The Health Care Debate, Early Church Style
Medicine and Health Care in Early Christianity
Ferngren, Gary B.
The Johns Hopkins University Press
April 15, 2009
264 pp., $31.22
As Christians join the rest of the country in jousting over the proposed changes to our health care system, one significant fact should inform the Christian debate: modern health care is a Christian invention. The reasons Christians developed the world's first health care system—as opposed to simply medical practitioners—are as relevant today as they were 2,000 years ago.
How and why early Christian health care came about is the subject of Gary Ferngren's book Medicine and Health Care in Early Christianity. Ferngren, a professor of history at Oregon State University, argues with his fellow academics who believe that early Christians opposed medicine, thinking that all illness was caused by demons. Instead, Ferngren says, "Christians of the first five centuries held views regarding the use of medicine and the healing of disease that did not differ appreciably from those that were widely taken for granted in the Graeco-Roman world."
Many of Ferngren's colleagues in this field of research must think that early Christians believed demons brought on disease and that exorcism was the only cure. Nothing else could explain the lengths he goes to—two-thirds of the book—debunking the notion.
Medicine, as developed by the Greeks, was a naturalistic field. Doctors studied the body, made observations, and practiced their art without appeal to Greek divinities. So Christians had no reason to oppose its practice. They did, however, advise fellow believers on how to use medicine. For example, some preachers taught that the truly spiritual would forgo medical care, relying on prayer alone, but all taught that God heals through the work of the physician. In addition, medical literature—a piece of classical education—provided a wealth of metaphors and illustrations that educated Christian preachers wove into their sermons.
Imago Dei and ancient health care
When an epidemic struck in the ancient world, pagan city officials offered gifts to the gods but nothing for their suffering citizens. Even in healthy times, those who had no one to care for them, or whose care placed too great a burden on the family, were left out to die.
Christians found this intolerable, and they set about to take care of these people and others similarly afflicted. They did so because, Ferngren writes, "Early Christian philanthropy was informed by the theological concept of the imago Dei, that humans were created in the image of God."
This led not only to a belief in the responsibility to aid others and the inherent worth of every human being, but also to a belief in the sacredness of the body itself. "It was to save the body that Christ took on flesh in the Incarnation. Not only the soul, which in traditional pagan thought was eternal, but the composite of body and soul, which constituted man, was to be resurrected."
The idea of imago Dei also led to a redefinition of the idea of the poor. Rights in a city or society were given to members, and all members received benefits. Those outside were offered none. Christianity, in addition to seeing all people as "neighbors," developed a special consideration for the poor. Just as God demonstrated in the Incarnation his solidarity with those who suffer, so the members of his "body" must demonstrate their solidarity with the suffering poor.
The classical understanding of civic care for those who suffered "was not merely insufficient to provide the motivation for private charity; it actively discouraged it," writes Ferngren. "Christianity, however, insisted that the love of God required the spontaneous manifestation of personal charity toward one's brothers: one could not claim to love God without loving his brother."