Guest Blogger: Chase Vaughn
Wilken, Robert Louis. The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. 368 pp. $19.00.
Robert Louis Wilken holds the chair of William R. Kenan Professor of Christianity at the University of Virginia. He has written many important works in early Christian history, including The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, and he has proven himself to be an eminent guide in the area of early Christian thought. Wilken’s original intention was to write a sequel to The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, which looked closely at the arguments of early critics of Christianity. This sequel was going to focus in turn on the works of the early Christian apologists, but Wilken decided that elucidating Christian thought independently of the questions posed by early critics and in light of early Christianity’s inner resources provided a more insightful presentation of early Christianity thinking (xvi).
The Spirit of Early Christian Thought intends to describe the way in which early Christians thought about their faith in the Hellenistic milieu, or as the title expresses: to examine the spirit of early Christian thinking. The work does not seek to trace out the specific teachings or ideas of early Christianity, as many other works have done; it instead traces out the uniqueness of how early Christians thought about their faith. Exploring the deeper currents of thought instead of the ideas that bubbled to the surface allows Wilken to connect the intellectual labor of the early church to its ultimate goal, a goal greater than intellectual precision: to “win the hearts and minds of men and women and to change their lives” (xiv).
A subsidiary purpose is to challenge the thesis of Harnack: that biblical thought was translated into Greek philosophy, resulting in the “Hellenization of Christianity.” Wilken, instead, wants to demonstrate that early Christian thinking was rooted in biblical history, Scriptural language, and Christian worship, so that, while laboring in the Greco-Roman intellectual tradition, the result was not Hellenism but Hellenism transformed by the revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ (xvi-xvii).
The first three chapters explore the sources that engendered the Christian intellectual tradition. Chapter one explores how the revelation of God in history, culminating in the life of Jesus Christ, transformed Christian thinking about God vis-à-vis Greek philosophical traditions. Instead of reasoning to God, early Christians began with the reality of God’s revelation, a divine factum having its own intrinsic proof that did not necessitate submission to Greek philosophy. Chapter two explains how early Christian thought took place in the context of liturgy, where Christian thinkers participated in the res of biblical history. Chapter three shows the centrality of Scripture in the thinking of early Christians.
Chapters four through six canvass Christian thinking vis-à-vis specific doctrines. The intention of the chapters is not to provide a full historical development of these doctrines, but it is to explore the way Christians thought about specific doctrines. Chapter four explores thinking on the Trinity, grounded in the previously mentioned sources of biblical history, liturgy, and Scripture. Wilken argues forcefully that Trinitarian thinking was not engendered by rational speculation, but that it was an effort to rethink the nature of God in light of the reality of the divine economy (89). Chapter five examines Christological thinking, focusing mostly on the thinking of Maximus the Confessor in the context of the monothelite controversy. The doctrines of creation and humanity are addressed in chapter six.
The interrelation of faith and knowledge is examined in chapter seven. The early church sought to understand the limitations of mathematical and detached knowledge. All knowledge begins with belief in authority, and this faith opens up other avenues of knowing. Early Christians also recognized that genuine belief in Jesus goes beyond the intellect to the heart which is turned toward God. Chapter eight explores Christian thought on the relation of the communion of saints to societal and political institutions of this present age.
Chapters nine and ten look at how early Christians expressed their belief in art. The rise of Christian poetry is discussed in chapter nine, and iconography with its theological ground in creation and incarnation is explored in chapter ten. The last two chapters of the book deal with Christian spirituality and moral philosophy. Intellectual labor was not an end in itself; its goal was transformation before the face of God. The moral virtues inherited from the Greco-Roman tradition, while recognized as valuable to a limited degree, were seen as deficient in the light of Christian revelation, resulting in the traditional virtues being taken up into a grander moral vision of life: love of God and neighbor.
Wilken treads a different path from other major works on early Christian thought, focusing not on ideas but on patterns of thought, and his work is very successful at remaining faithful to this task. The work is helpfully organized, dynamically expressed, and does not get bogged down in minor debates and nuances of historical interpretation. Such characteristics could be criticized in other works of history, but in light of the book’s purpose and general audience, they are salutary.
Harnack’s thesis is contradicted very clearly throughout the work as well. Wilken moves beyond the surface level polarity of Palestinian and Hellenistic Christianity and probes more deeply into the sources which engendered the Christian intellectual tradition, so that the book more accurately presents early Christianity as a transformation of Greek thought, not a capitulation to Greek thought. James Payton rightly notes that Wilken’s work documents how Scripture opened up new possibilities of thought within the Greek milieu.
The transformation of Hellenism is documented by Wilken clearly in every chapter. Early Christian thought was not driven by speculative reason; instead, as Wilken argues, it was driven by the reality of revelation in the person of Jesus Christ and the participation in that reality in worship. Thus, in contrast to detached reasoning, Christian reasoning was highly involved and grounded in the reality of faith. Contrary to Greek thought, God is known according to Christians through events of God’s revelation, not through the ascent of the mind beyond sensual encumbrances (7). This placed knowledge in a historical community of worship which was birthed from the resurrection event, so that faith involved more than physical historical knowledge but manifestation through the physical world to the affections of the believer. In other words, Wilken shows clearly that Christian knowledge is participatory and relational (18-22). This devotional intellectual setting makes clear that the goal of reasoning is the praise of God in Christ. The goal was not abstract knowledge but instead love of God. And the path toward this goal was not neutral but was grounded in belief in the reality of God’s revelation in Christ. Christianity’s reasoning, in contrast to Greek thought, was done in the context of worship and prayer.
Wilken also provides an implicit and helpful dogmatic challenge throughout the work. Though never stated explicitly, Wilken implies that there are very helpful things to be learned by modern theologians from the early church. Specifically, Wilken contrasts modern standards of critical exegesis and the exegesis of the fathers (314-15). The critical point made against modern exegesis is that it is pursued in a detached manner, whereas the fathers understood exegesis within a broader theological context, so that exegesis extended beyond the historical words to an inner reality grounded in Jesus Christ. Though one could dispute using this Christological ground of Scripture to support allegory (69-77), the challenge to Enlightenment exegetical methodology is salubrious. Secondly, another area where modern theology is helpfully challenged is in the modern tendency to dichotomize faith and reason. Wilken shows decidely that there is a better way. The spirit of early Christian thought was not neatly compartmentalized into faith and reason, piety and intellectual labor, and passion and moral virtue. Early Christianity rightly challenged such dichotomies, and Wilken provides a refreshing alternative in the intellectual labors of the early fathers.
While one might criticize the work for glazing over particular problems of interpretation, such glazing is required in order to succeed in painting a picture of Christian thinking from the second to the seventh century. Wilken, by focusing on a limited number of thinkers and issues, has succeeded in very clearly presenting the basic spirit of the early Christian intellectual tradition, and the book also succeeds in being a excellent introduction for laypeople to the patterns of early Christian thinking, showing that early Christian thought, though using tools of the Greco-Roman tradition, was thoroughly rooted in the transforming event of God’s revelation.
 E. Glenn Hinson, review of The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God, by Robert Louis Wilken, Review & Expositor 100 (2003): 290.
 James R. Payton Jr., review of The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God, by Robert Louis Wilken, St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 47 (2003): 442.
 Bryan Hollon, review of The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God, by Robert Louis Wilken, Perspectives in Religious Studies 31 (2004): 497.