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The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God

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"[A] magnificently learned, deeply felt and surprisingly pellucid set of essays."—Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World "A delight to read. It is written as history ought to be, especially for nonspecialist readers."—Richard A. Kauffman, Christian Century In this eloquent introduction to early Christian thought, eminent religious historian Robert Louis Wilken examin "[A] magnificently learned, deeply felt and surprisingly pellucid set of essays."—Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World "A delight to read. It is written as history ought to be, especially for nonspecialist readers."—Richard A. Kauffman, Christian Century In this eloquent introduction to early Christian thought, eminent religious historian Robert Louis Wilken examines the tradition that such figures as St. Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, and others set in place. These early thinkers constructed a new intellectual and spiritual world, Wilken shows, and they can still be heard as living voices in the modern world. In chapters on topics including early Christian worship, Christian poetry and the spiritual life, the Trinity, Christ, the Bible, and icons, Wilken shows that the energy and vitality of early Christianity arose from within the life of the Church. While early Christian thinkers drew on the philosophical and rhetorical traditions of the ancient world, it was the versatile vocabulary of the Bible that loosened their tongues and minds and allowed them to construct the world anew, intellectually and spiritually. These thinkers were not seeking to invent a world of ideas, Wilken shows, but rather to win the hearts of men and women and to change their lives. Early Christian thinkers set in place a foundation that has endured. Their writings are an irreplaceable inheritance, and Wilken shows that they can still be heard as living voices within contemporary culture.


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"[A] magnificently learned, deeply felt and surprisingly pellucid set of essays."—Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World "A delight to read. It is written as history ought to be, especially for nonspecialist readers."—Richard A. Kauffman, Christian Century In this eloquent introduction to early Christian thought, eminent religious historian Robert Louis Wilken examin "[A] magnificently learned, deeply felt and surprisingly pellucid set of essays."—Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World "A delight to read. It is written as history ought to be, especially for nonspecialist readers."—Richard A. Kauffman, Christian Century In this eloquent introduction to early Christian thought, eminent religious historian Robert Louis Wilken examines the tradition that such figures as St. Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, and others set in place. These early thinkers constructed a new intellectual and spiritual world, Wilken shows, and they can still be heard as living voices in the modern world. In chapters on topics including early Christian worship, Christian poetry and the spiritual life, the Trinity, Christ, the Bible, and icons, Wilken shows that the energy and vitality of early Christianity arose from within the life of the Church. While early Christian thinkers drew on the philosophical and rhetorical traditions of the ancient world, it was the versatile vocabulary of the Bible that loosened their tongues and minds and allowed them to construct the world anew, intellectually and spiritually. These thinkers were not seeking to invent a world of ideas, Wilken shows, but rather to win the hearts of men and women and to change their lives. Early Christian thinkers set in place a foundation that has endured. Their writings are an irreplaceable inheritance, and Wilken shows that they can still be heard as living voices within contemporary culture.

