This book by Robert Wilken, William R.Kenan Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia, is in a sense a sequel to his The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (1984). Whereas this earlier book presents the thought of ancient critics of Christianity, its later sibling surveys what ancient Christians themselves thought about their own religion, its beliefs, its moral code, and its devotional practices. As the author puts it, “it is the purpose of this book to depict the pattern of Christian thinking as it took shape in the formative centuries of the church’s history” (xiv).
Since the book is not a history of early Christian thought, Wilkins does not follow the chronological method. Rather, to make the pattern of early Christian thinking emerge more clearly, he adopts the thematic approach. The books comprises twelve chapters, grouped into five sections. The first section deals with foundations: how God is known (chapter 1), Christian worship and sacraments (chapter 2), and the Scriptures (chapter 3). The second section deals with Christian teachings: the Trinity (chapter 4), the work of Christ (chapter 5), and the creation of the world and humanity (chapter 6). The third section deals with the believer: how faith is a way of knowing (chapter 7) and the fellowship of believers in the church (chapter 8). The fourth section deals with Christian culture: Christian poetry (chapter 9) and Christian iconography (chapter 10). The last section deals with Christian life: the moral life (chapter 11) and the spiritual life (chapter 12).
All in all, the book presents, in a lucid and attractive style, a comprehensive bird’s-eye view of how early Christian thought develops as a common tradition. In developing each theme Wilken brings in the thought of almost all significant “fathers” of the church, but his favorites are Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, and Maximus the Confessor. Throughout the book Wilken is concerned to highlight the distinctiveness of early Christian thinking in comparison with Greek and Roman philosophies. His succinct characterization of Christian originality deserves quoting in full: “The distinctive marks of early Christian thinking can be set down in a few sentences. Christians reasoned from the history of Israel and of Jesus Christ, from the experience of Christian worship, and from the Holy Scriptures (and early interpretations of the Scriptures), that is to say, from history, from ritual, and from text. Christian thinking is anchored in the church’s life, sustained by such devotional practices as the daily recitation of the psalms, and nurtured by the liturgy, in particular, the regular celebration of the Eucharist. Theory was not an end in itself, and concepts and abstractions were always put at the service of a deeper immersion in the res, the thing itself, the mystery of Christ and of the practice of the Christian life. The goal was not only understanding but love” (xvii-xviii).
The books succeeds admirably in showing this distinctiveness of early Christian thought, but in this lies also its limitation. Because Wilken is primarily concerned with demonstrating the inner coherence and organic pattern of early Christian thinking, he does not pay sufficient attention to, nor is the non-specialist reader made aware of, the many conflicts, not only theological and ecclesiastical but also political and cultural, that preceded and followed the fragile and precarious doctrinal consensus forged in conciliar debates. Indeed, many of these doctrinal statements, even those regarding the Trinity and the person of Christ, paper over serious disagreements among various factions of the early church that still remain even today subject to intense theological discussion.
The author concludes his book with the affirmation that the church fathers “are still our teachers today” (321). Most assuredly so, and we are grateful to Wilken’s passionate and loving transmission of their teachings. But, in our postmodern, fragmented, and conflictive age, we need them as teachers, not only with their common theological heritage but also, and perhaps more, with their living examples of how to negotiate differences, even fundamental ones, and to live fruitfully before God with doubts and uncertainties.