Before I survey the various facets of early Christian spirituality (a period which runs from around A.D. 100 to A.D. 600), let me first define the word “spirituality,” especially as this term is understood in diverse ways. Spirituality “is the outworking in the real life of a person’s religious faith—what a person does with what they believe” (McGrath, Christian Spirituality , 2). Spirituality may be distinguished from theology in that the former is about the experiential aspects of faith, while the latter is about the theoretical aspects of faith. Yet, the two are closely related and even inseparable: theology gives substance to spirituality; and spirituality gives life to theology.
“[T]he fathers never split theology off from spirituality, as though theology was academic, mental exercise best practiced in one’s study, while Christian spirituality was more appropriately focused on the heart and centered in a church sanctuary. Any split between mind and heart, theology and spirituality, study and sanctuary would have met with scant toleration from the fathers” (Hall, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers, 10). Nevertheless, in this brief post, my primary concern is to look at the spirituality of the early Christians—to see how they behaved rather than what they believed. So how did they behave? Who were they?
First, the early Christians were men and women of prayer. They conversed with God as those who were aware that God was listening and as those who were confident that God was going to answer their prayers. And their prayer was solidly Trinitarian, addressed to the Father, in the name of the Son, and with the help of the Holy Spirit. A quick glance of Augustine’s Confessions, written in the form of a prayer, will readily prove this point. The doctrine of the Trinity itself, codified during the patristic era, came to us as a gift from the fathers who proclaimed and praised the Triune God. The more I read these early Christians, the more I am convinced that behind their success in the ministry was their prayer life. I am specially thinking of Patrick’s fruitful ministry in Ireland. We know from his Confession how he earnestly prayed for the Irish. Yet, he was humbly conscious that if he was able to pray fervently, it was because the Holy Spirit enabled him.
Second, the early Christians were lovers of the Scriptures. They “turn always to the Bible as the source of their ideas. No matter how rigorous or abstruse their thinking—for example, in dealing with a complex and subtle topic like the distinctive identity of each person of the Trinity—Christian thinkers always began with specific biblical texts” (Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, 26). They read, studied, memorized, and mediated on the Scriptures. Augustine once said, “The hearer of God’s Word ought to be like those animals that chew the cud; he ought not only feed upon it, but to ruminate upon it” (Cited in Thomas, comp. Golden Treasury of Patristic Quotations, 34). Of course, some of them followed monastic rules, but for them their allegiance was first to the Bible and then to these rules. “We must surrender ourselves, said Augustine, “to the authority of Holy Scripture, for it can neither mislead nor be misled” (Golden Treasury of Patristic Quotations, 29). Their strong commitment to God’s Word resulted in the canon of the New Testament, another gift to us by the church fathers.
Third, the early Christians were pursuers of holiness. In the midst of their great struggle with their indwelling sin, they strove to live a godly life. In fact, their ultimate goal in the study of the Bible was not to produce a set of dogma, but to lead people “to holiness of life.” The “goal of life came to be understood as likeness to Christ” (The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, 22). They wanted to imitate Christ, taking holiness seriously. As a Protestant I confess that I am not comfortable with their monastic means of pursuing Christlikeness. However, I have a high respect for those who ascetically separated themselves from the world to devote their entire lives to God. For instance, I respect Macrina who chose a life of chastity and poverty, that she might devote her life fully to Jesus whom she considered her eternal husband. Her desire to maintain sexual purity and have a simple (not materialistic) life was commendable.
Fourth, the early Christians were zealously evangelistic and mission-minded. They were not quiet about their faith in Christ, nor were they afraid to share it with others. Even if they knew that proclaiming the gospel could mean suffering, or even death, they would still do it. Patrick wrote in his Confession, “In the light, therefore, of our faith in the Trinity I must make this choice, regardless of danger I must make known the gift of God and everlasting consolation, without fear and frankly I must spread everywhere the name of God” (Confession 14). At one point, when faced with threats (such as “murder, fraud, or captivity”), Patrick responded by simply entrusting his life to his sovereign God: “I fear none of these things because … I have cast myself into the hands of God Almighty, who rules everywhere.” And Patrick’s passion to proclaim the gospel to others flowed out of his gratitude to God for saving him.
Finally, the early Christians were people who counted it a great honor to suffer, or die for Christ’s sake. If one were to ask them, “What’s your ambition in life?” Their answer would probably have been something like this: “to die for the sake of Christ.” And for them, it was through martyrdom that they could prove their deep devotion to Christ. No wonder then why they would even take delight in dying as martyrs. Listen, for example, to Ignatius of Antioch who longed to die as a martyr: “May I have the pleasure of the wild beasts that have been prepared for me; and I pray that they prove to be prompt with me. I will even coax them to devour me quickly, not as they have done with some, whom they were too timid to touch. And if when I am willing and ready they are not, I will force them … Fire and cross and battles with wild beasts, mutilation, mangling, wrenching of bones, the hacking of limbs, the crushing of my whole body, cruel tortures of the devil—let these come upon me, only let me reach Jesus Christ” (Ignatius, Romans 5:1-3). Elsewhere Ignatius states, “It is better for me to die for Jesus Christ than to rule over the ends of the earth. Him I seek, who died on our behalf; him I long for, who rose again for our sake” (Ignatius, Romans 6). These early Christians were not afraid to die because they knew that their death would only usher them to the very presence of Christ.
May we capture the piety of these early Christians! May we be people of prayer, lovers of the Bible, pursuers of holiness, zealously evangelistic and mission-minded, and willing to suffer or die for our Lord’s sake.