30 review for The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God

  1. 5 out of 5

    Charles Haywood

    This book is not a polemic or a book of apologetics; it is instead an exposition of what early Church theologians thought about important topics in Christian belief, and how those thoughts evolved and grew. If you think all theology is merely empty wind or arguments about angels dancing on the head of a pin, this is not the book for you. But if you want to know how early Christians developed their thought about the Trinity, or theological views on Christ being simultaneously fully human and full This book is not a polemic or a book of apologetics; it is instead an exposition of what early Church theologians thought about important topics in Christian belief, and how those thoughts evolved and grew. If you think all theology is merely empty wind or arguments about angels dancing on the head of a pin, this is not the book for you. But if you want to know how early Christians developed their thought about the Trinity, or theological views on Christ being simultaneously fully human and fully divine, or how they viewed faith through the prism of reason, this is the book for you. Don’t plan on finishing this book in an evening. It’s not too long, and it’s surprisingly readable, but it benefits from careful reading and consideration—I’m sure it benefits from multiple readings, as well. Moreover, given how it’s divided into clear topics, it is easy to return to the book when considering a specific topic, whether that is Christian views on the Trinity, the resurrection of the body, or the role, origin and logic of faith in Christian belief. While it is not intended as such, this book is also a rebuke and response to the currently fashionable New Atheist set of such imagined luminaries as Dawkins and Harris (as well as other similarly shallow thinkers on the topic such as Gibbon). A key premise, always unexamined, of the New Atheists is that Christian thought is an oxymoron, and that they have discovered this key fact as a revelation missed by all prior opponents of Christianity. “The Spirit Of Early Christian Thought” shows in detail what anyone who is not ignorant already knows, that Christian thought and reasoning has absorbed the finest minds of the West for two millennia, and from the very beginning Christian thinkers actively grappled with and definitively responded to critics (Celsus, the Emperor Julian, Porphyry) who wrote in the same vein but with infinitely more intelligence and insight than the New Atheists, who are, in any reasonable view, a bunch of supercilious clowns. In fact, Wilken wrote a prior book on the topic of the arguments of early opponents of Christianity, to which this book was initially supposed to be a type of sequel/response, but which instead developed into an independent examination of Christian thought. The conflict between the New Atheists and Christians is not an abstract philosophical argument—it, or the issues under discussion, have very real consequences. All Western morality is premised on Christian thought and principles. And it is a very different moral code than that of non-Christian societies, since it is a pure myth that the Golden Rule has any core relevance to any religion but Christianity. The New Atheists believe that without God societies can still retain a moral core—Steven Pinker actually argues that morality is merely the outcome of people finding positive-sum games. Maybe. But more likely, as Wilken says, “Augustine’s ‘City of God’ defends a fundamental truth about human beings and about society. Only God can give ultimate purpose to our deepest convictions, for example, the dignity of the human person, and provide grounds for communal life that transcend self-interest.” An abstract core belief in human dignity (real dignity, not Anthony Kennedy “dignity”) seems an unlikely automatic outcome of positive-sum games. Human history suggests the opposite. But we’ll find out within the next fifty years or so. In any case, apologetics or calling out silly people is not Wilken’s goal in this book, and he does neither. Rather, the core of the book, the reason for its existence, is “Christianity is more than a set of devotional practices and a moral code: it is also a way of thinking about God, about human beings, about our world and history.” When talking about this thinking, Wilken focuses on Origen; Gregory of Nyssa; Augustine; and Maximus the Confessor. These are all pre-medieval, or at least pre-High Medieval, thinkers—while later theologians, like St. Thomas Aquinas, are occasionally mentioned, the focus is on *early* Christian thought. That said, some readers may expect “early” to be first century, and that is not the case here, if for no other reason than that detailed theological exposition of most Christian topics took centuries to accomplish. Aside from the specific topics, Wilken maintains two threads throughout the book. The first is the importance of Biblical exegesis to all these thinkers. The Bible, Old and New Testament, suffused all their analyses, even the most complex. This is in contrast to the popular Protestant view that before Martin Luther, the Bible was ignored. And this Biblical analysis was extremely focused and subtle, using both comparisons of different passages from the Bible and sophisticated reasoning, which is in contrast to the modern tendency to view each personal analysis, even of the uneducated and stupid, as equal, and to view purely literal interpretations as somehow superior. As Wilken notes, “the church fathers took it as self-evident that the words of the Bible often had multiple meanings and the plain sense did not exhaust their meaning.” The second thread is that the Hellenization of early Christianity has been grossly overstated. In its simplest and crudest form, the idea is that the Judaic Christianity of Christ and the Apostles was hijacked by Saint Paul and his Neoplatonist progeny. Wilken doesn’t like this idea. Instead, he emphasizes the concrete roots of all early Christian thought in the Scriptures; informed sometimes, to be sure, by Greco-Roman philosophical ideas, but those ideas flavored rather than supplanted the Scriptures and traditions of the Apostles. I personally found the discussions of the Trinity and the simultaneous divinity and humanity of Christ the most interesting. The Trinity absorbed many early thinkers, who first fit Jesus into the Trinity and later fleshed out the Spirit (though the Trinity itself was always accepted as a core Christian doctrine and mystery), relying primarily on Biblical exegesis rather than deductive reasoning—or, as Gregory of Nyssa said, “his aim is to ‘fit together’ what he learns from the Scripture with ‘conceptions that are drawn from arguments based on reason.’” This includes gems like Tertullian’s analogy of the social nature of the Trinity to the back-and-forth that occurs inside any human’s head while thinking. Similarly, the early Christians struggled with the apparent paradox of simultaneous divinity and humanity (i.e., the hypostatic union). They saw clearly how this was essentially impossible to fully grasp and how ridiculous it seemed to non-Christians, and they addressed such objections head-on, when they weren’t contending among themselves on the issue. (For those keeping score at home, the mainstream Christian position that was converged on over the centuries is that in Christ there are two natures and two wills; each retaining its own properties, and together united in perfect harmony in one substance and in one single person). As to faith itself, Wilken explains how Christians have always viewed faith not as some required unreasoned belief—quite the contrary. Outsiders, non-Christians or the non-religious, view religious faith as an inverse invincible ignorance. Wilken notes that Christian faith has been a key point of attack by non-Christians from the very beginning, citing Galen and Celsus, through many later thinkers. But Wilken carefully shows how Christians, from earliest times, have instead viewed faith as a combination of recognition of the testimony of reliable people who had come before, reasoning, and concrete evidence. Wilken’s core point is that any historical (as opposed to mathematical) knowledge involves a type of faith, as Augustine said, and quotes Augustine: “Nothing would remain stable in human society if we determined to believe only what can be held with absolute certainty.” The existence of witnesses (the original meaning of “martyr”), reason, evidence, and authority (in the sense Augustine used the Latin “auctoritas,” as a person able to guarantee the validity of a legal document or action), allow Christians to conclude that their faith is not blind. Once you read this section of Wilken’s book, anybody who uses the Flying Spaghetti Monster (which lacks all four markers of Christian faith) as a counter-Christian argument will, if he thinks clearly, be duly ashamed and put that argument aside with his Hot Wheels. That said, Wilken also acknowledges that faith is not at all a matter of pure reason, as the Manichees would have it. He has a long discussion of the role of hope and love in faith, again quoting Augustine, “If you have faith without hope and without love, you believe that he is the Christ, but you don’t believe in Christ.” And he concludes, “But in matters of religion the away to truth is not found in keeping one’s distance. It is only in loving surrender that we are able to enter the mystery of God. In the words of Richard of Saint Victor, the twelfth-century theologian and spiritual writer, ‘Where there is love, there is seeing.’ By putting itself in service of truth, faith enables reason to exercise its power in realms to which it would otherwise have no access. It is only in giving that we receive, only in loving that we are loved, only in obeying that we know.” And, of course, this is the core of Christianity. The Trinity is important but abstract to most believers’ lives. But faith itself is not, and Wilken’s book ties the entire Christian project together.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan

