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

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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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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Magnificently learned [and] deeply felt. . . . An attentive reader of Wilken, whether believer or nonbeliever, will be touched anew by his survey of Christian intellectual life.” —Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World

“This is not a book written for the academy but for all readers. . . . [Wilken] provides for a new generation . . . a sense of what is important about those astonishing teachers of the early church who instructed the ages after them.”—Luke Timothy Johnson, America

“Get The Spirit of Early Christian Thought and read it. Read it slowly, letting Wilken take you by the hand. . . . Let [Wilken] show you a more excellent way.”—Richard John Neuhaus, First Things

The New York Times
In The Spirit of Early Christian Thought — a lucid traversal of major themes from the Fathers — Robert Louis Wilken illustrates the fundamental role of the Christian Bible in shaping their thought. No one has ever imagined that the Bible was unimportant to them, but other sources of inspiration, particularly Platonic or Neoplatonic philosophy, have also seemed obvious. Wilken wants to establish the primacy of the Bible. — G.W. Bowersock
The Washington Post
Oddly enough, the Resurrection is hardly mentioned in The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, a magnificently learned, deeply felt and surprisingly pellucid series of essays by Robert Louis Wilken. Instead, the Kenan Professor of Christianity at the University of Virginia returns again and again to the Incarnation, that bloody crossroads of theological disputation during the 3rd and 4th centuries. — Michael Dirda
Library Journal
Religious historian Wilken (Christianity, Univ. of Virginia; Christians as the Romans Saw Them) depicts how early Christians thought about the things they believed. He draws from a variety of sources and writers, including Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, and Origen, and provides an interpretation of early Christian thought for the general reader. The book is organized in themes, beginning with how God is known, worshipped, and understood in the Scriptures. Next the author highlights the Holy Trinity, work of Christ, and creation of the world, while the remaining chapters deal with topics such as fellowship, poetry and art, moral philosophy, and the love that binds one to God. Wilken shows that early Christian tradition was built on the Bible and putting the word of God into practice in daily life, creating devotional practices and moral codes that endure to this day. He also discovers a convergence between the words of Jesus and the ancient philosophies that were already in place. An extensive bibliography is included. A good general introduction to the writings of Christian antiquity, this is appropriate for both public and academic collections.-L. Kriz, West Des Moines P.L. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Doxa: A Quarterly Review
"We recommend (The Spirit of Early Christian Thought) as outstanding...Any Christian concerned that the traditional Christian faith and its consequent Way of Life is often disparaged as 'irrelevant' and 'refuses to face philosophical and social criticism' will find this book a gold mine."—Doxa: A Quarterly Review Serving the Orthodox Church
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300105988
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 3/11/2005
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 398
  • Sales rank: 362,922
  • Product dimensions: 5.58 (w) x 8.32 (h) x 1.03 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Louis Wilken is William R. Kenan Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia. His previous books include The Land Called Holy.

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Read an Excerpt

The Spirit of Early Christian Thought

By Robert Louis Wilken


Copyright © 2003 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-10598-8

Chapter One

Founded on the Cross of Christ

"Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints" (Ps. 116:15). No degree of cruel inhumanity can destroy the religion founded on the mystery of the cross of Christ.


FROM THE BEGINNING Christians were conscious of the other. The first Christians had to explain to their fellow Jews why they venerated a man who had been executed by the Romans. Within a few decades of Jesus' death, as some Christians ceased observing the Jewish Law, Christian leaders had to answer charges they had abandoned the ancient traditions of the Jewish people. Later, in Greece, as Paul began to move beyond the Jewish world to address the Gentiles, the citizens of Athens brought him to the famous hill west of the Acropolis, the Areopagus, and asked him to justify his new teaching. "It sounds rather strange to our ears," they said, "so we would like to know what it means" (Acts 17.21).

