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Book Review: The Spirit of Early Christian Thought (Robert Louis Wilken)

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.

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