    Wilken’s aim—to “depict the pattern of Christian thinking as it took shape in the formative centuries of the church’s history”—was soundly achieved, and his central argument, that “Christians reasoned from . . . . history, from ritual, and from text,” was thoroughly and even eloquently demonstrated (xiv, xvii). Several features emerge as important to Wilken’s successful presentation. First, the essential characteristics of early Christian thought that Wilken proposes at the beginning recur over Wilken’s aim—to “depict the pattern of Christian thinking as it took shape in the formative centuries of the church’s history”—was soundly achieved, and his central argument, that “Christians reasoned from . . . . history, from ritual, and from text,” was thoroughly and even eloquently demonstrated (xiv, xvii). Several features emerge as important to Wilken’s successful presentation. First, the essential characteristics of early Christian thought that Wilken proposes at the beginning recur over and over again throughout each chapter. Yet these characteristics recur naturally, giving the reader assurance that Wilken is not forcing his ideas on the data, but that these ideas emerged from the data. One clear example of this is the “omnipresence of the Bible” (xvii), which Wilken had promised at the outset: nearly every page of his book has some reference to, if not a quotation of, Scripture. Second, Wilken draws from the writings of the early Christians themselves to walk his readers through their thought processes. For example, when he discusses how the early Christians would allegorize Scripture, he gives several examples of how Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory the Great did just that (69-79). Even for readers who disagree with an allegorical hermeneutic, Wilken’s primary source examples render such allegorizing to be understandable, if not compelling. Third, Wilken seems to have really captured the spirit, not just the ideas, of the early Christians. What he says about the work of Gregory the Great is also true of Wilken’s own work: “He did not construct a world of ideas for others to admire, but one to live in” (313). Thus, while well-researched and accurate, the book is also unavoidably devotional, pulsating with the love for Christ that saturated the hearts and minds of these Christian forerunners. Readers looking for a critique of early Christian doctrinal thought (especially from a Protestant perspective) will not find it here. While Wilken comments unfavorably on the way in which some Christians handled debates (concerning the debates about Christ’s nature he writes, “it is not an edifying history,” 112), he makes no attempt to evaluate Biblically, for example, whether the veneration of icons is right or wrong (237-261), or whether the allegorizing is a legitimate method of Biblical hermeneutics (69-77). Reviewer A. M. C. Casiday notes that Wilken bypasses the topics of monasticism and the offices of the church, but those omissions certainly can be attributed to Wilken’s primary aim of capturing the spirit of early Christian thought, not so much the structures in which this thought developed. Conclusion Because Wilken’s book has so effectively captured the spirit of early Christian thought, students can expect it to be foundational in orienting their future studies of this period of church history. Despite its uncritical reporting of areas in which the early Christians deviated from Scripture, students can also expect it to be an ongoing source of spiritual refreshment and inspiration. Besides these benefits, Wilken has offered tantalizing glimpses of these heroes of the faith, enticing his readers to journey back to those first centuries and make their personal acquaintance.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Grant Hartley

    Brilliant, learned, and readable set of essays that give an illuminating, though not exhaustive, overview of early Christian thought. Would definitely recommend!

  4. 4 out of 5

    Scott

    Very fine intro to patristic thought.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Teri Pardue

    I have not done much reading in patristics, other than Augustine’s Confessions, and I found this book a perfect introduction. It managed to cover a large amount of material (and church fathers) in a fairly short book, seeming to take a magnifying glass to specific events or people when most necessary. I learned a lot and wrote down a lot that I wanted to delve into more deeply. The chapter on early Christian poetry was one of my favorites. “The words of the Scripture made a temple deep within the I have not done much reading in patristics, other than Augustine’s Confessions, and I found this book a perfect introduction. It managed to cover a large amount of material (and church fathers) in a fairly short book, seeming to take a magnifying glass to specific events or people when most necessary. I learned a lot and wrote down a lot that I wanted to delve into more deeply. The chapter on early Christian poetry was one of my favorites. “The words of the Scripture made a temple deep within the hearing of early Christian preachers. Not only in sermons but also in theological works, in letters, and in spiritual writings the church fathers display an enviable verbal command of large sections of the Bible. In contrast to modern theological writings in which the Bible is cited in support of theological ideas, and hence usually relegated to the footnotes, in the early church the words of the Bible were the linguistic skeleton for the exposition of ideas. Even in the writings of the most philosophical of early Christian thinkers their thoughts are expressed in the language of the Bible, seldom above it. The liturgy provided a kind of grammar of Christian speech, a key to how the words of the Bible are to be used” (p. 43). This book really made me want to delve further into the works of the fathers of the early church. It showcases their beauty and theological depth. I love these words on patience from Tertullian: “Patience outfits faith, guides peace, assists love, equips humility, waits for penitence, seals confession, keeps the flesh in check, preserves the spirit, bridles the tongue, restrains the hands, tramples temptation underfoot, removes what causes us to stumble, brings martyrdom to perfection; it lightens the care of the poor, teaches moderation to the rich, lifts the burdens of the sick, delights the believer, welcomes the unbeliever, commends the servant to his master and his master to God, adorns the women and gives grace to men; patience is loved in children, praised in youth, admired in the elderly. It is beautiful in either sex and at every age of life…Her countenance is tranquil and peaceful, her brow serene…Patience sits on the throne of the most gentle and peaceful Spirit…For where God is there is his progeny, patience. When God’s Spirit descends patience is always at his side.”

