A number of significant Protestant voices since the Reformation have argued that the early Christian writers, under the dualizing influence of Hellenistic philosophy, made the contemplative life preferable to the life of charitable action. Documentation supporting this thesis was readily available, as in the following passage from John Cassian’s Conferences:
As for those works of piety and charity of which you speak, these are necessary in this present life for as long as inequality prevails. Their workings here would not be required were it not for the superabundant numbers of the poor, the needy, and the sick. Those are there because of the iniquity of men who have held for their own private use what the common Creator has made available to all. As long as this inequity rages in the world, these good works will be necessary and valuable to anyone practicing them and they shall yield the reward of an everlasting inheritance to the man of good heart and concerned will.
But all of this will cease in the time to come when equality shall reign, when there shall no longer be the injustice on account of which these good works must be undertaken, when from the multiplicity of what is done here and now everyone shall pass over to the love of God and to the contemplation of things divine. Men seized of the urge to have knowledge of God and to be pure in mind devote all their gathered energies to this one task. While they still live in the corruption of the flesh they give themselves to that service in which they will persevere when that corruption has been laid aside. And already they come in sight of what the Lord and Savior held out when He said, “Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God”John Cassian: Conferences. Colm Luibheid, trans. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1985), 50–51. Cf. Matthew 5:8.
Cassian argues charitable action is desirable because of the inequality that exists in this life. In the future, though, inequality will not exist, and therefore charitable action will no longer be required. In this life both action and contemplation are valuable. Yet, to Cassian, contemplation is preeminent. As such Cassian clearly holds that it is important to acknowledge and experience contemplation as the higher of the two. In this respect, Cassian offers substantiation to the Protestant critique of the influence of Hellenistic dualism in the early Christian era.
However, there are instances in which early Christian writers held contemplation and action together. A particularly intriguing figure in this regard is Gregory of Nazianzus. Gregory was involved in pastoral leadership most of his adult life, and often depicted himself as “a hermit out of his proper place” or “a contemplative forced into action.” It was during his early pastorate, where he blended sporadic periods of ascetic withdrawal with the demands of pastoral ministry, that he composed his oration On Loving the Poor. Here Gregory contends contemplation and action are both indispensable to the Christian life, even though they have different ends and serve different purposes. Gregory of Nazianzus writes:
Solitude and silence are a good thing…; my teachers in this are Elijah’s Carmel, or John’s desert, or Jesus’ mountaintop, to which he often seems to have withdrawn, to be by himself in silence and peace… Humility is a good thing, and there are many examples of this on all sides; before all the rest is the Savior and Lord of all, who did not only humble himself as far as taking “the form of a slave,” or simply expose his face to the shame of being spat upon, and let himself be “counted among sinners”—he who purged the world of sin!—but who washed the feet of his disciples dressed as a slave. Poverty and contempt for money are a good thing; examples here are Zacchaeus and Christ himself: the former, by putting almost all his wealth at the disposal of others when Christ entered his house, the latter by defining perfection in these terms when he spoke with the rich man. To put it still more concisely concerning all these virtues, contemplation is a good thing, and action is also a good thing: the first, when it raises us up and leads us to the Holy of Holies, guiding our mind upwards towards what is akin to it; the second, when it receives Christ as its guest and looks after him, revealing the spell of love by its works.Brian Daley, S.J. Gregory of Nazianzus (New York: Routledge, 2006), 77–78.