Tag Archives: Augustine of Hippo

A little introduction to early Christian thought, for beginners


Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.

Icon representing the Council of Nicea

Back in the late 1990s, when I was a doctoral student at Duke, they used to give us PhD hopefuls “preceptorials.” That meant you helped a senior professor in their courses, as a teaching assistant. The professor did the lectures, and you led discussion in weekly seminar sessions for the same course.

Digging through some old files the other day, I found this little talk I gave to a group taking Dr. David Steinmetz’s CH13: Church History to the Reformation, on the day of their first seminar session. Dr. Steinmetz taught in the mode of “intellectual history”: opening up to his students some of the more important, and often difficult, theological discussions that engaged the great minds of the early church.

This talk of mine is intended to give students who didn’t necessarily have any background in historical or theological studies some strategies to get through the experience of the course, and to learn and grow along the way. Part of it is in “talking ’em off the ledge” mode, recognizing that the study of early Christian theology can look pretty arcane and intimidating. And part of it suggests some intellectual and practical strategies to get the most out of their studies. 

If I had to do the talk today, I’d make some changes–and indeed I do cover some of these things in my courses now. But other things I had forgotten, and will be reviving in my courses. So here it is: a “little introduction to early Christian thought, for beginners”: Continue reading

Religion of the heart – part II


Saint Augustine of Hippo, a seminal thinker on...

Augustine: a pioneer of heart religion

This is continued from Religion of the heart – part I:

Heart religion is also rooted deeply in almost every stream of historical Christianity

Now by starting from today in this brief talk, and then moving quickly back to the 17th and 18th centuries, I don’t want to overlook another important fact: critics of heart religion are, let’s say, “historically outnumbered” in the church. In other words, heart religion is rooted deeply in historical Christianity. Let’s consider for a moment the early church:

Wilken: history of Christian thought cannot be told without the history of Christian love.

We often teach the early history of our faith as if nothing but the intellectual development of doctrine mattered. It’s nothing but a litany of heresies, apologists, and church councils. And while these things are important, they are in some respects only the surface of the story. People don’t get upset about heresies and arguments unless these are about something that matters to their lives. And so I was delighted a few years ago to read the wonderful book by the University of Virginia’s Robert Louis Wilken called The Spirit of Early Christian Thought. This is the history of Christian thought done right—done with a full awareness of the heart of the matter, if you’ll excuse the expression. So, here’s Wilken, introducing his book by talking about what the early Christians were doing when they had all of those theological debates I mentioned: Continue reading

Religion of the heart – part I


Augustine and his symbol of a heart, in a Victorian stained glass window

What is “the religion of the heart”? Where did it come from among Christians? And why have there been Christians of this sort ever since the earliest days of the church? 

I had the pleasure this past weekend of talking about this topic with a group of senior saints who are committed to the history of the Swedish Baptist Pietists; this is the denomination of my seminary, Bethel, in St. Paul, Minnesota. If you’re interested in the role of emotion in spirituality or have wondered about this pre-evangelical movement of “Pietists” that began during the period of the Enlightenment, then you may enjoy these remarks. Here’s part I:

Some remarks on Pietism and Heart Religion, in a historical key

The modern critique of heart religion

The first thing to say, perhaps, about heart religion, is that just as it got a bad rap in the 1600s, when Pietism was born, it still does today. Now, decades after the heyday of the charismatic movement brought heart religion to Main Street, the vaguely disreputable aura of an emotionally expressive religion lingers. Emotional commitment to, and expression of, one’s religion still seems, even to many evangelicals, somewhat uneducated and ‘un-necessary.’ Continue reading

Glimpses of “Culture of Narcissism” author Christopher Lasch


Eric Miller’s biography of American social historian Christopher Lasch, Hope in a Scattering Time, examines how Lasch came to his penetrating analyses of America through his own alienation. Wikipedia sums up his career:

