Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
The Spirit of Early Christian Thought

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

Robert Louis Wilken
Copyright Date: 2003
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 398
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Spirit of Early Christian Thought
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-12756-0
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xiii-xxiv)

    THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION is inescapably ritualistic (one is received into the church by a solemn washing with water), uncompromisingly moral (“be ye perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect,” said Jesus), and unapologetically intellectual (be ready to give a “reason for the hope that is in you,” in the words of I Peter). Like all the major religions of the world, 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 the world and history. For Christians, thinking is part of believing. Augustine...

  5. Chapter 1 Founded on the Cross of Christ
    (pp. 1-24)

    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...

  6. Chapter 2 An Awesome and Unbloody Sacrifice
    (pp. 25-49)

    ALL THE FIGURES portrayed in this book prayed regularly, and their thinking was never far removed from the church’s worship. Whether the task at hand was the defense of Christian belief to an outsider, the refutation of the views of a heretic, or the exposition of a passage from the Bible, their intellectual work was always in service of praise and adoration of the one God. “This is the Catholic faith,” begins an ancient creed, “that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity.” Often their treatises ended with a doxology to God, as in Augustine’sOn the...

  7. Chapter 3 The Face of God for Now
    (pp. 50-79)

    WHAT WOULD IT have been like to have lived before there was a Bible? In the cupboards where educated Romans kept their books one would have found, among Greek speakers, theIliadand theOdyssey,whose tales were learned by schoolchildren, Hesiod’sTheogonywith its myths of the genealogy of the gods, tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides, and comedies of Menander. In the homes of educated Romans whose language was Latin there would have been theAeneid,Virgil’s epic poem of the wanderings of Aeneas toward Italy to found a city, Ovid’sMetamorphoses,a collection of stories of cosmic and...

  8. Chapter 4 Seek His Face Always
    (pp. 80-109)

    IN AUGUST 1941 in the desert south of Cairo, Egypt, while clearing out rubbish in several caves to make room for ammunition, a group of British soldiers uncovered a bundle of ancient papyrus rolls buried under the dry sand. When the rolls were examined by an archaeologist it was discovered that they contained writings of several early Christian thinkers, including Origen of Alexandria and the fourth-century author Didymus the Blind, also from Alexandria. Though less heralded than the discovery of a library of Gnostic writings at Nag Hammadi in Egypt a few years later or the Dead Sea Scrolls, this...

  9. Chapter 5 Not My Will But Thine
    (pp. 110-135)

    THE EARLY CHRISTIANS, it is sometimes alleged, were given to squabbling over picayune points of doctrine. In the great debate over the doctrine of the Trinity in the fourth century, the issue seemed to turn on a single letter, the Greek iota, what Edward Gibbon called a “furious contest” over a diphthong. Was the Son of “like substance” with the Father, using a Greek word with an iota (omoiousion), or of the “same substance” with the Father, using a Greekn word without an iota (omoousion)? Yet the iota signified a genuine, not contrived, difference over a matter of great moment,...

  10. Chapter 6 The End Given in the Beginning
    (pp. 136-161)

    FEW PASSAGES FROM the Bible have resounded more thunderously down the centuries than the account of the creation of the world and of human beings in the opening chapters of the book of Genesis, and no words from those pages are more arresting than the first: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” By comparison, other accounts of creation—Plato’sTimaeus,Lucretius’sOn the Nature of Things,Ovid’sMetamorphoses—have had but slight influence on thinking about how the world came to be. Like minor figures in a drama they have their entrances and exits, but Genesis...

  11. Chapter 7 The Reasonableness of Faith
    (pp. 162-185)

    THE CENSORIOUS CHARGE that Christian thinking relies on faith, not reason, is as old as the church itself. As early as the mid second century the physician and philosopher Galen complained that it was pointless to engage Christians in discussion because they never give arguments for what they believe. They only make appeals to “God commanded” or “God spoke.” InTrue Doctrine,written about the same time, Celsus echoed Galen’s accusation: “Some Christians,” he wrote, “do not even want to give or to receive a reason for what they believe, and use expressions such as ‘Do not ask questions, just...

