The Spirit of Early Christian Thought
Robert Louis Wilken (Yale University Press, 2003)
390 p. First reading.
From our vantage point, it is not easy to imagine ourselves back into the first centuries of Christianity. The habits of thought and feeling that have formed our civilization, and which we take for granted, were then in many cases new, or yet to be born. Over those first few centuries a chain of serious, talented, and devoted thinkers undertook the great task of understanding the founding events of Christianity and unfolding their meaning. In this book, Robert Louis Wilken presents us with a sweeping survey of their accomplishments.
Christianity is not merely a philosophical system appealing to the intellect, nor is it a set of rules for proper behaviour. It is a way of life, integrating thought, morality, and ritual into a whole, having its own institutions, traditions, and practices. Even its intellectual aspects are incarnational, in the sense that they are grounded in the real world of culture and history, rather than being derived from a set of abstractions. “Christian thinkers were not in the business of establishing something; their task was to understand and explain something.” Wilken shows, by systematically considering one subject after another, how early Christian thought grew organically out of its contact with the historical events that founded the Christian community, with the lived experience of liturgy and worship, and with Scripture. In other words, it is deeply concerned with history, ritual, and text:
The distinctive marks of early Christian thinking can be set down in a few sentences. Christians reasoned from the history of Israel and of Jesus Christ, from the experience of Christian worship, and from the Holy Scriptures (and earlier interpretations of the Scriptures), that is to say, from history, from ritual, and from text. Christian thinking is anchored in the church’s life, sustained by such devotional practices as the daily recitation of the psalms, and nurtured by the liturgy, in particular, the regular celebration of the Eucharist. Theory was not an end in itself, and concepts and abstractions were always put at the service of a deeper immersion in the res, the thing itself, the mystery of Christ and of the practice of the Christian life.
In their attempts to understand the meaning and significance of the life of Christ, early Christian thinkers drew heavily on the language and concepts of Greek philosophy, which was the most advanced intellectual tradition available to them. For this they have sometimes been criticized for allowing Christianity to be “Hellenized”, as though the native spirit of the Christian message had been forsaken in favour of a more rarefied, tamer, and ultimately foreign understanding of Jesus. Wilken considers this view, but finds it lacking in historical truth. In case after case, he finds the Greek concepts adopted, but altered to express the new thoughts, rather than the new being forced into the form of the old.
For instance, a central question that early Christian theologians had to address was the question of how God is known. They well understood that their faith was grounded in God’s self-revelation in history, and the Jewish Scriptures portrayed God as deeply involved with their history. Yet for the Greeks, God is known only through the mind being purged of sensory impressions. God is immaterial, and material things are obstacles to knowledge of him. Celsus, a very astute early critic of Christianity, accused Christians in his book True Doctrine of being too preoccupied with sensible things, with a person — in his view, with unintellectual things. Against this view, the early Christian thinkers, such as Origen (185-c.254), argued that God may be known only when he descends to us, and this descent and involvement with humanity he called “grace”. This orientation toward the past had the effect of making history a matter of serious intellectual inquiry, a status it had not had among the Greeks.
For the Greeks, God had often served as the conclusion of an argument, a philosophical abstraction, an inference, an explanatory principle. But for the Christians, God was a starting point, a person. The God they sought to understand was one who was already known, in part, through his mighty acts. Thus the early Christians set forth no proofs for the existence of God. Instead, they developed an account of knowledge of God drawn from Scripture: knowledge of God is “seeing”.
In the Scriptures, seeing is never simply beholding something that passes like a parade before the eyes; it is a form of discernment and identification with what is known. What one sees reflects back on the one who sees and transforms the beholder. As Gregory the Great will put it centuries later, “We are changed into the one we see.” There can be no knowledge of God without a relation between the knower and God. To see light is to share in light and to be enlightened.
Knowledge of God is participatory. He can be neither perceived nor known without love, and love draws the knower further into an encounter. In the words of St. Augustine: “By believing we love him, by believing we esteem God, by believing we enter into him and are incorporated in his members. This is why God asks faith of us.” Faith is the means by which we enter into the life of God, and it draws life from God himself. In religion, mere intellectual curiosity will keep one ever on the margins. Faith is not a disinterested knowing, and still less a kind of cosmic crossing of the fingers. “It is an interior knowing that transforms the knower.” It involves the intellect, but reaches deeper to touch the will and the affections. “It is like seeing a light. One cannot see a light without being enlightened, without sharing the light.” Faith bears fruit not so much in understanding, but in “wonder, adoration, obedience, and love”.
