Healing and Medicine: Healing and Medicine in Christianity

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The four Gospels recount the career of Jesus of Nazareth (c. 4 bcec. 29 ce), the founder of Christianity. Jesus is recorded as having performed many miraculous healings, which included restoring to health (among others) the blind, the dumb, the deaf, the lame, and lepers. The Gospels describe Jesus' miracles as signs that provided evidence of his messianic identity, as well as a manifestation of the presence of the kingdom of God and a fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy (e.g., Mt. 11:45, which echoes Is. 35:46; 61:1). The Gospel of John declares that Jesus himself maintained that his miracles were evidence of his messiahship (Jn. 10:3738). The Gospels differentiate Jesus' miracles from the miracles of exorcists and magicians. Moreover, although Jesus is said to have cast out demons, the Gospels invariably distinguish between exorcism and healing (e.g., Mt. 8:16; cf. Mk. 6:12; Acts 19:12). Nor does it appear that either he or his disciples considered demons to be the cause of disease. One finds several medical conditions described in the Gospels, mostly ordinary diseases or congenital conditions for which a natural cause appears to have been assumed by those who suffered from them. The Gospels distinguish the symptoms of such conditions from those that accompanied demonic possession, which usually manifested erratic or abnormal behavior. Whether those who approached Jesus for healing had already sought assistance from physicians is not indicated except in one incident in which medical treatment had been unsuccessful (Mk. 5:2434).

Outside the Gospels, one finds little reference to miraculous healing in the New Testament. The Book of Acts describes a relatively small number of healings that are attributed to Jesus' disciples (Acts 3:111; 9:3334; 14:810). They belong to the category of "signs and wonders" that confirm the disciples' apostolic credentials (Acts 14:3). The diseases healed are natural conditions, and none are attributed to demonic etiology. In the epistles, there are no sicknesses that are either healed miraculously or attributed to demonic causation. The Epistle of James (5:1315) prescribes a rite of healing in which the presbyters of the church anoint the sick and pray for their recovery. But there is no evidence that anointing for healing was employed in the church before the third century, and it is possible that the passage refers to prayers for those who are spiritually rather than physically ill. In fact, the epistles suggest that first-century Christians suffered from ordinary illnesses from which they sometimes recovered gradually (e.g., Phil. 2:2527) and sometimes did not recover (e.g., 2 Tm. 4:20). They typically did not seem to expect that their diseases would be miraculously healed. The New Testament repeatedly speaks of suffering as intended by God to produce spiritual maturity (e.g., Heb. 12:711, 1 Pt. 4:12). Faith and trust in God could transform suffering into a positive experience and nurture Christian graces such as humility, patience, and dependence on Christ (e.g., Rom. 5:25; Jas. 5:1011; 2 Cor. 12:710). Such suffering includes sickness and disability.

The PostNew Testament Church

Leading Christian writers of the earliest centuries of Christianity for the most part exhibit positive views of medicine. Thus Origen (c. 185c. 254) considered medicine "beneficial and essential to mankind" (Contra Celsum 3.12), and Tertullian (c. 200 ce), who was fond of employing medical analogies in his writings, believed that medicine was appropriate for Christians to use. The theme of Jesus as the Great Physician (Christus medicus ) was popular in the writings of the Church Fathers, who used the expression in a metaphorical sense to describe him as the savior of sin-sick souls, not as a healer of physical ills. Medical care, far from being rejected by early Christians, was regarded as a model of the care of the soul.

Early Christians regarded disease as a material, rather than a moral, evil that had resulted from the fall. Within the theistic context they had inherited from Judaism, they typically viewed illness as the result of natural, although providential, causes that could be treated by physicians or other healers, to whom they could legitimately have recourse so long as they did not employ pagan religious practices. Christians were encouraged, of course, to pray that God would heal, whether by medical means or without them. When medicine did not avail, they might still seek healing by prayer, but recognized that they were to submit patiently to God's will.

