The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God
reviewed by Mike Aquilina
Sooner or later, every thinking Christian discovers the duty to study the Church Fathers. It presents itself as a matter of religious literacy, if not a debt of ancestral piety. They fought the first culture wars; we should at least learn from them. They died for our faith; we should at least honor their memory. Now comes the dean of America’s church historians to turn our duty to pleasure and our debt to our profit.
Robert Louis Wilken has produced a masterly appreciation of the Fathers in The Spirit of Early Christian Thought. And it is an unabashed appreciation. Longtime readers of the professor of the history of Christianity at the University of Virginia will see here the love that has animated four decades of serious and dispassionate scholarship and produced such works as The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, Judaism and the Early Christian Mind (a study of Cyril of Alexandria), and John Chrysostom and the Jews. First-time readers will wish to spend at least the next several decades reading the works that have inspired Wilken’s love.
Synthesizing the Fathers can be a bit like herding cats. The last Fathers (in the eighth century) are as far from the first as we are from Dante. They ranged over thousands of square miles and several major language groups, and they held forth on matters as varied as capital punishment and the morality of bathing. They were no more uniform in temperament, and one of the great virtues of this book is its artful evocation of their variety. Though he depends most often on four ancient writers—Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, and Maximus—Wilken vividly sketches dozens of other personalities: Clement, Justin, Ambrose, Hilary, Basil, John of Damascus, Cyril of Alexandria, and several men named Gregory.
But how to bring it all together? Wilken’s approach is thematic rather than chronological, and the overarching theme is the Fathers’ response to the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. That event, that fact, affected everything in the Fathers’ world. “Because of the Incarnation,” he explains, “Christianity posits an intimate relation between material things and the living God.”
Thus, the faith found expression not merely in argument, but in every aspect of culture. Wilken protests that “the study of early Christian thought has been too preoccupied with ideas”—the cascading influence from one theologian to another and another. There are other ways of thinking, and especially of thinking about faith, and he takes these up one by one.
There arose, for example, a distinctively Christian sort of poetry and painting, and each merits its own chapter. These arts, too, appear as consequences of the Incarnation. “Christianity is an affair of things,” Wilken says more than once, and so he shows how the early Christians sanctified the aural pleasures of scansion, the visual delights of iconography.
He shows the cultural triumph of Christianity as something gradual but inexorable, proceeding according to the incarnational principle. He is fond of the word “inevitability” and applies it to areas that some modern Christians will find unnerving, as when he speaks of “the inevitability of allegory” and “the inevitability of authority.” But he follows the Fathers closely as they demonstrate how these, and many other Christian developments, follow in a reasonable way from the teaching of Christ in the Scriptures.
There are those, of course, who see the Fathers as a world apart from Scripture. There are those who say the Fathers represent the Greeking of a primitive and purely Semitic Christian religion. But Wilken isn’t one of them. In fact, he begins with the assumption that they are wrong: “Christian thinking is too independent to be treated chiefly in relation to Greco-Roman thought,” he writes in his introduction. And the rest of the book shows how wrong they are. “The notion that the development of early Christian thought represented a hellenization of Christianity has outlived its usefulness. . . . a more apt expression would be the Christianization of Hellenism.”
The Fathers we meet in Wilken’s book (and meet them we do, as vividly as we’d meet a colorful new neighbor or colleague) are men steeped in the Scriptures, formed by the Scriptures, inebriated by the Scriptures. “Early Christian thought,” he says, “is biblical, and one of the lasting accomplishments of the patristic period was to forge a way of thinking, scriptural in language and inspiration, that gave to the church and to Western civilization a unified and coherent interpretation of the Bible as a whole.”
The Fathers assimilated the Scriptures and preached them in a way that was culture-forming, not Bible-thumping. “Even the Bible was a book to be argued from,” Wilken explains, “not simply an authority to brandish when arguments failed. Origen’s assertion that the gospel had a ‘proof proper to itself’ was not a confession of faith, but the beginning of an argument.” The Fathers’ goal “was to forge a view of creation and of human beings that was biblical, yet intelligible and coherent to all reasonable persons.”
Ultimately, the Fathers achieved that goal. Wilken counts this as a good thing. (Indeed, the New York Times, in a bizarre review, faulted him for his unambiguous joy over Christianity’s success—“unmistakably confessional triumphalism,” they called it—and for not boring his intended audience, “the general reader,” with scholarly quibbles and minutiae. Alas.)
In succeeding, however, the Fathers showed that those pagans were right who saw the Church as subversive. Wilken even grants us the pleasure of meeting those pagans personally. One of the marvels of charity in this book is the genuine sympathy the author shows for the reasoning of the arch-villains of early Christian history, Celsus and Julian. Those men were right about one thing at least: Christianity, when it is true, cannot help but transform a culture.
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