In Biblical Studies, the predominant goals are to understand the ideas and thoughts of the Biblical authors and how the text as we have came into being. At the risk of oversimplifying, history and thoughts are the two main foci. So far as the Church employs the work of Biblical Studies, we see this pattern in preaching, where preaching focuses on the presentation of information on what the Biblical authors thought and, occasionally, supplementing that with historical information to make it seem more understandable.
This isn’t entirely bad, but there is something frequently lost. It is the intuition of the modern world that Christianity was a set of ideas about Jesus that one has to give their mental assent to. What gets lost is that the early Church would not have just gathered to tell people some stuff about Jesus. They would have had a set of practices, both communally and personally, that would define how they exercised their faith about God in Christ. It has also occurred with views on ancient philosophy, where we think the primary goal of the ancient Greco-Roman schools of philosophy were to convey ideas. There seems to be a modern bias of the Western world to look back at our intellectual heritage of religion and philosophy as being informative and cognitive. However, as Pierre Hadot writes in Philosophy as a Way of Life:
Spiritual exercises can be best observed in the context of Hellenistic and Roman schools of philosophy. The Stoics, for instance, declared explicitly that philosophy, for them, was an “exercise.” In their view, philosophy did not consist in teaching an abstract theory – much less in the exegesis of texts – but rather the art of living. It is a concrete attitude and determinate lifestyle, which engages the whole of existence…
In the view of all philosophical schools, mankind’s principal cause of suffering, disorder, and unconsciousness were the passions: that is, unregulated desires and exaggerated fears. People were prevented from truly living, it was taught, because they are dominated by worries. Philosophy thus appears, in the first place, as a therapeutic of the passions (in the words of Freidmann: “Try to get rid of your own passions”). Each school had its own therapeutic method, but all of them linked their therapeutics to a profound transformation of the individual’s mode of seeing and being. The object of spiritual exercises is precisely to bring about this transformation.”1
What if the early church had many spiritual exercises connected to the telling of the Gospel narrative? What is the same bias in misunderstanding the ancient philosophies as idea-centered also impacted how we understand the earliest Christians? In part this bias may derive from the faith-centered nature of Christian teaching, suggesting that works were superfluous at best, self-righteous as worst. However, the fact that our main source of our understanding of the ancient world is through texts that transmit ideas, perhaps the type of evidence we have has biased our perception of the ancient Greco-Roman philosophy and the early followers of Jesus as being about simply communicating a set of ideas.
However, when you look at Paul’s letter to the Philippians, you can see what may be echoes of his own spiritual exercises that he encourages others to practice. In Philippians 4:8-9, Paul encourages the Christians to think about the good things they can find. This follows instructions for prayer regarding anxieties2, suggesting that Paul is outlining a set of practices for the recipient to practice in.
It is tempting to think this practice of contemplation is just a nice idea and some sort of optional add-on to Christian faith, but I would suggest it is more central for Paul. In Philippians 2:5-10, he specifically calls for people to engage their minds in such as a way to have the mind of Christ. Then, he quotes from an ancient Christian hymn about the descent of Jesus and the following exaltation. Paul encourages as certain mindset through offering a familiar hymn for reflection. Philippians 2:5-10 is an example of the contemplation he encourages in 4:8-9.
What if Paul’s spiritual practices included a very deliberate, habitual form of contemplation? We see echoes of it in Romans 8:5-8, where Paul outlines the thinking of the flesh and Spirit. Furthermore, could a more contemplative mindset that focused less on textual interpretation and more on conceptual imaginative explain the difference between Paul’s earlier letter to the Galatians, where he engages in a form of textual exegesis such as in Galatians 3:16, and his later letter to the Romans where he contrasts the letter with the Spirit? Perhaps, if Paul developed a deeper pattern of contemplation in his later ministry, it might explain style of expression and thought of Ephesians and Colossians, often times considered to be written by others. I have also personally considering Ephesians 1:3-14 as having been a reflection of the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus of John 17.3 In addition, this contemplative nature could explain the different style of Ephesians in general, where multiple times Paul interweaves theological reflection and Old Testament references without his normal style of reference. Furthermore, Colossians theological style in places such as Colossians 2:9-15 exhibits a pattern of deep contemplation on conceptual ideas; latter in 3:2 Paul encourages the practice of such contemplation on heavenly things.
While it is only a preliminary hypothesis, what if Paul was involved in deep practices of contemplation? Could much of the Pauline corpus be impacted by this practice and therefore explain an evolution in Paul’s theology and ethics? Additionally, how would the idea of Paul’s practice influence how we read Paul’s ideas? How does a Pauline praxis impact the sense of orthodoxy the early Church was forming? While Paul’s letters are not deeply autobiographical and so we can not easily reconstruct Paul’s pattern of life, perhaps greater sensitivity to the practices Paul does mention and finding resemblances of those practices may bear greater fruit in working through the Pauline corpus. It may also even be beneficial for understanding the New Testament as a whole, recognizing praxis might impact the theology. This is becoming rather speculative here, but what if the memory of Jesus was impacted by practices that were done in conscious imitation of Jesus?
While the body of evidence we have before us can not give clear answers, perhaps with keen and subtle insight, we can tease out the spiritual practice of the apostolic churches to inform our study into the text and ideas of the Bible.