The Spirit of Early Christian Thought–Robert Wilken

Cover of "The Spirit of Early Christian T...

Run out and get it, & read it now!

Bryan Bademan over at the University of Minnesota‘s MacLaurin Institute has begun blogging on one of my favorite books, Robert Louis Wilken’s The Spirit of Early Christian Thought:

In his book The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (Yale UP, 2003), Robert Louis Wilken explains that “Christianity is more than a set of devotional practices and a moral code: it is also a way of thinking about God, about human beings, about the world and history.” Indeed, “for Christians, thinking is part of believing” (xiii). Wilken’s important work is centered on this great theme of early Christianity—that far from the faith banishing reason and clear-eyed analysis of the world, early Christians were obsessed with such intellectual practices and bequeathed to the world a faith tradition that was inextricably bound to (and yet creative with) the best of the classical past. For Augustine, this point was axiomatic: “Not everyone who thinks believes, since many think in order not to believe; but everyone who believes thinks, thinks in believing and believes in thinking” (xiv).

Wilken’s book is helpful for Christian scholars today precisely because he’s interested in “how a Christian intellectual tradition came into being.” He’s less preoccupied with the development of Christian doctrine (though he does cover some of that ground) than he is with certain habits of mind, or “how Christians thought about the things they believed” (xiv). And for this, he shows, no text or intellectual tradition was as important as the Bible, and especially the Bible’s account of the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. Several of Wilken’s chapters are devoted to the significance of Scripture for early Christian thinking.

One of the challenges we face daily at a place like the MacLaurin Institute is that biblical literacy is often quite low (see, e.g., Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn’t [2008]), and thus many Christians are ill-equipped to discern the Bible’s relevance to contemporary conversations in a university context. And even when there is some familiarity with the biblical text, it’s too often founded on a superficial grasp of the ancient near eastern context in which the books of the Bible were written. This, incidentally, is one of the significant and lasting values of the pre-critical interpretive tradition of the church fathers. They took the Scriptures rather straightforwardly as truth about God and the world he made, and they reflexively, almost effortlessly interpreted the Bible in its Hebrew and Second-Temple contexts. (To be sure, it was easier for them to do this, since their distance from the world of the Bible was not as great is as ours.) Nowadays, at any rate, piety and careful attention to biblical context and culture can seem to run in opposing directions.

My plan in the coming weeks on this weblog is to work through some of the arguments that Wilken makes in The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, paying special attention to their usefulness for contemporary Christian academic inquiry. I’ve been looking to begin a conversation on how Christians should approach the life of the mind and the task of a scholar, and it occurs to me that we might do well to begin at the beginning, to learn from the ancients. Wilken’s book has much to commend it, more than I’ll be able to summarize here; so I invite you to read along with me, if you have the time and inclination.

Here‘s the full post over at the MacLaurin Center blog.

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