By the late fourth century, there was a marked increase in claims of divine healing. The growing veneration of relics associated with Christian martyrs and the new importance that Christian leaders like Ambrose (374397) and Augustine (354430) placed on miracles of healing signaled a major change in Christian approaches to healing. The burgeoning fascination with demonic activity did not, however, preclude a sustained belief by many in naturalistic explanations of disease. For example, Augustine's delight in describing spectacularly miraculous cures (City of God 22.8) was not diminished by his assumption of a natural etiology for every case mentioned. Indeed, the rapid spread of hospitals at the end of the fourth century suggests that Christians still sought medical assistance for their illnesses, perhaps resorting to religious cures primarily when physicians had failed them.

From the beginning Christians had exhibited a philanthropic spirit that was evident in their concern, both personally and corporately, for those in physical need. This spirit was in marked contrast with that of the classical world, in which there was little or no religious basis for charity that expressed itself in a personal or organized concern for those who suffered physical distress. Christian concepts of philanthropy were motivated by agape, a self-sacrificing love of others that bore witness to the love of Christ as reflected in his incarnation and redemptive work on the cross (e.g., Mt. 25:3540, Jas. 1:27). Christians were encouraged to visit the sick privately, and deacons (whose duties largely consisted of the relief of physical want and suffering) were expected to visit the ill.

In the third century, as Christianity grew rapidly in the large cities of the Roman Empire, extensive benevolent work was organized and centered in the local congregation. Minor ecclesiastical orders were created to assist deacons in their charitable work. In Rome, for example, by 251 the Christian church had divided the city into seven districts, each under the responsibility of a deacon and his assisting clergy. According to Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260c. 330), the church supported 1,500 widows and others, including the ill, who experienced suffering and want (Eccles. Hist. 6.43). Adolf Harnack (18511930) estimated that the Roman church at this time spent an amount between 500,000 and 1 million sesterces (Roman coins) each year in support of its charitable ministry. Other churches in the large cities of the Roman Empire spent similar sums on charities, which were administered by bishops or presbyters.

Beginning in 250, the cities of the Roman Empire experienced a major plague that lasted for fifteen to twenty years and reached epidemic proportions. Because the civic authorities did little to deal with the plague, the Christian churches undertook the systematic care of both pagan and Christian plague victims and the burial of the dead, despite the fact that Christians were at the time a persecuted minority. Descriptions exist of the organization of the care of the sick in Rome, Carthage, and Pontus. In Alexandria, a medical corps known as the parabalani was formed to transport and nurse the sick under the jurisdiction of the patriarch of Alexandria. Although the parabalani are first mentioned in the fifth century, they may date from the time of an earlier plague. During a plague in 312, Christians in many cities in the East performed public medical charity of the kind carried out later by the parabalani.

The legalization of Christianity by Constantine in 313 resulted in major changes in the church's administration of medical philanthropy. The role of individual congregations and of the laity declined, whereas that of bishops who administered the charitable programs grew. In the 370s Christians created the hospital (xenodochium ), a specifically Christian institution that arose out of the philanthropic ideals of the early church. No similar organization existed in the classical world; Roman infirmaries (valetudinaria ) for soldiers and for slaves on plantation estates were not philanthropic in nature. The hospital often included an orphanage and houses for the poor and aged in a single complex. One of the earliest and most celebrated was the Basileias, founded by Basil the Great, bishop of Caesarea (in modern Turkey), about 372. Hospitals modeled on the Basileias spread quickly in the East and somewhat later to the West. The first hospital in the West was founded in Rome by Fabiola, whose friend Jerome describes how she gathered the sick from the public squares of Rome (where the homeless ill could often be found in the ancient world) and nursed the most seriously ill herself (Epistle 77.6.12).

Many of the early Christian hospitals were staffed by monks. Monasticism, which originated in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria in the third century, grew out of attempts to deepen the spiritual life by the renunciation of the world and the practice of self-mortification. The founders of the movement were anchorites or hermits who sought solitude in the desert, but by the fourth century anchoritic monasticism had largely given way to cenobitic monasticism in which monks and nuns lived in ordered communities. The creation of the hospital represents the culmination of three centuries of medical philanthropy, during which time the church maintained an extensive program of caring for the sick. During the first two centuries of its existence, the church carried on its medical charity through the voluntary efforts of local congregations, which were supervised by presbyters and deacons. In the third century widespread plagues throughout the Roman Empire led Christians to establish emergency care for the community in the large urban areas. Organized medical attendants began to appear in the early fourth century, and the creation of the hospital followed later in the century.