  6. 5 out of 5

    Noah Norris

    I recommend this book for those interested in learning how early Christian thinking developed from the inception of Christianity beginning with the ascension of Christ through the first few centuries. The author reveals the development of theology (focusing mostly on Christology), Christian worship (focusing mostly on communion, baptism, and public Scripture readings), and other liturgical practices amidst external threats from Rome and internal challenges from within the church. The only minor pi I recommend this book for those interested in learning how early Christian thinking developed from the inception of Christianity beginning with the ascension of Christ through the first few centuries. The author reveals the development of theology (focusing mostly on Christology), Christian worship (focusing mostly on communion, baptism, and public Scripture readings), and other liturgical practices amidst external threats from Rome and internal challenges from within the church. The only minor piece of critique I have is that the author does not deal with the shortcomings of the prominent figures discussed in the book. For example, most of the key Christian thinkers who contributed greatly to the development of Christian thought were only described in a positive light, and rarely were their fallacies mentioned. The failure of mentioning their struggles hides some of the additional challenges they and subsequent Christians faced.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Rafael Salazar

    Fascinating read. This is a page-turning survey of the intellectual life of the church fathers that legitimately surprised me by how much Reformed spirituality owes to these early Christians. Filled with refreshing quotes and I summaries, Wilken sounds like a learned teacher that loves his subject enough to share it beautifully. I'm probably turning to this book again in the future. Fascinating read. This is a page-turning survey of the intellectual life of the church fathers that legitimately surprised me by how much Reformed spirituality owes to these early Christians. Filled with refreshing quotes and I summaries, Wilken sounds like a learned teacher that loves his subject enough to share it beautifully. I'm probably turning to this book again in the future.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Flynn Evans

    An incisive account of the defining contours of the practices and theology of early Christianity. Wilken highlights how Christians saw themselves as primarily being immersed in a robustly biblical social and doctrinal imaginary, guiding them in their unique witness to the pagan world as well as solidifying their distinct sense of liturgy.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Amanda

    This book is a fabulous look into the development and heart of the early Christian church. In truth the knowledge of God and the love of God must be formed together in order to see God, to be changed by God. The early church leaders demonstrate this again and again by their writings and their lives. They cover themselves with and wrestle with the language of the scriptures and cling to the incarnation of our Lord Jesus. As the last line of the book states "They are still our teachers today." This book is a fabulous look into the development and heart of the early Christian church. In truth the knowledge of God and the love of God must be formed together in order to see God, to be changed by God. The early church leaders demonstrate this again and again by their writings and their lives. They cover themselves with and wrestle with the language of the scriptures and cling to the incarnation of our Lord Jesus. As the last line of the book states "They are still our teachers today."

  10. 5 out of 5

    vittore paleni

    A fresh breeze from the church's youth. A delight. A fresh breeze from the church's youth. A delight.

