This article grounds early Christian theologies and practices of philanthropy in their varied complexities in a larger patristic vision of human flourishing. For patristic authors (second to fifth centuries), human flourishing is grounded in God’s creative intent for material creation, including nature and material goods, that are to be shared for common use and common good, and also to be a means of distributive justice. Based on God’s own philanthropia
(“love of humanity”, compassionate generosity), when Christians practice it mainly through almsgiving to the poor and sharing, they mirror the original image (eikon
) of God, undo their crime of inhumanity, retain a Christian identity and virtue, and thus restore a semblance of God’s creative intent for the common good. This fundamental social virtue, philanthropia
, is, in fact, an attendant virtue of salvation (the goal of creation, including humanity), in reversing the effects of the fall and restoring human flourishing. I then examine patristic authors’ presentations of how wealth presents Christians in concrete situations with a unique challenge and opportunity to demonstrate their spiritual state and persevere in their salvation by eliminating vices (e.g., greed) and cultivating virtues (e.g., detachment), and thereby to affirm and confirm their Christian identities. Finally, I explore the institutional aspect of philanthropy in the (post-) Constantinian era as the Christian church took on the task of caring for the poor of the whole Roman society as a result.
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