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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There is no bigger question for sincere, young Christians (or all Christians for that matter) than this one: What is God’s will for my life? When we face major life transitions (like graduating from college), we stare into an uncertain future, looking for any signpost that will guide us toward taking that first step into the unknown. Where should I work? Who should I marry? In what city should I live? Our questions are large in scope and specific in nature. Because we desperately want to get it right, we beg God to reveal his will to us. Unfortunately, when we are young, we often lack the wisdom required to see or hear God’s answers to these pressing questions.

Paul prayed that the people of the church in Colossae would be filled with the knowledge of God’s will. (Colossians 1:9) That is a beautiful prayer, one that resonates with me every time I face a difficult decision. But Paul isn’t praying that this knowledge would magically drop on them from heaven. Instead, he’s praying that they would undergo a process of receiving wisdom so that they can know God’s will for themselves.

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Paul’s Prayer – 1:9-10a


9 For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, 10 so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way…

Paul and Timothy are in constant prayer for the Colossians even though they do not know them personally. They are linked to the church through Epaphras, the disciple of Paul who took the Gospel to Colossae and the surrounding area. Despite the distance, relational as well as geographical, Paul sees himself as pastorally responsible for the young congregation – responsible enough to pray for them often (not just once or twice as he happens to think of them, but with intentionality and regularity). In this, Paul is setting a pastoral example for ministers everywhere. Our prayers should encompass those under our direct spiritual care, as well as those who are under the care of our own disciples and friends. By example, Paul commands us to pray for those in our disciples’ flocks. By doing this, we are honoring those we have raised up in the faith.


To know God’s will is to want God’s will.
The content of Paul’s prayer for Epaphras’ church was that God would fill them with the knowledge of his will through the Spirit’s wisdom and understanding. This is a beautiful prayer, and one that is needful for all believers. (If you are a pastor, how much would it mean to you to know that the person who raised you up in the faith was praying this prayer for the people in your church?) While it is heady, (notice the words knowledge, wisdom, and understanding) it is not neglectful of the heart. To be filled with the knowledge of God’s will also means to be filled with the desire to participate in, and help bring about, God’s will. To know God’s will is to want God’s will. But the heart’s desires must be guided by the mind. Knowledge, wisdom, and understanding help to shape what we desire and will. The Spirit gives wisdom and understanding to those who seek it, and the more wisdom and understanding we are given, the more we will seek both. The Spirit’s wisdom and understanding, then, fill us with the knowledge we need to discern and enact God’s will.

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It has often been said, “God accepts you just as you are, but he loves you too much to leave you that way.” Why would God want to change us? Because we are not yet like Jesus.

The same is true of the whole world. God loves the world so much that he sent Jesus to die for our sins, but he also loves the world too much to leave it just like it is. Just as God is at work in you, making you more like Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit, so he is at work in the world, turning the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light.

The-Gospel-Grows-WebWhat God is doing in the world, he is also committed to doing in you. What God is doing in you, he is also doing throughout the whole world. This is what it means for the Gospel to grow and bear fruit. You are becoming more like Jesus, and God’s kingdom is coming on earth as it already exists in heaven. The microscopic work of God in individuals mirrors his macroscopic work in the world.

The best way to get on board with what God is doing in the world is to work with him as he forms you into the image of Jesus. The Gospel bears fruit in the world as it bears fruit in your life. The more you and I become, in the power of the Spirit, people who are honest, loving, kind, gracious, self-controlled, and joyful, the more this world will be transformed into the kingdom of God. And this is precisely what is happening all over the world. The same Spirit is at work through the same Gospel in the lives of people in every nation, transforming people into the image of Jesus and communities into pockets of God’s kingdom.

The Gospel grows. Are you growing with it?

There is life beyond death. But not life as we have it today. Not life full of trials, despair, or let downs. No loneliness or manipulation or violence. Yes, there is life beyond death, but it will be almost completely unrecognizable to us that we will struggle to even call it life. It will be life with all the bad stuff taken out and all the good stuff amplified to the point that we will hardly be able to bear it. And yet we will know it, find rest in it, and feel as though it is precisely the thing we were made for.

The funny thing about this life, though, is that it’s a person. With a name.

Jesus.

On the night before he was crucified, Jesus told his disciples, “I am the life.” Jesus is the life that we will experience in heaven. He is the one in whom we will find rest, the one to whom we will shout in ecstatic discovery, “You are what I have been waiting for!”

Heaven-Kept-Hope-WebThis is the hope that Christians have – the hope to which Paul alludes in Colossians 1:5. It is our heaven-kept hope. Sure, we catch glimpses of it, of him, in this life, like we are peering through a keyhole into a gloriously sunlit courtyard full of blooming flowers and fruit-bearing trees. But we don’t experience the full fulness of him today. We walk by faith, not sight.

Our hope is that death is not the final sound of heaven’s door being locked and bolted forever, but rather the first rush of light in the morning, bidding us to wake from our fitful dreaming and behold the glorious reality of God’s presence. Death is not the fearful enemy, but rather the welcome transition from this life of faithfulness to the eternal life of fulness in the presence of Jesus.

It is this hope that allows us to live with such fierce love and faith today. We love because of the fulness of love that awaits us, and that we taste in parts today. We live in faith now because of the power of the presence of God that we are destined to experience in heaven. Heaven-kept hope is not simply delayed infinite gratification; it is the source and strength we need to live each day on this side of death with faith in Christ Jesus and love for all God’s people.

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