  11. 4 out of 5

    John David

    Anyone who has ever tried to dip their toes into the waters of medieval theology can quickly be overwhelmed by its complexities and occasional rank obscurantism. Wilken, much to his credit, knows his subjects so well that he can distill their most important ideas in historical context (especially important as this book covers a period where much of the known world begins as Roman and pagan and ends several centuries later, when both the Empire and its paganism were gone) and explain how they wer Anyone who has ever tried to dip their toes into the waters of medieval theology can quickly be overwhelmed by its complexities and occasional rank obscurantism. Wilken, much to his credit, knows his subjects so well that he can distill their most important ideas in historical context (especially important as this book covers a period where much of the known world begins as Roman and pagan and ends several centuries later, when both the Empire and its paganism were gone) and explain how they were important in the development of Christian intellectual history – all while remaining extraordinarily accessible for the reader with no formal knowledge of patristic theology. At the heart of the book are two major messages. First, to separate evidence and sensory knowledge from pure faith – very much a temptation for those of us who have been born since the Enlightenment – would have made no sense to the early Church fathers. From the time of Origen and Tertullian, earthly evidence and divine faith were both seen as necessary, and even to feed into one another. Thinking is part of believing, and vice versa. Second, the series of practices that we recognize as early Christianity are undoubtedly social and communal in nature. Wilken stresses over and over again that even the monks would lived in desert confinement for decade after decade, still saw Christianity, at its root, as love for fellow man and community. The thinkers that he covers are all very important, and range in time from its first couple of centuries to approximately the eighth century, covering the entire harvest of early Christian thought. The most important among them include Justin Martyr, Origen, Clement (and Cyril) of Alexandria, Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, Ambrose, John Chrysostom, Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor – and perhaps the greatest mind the Church has ever known, Saint Augustine. To assist the reader who has minimal familiarity with this rich history of thought, Wilken arranges his discussions topically, with chapter names drawn from an appropriate epigram which opens each chapter. “Founded on the Cross of Christ” discusses how we come to know God, “An Awesome and Unbloody Sacrifice” references worship and the sacraments, and “Seek His Face Always” picks up Trinitarian themes (Trinitarian discussions, as fundamental as they were to early Christology, are not relegated to this one chapter alone). For me, the most fascinating chapters were on a couple of the first Christian poets, and another on importance of the Bible and how the shape and texture of its writing so differed from Greek and Roman literature that it profoundly refigured the ideas of the early fathers. While the author covers a wide range of topics that are often considered dry, the overall effect of the book comes across as the passionate history of a fascination with the people Wilken writes about. His vim and vigor for the fathers of the early Church is clear and unmistakable, so much so that the historical figures he presents almost seem whitewashed – pure and almost superhuman. His orthodoxy perhaps results in a lack of thorough criticism on some points where it would have been welcome. However, if you’re looking for critical responses to the fathers, these should not be difficult to find. However, as pure contemporary apology for a centuries-old intellectual tradition, this book stands above many others I have read.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Kameron

    Excellent summary of early Christian thought and practice. Wilken draws from a range of early church Fathers primarily through letters, sermons and treatises to give us a sense of how they understood Scripture, the Sacraments, society, icons, spiritual life, poetry, and other topics. Intellectually stimulating yet also quite practical and devotional.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Steve

    Robert Louis Wilkin’s The Spirit of Christian Thought is one of the best, most informative books I’ve read this year. Wilkin provides a fascinating account of Christianity’s early centuries, one that encompasses great historical figures, such as Augustine, Origen, Basil, and Maximus the Confessor, but also topics such as the Trinity, early Christian poetry, Icons (and the battle over them), the importance of Scripture, and the necessity of a Christian community (a people of God). In particular, Robert Louis Wilkin’s The Spirit of Christian Thought is one of the best, most informative books I’ve read this year. Wilkin provides a fascinating account of Christianity’s early centuries, one that encompasses great historical figures, such as Augustine, Origen, Basil, and Maximus the Confessor, but also topics such as the Trinity, early Christian poetry, Icons (and the battle over them), the importance of Scripture, and the necessity of a Christian community (a people of God). In particular, I enjoyed the Wilkin’s overview of Augustine, and his emphasis on the Saint’s great book The City of God and what it had to say about community (the book was written at a time of great turmoil in the Roman Empire). Another discussion worth flagging as a great read is the one on Icons, and how they point to the Incarnation – Christ. (If you don’t understand Icons, or know nothing of their history, this book is a great place to start.) Overall, Wilkins stresses the very physicality of Christianity, which harks back to 1 John 1:1-9 (“We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life…”), and keeps it as a running thread throughout most of the book. However, the last fifty pages or so, things do get a bit abstract, with an extended discussion of the Cardinal Virtues and the influence of Neoplatonists on the Church. Wilkin’s portrays this absorption as a good thing. Me? I was reminded in these last pages of a few poetic lines by Geoffrey Hill: The commonplace hands once Thick with Plato’s blood (Tasteless! Tasteless!) are laid Dryly against the robes. (from “The Humanist”)

  14. 4 out of 5

    Coyle

    "Evangelical Christians tend not to be familiar with the Early Church. While there are many reasons for this (not least as a result of the “no creed but the Bible” movements of the 19th century—see Nathan Hatch for more on that), there are many more reasons we should seek to correct this lack in our spiritual lives. If you have been meaning to do just that (and you should be), The Spirit of Early Christian Thought by Robert Louis Wilken is unfortunately not the place to start. .... With all of tha "Evangelical Christians tend not to be familiar with the Early Church. While there are many reasons for this (not least as a result of the “no creed but the Bible” movements of the 19th century—see Nathan Hatch for more on that), there are many more reasons we should seek to correct this lack in our spiritual lives. If you have been meaning to do just that (and you should be), The Spirit of Early Christian Thought by Robert Louis Wilken is unfortunately not the place to start. .... With all of that said, I still would not recommend this book to the reader just beginning his exploration of the Early Church. As well-written and engaging (and certainly learned) as The Spirit of Early Christian Thought is, Wilken is far too generous with his definition of “Early” for this to be anything but confusing to the beginning reader. Alongside his discussions of Augustine, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria (all writing prior to the 450s AD), Wilken includes summaries of and reflections on the following theologians: Gregory the Great (~540-604AD) Maximus the Confessor (580-662AD) John of Damascus (~675-749AD) Theodore of Studium (759-826AD) If we close one eye and squint with the other, we can maybe, sort-of, a little bit, include the 6th century figure of Gregory in the “Early Church.” But remember, by that point we’re roughly six centuries from the time of the Apostles—and calling that “Early” is a stretch. Maximus the Confessor, John of Damascus and Theodore of Studium are 7th, 8th and 9th century figures, and so belong in the Medieval world of a Charlemagne or a Chaucer far more than they do in the Classical world of a Caesar or a Constantine." Read the rest here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/schaeffe...

