Robert Wilken’s The Spirit of Early Christian Thought is not a book about doctrine or philosophy. It is much more original than that. He addresses ideas and arguments, but the burden of the book deals with the people, context, sources, and challenges of patristic thinking. Four authors – Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, and Maximus the Confessor – are the primary conversation partners, but Wilken includes many others.
In the early chapters, Wilken stresses that Christian doctrine formed in response to both internal and external pressures. Christianity was a minority sect in a sometimes hostile Roman empire; thus, they always constructed their writings with an eye toward apology and persuasion. On the other hand, Christianity developed by reflecting both on the Scriptures and the experience of worship. The doctrine of the Trinity, for example, was shaped not only by appeals to particular texts, but also by the church’s practice of baptizing in and singing the Triune formula. Worship and doctrine reciprocally shape each other.
Christian thinking was and is inescapably historical. Christian doctrine was an outgrowth of the Christian narrative. The history of the Jews anchors apologetic argument against both pagans and Gnostics. The incarnation provided the foundation for Christian epistemology, the descent of God preceding an ascent of the mind. Jesus’ temptation in the garden inspired Maximus the Confessor’s articulation of two wills in Christ. All Christian doctrine orbited the cross and resurrection, where God’s most profound lessons are taught.
Christian thinking is, of course, done by Christians. Christians exist in the context of the Church. The Fathers were not academics, who sat isolated from the world and flung thoughts from afar. They were men who prayed, who went to or oversaw churches, who participated in the life of the Church. Thus, knowing the particularities of church life is essential for understanding the task of Christian thinking. Like Augustine’s depiction of the church in the City of God, Wilken portrays “a community that occupies space and exists in time, an ordered, purposeful gathering of human beings with a distinctive way of life, institutions, laws, beliefs, memory, and form of worship. The most characteristic feature of the city of God is that it worships the one true God” (191).
Several chapters explore areas that receive scant attention in handbooks of doctrine. Wilken examines how the Fathers related reason and faith in their defenses of Christianity, how the pursuit of theological precision was a process of discipleship and moral formation, how Christians began creating a literary culture of their own, and how the Fathers inherited and transformed the vocabulary of ancient virtue ethics.
The book’s subtitle, “Seeking the Face of God,” crystallizes Wilken’s primary theme. Thought or doctrine in the patristic period was never an end in itself. Christian thinking was subordinated to the Church’s task of clinging in love to God. One of the best sections is Wilken’s exposition of Gregory of Nyssa’s contemplation on love. The soul, bound in love to God, becomes ever more thirsty for God, yet ever more capacious for receiving him. Love, fitting us to God, makes us like him. So, love never ends.
Despite its (refreshingly) popular tone, Spirit overflows with knowledge and insight. I, as a well-read amateur, was surprised by the amount of fresh ideas and penetrating analysis. Furthermore, it is one of the few truly enjoyable academic books. The reader will enjoy his time reading, groan that it ends, and be encouraged to drink from the Fathers themselves.
(A lecture by Robert Wilken is available through ITunes U. Search for “Following the Holy Fathers” from Duke Divinity School.)