Christianity had gradually spread in the first two centuries throughout the Roman Empire to diverse peoples who shared a common culture and a knowledge of Greek as a universal language. In the third century, a change began to occur that by late antiquity eventuated in a cultural cleavage between the East and the West. The division of the Roman Empire into eastern and western halves in 395 contributed to this development, with Latin as the common language of the West. After a century and a half of barbarian invasions, the last emperor of the western Empire was dethroned in 476. Already the West was slowly being drawn into an emerging European rather than a strictly Mediterranean ethos, whereas the eastern Empire was developing into the Byzantine Empire. Christianity in the East and West were to follow different courses.

Eastern Orthodoxy

Eastern Orthodoxy encompasses the largest body of churches that originated in the eastern Mediterranean world. Over time it took on a very different identity from that of the Western (later Roman Catholic) church, and the two separated in a formal schism in 1054. Within modern Orthodoxy are several autocephalus (self-governing) churches, with their patriarchs centered respectively in Constantinople (Greek), Antioch (Syrian), Moscow (Russian), and various capitals in Eastern Europe.

Central to the specifically Orthodox approach to healing and medicine has been the concept of philanthropia (kindness or love toward others), especially as it was manifested in monasticism. The ascetic tradition was a major force in the eastern Mediterranean from the third century on and an important component in Orthodoxy both in its anchoritic (hermit) and cenobitic (communal) forms. Within Orthodoxy, monasteries have always been regarded as repositories of spirituality, holiness, and wisdom. Ascetics believed that the gospel required that they actively pursue the charitable care of the ill. As previously noted, this motivating force led to the establishment of the earliest Christian hospitals (xenodochia ) in the eastern Mediterranean and such groups as the parabalani and, later, the philoponoi (lovers of labor) and spoudaioi (the zealous ones), which also arose in the large cities of the eastern Mediterranean. Composed of lay people who were without medical training and drawn from the lowest class, they flourished in the sixth and seventh centuries, giving assistance to the sick, especially to the urban poor. They bathed and anointed them, but they offered no professional medical assistance. These lay orders were attached to large churches and came to be recognized over time as an intermediate order between the clergy and laity.

The Byzantine Empire maintained a much greater cultural continuity with its classical past than did the West. Because the tradition of medical research and writing continued in the East, monastic physicians were in a position to appreciate classical medicine and to use it. Imperial troubles within Orthodoxy in the seventh century led to a decline of clerical medicine, an anti-intellectualism that remained for centuries, a growing spirit of mysticism, and a new emphasis on the ability of saints to heal. The last had been a continuing aspect of the eastern Empire since the fourth century. Nevertheless, hospitals and healing shrines, as well as physicians and holy men, continued to work in tandem and relatively without tension. In the thirteenth century, as the Byzantine Empire shrank and resources for supporting hospitals declined, sacramental anointing for healing became widespread. All these components continued in diminished form after the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453, including the tradition of clerical physicians and the belief that philanthropia is an essential component of the Christian gospel.

Medieval Catholicism

The barbarian invasions of the fifth century (most of them Germanic) brought about the breakup of the Western Roman Empire by 476. The political and social break was definitive and western Europe declined into chaos, poverty, and disorder. Cities declined or disappeared as centers of population, and the preservation and transmission of literacy and learning came to be centered in monasteries. The Germanic settlers brought with them into what had been the Western Roman Empire their folk paganism that threatened to overwhelm traditional medical approaches to illness. Although missionaries to western and northern Europe tried to eradicate these folk practices, many of them were employed as alternatives to Christian practices. Features of late Roman culture, such as the growing practice of healing through the cult of saints and relics, found fertile soil in the cultures that succeeded the dissolution of the empire. Christian missionaries to northern Europe encouraged the adoption of these practices, finding them useful in winning semi-Christianized pagans away from traditional animism. For a thousand years the cult of saints and relics dominated Western Christianity.

