The Spirit of Early Christian Thought

9780300105988Wilken, Robert Louis. The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.  395 pp. $19.00

Robert Wilken, William R. Kenan Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia, manages to narrate a convincing tale of early Christianity’s transformation of intellectual culture, debunking much of 19th and early 20th century German historical criticism a la Harnack and others. Ten years after its publication, few have come close to presenting such a compelling case. Wilken essentially argues Jerusalem conquered Athens, not the other way around. Wilken effectively contends that true Christian intellectualism was always connected to the worship and glorification the triune God in all aspects of life. Wilken consistently reminds his readers that theologians in the early church were pastors intimately connected to the worship of the church and a dedication to Scripture. This text serves as a beautiful and fluid introduction to the life and thought of the early church and her servants. Wilken demonstrates how the act of thinking about the faith was informed by the life, or liturgy, of the faith within the first centuries of the church.

By highlighting the pastoral nature and liturgical formation of the early church fathers, Wilken debunks the notion that such writers were merely Platonizing philosophers seeking to blindly marry Hellenism to Scripture. Philosophy and literature served the Church of Christ, not the other way around. Wilken does well to concentrate on Origen, a traditionally suspect thinker within the early church, by demonstrating that even his thinking and writings reveal a devotion to the church, her Savior, and her Scriptures (11). Likewise, towering figures such as Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa and even Maximus the Confessor must first and foremost be read in light of their pastoral motivations and their liturgical formation. To miss this context is to misunderstand their thinking. Wilken consistently points his readers to this often overlooked detail. Similarly, Wilken argues that no reflection of God was complete apart from reflection on the resurrected Christ and God’s triune nature. The economy of God, or order of divine revelation, took shape in the declaration of the risen Christ as “My Lord and my God,” exemplified by Thomas in the gospels. All subsequent reflection of God by church fathers built upon this foundation (84-5; 90).

While not a history of the early church in a traditional sense, this text does include material found within introductory volumes on early church doctrinal development and history. Burns confirms that “Wilken forswears any pretensions of comprehensiveness” in order to focus specifically on the “evolution of the intellectual tradition itself.”[1] Burns also notes the focus on Scripture within the patristic era in regards to virtue and ethics. Morrison concurs stating, ‘[H]e points out early on that it was always grounded in reflection on the Church’s sacred book, inspired Holy Scripture.”[2] This reflection, Morrison observes, was always “Christ-shaped and redemptocentric.”[3] Wilken weaves through traditional issues such as the fourth century trinitarian controversy, early church apologetics, and biblical interpretation yet does so with the explicit goal of providing an avenue into the life of the mind within the early church. Once again the focus on intellectual transformation makes this text unique. Modern day Christian intellectuals would do well to pay attention to Wilken’s narrative.

This text’s greatest strength also demonstrates its greatest weakness. The text reads like a triumphant chronicle, cataloging the victories of its heroes. In this sense, it tends to be less critical in places that warrant such criticism. Greer agrees stating, “This broad scope could give the impression that the church in the sixth century was the same as the church, say, in the fourth century.”[4] Likewise, Origen’s contributions are lauded while his more suspect teachings go uncensured. Wilken might have done well to highlight areas in which Christian thinking needed (and continues to need) correction. In this regard, Wilken invites the reader into a romantic tale of patristic thought without pausing for necessary critique. Wilken could be seen as serving up an uncritical apologetic for patristic thought. While the tale needs to be told, all tales should include corrective lessons whenever necessary.

Wilken introduces both new and seasoned readers of early church history with a fresh perspective that not only invigorates the mind, but stirs the soul. Academic and interested lay reader alike will discover new treasures within Wilken’s narrative. Payton concurs saying, “The Spirit of Early Christian Thought is the fruit of a sustain, thoughtful listening to the church fathers.”[5]  He helpfully demonstrates a (re)orientation to patristic thought in line with their liturgical and pastoral motivations. Such context shaped and informed the minds and hearts of the greatest Christian intellectuals in the early church. Doctrinal concepts such as Christology and Trinitarianism were not cold and abstract: they were spiritually transformative. Early Christian thinkers interwove the virtues of faith, hope and love within all intellectual endeavors and sought to appropriate the broader intellectual tradition in service towards those virtues. Wilken, concluding his text, demonstrates (though perhaps uncritically) the belief that “[t]he Christian intellectual tradition is an exercise in thinking about the God who is known and seeking the One who is loved” (311). May they, as Wilken implores, continue to be our guide.


[1]J Patout Burns, “The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God,” Journal of Religion 84, no. 2 (April 1, 2004): 275–276.

[2]John D. Morrison, “The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 49, no. 3 (September 1, 2006): 635.

[3]Morrison, “The Spirit of Early Christian Thought,” 635.

[4] Rowan A. Greer, “The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God,” Modern Theology 20, no. 3 (July 1, 2004): 482.

[5] James R Payton, “The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God,” St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 47, no. 3–4 (January 1, 2003): 445.

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