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Medicine & Health Care in Early Christianity.


WRITTEN BY Gary B. Ferngren * PUBLISHED BY The John Hopkins University Press, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-801-89142-7; Hardcover; PAGES: 264; PRICE: $42.50CDN


This book describes the Christian reception of Greek medicine and the development of Christian philanthropy in the first five hundred years of the history of the Catholic Church. Christians understood illness in terms of naturalistic Greek theory of the cause of disease and in terms of Greek medical practice. Justin Martyr (105-167 A.D.) wrote "Whatever things were rightly said among all men are the property of us Christians."

With the advent of atheism during the Enlightenment erroneous assumptions about early Christian views of science, nature, and medicine developed. These assumptions were popularized in North America in the late nineteenth century and have long vitiated the study of the relationship between Christianity and medicine. This study has been further negatively affected by the recent post modernist philosophical theories of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. They held that the objective truth exists only in the interpreter's mind. This, they imagine, allows one to interpret the Scriptures and historical evidence in any way that suits the interpreter's particular ideology.

Philanthropy among the Greeks did not involve private charity or personal concern for those in need such as the sick. In contrast, in Judaism God was known to be particularly concerned with the welfare of the poor. The Greek and Roman gods "showed greater regard for the powerful, who could offer them sacrifices" The Greeks and Romans actually did believe in the dignity of the person. That dignity, that human worth, was not however, intrinsic. It was based on the belief that a balanced and controlled personality that exhibited the socially recognized virtues could be deemed virtuous. Rights were defined by the law and were not intrinsic. The Roman concept of humanitas described the humane virtues that were expected from educated people, and were thought to characterize only a small group that belonged to the upper class in Roman society. There was little sympathy for the physically impaired or the oppressed.

There was no agreement among philosophers or medical writers as to whether personhood began at conception, at birth, or at some point in between. Roman Stoicism in the first two centuries of the Christian era affirmed the brotherhood of man, kindness and humane treatment of everyone, civilized or barbarian, slave or free, all of whom were regarded as possessing a divine spark. Yet, it never explicitly claimed that all had human rights, perhaps because the pantheistic theology of Stoicism prevented the uniqueness of the human individual from being fully acknowledged.

Early Christian philanthropy was informed by the theological concept of imago Dei, that human beings were created in God's image, a doctrine also present in Judaism. The New Testament is concerned with the salvation and the ultimate destiny of the fallen human race. The major contribution of the New Testament to the concept of imago Dei, is the doctrine of the Incarnation. The testament uses the word agape--God is love (1 Jn. 4:8).

The concept of imago Dei has four consequences for practical ethics:

1. An impetus to Christian charity and philanthropy. The Greeks believed that beneficence involved the community at large. Christianity insisted that the love of God required spontaneous manifestation of personal charity towards one's fellow human beings who included not only fellow Christians, but non-Christians, neighbours, and even enemies.

2. The imago Dei provided a basis for the belief that every human being has absolute intrinsic value as a bearer of God's image and as a person with an eternal soul for whose redemption Christ died. Christians believed that the fetus also had an eternal soul and abortion was regarded as murder.

3. The Christian conception of Jesus as the perfect man raised the body to a status it never had enjoyed in paganism. The human being as a composite of body and soul was to be resurrected from the dead.

4. The doctrine of imago Dei redefined the poor. It went beyond class distinction between rich and poor and proclaimed the solidarity of the members of the body of Christ.

Christians created "a miniature welfare state in an empire that, for the most part, lacked social services." Within the Christian community, there was human warmth, absent in the pagan temple. The Christian community provided not only material benefits, but also a sense of belonging and a program of caring for the poor, that included the creation of hospitals which was a major contribution to health care.

Gary B. Ferngren is a professor of history at Oregon State University, and is editor of Science and Religion: a Historical Introduction also published by Johns Hopkins. This book will be of particular interest to scholars and students of the history of medicine and religious studies. It is well written and well researched. Prof. Ferngren's account of medicine and health care in early Christianity also serves as a warning. The western world was greatly influenced by the rise to prominence of atheism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This resulted in the denial of the concept of objective moral truth and of the intrinsic rights of the person based on his or her being made in the image of God. Just as in the ancient Roman world, human rights are now often considered to be based on the consensus of a self assigned, elected elite. The unborn are often regarded, as they were in ancient Rome, as part of the mother and therefore, disposable at her will. The infirm, who no longer can contribute wealth to the community can often be victims of euthanasia. This is currently 'justified' as an example of 'social justice' or by 'prevention of waste of scarce community resources."

This insight into the history of medicine forewarns us that unless the world returns to belief in God and reverence for the human person, the medical profession may continue to pursue, and perhaps intensify, their perverse commitment to the culture of death.


Dr. John B. Shea is Catholic Insight's medical/bioethical contributor. He writes from Toronto, Ontario.
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Author:Shea, John
Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2009
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