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The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God

4.28  ·  Rating details ·  726 ratings  ·  89 reviews
"[A] magnificently learned, deeply felt and surprisingly pellucid set of essays."—Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World

"A delight to read. It is written as history ought to be, especially for nonspecialist readers."—Richard A. Kauffman, Christian Century

In this eloquent introduction to early Christian thought, eminent religious historian Robert Louis Wilken examin
Paperback, 398 pages
Published March 11th 2005 by Yale University Press (first published 2003)
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Charles J
Aug 05, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This book is not a polemic or a book of apologetics; it is instead an exposition of what early Church theologians thought about important topics in Christian belief, and how those thoughts evolved and grew. If you think all theology is merely empty wind or arguments about angels dancing on the head of a pin, this is not the book for you. But if you want to know how early Christians developed their thought about the Trinity, or theological views on Christ being simultaneously fully human and full ...more
May 20, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Wilken’s aim—to “depict the pattern of Christian thinking as it took shape in the formative centuries of the church’s history”—was soundly achieved, and his central argument, that “Christians reasoned from . . . . history, from ritual, and from text,” was thoroughly and even eloquently demonstrated (xiv, xvii). Several features emerge as important to Wilken’s successful presentation. First, the essential characteristics of early Christian thought that Wilken proposes at the beginning recur over ...more
Jan 04, 2008 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Sarah by: Dr. Steven K Harmon
Shelves: theology
This was a book which I had to read for an early theology class in Divinity School. It was far and away my favorite book for that semester.

Wilkin presents an incredible amount of information about the church fathers in the relatively short book, but in such a way that it all is relevant and interesting. This would be a book to anyone interested not only in the early church but in early philosophy.

Jun 13, 2015 rated it really liked it
Very fine intro to patristic thought.
Teri Pardue
Aug 14, 2018 rated it really liked it
I have not done much reading in patristics, other than Augustine’s Confessions, and I found this book a perfect introduction.

It managed to cover a large amount of material (and church fathers) in a fairly short book, seeming to take a magnifying glass to specific events or people when most necessary. I learned a lot and wrote down a lot that I wanted to delve into more deeply. The chapter on early Christian poetry was one of my favorites.

“The words of the Scripture made a temple deep within the
Noah Norris
Feb 26, 2020 rated it really liked it
I recommend this book for those interested in learning how early Christian thinking developed from the inception of Christianity beginning with the ascension of Christ through the first few centuries.

The author reveals the development of theology (focusing mostly on Christology), Christian worship (focusing mostly on communion, baptism, and public Scripture readings), and other liturgical practices amidst external threats from Rome and internal challenges from within the church.

The only minor pi
Rafael Salazar
Fascinating read. This is a page-turning survey of the intellectual life of the church fathers that legitimately surprised me by how much Reformed spirituality owes to these early Christians. Filled with refreshing quotes and I summaries, Wilken sounds like a learned teacher that loves his subject enough to share it beautifully. I'm probably turning to this book again in the future. ...more
Flynn Evans
Feb 28, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An incisive account of the defining contours of the practices and theology of early Christianity. Wilken highlights how Christians saw themselves as primarily being immersed in a robustly biblical social and doctrinal imaginary, guiding them in their unique witness to the pagan world as well as solidifying their distinct sense of liturgy.
Apr 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This book is a fabulous look into the development and heart of the early Christian church. In truth the knowledge of God and the love of God must be formed together in order to see God, to be changed by God. The early church leaders demonstrate this again and again by their writings and their lives. They cover themselves with and wrestle with the language of the scriptures and cling to the incarnation of our Lord Jesus. As the last line of the book states "They are still our teachers today." ...more
John David
May 21, 2014 rated it really liked it
Anyone who has ever tried to dip their toes into the waters of medieval theology can quickly be overwhelmed by its complexities and occasional rank obscurantism. Wilken, much to his credit, knows his subjects so well that he can distill their most important ideas in historical context (especially important as this book covers a period where much of the known world begins as Roman and pagan and ends several centuries later, when both the Empire and its paganism were gone) and explain how they wer ...more
Jan 12, 2018 rated it really liked it
Excellent summary of early Christian thought and practice. Wilken draws from a range of early church Fathers primarily through letters, sermons and treatises to give us a sense of how they understood Scripture, the Sacraments, society, icons, spiritual life, poetry, and other topics. Intellectually stimulating yet also quite practical and devotional.
Oct 04, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: christianity
Robert Louis Wilkin’s The Spirit of Christian Thought is one of the best, most informative books I’ve read this year. Wilkin provides a fascinating account of Christianity’s early centuries, one that encompasses great historical figures, such as Augustine, Origen, Basil, and Maximus the Confessor, but also topics such as the Trinity, early Christian poetry, Icons (and the battle over them), the importance of Scripture, and the necessity of a Christian community (a people of God). In particular, ...more
Jun 30, 2012 rated it liked it
"Evangelical Christians tend not to be familiar with the Early Church. While there are many reasons for this (not least as a result of the “no creed but the Bible” movements of the 19th century—see Nathan Hatch for more on that), there are many more reasons we should seek to correct this lack in our spiritual lives. If you have been meaning to do just that (and you should be), The Spirit of Early Christian Thought by Robert Louis Wilken is unfortunately not the place to start.
With all of tha
May 13, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This book is fabulous, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. The author, Robert Wilken, considers the history of theology as it developed in the early church, & its relationship with thinkers of Judaism, Greece & Rome, Wilkin warns us though not to be overly preoccupied with intellectual ideas. The Gospel, after all, does not intend to make us smart, but to transform our hearts, minds, & our very lives.

