I sometimes repeat topics and themes I’ve written about previously. I do this not only because new people subscribe to Oboedire, but also because there are some things I believe are foundational for attentive Christian spiritual formation.
Today, I want to lift up early Christianity (c. 100-600 a.d.). Originally, taking my cue from John Wesley, I came to share with him (and now, others) a belief that these opening centuries are particularly instructive for us, setting a trajectory for faith that extended the biblical message into the world.
I do not believe the period is magic, and I have studied it enough to know it is complicated, complex, contradictory, and even contentious. But running through the time there are major threads which establish the basic tapestry of Christianity. If you are at a place in your journey where adding (or returning to) early Christianity would further mature your formation, I have several sources to recommend.
First, ‘The Didaché.’ Early Christians compiled what they believed was “the path of life”– a way for those in the second century to be faithful to the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. Some think it may have been a catechism to instruct those seeking to become Christian. It is a treasure for us today, and it is easily attainable.
Second, the writings of the early church fathers–people like Tertullian, Ignatius of Antioch, Iranaeus, Clement of Alexandria–to name a few, lay down foundational teachings Christians continue to study and incorporate. These writings have been published in numerous forms, e.g. under each author’s name or in larger series like the Ante-Nicene and Post-Nicene fathers.
Third, the sayings of the desert fathers and mothers (the Verba Seniorum), which capture the wise counsel given up to about 550 a.d. by monastics sought out for their wisdom. The most accessible volume of these writings that I know of is Benedicta Ward’s ‘The Desert Fathers.’
Finally, we can learn much from the Church Councils in early Christianity–some of which produced our classic Creeds. Phillip Schaff’s ‘The Seven Ecumenical Councils’ provides an in-depth look at these key meetings.
For starters, read and reflect on items one and three: The Didaché and The Desert Fathers. You can then incorporate items two and four into a lifelong study.
The point is simply this: our spiritual formation should be built on the good foundation, which of course is ultimately the Bible. But following on the heels of Scripture is the testimony of the men and women of early Christianity. Do not neglect these saints in your spiritual food.