  15. 5 out of 5

    Bob

    This book is fabulous, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. The author, Robert Wilken, considers the history of theology as it developed in the early church, & its relationship with thinkers of Judaism, Greece & Rome, Wilkin warns us though not to be overly preoccupied with intellectual ideas. The Gospel, after all, does not intend to make us smart, but to transform our hearts, minds, & our very lives. Early Christianity appealed to history, reason, ritual, experience, & most of all to the Scriptu This book is fabulous, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. The author, Robert Wilken, considers the history of theology as it developed in the early church, & its relationship with thinkers of Judaism, Greece & Rome, Wilkin warns us though not to be overly preoccupied with intellectual ideas. The Gospel, after all, does not intend to make us smart, but to transform our hearts, minds, & our very lives. Early Christianity appealed to history, reason, ritual, experience, & most of all to the Scriptures, all with the goal of authentic faith expressing itself in true love. What we seek is not barren knowledge but the very face of God (Psalm 105:4). In his panoramic survey Wilkin describes how we know God in worship, the sacraments & the Scriptures; he talks about the Trinity, the nature of Christ, & creation; the relationship of faith to reason & the church to broader society; poetry & icons; & then the nature of Christian virtue & the spiritual life. From start to finish the book is a feast of the early Christian fathers. Wilken offers a vivid portrait of Christian intellectual tradition & how it took shape in the first few centuries of the church's history. He gives us a flavor of the richness & vitality of Christian imagination during this formative period, again founded chiefly upon Christ & the Scriptures. These biblical & theological foundations made Christian thought distinctive by anchoring it firmly on history (Christ), text (Bible) and ritual (worship). The author consistently argues that the goal of early Christian thought was never just knowledge or understanding for its own sake, but changed lives & love for God & men. This book is profitable & a joy to read.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Jeff Miller

    Totally enjoyed this book which focuses on the intellectual life of the Church and the development of Christian thought. This is topic focused and so the early fathers are revisited all throughout the book, especially St. Augustine. It is obvious that the book was intended for a wide audience beyond just Catholics and does a very good job in presenting this. Despite being a Philistine when it comes to poetry I enjoyed the chapter that dealt with the development of poetry in the life of the Churc Totally enjoyed this book which focuses on the intellectual life of the Church and the development of Christian thought. This is topic focused and so the early fathers are revisited all throughout the book, especially St. Augustine. It is obvious that the book was intended for a wide audience beyond just Catholics and does a very good job in presenting this. Despite being a Philistine when it comes to poetry I enjoyed the chapter that dealt with the development of poetry in the life of the Church. I listened to the audiobook version and no doubt I will revisit it in the future. Wilken is a convert from Lutheranism into the Catholic Church.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Sarah McCoy Isaacs

    This was a book which I had to read for an early theology class in Divinity School. It was far and away my favorite book for that semester. Wilkin presents an incredible amount of information about the church fathers in the relatively short book, but in such a way that it all is relevant and interesting. This would be a book to anyone interested not only in the early church but in early philosophy.

  18. 4 out of 5

    David Goetz

    A deeply enjoyable book! I imagine I'll read it again in 5-10 years. "God can only be known in devotion" (82). "In matters of religion the way to truth is not found in keeping one's distance. It is only in loving surrender that we are able to enter the mystery of God" (184). "Unless we invest ourselves in the object of our love, we remain voyeurs and spectators, curiosity seekers, incapable of receiving because we are unwilling to give" (293). A deeply enjoyable book! I imagine I'll read it again in 5-10 years. "God can only be known in devotion" (82). "In matters of religion the way to truth is not found in keeping one's distance. It is only in loving surrender that we are able to enter the mystery of God" (184). "Unless we invest ourselves in the object of our love, we remain voyeurs and spectators, curiosity seekers, incapable of receiving because we are unwilling to give" (293).

  19. 4 out of 5

    Jstrick

    Wilken's work is a superb introduction to the spirituality of the early church. His expertise in the field is unparalleled and his passion for the Fathers exudes from every page. This work will kindle a desire in you to read widely and deeply the writings of the early church. And while Wilken's Catholicism does seem to pervade some of his thinking and writing here, it does not overshadow the work nor undermine its overall value. Wilken's work is a superb introduction to the spirituality of the early church. His expertise in the field is unparalleled and his passion for the Fathers exudes from every page. This work will kindle a desire in you to read widely and deeply the writings of the early church. And while Wilken's Catholicism does seem to pervade some of his thinking and writing here, it does not overshadow the work nor undermine its overall value.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Nick Abraham

    I’ve read this twice now and it was even better the second time. A wonderful introduction to the Patristic period, with helpful interaction with various primary sources.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Daniel Nelms