Christopher (Kit) Lasch (June 1, 1932, Omaha, Nebraska – February 14, 1994, Pittsford, New York) was a well-known American historian, moralist, and social critic. Mentored by William Leuchtenburg at Columbia University, Lasch was a professor at the University of Rochester , who used history as a tool to awaken American society to the pervasiveness of consumer culture. Rather than invoke nostalgia, Lasch sought to create a historically informed social criticism that could teach Americans how to deal with rampant consumerism, proletarianization, and the culture of narcissism. His books, including The New Radicalism in America (1965), Haven in a Heartless World (1977), The Culture of Narcissism (1979), and The True and Only Heaven (1991), became best-sellers. Lasch was always a critic of liberalism, and a historian of liberalism’s discontents. His political perspective shifted from being an outspoken leftist critic of Cold War liberalism to a self-styled populist moralist, denounced by feminists for his defense of the traditional family[1] and hailed by conservatives.[2]

What this doesn’t say, and what Miller reveals in the biography, is that Lasch, the child of two politically progressive atheists, encountered the writings of Augustine and other Christian thinkers in university. This altered his perspectives on a lot of things, though it did not convert him to orthodox Christianity. His creed became a sort of “secular Calvinism,” to use Miller’s phrase. Continue reading

Roger Olson follows C S Lewis in proposing a “Protestant purgatory” . . . heated discussion ensues


H/t to scientia et sapientia for alerting me to Baylor prof Roger Olson’s suggestion that perhaps Protestants today should take C S Lewis’s cue and consider the possibility of a purgatory-like intermediate state between death and heaven. You’ll see a variety of responses, some quite heated, at Roger’s blog. Also, scientia links a thoughtful critical response from Dallas Seminary grad and theological educator Michael Patton.

Roger’s proposal emerges from his understanding that there are “saints” in the history of Christianity–he singles out Augustine and Calvin, among others–who did terrible, hate-filled things. Do those people (or anyone else with such extreme “baggage”) get to leap straight from their deathbeds to the presence of the Holy God? Here are a few brief excerpts from Roger’s reflection: Continue reading

C S Lewis as “medieval” moral philosopher


Cover of "The Abolition of Man"

C S Lewis was, I believe, “medieval” in the very warp and woof of his thought. To borrow from Wikipedia, b/c this morning I am lazy, and in this case Wikipedia is accurate:

Lewis then taught as a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, for nearly thirty years, from 1925 to 1954, and later was the first Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge. Using this position, he argued that there was no such thing as an English Renaissance. Much of his scholarly work concentrated on the later Middle Ages, especially its use of allegory. His The Allegory of Love (1936) helped reinvigorate the serious study of late medieval narratives like the Roman de la Rose. Lewis wrote several prefaces to old works of literature and poetry, like Layamon’s Brut. His book “A Preface to Paradise Lost” is still one of the most valuable criticisms of that work. His last academic work, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (1964), is a summary of the medieval world view, the “discarded image” of the cosmos in his title.

As I have explored in another post, Lewis was in tune with medieval thought as much in his philosophical and ethical thought as in his literary scholarship, his imaginative writings, or his Christian apologetics. Continue reading

Did early Christians reject secular medicine? Glimpses from Darrel Amundson


Cover of

From a fascinating book by Darrel W. Amundsen—Medicine, Society, and Faith in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996)—come the following observations on early Christian attitudes toward medicine and physicians. These excerpts come from chapter 5, “Medicine and Faith in Early Christianity” (sentences not in quotation marks are comments from me). See here for further insights from Amundsen, on what medievals thought caused illness. And see here for some of his observations on the spiritual usefulness of illness and the meaning of plague.

“While among pagans [128] and Christians the same range of attitudes toward medicine and healing existed, there was one essential difference between pagans and at least those Christians who had actively embraced the gospel. . . . This pervasive difference between pagans and Christians resulted from the highly personal relationship existing between the individual Christian and an omnipotent God who was typically viewed as a having a direct concern with and involvement in the life of the believer. Continue reading