Friday, September 11, 2009

Christ at the Center: The Early Christian Era

The theological disputes and debates among early Christians that helped shape the church are examined by a Valparaiso University theology professor's new book.

Dr. Lisa Driver, associate professor of theology, is author of Christ at the Center: The Early Christian Era. The book is the third volume in the Westminster History of Christian Thought series.

"Early followers of Jesus Christ called themselves believers in 'the way'," Dr. Driver said. "They sought to understand what they were coming to believe in relation to how these beliefs affected the ways in which they lived."

In Christ at the Center, Dr. Driver illustrates how early Christians' interactions with one another in worship and in their care for strangers and the poor shaped how they came to understand God.

"This interrelation of faith and practice is a clarifying lens through which the story of emerging Christian thought can be understood," Dr. Driver said.

The book covers the period from the earliest formation of Christianity through the fifth century.

Dr. Driver said early Christians rejoiced and marveled that, in a sense, Christ's incarnation brought humanity into God himself.

"Such divinely transformed flesh-and-blood humanity required a commitment to rescuing poverty- and disease-stricken bodies," she said. "Nursing care and eventually hospitals were hallmarks of Christ incarnated in his people. When a Roman emperor unsuccessfully attempted to restore pagan religion, he sought to replicate the array of social services that Christians provided."

Another insight of the past, Dr. Driver said, is that a Christian's worship shapes how and what he or she believes. "Examining the life and thought of early Christians, it is clear that the form, style, actions and content of worship provided a complex and rich matrix for Christians to encounter and be transformed by God and from there to explore the spiritual, intellectual and social implications of that relationship," she said.

Dr. Driver said her interest in early Christianity goes back to her family's decision to enter into the Lutheran church. "That opened my eyes to the idea of 'church' (the people of God) extending beyond a local congregation," Dr. Driver said. "The same liturgy and sacraments joined me to brothers and sisters far and wide in a way I had never considered."

Her studies eventually led her to the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies and University of Toronto. "At that point I had my very first theology course and met ancient and medieval brothers and sisters," Dr. Driver said. "Here the chronological boundaries burst and I tasted the fellowship of 'church' that goes beyond time and space. Here I could encounter and converse with my forbears in the faith, even as I had communion with them at every Eucharistic liturgy."

Dr. Driver said her calling to teach arose from a zeal to share the wideness of the church with others who may have had little opportunity to know its riches. "In my teaching I continue to emphasize the experiential encounters with God in worship, prayer and intentional Christian life that lie at the heart of the faith," she said.

Dr. Driver said Christ at the Center is written both for theology students and for Christians, Protestants in particular, who are interested in learning about the roots of the faith and about their kinship with ancient Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions.

Dr. Driver joined Valpo's Department of Theology in 2000. Her research interests include theology of the late antique and medieval periods, Biblical interpretation, Christian social thought and action, Gnosticism, narrative theology in early Christianity and Christian prayer, mysticism and ascetic disciplines.