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Raised on Christian Milk by John David Penniman

23 February 2018

John Binns considers a feeding metaphor

THIS book is about food, and especially about milk. Feuerbach said that a man was what he ate. Paul wrote to Corinthians that he had fed them with milk, not solid food (1 Corinthians 3.2). Favorinus the Sophist, writing in the second century, thought that it was important that a mother breast-fed her child because her milk was derived from her own blood as it combined with the father’s seed, it shaped the child, giving it mind, character, and identity.

The book guides us through these and other ideas about feeding and nurturing in the Greek philosophical tradition, in Judaism, and then in the writings of the early Fathers, St Irenaeus, St Clement of Alexandria, Origen, St Gregory of Nyssa, and St Augustine.

When Paul makes his remarks to the Corinthians, he is part of a long tradition of thinking about how people are fed, formed, educated, and given an identity and a place within society. It is a physical process, but more than that. Since we are — to use his language — flesh and soul and spirit, then we need our whole person to be nurtured, and to grow out of being just flesh and to become spirit-filled; since we are all called by Christ, then this requires the humility to be like infants fed with the milk of faith, with no place for the enlightened inner group proposed by esoteric approaches to religion; and so we become a household, and shared milk gives a communal identity.

Milk — that most basic food — becomes a way to approach and understand a variety of themes, physical, educational, psychological, and social. Eating has a social meaning: members of a family are nurtured with the same food by the same mother, and so share in the same essence. So women are at the centre of this approach as the ones who give life, and leaders for the Church become mothers to the rest of us.

We are left wanting to explore further. The spiritual food valued above others is the bread and wine of eucharist, and the idea of milk-feeding opens up fresh understandings of this form of nurture; then we can understand the discipline of fasting as a spiritual feeding, not a denying of the body. There is a freshness of approach which, throughout, surprises and opens up new ways to think about familiar topics.

The Revd Dr John Binns is Visiting Professor at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Cambridge.


Raised on Christian Milk: Food and the formation of the soul in early Christianity
John David Penniman
Yale £65
Church Times Bookshop £58.50

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