Amen.’” These early thinkers “wished not only to understand and express the dazzling truth they had seen in Christ, by thinking and writing they sought to know God more intimately and love him more ardently.”[10]

Despite the rich gleanings to be found in Wilken’s The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, it should be noted that Wilken is a former Lutheran convert to Roman Catholicism, and therefore, his interpretation and presentation of pre-medieval spirituality are shaded by his Catholic worldview. This Catholic bias does not mean, however, that protestant and evangelical readers cannot benefit from this great work. Rather, Wilken’s piece should be read with careful discernment.

[1] William Harmless, available from http://moses.creighton.edu/harmless/bibliographies_for_theology/Mysticism_2.htm; Internet; accessed 12 June 2012.

[2] Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (New Heaven: Yale University Press, 2003), xiv.

[3] Ibid., xxii.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 25.

[6] Justin Martyr , “First Apology,” in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, eds. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, reprint, 1989), 163.

[7] Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, xix.

[8] Ibid., xiv

[9] Ibid., 313.

[10] Ibid., 25-26.



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