Since Vatican II, the Catholic Church has had to cope with a great deal of confusion about what it teaches. The problem, appearances notwithstanding, is not solely a Catholic one brought on by the council. Protestants, too, struggle in the aftermath of the Sixties to hold on to classic Christian notions. And it does not end there. I once spoke at a Catholic-Jewish dialogue in an affluent Washington suburb and rashly opined that Jews, with their long and distinguished love of learning, probably could not believe how ignorant Christians now are about the simplest tenets of the faith. A rabbi nodded sympathetically—and told me it wasn’t that hard to imagine because Jews are in the same boat.
The same cultural sleepwalking has distanced us from the Greek and Latin classics, the American Founding, and even crucial recent events like World War II and Vietnam. Our personal and social memory is short, verging on Alzheimer’s. Remedying this will not be easy, especially in religious matters. The vast majority of believers today base their faith on personal experience of a vague American cast. In practice, this means acknowledging God exists and thinking Jesus is somehow divine, but never looking much further into the teachings, theological or moral, that define Christianity. That’s one reason why New Age daffiness seems to raise no problems for many Christians. Most of the earlier categories do not appear to address themselves to everyday experiences and questions and therefore leave a great mass of potential believers in blissful and self-satisfied ignorance.
Ironically, the early Church started out from experience, too, but of a very different kind. And it went from that to a systematic reflection on the new life the early Christians experienced in Christ and the Church. Many of the older accounts of early Christianity made it appear as if it were essentially a history of dogmatic theology, that is, a respectable parallel to histories of philosophy. Dogmas did emerge, of course, as questions arose in Christian communities. But those earlier accounts tended to leave out the crucial dimensions of life that gave rise to the need to reflect on such matters at all.
We now have a powerful corrective to that picture, Robert Louis Wilken’s The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (Yale). A distinguished historian of early Christianity, Wilken has taught, among other places, at Notre Dame and the University of Virginia. An earlier book, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, is indispensable for anyone who wants a richer sense of the world in which the Church first made its way. In the present volume, Wilken clearly traces out the “spirit” that gave birth to thought. And perhaps the best brief explanation of what he is up to is this: “Before there were treatises on the Trinity, before there were learned disputes about the teaching on grace, or essays on the moral life, there was awe and adoration before the exalted Son of God alive and present in the church’s offering of the Eucharist. This truth preceded every effort to understand and nourished every attempt to express in words and concepts what Christians believed.”
The quite proper desire to grasp more fully the reality of the living God thus energized what followed. Gregory of Nyssa, for example, noted in the fourth century that Christ had not taught that “it is blessed to know something about God.” Really blessed knowledge meant approaching, loving, being present before a personal God who loved his Creation, including us, as no other God conceived by the human race. Wilken’s vivid account of the realities behind the disputes and resolutions will make this volume an eye-opener for many who might find trouble following a dry academic history of dogma.
Wilken rejects the 19th-century’s preeminent practitioner of that discipline, Adolf von Harnack, as having gotten things backwards. Harnack stood at the head of a line of scholars who claimed that Christianity had been “Hellenized” by the importation of Greek philosophical ideas, which were the most potent concepts in the ancient Mediterranean. Wilken believes, however, that “the more apt expression would be the Christianization of Hellenism, though that phrase does not capture the originality of Christian thought nor the debt owed to Jewish ways of thinking and to the Jewish Bible.”
This unusual insight gives a fresh perspective to everything Wilken says as he goes through the usual history of the councils and theological controversies. To begin with, it leads you to see that, pace a host of usually Protestant objections, the development of Christian thought was not a betrayal or paganization of the simple Gospel. What the early Church did was to turn the very best cultural material available toward points on a biblical horizon. To fail to do that would have been to accept that the Faith did not need human reason or knowledge at all, a position hard to reconcile with the biblical view of the human person as endowed with the capacity to know the world and its maker, or the manifest need to sort out what might appear to be contradictory or unclear passages in Scripture. Once we see this, we have the golden key to the work of the councils, or Clement of Alexandria, Augustine, Maximus the Confessor (beautifully captured in a few pages), Aquinas, or Bonaventure along with many others. Christian thought, properly understood, is a natural out-growth of the Christian concern for truth, which is to say an integral part of a living Christianity.
And this has no little relevance to our own attempts to meet the demands of both faith and reason. One thing we can learn from this history is that this dual search is not easy, simple, or without risks. It took decades after several early councils for example—and often enough still other councils—to formulate some of the things that we consider essential to Christianity such as the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, and many other matters. In the turbulent backwash of Vatican II, it is somewhat reassuring to know that even the early Church Fathers had to grapple with the forces unleashed by even the best-intentioned attempts to solve problems.
But it is also helpful in our current condition to have Robert Wilken’s lucid invitation to appreciate that the way authentic Christian thought emerges is from our humble attempts to understand the concrete practice of baptism, Eucharist, and prayer, as well as from our personal encounter with the puzzle of a God who is both one and three. He says of Gregory the Great; “He did not construct a world of ideas for others to admire but one to live in.” It is only one measure of Wilken’s achievement that many readers will want to apply that phrase to The Spirit of Early Christian Thought as well.