Of course all efforts to explain or to justify what one believes are undertaken as much for oneself as for others. If the questions aregenuine, if they go to the heart of the matter and are not simply rhetorical flourishes to score points in a debate, over time they will be asked even in the absence of the other. Dialogue inevitably leads to a more solitary and sustained inquiry. Nevertheless, even if there is no philosophical necessity for dialogue, it is no idle matter to have the questions posed by someone else, especially if the inquirer belongs to a neighboring community that lives by different answers.

Although Christianity began as a movement among Jews in Palestine, it spread swiftly to other parts of the Roman Empire, to Syria and to Egypt, to Asia Minor and to Greece, to Rome and from there across the Mediterranean to Roman Africa. Initially many of the converts were Jews, but within a few decades others began to join the new movement. For these people, many of whom had little contact with Judaism, to become a Christian meant abandoning a way of life that had been practiced for generations, even centuries, and rending the social fabric that bound family and neighborhood and city. Christianity was a novel, alien way of life, seemingly disdainful of custom and tradition and making extravagant claims about a man who had lived only recently. Christians, it was thought, jettisoned the wisdom of the past.

An early and astute critic reproached Christians for abandoning the "ancient doctrine" that had been taught by "the wisest peoples and cities and sages." In different dress this charge was brought against Christianity by all Greek and Roman observers during the first few centuries. Their accusation cut deep because Christian thinkers, like their critics, had been educated in the literature and philosophy of the ancient world. What is more, they cherished that past-it was their inheritance as well as that of their critics. Christians could not escape the claims of the other, whether as a social fact or as an intellectual challenge, and in its formative period Christian thought was in continuous conversation with the classical intellectual tradition.

Early Christian thinking, however, was as much an attempt to penetrate more deeply into the mystery of Christ, to know and understand what was believed and handed on in the churches, as it was to answer the charges of critics or explain the faith to outsiders. Christian thinkers were not in the business of establishing something; their task was to understand and explain something. The desire to understand is as much part of believing as is the drive to act on what one believes. In the course of this book there will be many occasions to observe how Christian thought arose in response to the facts of revelation, how its idiom was set by the language and imagery of the Bible, and how the life and worship of the Christian community gave Christian thinking a social dimension that was absent from ancient philosophy. But the place to begin is with questions posed by outsiders. For the critics of Christianity had an uncanny sense of what made the new religion unique, and in their response the earliest Christian thinkers saw with unparalleled acuity what gave Christianity its distinctive character.

A Fire in the Soul

The earliest Christian writings were composed by Christians for Christians. These include the gospels, epistles written by Saint Paul to Christian congregations scattered about the Mediterranean world, letters of bishops like Ignatius of Antioch and Clement of Rome at the turn of the first century, an occasional sermon, a manual to aid in regulating the life of an early Christian community, an account of the martyrdom of an aged bishop. Some writings, the Acts of the Apostles, for example, may have envisioned a wider audience, but it was not until the middle of the second century that Christians began to compose literary works consciously addressed to outsiders.

The authors of these books are called apologists, and in this context the term apology means a defense and explanation of one's way of life and beliefs. The early apologists were faced with the daunting task of presenting Christianity for the first time to a society that knew nothing of the Christian religion. Christianity had begun in the fourth decade of the first century in Jerusalem, on the eastern periphery of the Roman Empire, and a hundred years later few people across the empire had any firsthand knowledge of the new movement. What they knew was based on hearsay. The first mention of Christianity by a non-Christian writer does not occur until the second decade of the second century. Pliny, a Roman governor in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), dismissed the new movement as a "depraved foreign cult carried to extravagant lengths." Given views like Pliny's, the new religion needed defenders.

Among the earliest apologists the most sophisticated was Justin Martyr, who was born in Palestine at the beginning of the second century. He calls himself a Samaritan, probably because he was born at Neapolis (modern Nablus) in Roman Palestine, but his family was Greek, and he seems not to have heard of Moses and the prophets until as an adult he met a Christian. He practiced philosophy before becoming a Christian and after his conversion remained a philosopher and continued to wear the philosopher's garb. Justin settled in Rome, the home of a vibrant Christian community, and there taught the "the word of God," as an ancient historian put it, and used his pen to defend his new faith to other philosophers in the city.