Although sacramental healing, especially by anointing, had already become widespread among Christians in late antiquity, it could not compete in popularity with miraculous healing offered at the shrines of saints. Miracles became part of ordinary life. Most of them were claimed for the healing of a physical affliction. Pilgrimages to these shrines, which had begun in late antiquity, became enormously popular in the Middle Ages and beyond. At some pilgrimage centers, clergy, who had limited knowledge of medicine but access to a good library of medical works, were available to treat medically those who came. Popular too were quasi-medical practices of the kind described in Marcellus of Bordeaux's fifth-century work De Medicamentis (On Remedies), which mingled pharmacology, herbal lore, and spells (both Celtic and Roman) to help individuals treat their own illnesses. The church opposed this magico-medical approach, which combined spells and incantations with the occult properties of gems and herbs, and it attempted, not always successfully, to substitute for pagan incantations specifically Christian formulas like the Lord's Prayer and the Creed.

Although many people resorted to folk remedies, a tradition of secular medicine was transmitted from classical antiquity to the Middle Ages. There were two kinds of physicians, secular practitioners and clerical physicians, the latter usually being monks who had been trained by apprenticeship. Hospitals that had survived the chaos of the Germanic invasions became the property of monasteries and several reportedly had very skilled physicians in residence. Educated men continued to read classical medical literature, for medicine was a part of the curriculum studied in monastic schools. Nearly all who received an education in the early Middle Ages were trained in monasteries and became members of the clergy. Gregory of Tours (c. 540594) was typical of scholars of the early Middle Ages in his credulity regarding miracles. He frequently alludes to the sick whose physicians had failed to heal them but who later found healing at the shrine of Saint Martin. However, he was not opposed to medicine for he regularly consulted medical and pharmacological handbooks. Pope Gregory I (590604) encouraged the cult of saints and relics, miraculous healing, and the study of demonology, yet had a life-long interest in medicine and retained a personal physician. Both are typical of educated men who found a place in their thinking for both traditional medicine and miraculous healing and for both natural and demonic causality.

Given the fact that the clergy, especially monks, were responsible for much of the medicine practiced, not surprisingly the literature of the period emphasizes medical charity, citing biblical passages that admonish the care of those in need. Benedict of Nursia (c. 480c. 547) and Cassiodorus (c. 485580), both of whom founded monasteries in the sixth century, urged physician-monks to take the greatest care of the sick whom they treat. Monasteries, especially those that maintained xenodochia, became a refuge for the sick, not merely for Christians but for non-Christians (Jews and pagans) as well. Monks produced medical treatises to advise the poor how to find medically efficacious herbs. Because so many clergy practiced medicine, the church eventually passed a good deal of legislation to regulate them, for example, to limit the opportunities for avarice among clerical physicians who might be tempted to neglect their spiritual duties for a more remunerative career in medicine. Numerous treatises appeared as well that dealt with medical ethics and etiquette, as their authors (mostly monks) encouraged physicians, whether clerical or secular, to model Christian ideals in their character and medical practice.

As Europe began to change from a largely rural and manor-based society to an urbanized one in the eleventh century, medicine developed into a profession and the clergy's role was diminished over time. The growing sense of professionalism among secular physicians led to the creation of licensure requirements for the protection of the public against incompetent medical practitioners (the first were promulgated by Roger II of Sicily in 1140) and to the organization of medical and surgical guilds for the purpose of ensuring a monopoly of practice. As an authoritative international body, the church routinely extended its jurisdiction over guilds by granting charters and enforcing them.


When Martin Luther (14831546) nailed his "Ninety-Five Theses" to the door of the castle church at Wittenburg, he inaugurated not merely a schism, but a very different way of conceiving of humans' relationship with God. Out of the Protestant Reformation there arose four separate traditionsLutheran, Reformed (Presbyterian), Anabaptist, and Anglican (Episcopal)united to a large degree in their basic differences with Rome, but by no means constituting a uniform movement.

