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.

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements
Church Fathers Spirituality

An Interview with Adam McClendon about his book Paul’s Spirituality in Galatians

Paul’s Spirituality in Galatians: A Critique of Contemporary Christian Spiritualities. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015, 208 pp., paperback.     

Brother, congratulations on your well-researched book. I read it with delight.  Here are some of my questions for you about your book:

 

1. What do you think is your book’s unique contribution to the study of spirituality? Also, can you please briefly define the term spirituality and explain how your definition differs from the other definitions that you critique in your book?   

One of the more unique contributions this book provides is a merging of formal theological study, resulting in practical theological corrections, all based primarily on Galatians 2:20.  The real heart of the book rests in addressing the issue of the basis of Christian spirituality.  As Christians, our spiritual life should be based on the firm foundation of God’s Word as our primary rule for faith and living.

This point naturally leads into the question concerning what “spirituality” means.  A brief history of the use of that term is provided in the book.  “Spirituality” on the most basic level in today’s society should be understood as the life one lives in light of one’s understanding of and experience with god.  Notice “god” and not “God” is referenced here. Everyone is spiritual on some level and the “god” that has influenced a person’s understanding and experience is that standard that drives the values of his/her life.  Christian spirituality, however, is that process of spirituality brought under the influence of the Holy Spirit.  So, when Christians refers to “spirituality,” they are meaning the life that is “spiritual” or influenced by the Holy Spirit in their lives.  The problem today then becomes two-fold.  First, that which has traditionally been categorized as Christian continues to be broadened to included non-Christian beliefs that directly contradict the fundamental tenant of faith in Christ alone.  Second, it is becoming increasingly common to hear of non-biblical, extra-biblical, or just strange teachings and behavior being attributed to the “Spirit” in some vague context without any biblical justification.  This book then seeks to reorient the spiritual life as necessarily being grounded upon the clear revelation the Spirit gave us in the Bible.

In reference to the last part of your question, this book doesn’t necessarily critique other definitions of “spirituality” but challenges the foundation upon which the convictions of various Protestant traditions are based.  The point pressed throughout the book is that for Christian spirituality, the Bible should serve as the supreme foundation for Christian living versus being set along side or even subject to one’s own experience, one’s religious traditions, and/or one’s cultural sense of morality.  Key staple positions within various protestant traditions are taken and contextually examined in light of Galatians 2:20 to show how a proper understanding of that verse can help correct certain teachings within that particular movement.

 

2. You call your first two chapters (1) The Centrality of the Cross and (2) The Centrality of Christ. In the context of Pauline spirituality, is there really a difference between the word cross and the word Christ? Does not Paul sometimes use these two terms indistinguishably (see Gal. 6:14, “boast…in the cross” & 1 Cor. 1:31, “boast in the Lord”).    

Paul certainly does use them interchangeably at times, just as Paul does the idea of the cross and the gospel (1 Cor. 1:17-18, 23); however, the interchangeable use of the terms in some contexts does not mean that in other contexts distinctions do not exists especially as it relates to the believer’s justification and sanctification.  Paul in Galatians 2:20 utilizes the necessity of the cross in reference to the believer’s justification, particularly in dying to the law.  So the cross involves a death while the focus on Christ as a whole emphasizes the life that flows out of this death.  The text explains that as a result of being crucified with Christ, “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.”  The phrase “Centrality of Christ” is used to emphasize the specific means by which Christ lives in the believer while “Centrality of the Cross” emphasizes the specific means by which the believer dies to the law and the nature of the flesh (Gal. 2:19; 5:24).

 

3. In your book you examine Paul’s spirituality by specially focusing on Galatians 2:20. Why did you choose this verse?

Galatians 2:20 has always been a special verse in my life going back to high school, and I’ve spent considerable time meditating on the implications of the truths it conveys in my own life.  So, it’s a very personal verse for me, but the nature of the verse also worked well for the approach of this book for several reasons.  First, it comes at the end of an incredible section in Galatians where Paul condenses much of the overall argument for the entire book.  Within that context, the verse provides an intensely concise statement regarding both the believer’s justification in Christ and the sanctified life to be lived.  Second, Galatians 2:20 is important to the approach presented in the book because it frequently appears within various writings on Christian living without any clear explanation concerning the meaning of the verse itself.  Within more critical works, it has long been used to promote the mysticism of Paul or, as more often than not, the verse finds itself tucked away within the huge theological discussions surrounding the context of Galatians 2:15-19 without being given specific consideration.

 

4. What do you think are some advantages and disadvantages of the kind of approach that you use in your book to study Paul’s spirituality?

The greatest advantage to this approach is that it drives us to examine the biblical evidence and highlights our predisposition to rely on emotion, tradition, and culture to shape our religious ideologies, convictions, and lifestyles.

