Early Christian Spirituality

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.

Augustine pic

St. Augustine in His Study by Vittore Carpaccio, 1502 (courtesy of Wikipedia) 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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Church Fathers Spirituality

The Church Fathers as Our Spiritual Mentors

Here’s my interview with Dr. Michael Haykin regarding his book The Church Fathers as Spiritual Mentors. Dr. Haykin has a doctorate in patristics and is a member of North American Patristics Society. He is also the author of Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church and the series editor of the Early Church Fathers series.

“The patristic era,” says Dr. Haykin, “though not a golden age as some would depict it, is nonetheless one of the most significant eras in church history.”

Haykin

Church Fathers Interview

Tertullian on Baptism

Introduction

The act of baptism is an ordinance of the Lord Jesus Christ that has been widely discussed and debated throughout the history of the church. Christians have traditionally come to different conclusions regarding the purpose and meaning of baptism. Like many other doctrines and practices in the Christian church, baptism had to be dealt with by the early church fathers in order to stand against heretical perversion and misrepresentation.

Tertullian of Carthage[1] played a primary role in representing the traditional practice of baptism in the late second and third century church.  In fact, he wrote the first surviving treatise on baptism[2] in his work entitled De Baptismo or On Baptism.[3]  The bulk of Tertullian’s thoughts and beliefs concerning baptism are represented in this treatise. Since his arguments are most fully developed in his treatise on baptism, this paper will focus primarily on that text with occasional reference to his other works that sporadically speak to the subject.

 

The article is by Tye Rambo, a Ph.D student specializing in the area of Patristic Spirituality at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky. Born and raised in Texas, Rambo holds a B.A. in History from West Texas A&M University and an M.Div from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

To keep reading his article, click here.


[1]Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus was born at Carthage around A.D. 160 to heathen parents and likely died during the second decade of the third century (around A.D. 220-225). He was the first Latin-writing Christian author whose works we still posses. Tertullian was responsible for much of the theological vocabulary of Western Christianity and we are able to see something of African Christianity in its early years because of him. There is disagreement among scholars concerning the specifics of his life. Traditionally, Tertullian was known to be a presbyter from Carthage who was skilled in Roman law and whose father was a centurion. Timothy Barnes and Geoffrey Dunn both reject this picture of Tertullian in their biographies. For a more extensive overview of Tertullian’s life including his eventual turn to Montanism and further information on the disagreement over Tertullians’s background see Timothy David Barnes, Tertullian: A Historical And Literary Study (Oxford University Press: USA, 1985), 57-84 and 130-142 and Geoffrey Dunn, Tertullian (Routledge Press: New York, 2004), 2-36 and Gerald Lewis Bray, Holiness And The Will Of God: Perspectives On The Theology Of Tertullian (John Knox Press: Atlanta, 1979), 33-65.

[2]Everett Ferguson, Baptism In The Early Church: History, Theology, And Liturgy In The First Five Centuries (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eermans Publishing Company, 2009), 336. A work entitled peri loutrou, On the Laver, by Melito of Sardis may have been known to Tertullian, though too little of it remains for us to judge the extent of his indebtedness. See Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiae 4.26, trans. Paul L. Maier under the title The Church History (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 199), 143. Cf. Earnest Evans, ed. and trans., intro in Tertullian’s Homily On Baptism (London: SPCK, 1965), xi. This is also the translation I used for this paper.

[3]Tertullian’s treatise or homily on baptism was likely written around the turn of the third century (198-203). It is hardly possible to give an exact date. This would place On Baptism as having been completed sometime after his apologetic works and before (or along with) the beginning of his disciplinary and theological works. This would also be before his Montanist conversion. See Evans, Baptism, xi.

Baptism Church Fathers Tertullian

Origen on Prayer

Introduction

            Prayer is a spiritual discipline that Christians have practiced since the inception of their faith. The Lord Jesus Christ taught his disciples that when they pray they were to pray in this way:

“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:9-13).

Jesus was not only teaching the disciples how to pray, but just two verses earlier he states, “And when you pray… (Matthew 6:7),” indicating that they were also expected to pray. Additionally, Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ, taught the Thessalonian church to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). These instructions indicate that prayer was to be a part of early Christian life and that it was to be a regular occurrence. Even so, there were some within the church who claimed to be Christians that had been persuaded to believe that prayer was unnecessary.

 

The article is by Tye Rambo, a Ph.D student specializing in the area of Patristic Spirituality, at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky. Born and raised in Texas, Rambo holds a B.A. in History from West Texas A&M University and an M.Div from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

To continue reading his article, click here.

Church Fathers Origen Patristic Spirituality Prayer

An Analysis of the Ancient Church Fathers on Instrumental Music

As the early church grew out of and confronted the cultures surrounding it, there was a need for discernment and teaching. Many of its members had come from Greek and Roman paganism. Others had come from Judaism and there was variation with what was culturally acceptable.

The early church fathers tried to distinguish between what was acceptable musically and what was not.  There are two early writings dealing completely with music, but neither focus on musical instruments. Niceta of Remesiana has one sermon on hymnody and the act of singing.  Augustine’s volume, De Musica, is a theoretical and philosophical understanding of music.  Apart from these two sources, references to music are couched in writings about other topics, possibly indicating that “music was not something early Christians thought about in isolation. It was involved in their thinking on everything.”[1]

During the first five centuries, the line of acceptability fell between vocal and instrumental music. To contemporary authors this means different things. Werner argues all of the church fathers found vocal music more pleasing to God than instrumental.[2] Price argues that there were no musical instruments in the churches.[3]  Squire indicates that instruments were allowed.[4] It is the purpose of this paper to demonstrate, through a survey of sources from the first five centuries, that the early church fathers generally regarded musical instruments as inappropriate.  Further, an analysis of the cultural and religious influences on their positions will show that even the church fathers were affected by the cultures around them.

 

The paper is by David VanBrugge, an M.Div. student at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan. One of his interests is the relationship between Reformed theology and the arts, particularly as it can be used in apologetics.

To continue reading his essay, click here.


[1] Calvin R. Stapert, A New Song for an Old World: Musical Thought in the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 3.

[2] Eric Werner, The Sacred Bridge: The Interdependence of Liturgy and Music in Synagogue and Church During the First Millennium (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959), 336.

[3] John Price, Old Light on New Worship: Musical Instruments and the Worship of God, a Theological, Historical and Psychological Study (Avinger, TX: Simpson Publishing, 2005), 82.

[4] Russel N. Squire, Church Music: Musical and Hymnological Developments in Western Christianity (St. Louis, MO: Bethany Press, 1962), 41-42.

Church Fathers Instrumental Music