Protestants differed from Catholics in their approach to the Christian life. The Catholic tradition saw in the ascetic or reclusive life the Christian ideal, whereas Protestants encouraged a life of active participation in the world. In Catholic thought the world was divided into temporal and spiritual estates. Catholics who desired wholeheartedly to serve God entered holy orders, and they considered secular professions to be of secondary importance. Martin Luther and John Calvin (15091564) abolished the distinction between secular and sacred callings. They broadened the idea of vocation (in medieval terms, a call to a contemplative life) by incorporating into it the secular professions. A physician or a nurse might glorify God in treating others medically as much as a priest might do so in caring for souls. The reformers' desire was to extend God's redeeming grace into every activity of life.

Given the reformers' rejection of the medieval superstitions of Catholic saints, relics, and pilgrimages, not surprisingly Protestants also rejected the miraculous healing practices associated with them. The reformers respected medicine, as indeed they did the natural sciences; empiricism in the search for natural causes and the rejection of deductive Scholasticism were regarded as an extension of the theological ideas of Protestantism. There was no tension between faith and medicine in the view of the reformers, who regarded medicine as a gift of God for the healing of illness. Physicians enjoyed a high status in most Protestant countries owing to the Protestants' respect for learning and the value they placed on the professions as an area for spiritual cultivation. In eighteenth-century Edinburgh, the center of a strong Presbyterian (Calvinist) tradition, the Scots established what became one of the most celebrated medical faculties in Europe.

Because medicine was regarded as a sacred calling, medical literature before the nineteenth century describes the ideals of the profession in terms of religious and moral values. The physician was expected to be educated and a person of impeccable character and behavior. Christians had always seen affinities between the care of the body and the care of the soul. The practice of medicine provided opportunities for the physician to give spiritual counsel and to provide religious comfort, assurance, and admonition. Clergy-physicians played an important role among Protestant ministers from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries. In an age in which trained physicians were especially uncommon in villages and rural areas, the Protestant belief in an educated clergy ensured a supply of persons who had both the leisure and the learning to read medical books. John Wesley (17031791) took a course in medicine so that as a minister he could be of help to those who had no regular physician. In 1746 he opened a dispensary and in the next year published a lay medical guide, Primitive Physick. Clerical physicians were common in colonial New England, where Cotton Mather (16631728), a Bostonian minister who himself practiced medicine, called the combination of the care of soul and body the "angelical conjunction." During an epidemic of smallpox in 1721, many physicians (together with members of the local press) opposed inoculation as a hazard to health and a rejection of divine providence. Mather defended the practice, maintaining that any medical procedure might invite the same kind of objections. He was supported by five other prominent clergymen.

The nature of authority for Protestants is different from that of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. The reformers rested religious authority not on ecclesiastical tradition but on scripture alone (sola scriptura ). The Bible enjoyed primacy over all human traditions and institutions, even over the church itself. Scripture was the medium of God's special revelation as it was interpreted with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Hence it was the touchstone for judging all matters of theology, morals, and practice. However, Protestantism was not a monolithic tradition, and there remained a good deal of diversity between confessional bodies as well as theologians. Protestantism has never had a locus for the definitive formulation of matters of faith and morals like the magisterium (teaching authority) of the Roman Catholic Church. Moreover, the Protestant belief in the priesthood of all believers has meant that much theological controversy has involved individual opinion. Protestants for the most part, perhaps in reaction to the Roman Catholic tradition of natural law, never developed a system of casuistic ethics. Instead, Protestants made commandment and conscience the twin pillars of ethics. An emphasis of Protestantism historically has been the cultivation of the individual conscience, which seeks to apply biblical principles and specific texts to particular ethical situations. In practice, this has meant that Protestants have been less willing to insist on a single authoritative Protestant position on complex medical-ethical issues that might inhibit the exercise of private conscience. Paul Tillich (18861965) called this refusal to absolutize the relative the "Protestant principle." Thus on questions such as whether suicide always precludes God's forgiveness (Augustine's view) or whether abortion is ever justified, there has been some disagreement among Protestants because the biblical evidence is not clear enough to permit a definitive solution.