The disadvantage to this approach is that it is critical.  The book is designed to be a critique of modern theological expression.  While I approached this task as graciously as I could acknowledging my own tendency to read Scripture in a manner that most naturally fits my theological tradition, it is still a critical approach.  Such approaches are often not as well received in a culture that overemphasizes a false understanding of relativistic tolerance.

 

5. What projects are you currently working on?

In addition to the normal projects involved in pastoring a church, I’m currently working on a book I plan to call “Square One” on the basics of the Christian faith.  The book is specifically designed for people who are interested in Christianity or spiritually young believers; however, it will also be a great resource for reminding mature believers of the essence of the call to follow Christ.  Our church plans on using this work as a means for discipling new believers. Lastly, I’m also working on a parental prayer guide to help parents in praying for their children.

 

 Note: This post also appears on christianity21st.com. To purchase the book, click here.

 

Book Interview Spirituality

A Brief Purpose of “The Very Heart of Prayer”

The purpose of my book is twofold:  first, to demonstrate that while John Bunyan (1628-1668) historically belonged to the sectarian world, he can still rightly be considered a Puritan; and Book on Bunyan (picture)second, to reclaim Bunyan from scholars who not only dispute his identity as a Puritan but also overlook his rich and peculiar spirituality.

The volume has only three chapters. Chapter 1 carefully explores Bunyan’s religious identity, leading to the conclusion that he may be labeled a sectarian Puritan. Chapter 2 critically examines his theology of prayer, one important aspect of his spirituality. In this segment, I particularly scrutinize Bunyan’s treatise I will pray with the Spirit (1662). The analysis of this treatise shows Bunyan’s radical emphasis on the Holy Spirit’s work in prayer. It also shows both Bunyan’s sectarianism and Puritanism. Chapter 3 probes his teaching on piety, as found in A Holy Life (1684). This chapter demonstrates that Bunyan’s goal in all of his life was the pursuit and promotion of piety. Sadly, some scholars who put Bunyan within a sectarian context not only suspect his identity as a Puritan but also slight his rich spirituality. Chapter 3 seeks to recover Bunyan from such scholars who depreciate his piety.

I hope my work will create a thirst among readers to pray more—to pray with the Spirit, which for Bunyan is “the very heart of Prayer.”

Note: If you purchase a copy of my book from Reformation Heritage Books, you save $5.00.

Advertisement John Bunyan Prayer Puritan piety Spirituality

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

Evangelical Spirituality

Ian Randall—currently Director of the Institute of Baptist and Anabaptist studies of International Baptist Theological Seminary, Prague, Czech Republic—has written a book titled What a Friend We Have in Jesus: The Evangelical Tradition, a fine and succinct study on evangelical spirituality. Randall’s book is part of the Traditions of Christian Spirituality Series, which seeks to publish first-rate volumes that provide quality introductions to some of the main traditions of Christian spirituality. In this discourse, focusing mainly on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Randall explores the origins of evangelical spirituality and its key themes.

Randall has rightly noted: “Although evangelicalism emerged in [the Evangelical Revival of] the eighteenth century [in Great Britain], it had strong links with the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century and the English Puritan movement of the seventeenth century.”[1] The evangelicals adopted the basic tenets of the Reformation; and like Calvin and the Puritans, they underscored the importance of holy living as the outworking of their faith. This is why evangelical spirituality is more akin to Protestant spirituality rather than to Catholic spirituality.

David Bebbington, in his classic work—Evangelicalism in Modern Britain—asserts that evangelicalism is “a new phenomenon of the eighteenth century” that emphasizes four distinctive features: “conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism.”[2] Bebbington’s assertion suggests that evangelical spirituality is characterized by personal conversion, outworking of the gospel, devotion to Scripture, and the cross of Christ. Later Bebbington’s concept of evangelicalism came to be known as the Bebbington quadrilateral, a standard term among historians. In What A Friend We Have in Jesus, Randall discusses more elements of evangelical spirituality: conversion, Bible, sacraments, prayer and praise, the Cross, the Holy Spirit and holiness, the fellowship of the believers, missions, and the last times. And for Randall, the “central theme of this strand of spirituality is a personal relationship with Christ.”

Against the backdrop of England between the First and Second World Wars, Randall pinpoints four major strands of evangelical spirituality: “Keswick holiness, the Wesleyan tradition, Reformed approaches and Pentecostal/charismatic spirituality.”[3] Keswick[4] holiness, also known as the Higher Life movement, teaches that Christians can experience “entire sanctification,” or “Christian perfection.” This teaching was of course also present in the Wesleyan tradition; however, the Keswick tradition was less radical compared to the Wesleyan. Reformed evangelical spirituality, while stressing the need for personal holiness, rejects the doctrine of perfectionism. The Pentecostal/charismatic spirituality is to some extent a resurrected Quakerism. It gives too much emphasis on the work of the Spirit with less scriptural content; it is based more on emotions than on faith.