From the beginning, the Christian Church maintained a close relationship between its historical roots and its liturgy. There has never been a time when the Church, the community of believers, was not an integral part of Christian life. The early Christians celebrated the sacraments together and prayed at the tombs of the martyrs, and in this way affirmed their unity of spirit through time. The liturgy, like the Psalms, recounted God’s actions in history. Yet the liturgy was more than just a remembrance, for it also made the past, and the God of history, present. It celebrated the living Christ and honoured his presence in the Eucharist. Their constant contact with the liturgy affected the thinking of the Church Fathers, and Christian worship and sacramental life are at the root of many later theological developments. St. Irenaeus (2nd c.) emphasized the interrelatedness of theology and worship in clear terms: “Our teaching is consonant with what we do in the Eucharist, and the celebration of the Eucharist establishes what we teach.” Thus the early, and foundational, doctrinal developments of Christianity are firmly rooted in the sacramental life of the Church.
The same principle applied to the interpretation of Scripture, which was guided by experience of the liturgy. This point is worth stressing: the early Fathers affirmed that in Biblical interpretation we do not start from the text. We start from the events of history and from the Church’s lived experience in the light of those events. Since the Christian life is a participation in realities beyond our understanding, the only way to further our understanding is through that participation. Only when read in the context of the church’s life and worship does the text disclose its meaning.
When you begin to read the Church Fathers, two distinctive features of their treatment of Scripture are obvious. First, their language is saturated with the sacred text. Even when they are not explicitly quoting, they make allusions and employ phrases drawn from Scripture. Second, they read the Bible as a unity. The whole Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, they saw as telling a single story: that of Christ and the redemption of the world. This was simple enough in the New Testament, for there Christ is the explicit theme, but the Old Testament is silent about the person of Christ. To accomodate their reading, therefore, they developed an interpretive framework in which the Scriptural text is granted many different, mutually complementary, meanings. For example, many texts were read allegorically in order to tease out their connection to the life of Jesus. The result of this project was an immense enrichment of the meaning of Sacred Scripture, going far beyond (and, of course, also in a different direction from) the precedent established in the Jewish tradition.
This interpretive framework played an important role in early doctrinal developments, such as that pertaining to the Trinity. In his book Introduction to Christianity, then-Cardinal Ratzinger had stressed that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is not a deduction from abstract philosophical principles, but an attempt to come to grips with the meaning of Scripture. For instance, when St. Thomas the Doubter saw the resurrected Christ he exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!”, and in doing so he used the same words as are used in the Jewish Sh’ma: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God, the Lord is one.” What, then, was the meaning of Thomas’ exclamation? Or consider the fact that while in the Hebrew Scriptures the references to God as “Father” are infrequent, in the New Testament it appears more than 170 times, often on the lips of Jesus himself. What is the meaning of this? The efforts of early Christians to penetrate these and other texts resulted, in the end, in an enrichment of the doctrine of the oneness of God, and revealed God’s relations as part of his essence.
If God is not solitary and exists always in relation, there can be no talk of God that does not involve love. Love unites Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, love brings God into relation with the world, and by love human beings cleave to God.
The influence of Scripture also gave Christians a very different understanding of creation and the nature of man than that prevalent in the ancient world. The creation account of Genesis — which, take note, the Fathers insisted must be read non-literally — affirmed that the world is ordered and good. St. Basil perceived that the meaning of the Scriptural creation story is that there is an intelligent cause behind the universe; the world is caused by wisdom and love, not chance and disorder. He also affirmed that God created everything ex nihilo by the power of his will, a view quite different from that found in ancient sources, such as the Timaeus of Plato.
It was St. Gregory of Nyssa (4th c.) who was the first great thinker to unfold the Christian understanding of the nature of man. Because Genesis affirms that creation, including man, is good, Christians rejected the view that the soul is trapped in the body as in a cage, as Plato had said. The body is good, and is an integral part of human nature. St. Augustine, for instance, wrote that for this reason Christians must always show respect for the bodies of the dead. Yet a materialistic account of human nature is also inadequate, for though we are part of nature, we are unique insofar as we find happiness and fulfillment only in God, who is prior to and beyond nature. Furthermore, Scripture states that man is made in the image of God, and Christians saw that this teaching had radical implications for our understanding of our own nature. On the basis of this teaching, the writings of the Fathers are permeated by a sense of the greatness and dignity of man. Gregory, for instance, is the first to condemn slavery, and he does so on the grounds that since we are all made in God’s image, we are all free and equal by nature. The doctrine opened up other vistas as well. It affected, for example, reflection on the Delphic dictum to “know thyself”: “Because our mind is made in the likeness of the one who created us, it escapes our knowledge”, said Gregory. Something of the mystery of the Triune God is present even in ourselves.
As the Church grew and developed, Christians were forced to think about their relationship to the secular authorities, and the respective roles of Church and state. As we have seen, the Church was not an abstraction, but was understood as a distinct society with its own laws, traditions, rituals, and governance. It could be seen, therefore, as in some sense a rival to the state. St. Augustine, in his great Civitate Dei, was the first to deal at length with this issue. In his thinking, the city of God is distinct from the city of man, but is not separate. A Christian remains a member of the earthly city even as he vows allegiance to the Lord of the heavenly city. It is in the city of God, however, where justice and peace are more fully realized: “A society that denies or excludes the principle that makes human beings human, namely, that we are created to love and serve God, will be neither just, nor virtuous, nor peaceful.”