Faith Healing

Belief in miraculous healing has always existed in Christianity, sometimes within the mainstream and sometimes on the sectarian fringe of the movement. Although there is little evidence that it was prominent in the first three centuries, by the fourth it had emerged as a significant component of the Christian view of illness. Claims of miraculous healing were ubiquitous in the Middle Ages. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches continue to teach that miraculous healing is an ongoing phenomenon and a demonstration of God's working in the church. Protestants have historically claimed that miracles ended with the apostolic age. Although they have maintained that God heals in answer to prayer (i.e., as a special providence), they have considered supernatural healing (i.e., healing apart from means) to be rare. In the mid-nineteenth century, however, faith healing became prominent in American Protestantism largely through Methodist and Holiness influences. Some prominent Pietist preachers in Europe (e.g., Christoph Blumhardt in Germany and Otto Stockmayer in Switzerland) and evangelical ministers in the United States (e.g., A. B. Simpson and A. J. Gordon) sought to reclaim a healing ministry for the church.

At the turn of the twentieth century a new movement, Pentecostalism, claimed that the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit described in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 (particularly supernatural healing and glossolalia or speaking in unknown languages) were normative for the church in every age. The movement began in 1901 with Charles Fox Parham, a faith healer, whose teachings spread to Los Angeles, where they led to the celebrated Azusa Street revival. Pentecostalism, which grew rapidly in the first two decades of the twentieth century, taught that Jesus' death on the cross atoned not only for sin but for disease as well. Hence Christians could seek supernatural healing by the "prayer of faith." Pentecostalism produced many itinerant healers who claimed to possess the gift of miraculous healing. Some practiced exorcism, regarding demons as the cause of illness. A minority of Pentecostals recognized medicine as an alternative to supernatural healing, albeit an inferior one. The majority rejected it as unfaithful to God's unconditional promise to heal. In the last third of the twentieth century some Pentecostals modified their categorical rejection of medicine. Since the 1950s Pentecostal influences, usually without their sectarian flavor, influenced mainstream Protestant and even Roman Catholic churches. The charismatic renewal, as it came to be called, gained widespread influence as it introduced healing, sometimes in a sacramental fashion, to churches that had not traditionally practiced it.

Roman Catholicism since Trent

The late medieval corruption of the Catholic church, which led to the separation of Protestants in the sixteenth century, was seriously addressed by the Council of Trent (15451563). The Council introduced long-needed reforms and firmly restated every doctrine that had been challenged by the Protestant Reformers. The results of the Counter or Catholic Reformation were a conservative theology, a strict discipline, and a centralization of the church that remained in place until the Second Vatican Council (19621965). By contrast, Vatican II opened the floodgates to the liberalization and modernization of the church. Among those practices that were retained after Vatican II was a ban on artificial contraception, which was confirmed by Pope Paul VI in his encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968).

Many popular forms of Catholic piety have remained outside the control of the institutional structure of the church. There has existed within the church a tendency, which was not limited to post-tridentine Catholicism, to blur the distinction between officially sanctioned rites and popular practices. The officially sanctioned practices of venerating relics and blessing animals, for example, seemed to many Catholics not very different from popular cults that attributed supernatural healing to statues of the Virgin Mary. Although educated Catholics might consider some manifestations of Catholic piety that syncretized pagan survivals as superstitious, they reflected an important aspect of the Catholic faith. Hence there remained within the larger confines of the church as much a place for supernatural healing as existed within Protestant Pentecostalism. Chief among them was the miraculous healing offered at pilgrimage sites. Lourdes in France, Fatima in Portugal, and Guadalupe in Mexico continued to draw large numbers of pilgrims year after year despite modern advances in medicine that would seem to render them less attractive to pilgrims than in previous centuries.

At the same time post-tridentine Catholicism retained and enlarged its vast reservoir of medical philanthropy. The Sisters of Charity, founded by Saint Vincent de Paul (15801660), became a major force in caring for the sick. Catholics excelled in organizing and institutionalizing their medical charities, including hospitals, most of which were maintained by religious orders of women. Similarly missionaries to colonial areas often included a medical component and much of their work focused on the founding of hospitals, leprosaria, and other health-related institutions.