Although Randall gives special attention to British evangelicalism in which John Wesley and George Whitefield stand out as the main characters, he includes American evangelicalism. The primary American figure here is Jonathan Edwards who, according to Randall, is the principal shaper of American evangelical spirituality.

 

Concluding Observation

The renaissance of interest in the subject of Christian spirituality is noteworthy. Just in the past decade, scores of books on Christian spirituality have been published. In fact, in 2009, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, became the first Protestant seminary to offer a PhD in Biblical Spirituality. This fact shows that a revived concern for spirituality exists even in the world of academics.


[1] Ian Randall, What A Friend We Have In Jesus: The Evangelical Tradition (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2005), 16.

[2] David W. Bebbington, Evangelicals in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (1989; reprint, London: Routledge, 1993), 2, 4.

[3] Randall, What A Friend We Have In Jesus, 20.

[4] Keswick is a name of a market town in Cumbria, England where the movement became well-known.

Evangelical Evangelical Spirituality George Whitefield John Wesley Jonathan Edwards Spirituality

“Which Disturbs You Most?”

I would like to share this thought-provoking piece—”Which Disturbs You Most?”—that I used last Sunday in my sermon on James 1:27b—“Keep Yourself Pure from the World.”  Our answer to this question will tell us something about our spiritual condition.

 

Which Disturbs You Most?

A soul lost in Hell…or a scratch on your new car?

Your missing the worship service…or missing a day’s work?

A sermon 10 minutes too long…or lunch half hour late?

A church not growing…or your garden not growing?

Your Bible unopened…or your unread?

The church work being neglected…or housework neglected?

Missing a good Bible study…or your favorite TV program?

The millions who do not know Christ…or your inability to keep up with the neighbors?

The cry of the multitude for bread…or your desire for another piece of German chocolate cake?

Your tithes decreasing…or your income decreasing?

Your children late for Sunday School and Church…or late for public school?

Which really disturbs you most?

 

—The Bible Friend

Sanctification Sermon Spirituality

A Sketch of Christian Spirituality: From the Patristic Period to the Evangelical Era (Part 4 of 5)

Puritan Reformed Spirituality

The problem with medieval Catholic spirituality is that it does not purely stem from God’s Word. Consequently, it often produces unscriptural mysticism. In contrast, Puritan Reformed spirituality is essentially based on the Bible and in dependence on the Holy Spirit. The by-product is biblical piety.

Anyone who studies Puritan Reformed spirituality should not neglect Joel R. Beeke’s priceless work whose title itself is Puritan Reformed Spirituality. Beeke, president of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan, is a first-class scholar of Reformation and Post-Reformation theology. This book, according to Beeke, “promotes biblical spirituality through a study of the Reformed and Puritan heritage.”[1] Actually, all chapters in this volume (except for chapter 13) have been previously published in a periodical or book. As a result, and what could be perceived as a disadvantage, each chapter “is an independent unit with the exception of chapters 11 and 12.”[2] Yet, these independent units do not affect the serviceability of the material to understanding Puritan Reformed spirituality, a type of spirituality which the author believes to be biblical.

Puritan Reformed Spirituality deals with different dimensions of spirituality (assurance of faith, evangelism, the Decalogue, meditation, preaching, justification by faith, and others) with a special focus on the writings of the following authors:  French reformer John Calvin, English Puritans William Ames and Anthony Burgess, Scottish divines John Brown of Haddington, Thomas Boston, and Ebenezer and Ralph Erskine, and Dutch Second reformers Willem Teellinck, Herman Witsius, and Theodorus Jacobus Frelinghuysen. Noticeably, Beeke includes the spirituality of the Dutch Second or Further Reformation, which resembles English Puritanism, especially in terms of the practice of piety.