  12. Chapter 8 Happy the People Whose God Is the Lord
    (pp. 186-211)

    READING THE SCRIPTURES as an old man Saint Augustine was drawn to the historical books of the Bible. As a young priest he had studied the epistles of Saint Paul, and as a bishop he preached a series of sermons on the Gospel of John, on the first epistle of John and on the Psalms. In the last years of his life, however, he found himself rereading the history of the kings of Israel recorded in the books of Samuel and Kings. What impressed him most in these books, Peter Brown observes in his biography of Augustine, “was the manner...

  13. Chapter 9 The Glorious Deeds of Christ
    (pp. 212-236)

    WALKING INTO THE private library of a provincial Gaulic landowner, a Christian bishop in the fifth century felt he had wandered into the towering shelves of a bookseller. The books were arranged in sections, light reading and devotional works in one area and works of distinguished Latin stylists in another. Among the manuscripts were to be found writings not only of Horace and Varro, but also of Christian authors, Prudentius and Augustine. The bishop, Sidonius Apolinaris, expressed no surprise at seeing the writings of two Christians, and one, Prudentius, a poet, among works of literature.¹ Sidonius allows us a precious...

  14. Chapter 10 Making This Thing Other
    (pp. 237-261)

    ONE OF THE practices most despised by ancient critics of Christianity was devotion to the dead, particularly veneration of the bones of martyrs and saints. A zealous foe of the church, Julian, Roman emperor from 361 to 363, complained that Christians had “filled the whole world with tombs and memorials to the dead,” even though nowhere in the Scriptures is it said one should “haunt tombs or show them reverence.”¹ By the end of the fourth century the cities of the Roman world were sprinkled with shrines housing relics, that is, the bones of holy men and women, and pious...

  15. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  16. Chapter 11 Likeness to God
    (pp. 262-290)

    IN A SCENE inThe Brothers Karamazovshortly before Father Zossima’s death, the elder gathers his fellow monks and those dear to him in his cell for a final conversation. He recalls that as a child he owned a book with beautiful pictures entitledA Hundred and Four Stories from the Old and New Testaments. From this book he learned to read, and as an old man he kept it on a shelf close to his bed. Father Zossima remembered the many tales of good and holy men and women, of Job and Esther and Jonah, the parables of Jesus,...

  17. Chapter 12 The Knowledge of Sensuous Intelligence
    (pp. 291-311)

    IN THE GREEK version of the Song of Songs read in the early church, the bride says to her beloved, “I am wounded by your love” (Song of Sol. 2:5). Gregory of Nyssa took this to mean that the “arrows” of the bridegroom had “penetrated the depths of her heart.” The sublime arrow that enters our “inmost being,” he wrote, is Christ, the “chosen arrow” of the prophet Isaiah (49:2). When the soul is wounded by the piercing shafts of Christ’s love, it is set ablaze and, in his happy phrase, offers a “reciprocating love.” Saint Theresa of Avila, the...

  18. Epilogue
    (pp. 312-322)

    “AMOR IPSE NOTITIA EST” (Love is itself a form of knowledge), wrote Gregory the Great at the end of the sixth century.¹ Along with Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine, Gregory is one of the four Latin doctors, that is, teachers, of the early church. By another calculus he is the first medieval Christian teacher. Sitting astride two worlds, he looks back toward Greek and Latin antiquity and to the church of the Roman Empire and forward to the great flowering of Christian civilization in the high Middle Ages. Revered more as a doer than a thinker, in conventional accounts of early...

  19. Notes
    (pp. 323-340)
  20. Suggestions for Reading
    (pp. 341-352)
  21. General Index
    (pp. 353-360)
  22. Index of Biblical Citations
    (pp. 361-368)