    This is a well learned book, and one of the more interesting and thought provoking works on Church history that I have journeyed through. Wilken, the professor of the History of Christianity and the University of Virginia, tackles the complex project of defining and articulating the spirit of Christianity in its early centuries, and the basis of its intellectual development. You learn of all sorts of rather obscure figure in early Christianity, (Prudentius, for example, as the first Christian alle This is a well learned book, and one of the more interesting and thought provoking works on Church history that I have journeyed through. Wilken, the professor of the History of Christianity and the University of Virginia, tackles the complex project of defining and articulating the spirit of Christianity in its early centuries, and the basis of its intellectual development. You learn of all sorts of rather obscure figure in early Christianity, (Prudentius, for example, as the first Christian allegorical writer in the spirit of John Bunyan, Hilary of Poieter, the fascinating story of the martyrdom of St. Lawrence, etc.). I realized how much I do not know about early church history, and how much more reading I need to do. All in all, he argues that Christianity brought into the ancient world a new way of thinking about God and religion, which was truly transformative: the idea of a participatory relationship with God that involved all the person - emotions and desires, the will, all driven by love. It wasn't enough to have knowledge of God, but rather to love him through his presence. "Desire is emotion of absence, love that of presence" (pg. 295). God was accessible through his Holy Spirit, brought through the incarnation. This was why icons grew in popularity and became central to the early church - they were so desperate for the presence of God, to know him through presence (eventually leading to the controversy of iconoclasm when it was taken too far). All in all, this quote below is a good summary of his thesis: "Like Origen and Gregory and Augustine - indeed, like all of the thinkers considered in this book - Maximus [the confessor] knew that the knowledge of God was participatory, a knowledge that changes the knower. 'Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." Only those who have been cleansed, purified, and transformed can know God. Maximus puts it this way: "Knowledge of divine things without passion does not persuade the mind to disdain material things completely, but is like a mere thought of a thing known by the senses... For this reason there is a need for the blessed passion of holy love that binds the mind to spiritual realities [that is, God] and persuades it to prefer the immaterial to the material and the intelligible and divine things to those of sense." (pg. 307) Great book. Highly recommended.

  22. 5 out of 5

    David Miller

    Robert Louis Wilken traces how classical culture transformed into Christian culture, by following Christian figures from Origen to Gregory the Great. The first great Christian thinkers and writers were themselves the product of the classical culture; well-educated, articulate, able to write and speak to a degree impossible for us to grasp now, when a 30-second news clip loses our interest a third of the way through. Wilken shows how they took the poetry, philosophy, and morality of the Romans, a Robert Louis Wilken traces how classical culture transformed into Christian culture, by following Christian figures from Origen to Gregory the Great. The first great Christian thinkers and writers were themselves the product of the classical culture; well-educated, articulate, able to write and speak to a degree impossible for us to grasp now, when a 30-second news clip loses our interest a third of the way through. Wilken shows how they took the poetry, philosophy, and morality of the Romans, and transformed it into Christian poetry, philosophy, and morality. He also shows the extent to which they led integral lives. We moderns are trained from birth to live well-compartmentalized lives, and all of us are used to thinking 18 contradictory thoughts before sit down for breakfast. With the Church Fathers, it wasn't so; they pored over the Bible, thought about it, talked about it, disputed about it, and developed a consistent approach to, well, everything. And all of this was grounded in a great love for God. Augustine wasn't afraid to dispute with the Donatists, the Manicheans, or the Pelagians; because he loved God most of all, more than fellowship with his fellow bishops, and much more than respectable opinion or a good word from the New York Times.

  23. 4 out of 5

    David

    Super grateful for Wilken's work and accessible description of Early Christian Thought. This book does a wonderful job of helping one understand not just the belief or thinking of the Early Church but how that thinking got developed over the first few centuries. For example, the church's concept of ethics or virtue, shaped within the worldview of earlier influences like Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, but equally a departure and uniqueness based on scripture and the teachings of Jesus. That chapte Super grateful for Wilken's work and accessible description of Early Christian Thought. This book does a wonderful job of helping one understand not just the belief or thinking of the Early Church but how that thinking got developed over the first few centuries. For example, the church's concept of ethics or virtue, shaped within the worldview of earlier influences like Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, but equally a departure and uniqueness based on scripture and the teachings of Jesus. That chapter was fabulous. Wilken walks the reader through various large themes throughout the book and weaves in various church fathers, classic thinkers, cultural context in multiple centuries to paint a holistic understanding of Christian thought. In the process, he demonstrates the foundational role these church leaders played in Christianity, Christian thought, and the cultures they emerged in. If your concept of Christian thought is solely based on modern theologians or churches, or even merely the reformation do yourself a favour and spend some time with Wilken to broaden your scope. I'll be picking up another one of his works as soon as I can.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Dale Larson