Of all nineteen chapters of Beeke’s book, one may find chapters 1, 4, 14, and 18 as most helpful for the understanding of Puritan Reformed spirituality. In chapter 1, “Calvin on Piety,” Beeke examines Calvin whose “reputation as an intellectual… is often seen apart from the vital spiritual and pastoral context in which he wrote his theology.”[3] Beeke dispels this caricature, insisting that for Calvin “theological understanding and practical piety, truth and usefulness, are inseparable.”[4] In fact, the very purpose of Calvin in writing his great theological work—the Institutes—was “solely to transmit certain rudiments by which those who are touched with any zeal for religion might be shaped to true godliness.”[5]

Ironically, Calvin’s concept of piety also has an element of mysticism—mystical union with Christ—which is cardinal to his system of theology. Beeke says, “For Calvin, piety is rooted in the believer’s mystical union (unio mystica) with Christ; thus this union must be our starting point.”[6] But such piety is different from medieval spirituality for the simple reason that Calvin’s piety is solidly grounded in the proper knowledge of God. Calvin believes that right doctrine of God prompts holy practice, and that the practice of holiness becomes only superficial when it does not emanate from the right knowledge of God. To further distinguish Calvin’s piety from medieval spirituality, Beeke gives the following explanation:

For Calvin, the Reformation includes the reform of piety (pietas), or spirituality, as much as a reform of theology. The spirituality that had been cloistered behind monastery walls for centuries had been broken down; medieval spirituality was reduced to a celibate, ascetic, and penitential devotion in the convent or monastery. But Calvin helped Christians understand piety in terms of living and acting every day according to God’s will (Rom. 12:1-2) in the midst of human society. Through Calvin’s influence, Protestant spirituality focused on how one lived the Christian life in the family, the fields, the workshop, and the marketplace. Calvin helped Protestants change the entire focus of the Christian life.[7]

In chapter 4, “The Puritan Practice of Meditation,” Beeke discusses one critical aspect of spirituality—meditation. For the Puritans, meditation is a spiritual exercise of both mind and heart. In the words of Thomas Watson (c. 1620-1689) meditation is “a holy exercise of the mind whereby we bring the truths of God to remembrance, and do seriously ponder upon them and apply them to ourselves.”[8] Puritan meditation centers on the written truth (Scripture) as well as the living Truth (Christ). As such, Beeke says, “the Puritans distanced themselves from the kind of bogus spirituality or mysticism that stresses contemplation at the expense of action, and flights of the imagination at the expense of biblical content.”[9]

In chapter 14, “Willem Teellinck and The Path of True Godliness,” Beeke addresses one of the foremost representatives of the Dutch Second Reformation, namely, Teellinck (1579-1629) who is often considered the father of the Dutch Further Reformation. Teellinck was profoundly influenced by the Puritans, particularly by their practice of piety.  This Puritan influence is seen in his sermons and writings in which his concern was always to promote holy living. In Teellinck’s The Path of True Godliness, his magnum opus on sanctification, he castigates those who claim to have faith in God, and yet do not show godliness in their lives. For Teellinck, “the true Christian faith is knowledge that leads to godliness.”[10] Beeke, commenting on the impact of Teellinck, states: “Teellinck’s positive emphasis in promoting biblical, Reformed spirituality serves as a corrective to much false spirituality…. to orthodox teaching that presents truth to the mind but does not apply it to the heart and daily life.”[11]

At the latter part of his life, however, Teellinck became somewhat mystical, emphasizing feelings more than faith. This mystical tendency can be detected from Teellinck’s The New Jerusalem, published posthumously. The Dutch Calvinist theologian Gisbertus Voetius (1589-1676) commented that, in this volume, Teellinck “could rightly be regarded as a second Thomas ä Kempis.”[12] Beeke agrees with Voetius’ comment, but adds that, unlike Thomas ä Kempis, Teellinck was “Reformed in his theology.”[13]

Beeke, in Chapter 18, “Cultivating Holiness,” reaches as it were the climax. This chapter is packed with quotes from the Reformers and the Puritans, and their like-minded successors. Here Beeke demonstrates to his readers what Puritan Reformed spirituality really is. The chapter ends with a pastoral plea to pray for piety with Robert Murray M’Cheyne (1813-1843), “Lord, make me as holy as a pardoned sinner can be.”[14]


[1] Joel R. Beeke, Puritan Reformed Spirituality (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2004), viii.

[2] Ibid., ix.

[3] Ibid., 1.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Cited in Ibid., 1-2. The quote is taken from John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill and trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 1:9.

[6] Beeke, Puritan Reformed Spirituality, 4.

[7] Ibid., 26-27.

[8] Cited in Ibid., 74. The quote is taken fromThomas Watson, Heaven Taken by Storm (Morgan, Pa.; Soli Deo Gloria, 2000), 23.

[9] Beeke, Puritan Reformed Spirituality, 74.

[10] Willem Teellinck, The Path of True Godliness, ed. Joel R. Beeke, trans. Annemie Godbehere (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, reprint, 2006), 31.

[11] Beeke, Puritan Reformed Spirituality, 329.

[12] Cited in Ibid., 315.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Cited in 421.

Dutch Further Reformation Dutch Reformed Piety Puritan Puritan piety Spirituality

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.

Patristic Spirituality Piety Spirituality