Justin wrote several works to the Romans in defense of Christianity, but he also addressed a long work to the Jews. Christian thinkers had to address two sets of critics simultaneously, one representing the cultural traditions of Greece and Rome, the other the people from whom Christianity had sprung and whose Bible (what Christians called the Old Testament) they made their own. In his work dealing with Judaism, the Dialogue with Trypho, Justin offers a detailed exposition of select passages from the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), his purpose being to show that these books must be given a Christian interpretation. But he prefaces his work with an artful account of how he came to embrace Christianity. Because the chronicle of his conversion is consciously literary and modeled on conventional depictions of conversion to philosophy, some have suggested that his account is not wholly biographical. No doubt there is truth in this view, yet, whatever the literary background of the work, it is not insignificant that Justin chose to present his embrace of Christianity as a conversion to philosophy. For the term for philosophy in his day was life, and Justin wanted his readers to know that in turning to Christianity he had embraced a new way of life.

According to the Dialogue with Trypho Justin first went to study with a Stoic philosopher. But after listening to him, he learned, as he puts it, nothing about God. Indeed, his mentor seemed bored with the subject. Next Justin turned to a Peripatetic, that is, a follower of Aristotle, but this philosopher seemed interested only in talking about fees. After that he approached a Pythagorean, who cared chiefly about mathematical theorems. Finally he turned to a Platonist and for the first time sensed he was making genuine progress. His mind had been given wings, and he hoped in time to "see God."

One day, however, while walking on a beach he fell into conversation with an old man about Plato. As they talked, the sage gradually began to modulate into another key. Unlike Plato, who taught that the soul is immortal and has life in itself, the old man said that the soul's life is a wondrous gift of God, the source of all life. When Justin sensed that this man uttered things he had not heard before he asked, If one is to follow this way of life, does one need a teacher? His aged companion responded that long ago, even before the Greek philosophers, there lived teachers called prophets, who wrote about "the beginning and end of things." In contrast to the philosophers, who rely chiefly on demonstration, the prophets spoke about what they had seen and heard and were "witnesses to the truth." The Word of God makes its way not by argument but as men and women bear witness to what has happened.

As Justin finished his conversation, the old man, to Justin's surprise, did not try to convince him of the teachings he had presented but ended the colloquy with a prayer that the "gates of light" would be opened and Justin would be receptive to what he heard. After his prayer the old man left, but his words had fallen like hot coals on dry kindling. "A flame was kindled in my soul," writes Justin, "and I was seized by love of the prophets and of the friends of Christ. While I was pondering his words in my mind, I came to see that this way of life alone is sure and fulfilling."

Whatever the historical kernel behind Justin's account of his spiritual odyssey, what he wished to convey to his readers is set forth with admirable grace and clarity. God, as he learned from this sage, is known primarily through events that take place in history. When speaking of how God is known, the Bible seldom speaks of insight or illumination or demonstration; rather, it says that God appeared, did something, showed himself, or spoke to someone, as in the beginning of the book of Hosea: "The word of God came to Hosea" (Hos. 1:1). Accordingly, the way to God begins not with arguments or proofs but with discernment and faith, the ability to see what is disclosed in events and the readiness to trust the words of those who testify to them.

By presenting his embrace of Christianity as a conversion to a way of life that is "sure and fulfilling," Justin let his readers know that the truth of Christ penetrates the soul by means of our moral as well as our intellectual being. The knowledge of God has to do with how one lives, with acting on convictions that are not mere premises but realities learned from other persons and tested by experience.

Justin's account also makes place for the affections. Jesus had taught that the first and greatest commandment was, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might." The language of love pervades the New Testament. Nevertheless it is noteworthy, especially at the very beginning of the Christian intellectual tradition, that in describing his response to the words of the old man Justin said that he was set ablaze by the fire that breaks from God and was "seized by love." Only when wounded by love can one know the God of the Bible. As Augustine would write several centuries later, it is love that "sets us on fire" and "lifts us" to God. To love God is already to be on the way of understanding.

