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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Ideal Church

There is no such thing as an ideal church. Well, there used to be one. It was the last perfect church left in the whole world. Everyone treated each other with kindness and respect. No one argued. They all agreed on the music style, the mode of baptism, and the color of the carpet. But then I started attending, and now it has all kinds of problems. Sorry.

Okay, so none of that is true. But what is true is that I love the Church. Not just my church, which I love very much, but the Church – the worldwide body of Christ. I haven’t always loved the Church, and I haven’t always wanted to be a part of it, but I can no longer deny that, despite it’s many flaws, there is nothing greater on the face of the earth than Jesus Christ’s Church. We don’t always get it right. We don’t always follow Jesus well. But we are God’s plan, the way he has chosen to work in the world. For or better or worse, God loves the Church, and is committed to her. And for that reason, the Church is the hope of the world.

As I read about the life of the early church, I’m struck by how widespread the propaganda against her had become. The Romans accused Christians of atheism, cannibalism, and incest. Many able Christian writers and thinkers pled the case of the Church, refuting the false accusations, and demonstrating that Christians were the kind of people Rome should want in its empire. One of these writers was the anonymous person who wrote the Letter to Diognetus.

I’ve already written about some of the treasure I’ve found in this ancient writing, but I wanted to share what this author has to say about life in the early church. He gives us a vision for how an ideal church can live in, and relate to, an antagonistic society. This wisdom is a part of our faith heritage, and can be very instructive for us today.

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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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Benefit of the Doubt by Greg BoydWhat is faith? What does it mean to have great faith? What does faith look like in our relationship with God? What is the nature of our relationship with God? These are the questions that drive Greg Boyd’s book Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty. Part theology, part philosophy, part auto-biography, Boyd takes the reader on a journey of exploring the nature of biblical faith, contrasting it with the certainty-seeking faith he sees in many believers today.

Boyd argues that the problem with faith today is that it is most often expressed as an intellectual, or psychological, certitude. Using the metaphor of the “Strength Tester” carnival game, Boyd writes that the goal for many Christians today is “to hit a faith mallet as hard as you can in order to send the faith puck up the faith pole to get as close to the certainty bell as you possibly can.” (26) Faith has become the removal of, or the resistance to, doubt. The greatness of our faith is directly related to how certain we are about various beliefs; and God, of course, will reward our great faith by answering our prayers and showering us with blessing. Our relationship with God, then, is entirely dependent upon how certain we are in our minds that various things are true.

In chapter 2, Boyd gives eight compelling reasons why this approach to faith is misguided and unbiblical. While each of his objections to certainty-seeking faith give cause for reflection, I found the third objection quite compelling: “It replaces biblical faith with magic.” Some would immediately object to this statement, but I think there is deep truth in this statement. What, after all, is magic? Boyd defines it this way: “Magic is generally understood to involve people engaging in special behaviors that empower them to gain favor with, or to otherwise influence, the spiritual realm in order to get it to work to their advantage.” (38) Certainty-seeking faith aims to make God act on our behalf (through healing, perhaps). It is a means to an end. “One of the many differences between ‘magic’ and biblical faith is that magic is about engaging in behaviors that ultimately benefit the practitioner, while biblical faith is about cultivating a covenantal relationship with God that is built on mutual trust.” (39)

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The Theology of the Book of Revelation by Richard BauckhamThere are many different interpretive models for the book of Revelation. Some approach it as though it were a code to be deciphered, matching ancient images with present figures in an attempt to unlock the secrets of the last days. Others see it as a uniquely Christian history with little or nothing to say to believers today. As we seek to understand this fascinating and oftentimes befuddling book, perhaps we should interpret it in basically the same way we interpret every other book of the Bible. That is to say, maybe the key to unlocking Revelation’s secrets is to simply ask, “What did this mean to the people to whom it was originally written?”

In his book The Theology of the Book of Revelation, Richard Bauckham takes this basic exegetical approach, and manages to make sense of, and draw compelling meaning from, John’s Apocalypse. Bauckham starts where most Christian exegetes start with any other biblical book by asking, “What sort of book is this?” The answer, he discerns, is that “Revelation seems to be an apocalyptic prophecy in the form of a circular letter to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia.” (2)

John’s work is a prophetic apocalypse in that it communicates a disclosure of a transcendent perspective on this world. It is prophetic in the way it addresses a concrete historical situation – that of Christians in the Roman province of Asia towards the end of the first century AD – and brings to its readers a prophetic word of God, enabling them to discern the divine purpose in their situation and respond to their situation in a way appropriate to this purpose.
In other words, the book of Revelation is John’s attempt to speak into the lives of real Christians in a real place by giving them a heavenly perspective on their temporal challenges. “Life looks overwhelming from your perspective,” he says, in essence, “but I want to show you your life and your circumstances from God’s perspective.” Revelation is, at heart, a pastoral work. It is a call to abandon the idols of the Roman Empire and the futility of its warmongering ways, and to instead worship the true God and lay hold of the victory of the “lamb who was slain.”

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