Pills or Prayer, the History of the Dilemma

So, what did the world of the first Christians think about the relationship of religious healing and their form of modern medicine?  

Among the Jews, while generally sickness was seen as coming as a punishment for sin, the physician had a place.  The second century B.C. writer of ben Sira says, “give the physician his place, for the Lord created him…There is a time when success lies in the hands of physicians, for they too will pray to the Lord that he should grant them success in diagnosis and in healing.” (38:9-14)  God’s lordship over illness and health did not rule out modern medical technology, such as it was.

This compatibility was even more striking among the Greeks.  The same people from whom Hippocrates rose, an early champion of rational medicine, also were devotees of the god of healing, Asclepius.  Several major cities held temples to this popular god, and his priests melded religious treatment through sacrifices, prayers and vision interpretation, and rational treatments of medicines and physical cures.  The sick person would go to the temple, which were the hospitals of the day, sleep over and have dreams in which the god would appear to them and either heal them by touching them or by giving a prescription for a more rational treatment.  This was not seen as a conflict.  All healing, whether miraculous or through the ministrations of a physician, originated from the god.  The Romans, being the great borrowers of culture, added a healthy dose of superstition, magic and astrology all with the same result.  Healing came in a variety of ways, including more rational medicine and religious practices.

This is the world out of which the Christian Church grew.  Did they repudiate these attitudes, or continue them?  The early church understood that illness came from three sources: God, evil, and nature.  If an illness was from God, the healing should come from him alone.  If evil, then exorcism was the way.  If natural, then natural, rational treatments were prescribed.  (Of course, it is taken for granted that divine healing happened.  But this post is about the attitude toward rational medicine, not about faith healing itself.)  So the physician had his place, but it was considered a better thing to seek healing through prayer and anointing.  There has always been the tension between divine and natural healing, and a unified voice is hard to find.  Origin did teach that those of a “superior spiritual nature” should not resort to medicines, but seek help through prayer and devotion to God, and Basil stressed using medicine only if the cause of the illness was natural, but otherwise “to reject medicine and the medical art entirely not only is not recommended but is disparaged.” (1)

But the practice of the early church is particularly striking.  Christianity brought in “the most revolutionary and decisive change in the attitude of society toward the sick.  Christianity came into the world as the religion of healing, as the joyful Gospel of the Redeemer and of Redemption.  It addressed itself to the disinherited , to the sick and afflicted, and promised them healing, a restoration both spiritual and physical…it became the duty of the Christian to attend to the sick and poor of the community…The social position of the sick man this became fundamentally different frown at it had been before.  He assumed a preferential position which has been his ever since.” (2)

This was demonstrated by the behavior of Christians during the plagues of the third century.  While pagans would flee, abandoning even their own families, Christians stayed behind, caring not only for their own, but also for those left behind.  Rodney Stark holds that this was a big piece of why Christianity came to dominate the Romand Empire in time.  Through practical nursing care, and not only prayer, many survived who would otherwise have died.  And many of these would become Christians having been so loved.  Stark also suggests that due to their exposure and survival of plague, Christians were more likely to survive future outbreaks. (3)

During the fourth century we see the beginnings of the hospital, established by Basil the Great and John Chrysostom, places that were devoted to the care of the sick.

The practice of early Christians was a union of the seeking of divine healing and rational medical treatment.  While there were many warnings of not idolizing natural treatment and reminders to trust God for healing, there was no rejection of medical treatment as we see in some Christian communities today.

The next post will draw some lessons form this history.


1  Amundsen, Darrel W.  Medicine, Society, and Faith in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds.  The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, Baltimore, 1996, 143.

2  Henry Sigerist, quoted in “Medicine and Religion: Early Christianity Through the Middle Ages”, by Darrel W. Amundsen and Gary B. Ferngren, in Marty and Vaux, p. 110

3  Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, Princeton Univeristy, 1996, pp.88-91.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s