Central Themes in Christian Healing

The relationship between Christianity and medicine is a complex one that is marked by a number of relatively consistent themes. In general, Christians have considered the body as a relative, not an absolute, good. They have viewed health as a blessing given by God, not (as did the Greeks) a virtue. Disease and pain were material, although not moral, evils, the result of the fall of humanity, but they were often used under God's providential care to produce spiritual good. Hence a place existed in God's world for suffering, as many spiritual writers have observed. Few serious Christians could anticipate a future in this life in which bodily affliction would be completely eliminated. In a world of sin, the curse of disease and physical suffering would always be present. Christians anticipated the resurrection of the body, in which illness and death, the final enemy, would be conquered.

The majority of Christians at most times have considered medicine a gift of God, offering relief to sufferers of illness. In nearly every era, miraculous healing has either complemented medicine or, among a small minority who repudiated all medicine as contrary to God's will, replaced it. Most Christians have not considered the use of medicine and the practice of healing through prayer to be incompatible. Believing that God is sovereign over life and death and that God most often works through natural means, they have prayed for healing through the use of medicine or, when it has failed, by miraculous means. When both have failed, Christians have always been encouraged to pray for patient endurance of their suffering.

The New Testament and early Christian literature enjoined Christian care, both on the individual and the corporate level, for those who were suffering from physical ills. Already in the first century, the early church organized a systematic effort to care for the sick through voluntary assistance. It became so successful that it formed the basis for the hospital, created at the end of the fourth century. Medical philanthropy has played a paramount role in Christian charity among Christians of all persuasions. Historically, it has been the greatest contribution of Christianity to health care.

The impulse to philanthropy reflected the conviction that human beings were created in the image of God, which gave to every individual an inherent worth. This, in turn, formed the basis for a respect for life from conception to death, which clearly distinguished the ethics of Christian physicians from the prevailing medical ethics of classical polytheistic pluralism as it does in the twenty-first century from the bioethical consequentialism of secular pluralism.

See Also

Christian Social Movements; Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity; Protestantism; Reformation; Roman Catholicism; Science and Religion.


On the relation of Christianity to medicine and healing generally, see Darrel W. Amundsen and Gary B. Ferngren, "Medicine and Religion: Early Christianity Through the Middle Ages," in Health/Medicine and the Faith Traditions, edited by Martin E. Marty and Kenneth. L. Vaux, pp. 93131 (Philadelphia, 1982); Ronald L. Numbers and Ronald C. Sawyer, "Medicine and Christianity in the Modern World," in Health/Medicine and the Faith Traditions, edited by Martin E. Marty and Kenneth. L. Vaux, pp. 13360 (Philadelphia, 1982); Ronald L. Numbers and Darrel W. Amundsen, eds., Caring and Curing: Health and Medicine in the Western Religious Traditions (New York, 1986; repr., Baltimore, Md., 1997); and W. J. Sheils, ed., The Church and Healing, Studies in Church History 19 (Oxford, 1982).

On medicine and healing in the early and medieval church, see Darrel W. Amundsen, Medicine, Society, and Faith in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds (Baltimore, 1996); Gary B. Ferngren, "Early Christianity as a Religion of Healing," Bulletin of the History of Medicine 66 (1992): 115 and "Early Christian Views of the Demonic Etiology of Disease," in From Athens to Jerusalem: Medicine in Hellenized Jewish Lore and in Early Christian Literature, edited by S. Kottek and H. F. J. Horstmanshoff, pp. 183201 (Rotterdam, Netherlands, 2000); and Owsei Temkin, Hippocrates in a World of Pagans and Christians (Baltimore, 1991).

The history of supernatural healing in the history of Christianity is explored by Benjamin B. Warfield, Counterfeit Miracles (1918; repr., Edinburgh, 1972). The standard history of hospitals is Guenter B. Risse's Mending Bodies, Saving Souls: A History of Hospitals (New York, 1999). On clergy-physicians in colonial New England, see Patricia A. Watson, The Angelical Conjunction: The Preacher-Physicians of Colonial New England (Knoxville, Tenn., 1991). A comprehensive treatment of Pentecostalism is David E. Harrell, Jr.'s All Things Are Possible: The Healing and Charismatic Revivals in Modern America (Bloomington, Ind., 1975).

Gary B. Ferngren (2005)

Darrel W. Amundsen (2005)

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Healing and Medicine: Healing and Medicine in Christianity