Review of Robert Louis Wilken’s “The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God”

9780300105988Wilken, Robert Louis. The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.

Robert Louis Wilken is currently professor emeritus at the University of Virginia, where he served as William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity at the time of this book’s writing. This work on early Christian thought is not primarily social history (explaining Christianity in relation to its cultural background or critics), nor is it a work of historical theology proper (showing how certain doctrines developed), but rather an elucidation and presentation of “the pattern of Christian thinking as it took shape in the formative centuries of the church’s history” (xiv). The Christian intellectual tradition, Wilken writes, is “an exercise in thinking about the God who is known and seeking the one who is loved” (311; emphasis added). Christian thought derives its energy, vitality, and imaginative power “from within, from the person of Christ, the Bible, Christian worship, the life of her church” (xiv). The task of intellectual Christian engagement, therefore, is part and parcel of faithful belief, exemplified by formative Christian thinkers who sought to bring the sacred scriptures to bear on their understanding of God, man, and world (including culture and history) as an exercise in credo ut intellectum. And this understanding, Wilken argues, is not for its own sake, but is a means of seeking the face of God (Ps. 105:4)—a passage that Wilken says “captures the spirit of early Christian thinking” more than any other verse (xxii).


“The agenda of this book,” Wilken explains, “is set by the things Christians cared most about” (xvi). A survey simply of “what Christians believed” in the early centuries would be impossible, both unwieldy and unfocused. So Wilken chooses representative figures whose thought he can explore in some depth. Each theme is viewed through the work of one or two key figures, often from different time periods and geographical locations to show both continuity and development in the Christian intellectual tradition. Wilken cites a number of early Christian thinkers through the church’s first eight centuries, but his primary exemplars turn out to be Origen (3rd c.), Gregory of Nyssa (4th c.), Augustine (5th c.), and Maximus the Confessor (7th c.).

The book has 12 chapters, which may be grouped in roughly five sections.

Chapters 1-3 are foundational, showing how the early church’s understanding of how God is to be known through the sacrifice of his Son (ch. 1), how God is to be worshipped by means of prayer, sacrament, and liturgy (ch. 2), and how God has spoken to us through the Scriptures (ch. 3).

Wilken next surveys three key crucial but complex Christians teachings that engendered no little controversy: the doctrine of God’s triunity (ch. 4), the person and work of Christ, with a focus upon his agony (ch. 5), and the material creation that both reflects and participates in the goodness of the Creator (ch. 6).

Having surveyed the object and background of Christian belief, Wilkin then turns to the implications of this belief, exploring the relationship between believing and knowing (ch. 7) and the identity of believers in fellowship with one another and in relationship to the surrounding society (ch. 8).

The structure is now in place to understand the creation of a distinctly Christian culture, including the use of the “stuff” of life: the creation of Christian poetry (ch. 9) and the veneration of icons (ch. 10).

Wilken concludes his survey of early Christian thought by exploring the Christian life, both its morality (ch. 11) and its spirituality as seen through the affections, especially love (ch. 12).



Wilken, in contrast to the compartmentalizing approach of many contemporary historians, does not feign neutrality. He writes as an unabashed admirer, highlighting beliefs and practices that he himself shares and therefore implicitly commends. Wilken himself models what he commends: “One of the most distinctive features of Christian intellectual life is a kind of quiet confidence in the faithfulness and integrity of those who have gone before” (175).

There are advantages and drawbacks to the way in which Wilken deploys his strategy of appreciative advocacy. On the positive side, this hermeneutics of historical charity allows the early Christian intellectual tradition to be set forth in its most sympathetic and winsome light. Some of the ideas—for example, the veneration of icons—are rejected by Protestants. While I agree with the rejection, many critique this practice without truly understanding the theological rationale beyond it or how it was practiced by its most careful advocates. Few scholars could explain this practice as clearly, concisely, and compellingly as Wilken. In so doing, he helps readers see the intuitive logic and internal consistency of certain beliefs and practices.

On the other hand, his approach has the potential to present a slightly distorted vision of the Christian intellectual tradition by highlighting only the most careful and profound thinkers. In so doing, Wilken can filter out other voices, leaving a rather sanitized theological vision of the whole—a “best of the best” highlight reel that is mesmerizing to watch but may not tell the whole story. The non-specialist—Wilken’s intended reader—may be left to wonder about the deleted scenes left on the cutting room floor.

A related concern is that Wilken’s program has the potential to downplay the less compelling aspects of the life and theology of the individual thinkers highlighted. John Morrison raises the same issue in his review of the book: “The Fathers . . . are made to be wholly charming in life and thought; the warts are all but gone. The few that remain are turned into beauty marks.” Morrison continues: “Wilken is often too idealistic, even hagiographic, when giving narrative form to the lives and thoughts of these eminent early Christian leaders. . . . there was significant ‘bathwater’ ebbing around the lives of some of these extraordinary patristic ‘babies.’ This cannot be sloughed off or the narrative is to that extent falsified. These were not superhuman, despite Wilken’s regular flights of praise when describing their intellectual or moral exploits.”

A key idea that Wilken wants us to embrace is that “the time has come to bid a fond farewell” to von Harnock’s thesis of the Hellenization of Christianity. Wilken thinks a more accurate expression of the history would be “the Christianization of Hellenism” (xvi-xvii). But even that is not quite saying enough, as Wilken wants readers to see that “Christian thinking, while working within patterns of thought and conceptions rooted in Greco-Roman culture, transformed them so profoundly that in the end something quite new came into being” (xvii). Wilken largely succeeds at showing this, but one still may question whether he has overplayed the evidence, swinging the pendulum a little too far in the opposite direction. For example, were there not areas within the Christian intellectual tradition where philosophies like Neo-Platonism did not just provide the conceptual framework for contextualizing Scriptural truth but also introduced distorting elements to the church’s theological understanding of divine revelation and mystical spirituality?


Despite some caveats, there can be no doubt that Wilken’s work is a wonderful achievement and a marvelous synthesis, eloquently making his massive learning and historical expertise readily available and accessible to those who seek to carry on the pattern of early Christian thinking by seeking the face of God.