Seeing God

In A.D. 165, Justin, who had been living in Rome, was condemned to death for refusing to venerate the gods of Rome. With a group of his companions he was beheaded. Hence he received the name Justin Martyr, Justin the Witness, for by his death he bore witness to the truth of Christ. During his lifetime some Greek thinkers had begun to take note of the new movement and to read Christian writings. The physician-philosopher Galen, a younger contemporary of Justin, was acquainted with the account of creation in the book of Genesis. He thought it irrational that God would create the world by an act of will without regard to the laws governing nature, and he ridiculed the biblical notion that with God all things are possible. A few years after Justin's death another Greek philosopher by the name of Celsus wrote a book on Christianity entitled True Doctrine. Celsus had made it his business to become well informed about Christian teaching and practice and had read several books of the New Testament as well as writings of Christian thinkers of his own day, including one of Justin's apologies in defense of Christianity. From Celsus we have an informed portrait of what thoughtful outsiders knew about the new religion and what in their view set o the spiritual vision of Christianity from the religious beliefs and practices of the Roman world.

Among ancient philosophers it was axiomatic that all knowledge of God came through the activity of the mind purged of impressions received by the senses. Only when freed from the perception of tangible objects can the mind lift itself to God. In this view the knowledge of God was achieved by very few, and even the seer divined but little of God. One of the texts cited most often by philosophers during this period was a passage from Plato's treatise on cosmology, the Timaeus: "Now to find the Maker and Father of this universe is difficult, and after finding him it is impossible to declare him to all men." Celsus was familiar with this text, and in his book True Doctrine he cites the authority of Plato to deride Christians for their claim that God had been revealed in a historical person. God, he said, can be known only through the mind's eye: "If you shut your eyes to the world of sense and look up with the mind, if you turn away from the flesh and raise the eyes of the soul, only then will you see God."

Another philosopher, Alcinous, a contemporary of Celsus, stated the conventional opinion in this way: The "first God" is unlike objects in this world. He is "eternal, ineffable, self-sufficient, without need ... and perfect in every respect." To acquire knowledge of God one must train the mind to turn away from sensible things and rise to higher spiritual realities: "First one contemplates the beauty found in bodies, after this one passes on to the beauty of the soul, then to the beauty in customs and laws, then to the vast ocean of beauty; after this one conceives of the Good itself ... which appears as light and shines on the soul as it makes its ascent. Then one comes to the idea of God because of his preeminence in honor."

In his True Doctrine Celsus appeals to this philosophical commonplace to drive home his argument against the Christians. Christians, he says, are so taken up with sensible things, with a person of flesh and blood, that they are unable to breathe the pure intellectual air where true knowledge of God is found. The idea that God should appear to humans, that the knowledge of God should be a matter of revelation in a historical person, was contrary to God's nature. In Celsus's mocking and mordant taunt, "What is the purpose of such a descent on the part of God. Was it in order to learn what was going on among men? Doesn't God know everything?" By challenging Christians at this point Celsus hoped to lay the axe to the root of the new movement.


Excerpted from The Spirit of Early Christian Thought by Robert Louis Wilken Copyright © 2003 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Founded on the Cross of Christ 1
2 An Awesome and Unbloody Sacrifice 25
3 The Face of God for Now 50
4 Seek His Face Always 80
5 Not My Will But Thine 110
6 The End Given in the Beginning 136
7 The Reasonableness of Faith 162
8 Happy the People Whose God Is the Lord 186
9 The Glorious Deeds of Christ 212
10 Making This Thing Other 237
11 Likeness to God 262
12 The Knowledge of Sensuous Intelligence 291
Epilogue 312
Notes 323
Suggestions for Reading 341
General Index 353
Index of Biblical Citations 361
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