It is also good to remember how different the Church was, structurally, from what had been the norm in religions of the pagan world. The Christian Church, though spread throughout the empire and beyond, saw itself as an intrinsic unity, a view testified to by the calling of ecumenical councils and the extensive correspondence between bishops. The role of the priesthood, too, was altered, for whereas in the pagan world priests had been largely functionaries of the state, obliged to carry out the rites but not much more, Christian bishops were well-educated and often eloquent teachers who sought to lead their flocks by setting a good example. More importantly, their authority was independent of the state.
In two very interesting chapters, Wilken looks at the development of early Christian poetry and art. He introduced me to the poet Prudentius (348-c.410), who was among the first to write large-scale poems on Christian themes. (Some of these early literary experiments were odd; one poet rewrote the Gospel of Matthew in hexameter!) Of greater theological import than poetry was early Christian visual art, such as icons, for inevitably Christians had to contend with the Biblical commandment to “make no graven image”. To this day, both Jews and Muslims lack a religious representational art on account of this commandment, yet the same is obviously not true of Christianity. The reason for the difference is the Incarnation. In Christ’s Incarnation, material things became tied up with spiritual realities. The Logos, the divine Reason, became bound up with matter, and could therefore be represented in material form. The Council of Chalcedon (451) decreed that “it was not possible to speak of Christ’s divine nature without referring to his human nature, or to refer to the man Christ without seeing him as God incarnate. If the two natures cannot be separated, a portrait of Christ depicts not simply his human nature, but the God who has become man.” In effect, it was now licit for Christians to make images of God because God himself had done so first. Thus icons became an enduring and beautiful expression of the sacramental imagination: “Icons, like the consecrated bread and wine, the wood of the cross, the book of the gospels, are witnesses to God’s sojourn among us as a human being.”
In their reflection on the moral life, Christians inherited and adopted the pagan account of the four virtues: courage, temperance, justice, and prudence. But they adapted them by defining the goal of the moral life as “to be like God and to remain in him”. As humanity had been made in the image of God, but that image had been tarnished and tainted by sin, so the goal of the moral life was to restore the original likeness. Since it is love that motivates us to do good, virtue consists in a right ordering of one’s love, and in this ordering the love of God, being the greatest good, must be preeminent. Religious devotion, or piety, was therefore joined to the others as a new virtue. Even here, however, despite all the talk about the catalogue of virtues, Christian life was more than a theory. Early Christian lives, or biographies of good people, emerged as a genre for instruction about the moral life, and imitation of these good people was urged as a path to virtue. Throughout, the stress was not only on good actions, but on good interior disposition, for the Christian God sees into the heart, and is not fooled by duplicity as the pagan gods had been. “Imitation, the virtues, interior disposition, character, likeness to God” — these were the elements of early Christian moral reflection.
Whether they are writing about the moral life, or about the arts, or about faith, or about the nature of man, there is a common theme that recurs: “Nothing is more characteristic of the Christian intellectual tradition than its fondness for the language of the heart.” Christianity has never embraced the Stoic ideal of detachment, choosing instead to cultivate the passions, and especially love. Even the austere Cistercians of the twelfth century, in whom one might of all people suspect an unsmiling gravity, took as the special source of their spirituality the passionate and sensual Song of Songs. Christian thinkers saw that since man, whether he knows it or not, truly desires God, progress in the spiritual life depends on the right nurturing of desire. They were guided by the words of Jesus: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.” St. Gregory of Nyssa, comparing God to a fresh spring of water, said it this way:
As you came near the spring you would marvel, seeing that the water was endless, as it constantly gushed up and poured forth. Yet you could never say that you had seen all the water. How could you see what was still hidden in the bosom of the earth? Hence no matter how long you might stay at the spring, you would always be beginning to see the water…. It is the same with one who fixes his gaze on the infinite beauty of God. It is constantly being discovered anew, and it is always seen as something new and strange in comparison with what the mind has already understood. And as God continues to reveal himself, man continues to wonder; and he never exhausts his desire to see more, since what he is waiting for is always more magnificent, more divine, than all that he has already seen.” (Homily on the Song of Songs 9)
Wilken has written a wonderful, illuminating book. He wears his learning lightly, and the book is a relatively easy read. Alongside the theological content, he has written short biographical introductions to the major figures of early Christian thought, ranging from Justin Martyr in the second century through figures like Clement of Alexandria, Augustine, Hilary of Poitiers, Maximus the Confessor, all the way to John of Damascus in the eighth century. It is a long, fascinating, intellectually creative adventure rooted in history, ritual, and text, and animated throughout, in the words of Hilary of Poitiers, by “the warmth of faith”.