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

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

By Robert Louis Wilken
New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003. Hardcover, 368 pages.

Contemporary scholars have broadened our awareness of the immense diversity of the early Christian movement. In Theosophical circles, there is an understandable tendency to emphasize those elements that were eventually sidelined, such as the various gnostic traditions. There is very important work to be done in recovering such lost aspects of the Christian tradition. Nonetheless, one is often left with an impression of the church fathers as a rather stodgy and oppressive lot, who kept busy condemning any interesting heresies and are presumably the distant ancestors of the moribund, socially established churches of today.

Anyone inclined to such an unfortunate view would do well to take Robert Wilken's latest book as a strong antidote, Wilken is a fanner Lutheran minister and convert to Roman Catholicism. He has taught at the University of Virginia for many years, earning an undisputed reputation as one of the greatest living church historians. The Spirit of Early Christian Thought is the fruit of mature scholarship and deep faith. It will appeal equally to academics and spiritual seekers.

Wilken has a gift for rendering the church fathers as people of flesh and blood, members of living communities, embedded in rich historical and cultural context. His chapters chronicle the development of early Christian thinking on matters as diverse as the trinity and poetry, politics and icons, happiness and the Bible. With great care, he displays both the Christians' continuity with, and transformation of the classical Greek and Roman thought, inherited by the church.

The manner in which Wilken tells the story of the early church is in accord with his conviction that "the way to truth passes through the concrete and the personal." We might add that such truth is mediated by a community, which in turn is formed by a distinctive set of rituals, disciplines, and practices. After all, he writes, "Christianity's unique claim is that spiritual knowledge begins with things that can be seen with the eyes and touched with the hands: 'That which was from the beginning, which we have heard. which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life ... that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you' (l John 1:3). " All, Christian or not, who seek the transformative knowledge that comes from participation in the life of God, a knowledge found only through the love that unifies knower and known, will find much to contemplate here.


January/February 2005