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  • Divine Guidance: Lessons for Today from the World of Early Christianity by John A. Jillions
  • Paul Ladouceur
John A. Jillions, Divine Guidance: Lessons for Today from the World of Early Christianity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020. xiv + 318 pp.

“Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” pray Christians as Jesus taught. This oft-repeated petition raises a major spiritual and theological question: What is the will of God? This question besets believers of all religions. And believers of all times have sought divine guidance for their behavior. This is the spiritual context of John Jillions’ book, seeking wisdom from the experience of the early church, both within the church itself and from surrounding cultures.

The book revolves around manifestations of divine guidance in Scripture and especially in St. Paul, who, as Jillions reminds his readers, “inhabits a mystical world” (6). But rather than focus initially on Paul, and especially 1 Corinthians, seen as “Paul’s primer on divine guidance” (187), Jillions presents an in-depth study of divine guidance in the religious, philosophical, literary, and social context of the first-century Roman Empire. He examines the different and often opposing forms and views of divine guidance in two contrasting yet inter-related cultural worlds, the dominant Greco-Roman culture and subordinate Jewish culture from which Christianity itself emerged.

In his introduction, Jillions stresses that Scripture abounds with examples of major personalities seeking and obtaining divine guidance in ways that reflect an innate supernatural perspective on the world and divine-human relations (6–7). But very quickly the early church felt obliged to move away from practices related more to non-Christian forms of divination than to Christian belief, to prevent the church from potential deviations from Jesus’s teachings and the emerging tradition of the church—the Montanists being a case in point (9–10). The church sought to encompass personal mystical experiences within the church by stressing the role of the clergy, especially the hierarchy, as the custodians of Christian truth, an attitude which reached its apogee in church councils, at which the major tenets of the faith were decided collectively—in the classic conciliar expression, “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us . . .” The move away from a prominent role accorded to supernatural revelation and guidance in Scripture and the early church became more marked in Western than in Eastern Christianity under the cumulative effects of scholasticism, the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the rise of modern science, shifting the focus to rationality or to Sola Scriptura, down-playing or banishing the mystical.

Jillions’ treatment of the Greco-Roman context of early Christianity is decidedly sympathetic, far removed from a simplistic dismissal of antique culture as “pagan” and intrinsically hostile to Christianity. Searching for attitudes towards divine guidance [End Page 237] especially in Corinth, Jillions is obliged to resort to indirect evidence, given the absence of sources specific to Corinth. The book explores archaeological evidence (chap. 2) and more especially the prevalent literary culture of the first-century Hellenistic Roman Empire as indirect sources for attitudes then present in Corinth (chaps. 3–7). Jillions examines attitudes towards divine guidance and the supernatural in both supporters of the supernatural and divination (Homer, Virgil, Horace, Plato, Posidonius), and sceptics or opponents (Aristotle, Lucretius, Pliny the Elder). Cicero, representing a middle course, considered the Roman tradition of divination an important manifestation of Roman culture rather than incorporating fundamental religious conviction. Importantly, Jillions points to the move among the educated towards philosophical monotheism, reflected especially in Stoicism, in contrast with official polytheistic imperial religion. Many philosophers did not jettison entirely the supernatural, but rather sought to keep the mystical and the rational in an uneasy balance (54). It is in this philosophical monotheism that Christianity could find a receptive audience.

Jillions sees in two leading Roman philosophers, Seneca and Plutarch, proto-Christian figures. Seneca opposed superstition which dishonors the true God, emphasizing goodness and benevolence as essential divine traits. He advocated detachment from both good fortune and misfortune (102–5), anticipating the later ascetic notion of apathéia, a cornerstone of Christian spirituality. Plutarch was also strongly critical of superstition, yet keenly aware that God...


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pp. 237-239
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