Early Christianity appealed to history, reason, ritual, experience, & most of all to the Scriptu
Jeff Miller
Dec 02, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Totally enjoyed this book which focuses on the intellectual life of the Church and the development of Christian thought. This is topic focused and so the early fathers are revisited all throughout the book, especially St. Augustine. It is obvious that the book was intended for a wide audience beyond just Catholics and does a very good job in presenting this. Despite being a Philistine when it comes to poetry I enjoyed the chapter that dealt with the development of poetry in the life of the Churc ...more
Dec 29, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Wilken's work is a superb introduction to the spirituality of the early church. His expertise in the field is unparalleled and his passion for the Fathers exudes from every page. This work will kindle a desire in you to read widely and deeply the writings of the early church. And while Wilken's Catholicism does seem to pervade some of his thinking and writing here, it does not overshadow the work nor undermine its overall value. ...more
Nick Abraham
Jan 14, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I’ve read this twice now and it was even better the second time. A wonderful introduction to the Patristic period, with helpful interaction with various primary sources.
Daniel Nelms
Nov 24, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is a well learned book, and one of the more interesting and thought provoking works on Church history that I have journeyed through.

Wilken, the professor of the History of Christianity and the University of Virginia, tackles the complex project of defining and articulating the spirit of Christianity in its early centuries, and the basis of its intellectual development.

You learn of all sorts of rather obscure figure in early Christianity, (Prudentius, for example, as the first Christian alle
David Miller
Oct 12, 2019 rated it really liked it
Robert Louis Wilken traces how classical culture transformed into Christian culture, by following Christian figures from Origen to Gregory the Great. The first great Christian thinkers and writers were themselves the product of the classical culture; well-educated, articulate, able to write and speak to a degree impossible for us to grasp now, when a 30-second news clip loses our interest a third of the way through. Wilken shows how they took the poetry, philosophy, and morality of the Romans, a ...more
Feb 21, 2018 rated it really liked it
Super grateful for Wilken's work and accessible description of Early Christian Thought. This book does a wonderful job of helping one understand not just the belief or thinking of the Early Church but how that thinking got developed over the first few centuries. For example, the church's concept of ethics or virtue, shaped within the worldview of earlier influences like Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, but equally a departure and uniqueness based on scripture and the teachings of Jesus. That chapte ...more
Dale Larson
Feb 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I don't recall where I heard this book recommended but, upon getting, I was a little nervous that it might be dreadfully boring. Much to my relief this book was neither dry history or bland theology (though it was comprised mostly of those two topics). It was obvious that the author has been, personally, formed by the teachings of the early church and his passion for the subject comes through in a very enjoyable way. Thus, in terms of style and presentation I was very pleased.

Content-wise, the b
Aug 13, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Excellent Overview of Key Themes

Wilkens introduces the early fathers as active members of a living community. They grapple with challenges from pagans as well as question or struggles within the church in the context of a worshipping family of Christians. Not only does he offer a helpful entrance into the writings of some key figures in the church, he also reinforces a model of living faith working out from common center of God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, whose life, death, resurrection, and
Apr 13, 2020 rated it liked it
A very thorough, albeit intentionally only representative, rather than comprehensive, survey of some of the thought strands that shaped early Christian writing. The title correctly suggests the nature of the book – that of “the spirit”. It is not a historical overview of all of the many strands which were sometimes vigorously discussed in the first centuries of Christianity, but rather a book which carefully selects a few topics and drills them to allow the spirit of each topic to become evident ...more
Edwin Smith
Sep 18, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Intriguing but selective overview

Wilken writes something of a hagiography of the Early Church. Each chapter is a vignette into some cultural aspect of early Christianity, but he focuses mainly on a few figures.

His writing is engaging, and the chapters grew more interesting as the book went on. And while it seemed well researched, it did feel as though he might have been leaving out some of the less attractive parts of the Early Church.
Jan 19, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: church-history
Gives insight into how early Christian thinkers grappled with the Bible to understand and communicate spiritual truths to believers, critics, heretics... I think it's a trade-off as you get the flavor, the highlights, without the fine detail, which makes quick reading but may lack some overall coherence. Also, it may be a bit of preaching to the choir; for example, I didn't find the defence of icons persuasive. But it shows you why it's worth reading what these early Fathers/theologians wrote. ...more
Darrin Belousek
Dec 23, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This is quite simply the single best book on early Christianity and Christian tradition that I've ever read. Accessible. Engaging. Even enthralling. This book will reward multiple readings. I highly recommend this book to anyone seeking to understand "from the inside" the animating spirit of early Christian intellectual (theological, moral, poetical) tradition--the deep heart of which, as Wilken so admirably shows again and again, is Scripture. ...more
Daniel Attaway
Feb 25, 2020 rated it really liked it
Excellent work. A few chapters were a really slow burn that took me a while to get through because I kept zoning out. I had a hard time reading more than one chapter per sitting. That’s not normal for me but I still really enjoyed it.

The chapter entitled “An Awesome and Unbloody Sacrifice” was my favorite.
Steve Wegman
Sep 24, 2020 rated it liked it
How the early church leaders developed the major themes and ideas of Christianity, like the divinity of Jesus, the humanity of Jesus, the trinity, moral philosophy, poetry, art, icons. Lots of good history and interesting explanations of how Christianity as we know it developed. I can't rate it higher than "liked it" because it's too much of a serious textbook for more casual readers like me. ...more
Edward Welsch
Nov 01, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: theology
This is an academically rigorous, useful survey of the philosophical and theological questions that concerned the early Church Fathers as they defined Christian doctrine in the first few centuries after Christ's resurrection. ...more
Matt Pitts
Jul 08, 2017 rated it really liked it
A delightful introduction to the spiritual-mindedness of early Christian theology.
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