A Prodigious Intellectual Effort

Book cover
The Spirit of Early Christian Thoughtby By Robert Louis WilkenYale Univ. Press. 352p $29.95

Robert Wilken states his book’s purpose in the introduction: to depict the pattern of Christian thinking as it took shape in the formative years of the church’s history. It is a large task, but one that Wilken carries out with great learning and deep appreciation. This is not a book written for the academy but for all readers. It is not driven by theoretical or ideological agendas but is the fruit of years of patient and affectionate reading. It is not a young scholar’s bid to make a name but a senior scholar’s effort to share the fruit of learning. It is not marked by a hermeneutics of suspicion but by a hermeneutics of generosity.

As such, it provides for a new generation of readers a sense of what is important about those astonishing teachers of the early church who instructed the ages after them. When Wilken, a professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia, declares in his last line, however, that they are still our teachers today, he expresses a hope more than a fact, which is precisely why a nontechnical yet highly informed survey such as his is timely and important.


Originally, Wilken planned to write a sequel to his early study, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (1984), which would focus on Christian responses to pagan attacks. But he became more fascinated by the dimensions of early Christian thought that went beyond the apologetic and gave expression to this religion that is inescapably ritualistic...uncompromisingly moral...and unapologetically intellectual. The present book tries to give some appreciation of each of those dimensions. The organization is topical and synthetic. Wilken follows neither a chronological nor an author-by-author (or controversy-by-controversy) approach. Rather, each chapter treats a broad theme, which is developed through a rich and often subtle analysis of selected authors. Wilken provides substantial doses of Justin, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Lactantius, Tertullian, Basil and others (including the early Latin poet Prudentius), but turns mostly to Origen of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor and Augustine.

The author’s approach is certainly the right one if the goal is to entice readers into this rich yet often difficult literature. But it has its own problems. Readers get little sense here of how much time and energy went into doctrinal disputes, or how political and ecclesiastical rivalries (not to mention personality conflicts) colored many exchanges, or of the limited horizons of the ancients on some issues (most notably Judaism). The thematic approach tends to elicit the best bits from a wide range of authors, without requiring examination of the weaknesses as well as the strengths of specific writers. And although Wilken skillfully provides biographical information and revealing anecdotes, the reader does not gain a highly specific sense of the individual writer’s social and intellectual context. This remains a book about early Christian thinking rather than early Christian life, and what it gets at best is announced by the title, namely the spirit of early Christian thought.

Most impressively, Wilken succeeds in taking five aspects of early Christian thought that are often neglected and making them central to the entire enterprise. First, patristic thought is not driven by abstract considerations, but is grounded in the story of Jesus and in the worship and prayer of the church. Because of his extensive work in Greco-Roman literature, Wilken catches the distinctiveness of the Christian claims concerning the experience of the crucified and raised Messiah Jesus, the freshness of the Christian story as found in the Bible and the embodied character of all early Christian discourse. Second, he shows how deeply all patristic speaking and writing was immersed in Scripture. Scripture was not a lost city that needed excavating but a living city in which the writers moved about freely. All theology, therefore, was exegesis, and all exegesis was theology. Third, he makes a strong case for the epistemological creativity of the patristic writers, who unabashedly and unashamedly claimed that faith and love were not only legitimate but necessary ways of knowing reality as created by God. Theology did not try to fit within the categories established by philosophy. It did philosophy on the reality disclosed by God.

Fourth, Wilken reveals the intensely spiritual telos of patristic thought. Its polemical and apologetic moments were in defense of the experience of salvation, that is, a defense of the transformation of the human person by God’s own life. And its hortatory moments served to make that transformation real in the moral dispositions and practices of believers. Christian learning was, from start to finish, seeking the face of God. Finally, Wilken shows that this same impulse extended itself as well to the larger culture through the Christian appropriation and transformation of politics, poetry and art.

His presentation makes the patristic writers attractive, even compelling. Certainly he makes us wish that they were still our teachers. But for that to happen, I think we need more than an appreciationeven one so well designed and executed as this one. I think we need also to ask how those patristic sensibilities, how that spirit of early Christian thought, might actually be brought to bear on the dispositions and practices of theologians today.

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