    I don't recall where I heard this book recommended but, upon getting, I was a little nervous that it might be dreadfully boring. Much to my relief this book was neither dry history or bland theology (though it was comprised mostly of those two topics). It was obvious that the author has been, personally, formed by the teachings of the early church and his passion for the subject comes through in a very enjoyable way. Thus, in terms of style and presentation I was very pleased. Content-wise, the b I don't recall where I heard this book recommended but, upon getting, I was a little nervous that it might be dreadfully boring. Much to my relief this book was neither dry history or bland theology (though it was comprised mostly of those two topics). It was obvious that the author has been, personally, formed by the teachings of the early church and his passion for the subject comes through in a very enjoyable way. Thus, in terms of style and presentation I was very pleased. Content-wise, the book covers the development of a number of Christian beliefs and, specifically, how they came in to being a world of Roman politics, Greek philosophy, and pagan religion. As well, overarching the whole book, is a focus on the fact that, for Christians, thought (ideas, philosophies, etc) are not an end to themselves but a means to "seeing the face of God". Wilken does a great job of communicating the passion of early Christian thinkers who went beyond being mere philosophers and allowed the truth that they found to transform themselves.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Kendall Doles

    Wilken did a fantastic job of connecting so many of early Christianity's brightest thinkers. He not only explained what they believed and why they believed it, but also how they got there. My main critique would be that he painted these men in such a positive light and didn't have anything negative to say about any of them. I certainly didn't want it to be a book critiquing each one of them, just wanted it to be a bit more realistic. There were some theological differences between Wilken and I t Wilken did a fantastic job of connecting so many of early Christianity's brightest thinkers. He not only explained what they believed and why they believed it, but also how they got there. My main critique would be that he painted these men in such a positive light and didn't have anything negative to say about any of them. I certainly didn't want it to be a book critiquing each one of them, just wanted it to be a bit more realistic. There were some theological differences between Wilken and I that were exposed in his writing, but overall the text was delivered very well and I learned quite a bit.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Doug

    Excellent Overview of Key Themes Wilkens introduces the early fathers as active members of a living community. They grapple with challenges from pagans as well as question or struggles within the church in the context of a worshipping family of Christians. Not only does he offer a helpful entrance into the writings of some key figures in the church, he also reinforces a model of living faith working out from common center of God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, whose life, death, resurrection, and Excellent Overview of Key Themes Wilkens introduces the early fathers as active members of a living community. They grapple with challenges from pagans as well as question or struggles within the church in the context of a worshipping family of Christians. Not only does he offer a helpful entrance into the writings of some key figures in the church, he also reinforces a model of living faith working out from common center of God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, whose life, death, resurrection, and ascension take place within the living tradition of ancient Israel.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Mariusz

    A very thorough, albeit intentionally only representative, rather than comprehensive, survey of some of the thought strands that shaped early Christian writing. The title correctly suggests the nature of the book – that of “the spirit”. It is not a historical overview of all of the many strands which were sometimes vigorously discussed in the first centuries of Christianity, but rather a book which carefully selects a few topics and drills them to allow the spirit of each topic to become evident A very thorough, albeit intentionally only representative, rather than comprehensive, survey of some of the thought strands that shaped early Christian writing. The title correctly suggests the nature of the book – that of “the spirit”. It is not a historical overview of all of the many strands which were sometimes vigorously discussed in the first centuries of Christianity, but rather a book which carefully selects a few topics and drills them to allow the spirit of each topic to become evident. When reading the book, one cannot leave unnoticed the degree to which ancient Greek philosophy infused the early Christian philosophical discourse. Common man’s view of these first centuries of Christianity being the period during which dogma obscured the achievements of the ancient Greeks turns out totally unfounded. In general, a very well-written book for the students of early Christianity, less so for amateurs seeking to broaden, rather than deepen, their historical knowledge of the period.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Edwin Smith

    Intriguing but selective overview Wilken writes something of a hagiography of the Early Church. Each chapter is a vignette into some cultural aspect of early Christianity, but he focuses mainly on a few figures. His writing is engaging, and the chapters grew more interesting as the book went on. And while it seemed well researched, it did feel as though he might have been leaving out some of the less attractive parts of the Early Church.

  29. 4 out of 5

    DT

    Gives insight into how early Christian thinkers grappled with the Bible to understand and communicate spiritual truths to believers, critics, heretics... I think it's a trade-off as you get the flavor, the highlights, without the fine detail, which makes quick reading but may lack some overall coherence. Also, it may be a bit of preaching to the choir; for example, I didn't find the defence of icons persuasive. But it shows you why it's worth reading what these early Fathers/theologians wrote. Gives insight into how early Christian thinkers grappled with the Bible to understand and communicate spiritual truths to believers, critics, heretics... I think it's a trade-off as you get the flavor, the highlights, without the fine detail, which makes quick reading but may lack some overall coherence. Also, it may be a bit of preaching to the choir; for example, I didn't find the defence of icons persuasive. But it shows you why it's worth reading what these early Fathers/theologians wrote.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Darrin Belousek

    This is quite simply the single best book on early Christianity and Christian tradition that I've ever read. Accessible. Engaging. Even enthralling. This book will reward multiple readings. I highly recommend this book to anyone seeking to understand "from the inside" the animating spirit of early Christian intellectual (theological, moral, poetical) tradition--the deep heart of which, as Wilken so admirably shows again and again, is Scripture. This is quite simply the single best book on early Christianity and Christian tradition that I've ever read. Accessible. Engaging. Even enthralling. This book will reward multiple readings. I highly recommend this book to anyone seeking to understand "from the inside" the animating spirit of early Christian intellectual (theological, moral, poetical) tradition--the deep heart of which, as Wilken so admirably shows again and again, is Scripture.

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