The Spirit of Early Christian Thought

What the Book is About

The Spirit of Early Christian Thought is a survey of the greatest thinkers of the early church on a broad range of subjects. Each chapter is dedicated to a single topic, such as the Trinity, virtue, politics, or apologetics. Wilken artfully weaves thoughts from at least two primary writers in each chapter, diving to the depths of the issue, offering the wisdom of the ancients to a modern audience. Wilken is careful not to rely on the same thinker over and over, so the audience is treated to a wide range of authors, including Justin Martyr, Iranaeus, Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, and others. He admits, however, that there were four giants, so to speak, to which he returned more often than the rest: “Origen in the third century, Gregory of Nysa in the fourth, Augustine in the fifth, and Maximus the Confessor in the seventh.” (p. xix) Any student interested in learning from the great masters of the Church would do well to start with these four.

As noted above, Wilken’s approach is to tackle one issue in each chapter, and to do so under the guidance of two ancient writers. While he does not typically quote any author at length, he pieces together their thoughts and gives them flesh through his own prose. The reader may be left with the hunger to hear more directly from Origen or Augustine, but the effect is to give the audience the best of their thoughts in modern formulations. A typical example can be taken from the first chapter, which dealt with the Christian concern of apologetics.

In the debate between Christian thinkers and their critics the central issue was where in the search for God reason is to begin. Christians argued that Christ had brought something new; the life he lived, though fully human, was unlike that of anyone who had lived earlier. …For the Greeks, God was the conclusion of an argument, the end of a search for an ultimate explanation, an inference from the structure of the universe to a first cause. For Christian thinkers, God was the starting point, and Christ the icon that displays the face of God. “Reason became man and was called Jesus Christ,” wrote Justin. Now one reasoned from Christ to other things, not from other things to Christ. In him was to be found the reason, the logos, the logic, if you will, that inheres in all things.-The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, p. 14-15

In taking this approach, the reader must trust that Wilken has done his homework, and is faithfully presenting the thoughts of each author. While I often found myself longing for lengthier quotations, I came to conclude that Wilken’s approach was best. Nearly two thousand years separate my mind from the ancient author’s words. In such a sweeping survey, it is helpful to have a learned mediator bridge the gap between the style of their writing and the form of prose which best suits modern readers.

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What the Book Is About

Obviously, On the Incarnation is about the incarnation of Jesus Christ, whom Athanasius consistently refers to as “the Word of God.” This short book is divided into nine chapters. The first three chapters deal with creation and the fall of humanity into sin, and specifically with the dilemma human sinfulness created for God. What is God supposed to do now that his prize creation, the ones upon whom he placed his image, have disobeyed his single command, thereby inviting sin and death into the world? Athanasius puts the problem this way:

It was unworthy of the goodness of God that creatures made by Him should be brought to nothing through the deceit wrought upon man by the devil; and it was supremely unfitting that the work of God in mankind should disappear, either through their own negligence or through the deceit of evil spirits. - On the Incarnation, p. 32

In other words, God is too good to allow the devil, through his deception, to destroy humanity and make them nothing (in the same way that both evil and darkness are nothing, the absence of goodness and light, respectively). His goodness cannot allow evil to win. What, then, is he to do? 

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What the Book Is About

The Beauty of the Infinite is a treatise on the aesthetics of Christian theology, a defense, as it were, of Christianity’s “rhetoric of peace” over against the rhetorical violence of modernity and postmodernity. The main idea of David Bentley Hart’s masterpiece (and it is, in my opinion, a masterpiece) could be stated like this:

The rhetoric of God is Jesus Christ, offered as pure gift. As gift, Christ is infinite peace. As both gift and the rhetoric of peace, Christ is beauty, the magnificent demonstration of the self-giving love of the Trinity which crosses all boundaries, even the boundary of death.


The Triune God is “the God who ‘others’ himself within himself and contains and surrenders otherness as infinite music, infinite discourse.”
In Hart’s own words, the book demonstrates “that one may speak, within the Christian tradition, of a rhetoric of peace, of a practice of rhetoric that is peaceful, because rhetoric and beauty are both already narrated by Christian thought as peace, obedient to a particular understanding of the infinite: beauty is prior to sublimity [tragic beauty] and infinity surpasses totality [the power of world systems]. Moreover, the concrete form of Christian rhetoric – Christ, the Father’s supreme rhetoric, his Word – appears within the terms of this Christian narrative of the infinite as the very form of peace, the infinite gesture of a love that simply exceeds the gesture of every violence brought against it, the real and visible beauty whose historical and aesthetic particularity invites response and variation and whose effect can inhabit time not simply as negation but as a practicable style of existence.” (413)

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What the Book is About

Simple Church offers a strategy for churches to simplify their disciple-making processes, thereby increasing the effectiveness with which they advance God’s kingdom. The book is based on a significant research project done through LifeWay Christian Resources. Over 500 churches responded to a comprehensive survey, with roughly half of respondents considered “growing, vibrant” churches, and the other half being churches that have either plateaued or are experiencing decline. The churches surveyed varied significantly in size, location, style, and ministry focus. Not all vibrant churches were large, and not all plateaued churches were small.

The research revealed that vibrant churches have a significant statistical relationship to simplicity in their approach to ministry and disciple-making. This does not mean, however, that these churches don’t have much to offer, or do things the easy way. In the words of the authors, “simple is basic, uncomplicated, and fundamental.” (p. 16) A simple church is not a shallow church; it is a church that has a clear process for helping people become committed disciples of Jesus Christ.

To have a simple church, you must design a simple discipleship process. This process must be clear. It must move people toward maturity. It must be integrated fully into your church, and you must get rid of the clutter around it.-Simple Church

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The Experience of God by David Bentley Hart

What the Book Is About

In The Experience of God, David Bentley Hart makes a compelling case for classical theism. Drawing from a wide array of sources, including Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu thinkers, Hart weaves together their most basic theological strands into a beautiful tapestry of the divine. With tremendous respect for the past, he reaches back into the Middle Ages and the classical period to to pull together a grand vision of God who is “the unity of infinite being and infinite consciousness, and the reason for the reciprocal transparency of finite being and finite consciousness each to the other, and the ground of all existence and all knowledge.” (p. 324)

As well as Hart makes the case for classical theism, he also builds a powerful case against atheistic materialism and Naturalism. He asserts that “materialism is among the most problematic of philosophical standpoints, the most impoverished in its explanatory range, and among the most willful and (for want of a better word) magical in its logic, even if it has been in fashion for a couple of centuries or more.” (p. 48) There are many reasons for this in Hart’s mind, but perhaps none more potent than the need for a “necessary reality,” or in other words, something that does not depend on anything else for its existence.

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