The Spirit of Early Christian Thought by Robert Louis Wilken


  • Purpose = to depict the pattern of Christian thinking as it took shape in the formative centuries of the church’s history.
  • Focus =how a Christian intellectual tradition came into being, how Christians thought about the things they believed. Difference on important matters is a mark of intellectual seriousness. Continuity within Christian families over several generations helped spark the flowering of the Christian intellectual life in the late 4th century (St. Basil example with grandmother taught by Gregory the Wonderworker).
  • Thesis = The energy, vitality, imaginative power of Christian thought stems from within, from the person of Christ, the Bible, Christian worship, the life of the Church. Christian thinking works off the language of the Bible and the res, the reality to which the Scriptures and Christian worship testify. LOVE = Goal of Christian thinking.
  • Resurrection of Jesus = central fact of Christian devotion & ground of all Christian thinking.

“Seek his face always” (Ps 105:4) = the spirit of early Christian thinking

“Only when wounded by love can one know the God of the Bible” ~ St. Justin Martyr

4 main Christian thinkers that Wilkens turns to:

  1. Origen – 3rd ce
  2. Gregory of Nyssa – 4th
  3. Augustine – 5th
  4. Maximus the Confessor – 7th

Distinctive marks of Christian thinking:

  • History – of Israel and of Jesus Christ
  • Ritual – of Christian worship
  • Text – of Holy Scripture

“Greatness, depth, boldness, flexibility, certainty and a flaming love – the virtues of youth, are marks of patristic theology” ~ Hans Ur von Balthasar (xviii)


Chapter 1: Founded on the Cross of Christ

Focus = how God is known – through history of Israel & events of Christ’s life.

Earliest Christian writings were composed by Christians for Christians. Middle of 2nd century – Christians wrote for others. 2 sets of critics: Greco-Roman & Jews.

“No degree of cruel inhumanity can destroy the religion founded on the mystery of the cross of Christ” ~ St. Leo the Great

Justin Martyr

  • Early apologist & philosopher
  • Prophets vs. Philosophers –> Prophetsspoke about what they had seen & heard as witnesses to the truth. God known through historical events. Used faith and discernment VS. Philosophers: used demonstration, arguments, proofs. Justin presented his embrace of Christianity as a conversion to philosophy (“life”) = a new way of life.
  • Importance of love:

“Only when wounded by love can one know the God of the Bible” ~ St. Justin Martyr

“A flame was kindled in my soul and I was seized by love of the prophets and of the friends of Christ. While I was pondering his words in my mind, I came to see that this way of life alone is sure and fulfilling” ~ St. Justin Martyr


  • Knowledge of Godbegins with God’s descent to human beings in a historical person (rather than the mind’s ascent to God like Celsus said). Leads to a change in worship.
  • Gospel’s proof: Rests on a proof proper to itself – the “proof of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor 2:4), NOT dialectical arguments .
  • Christianity’s origin = in God’s revelation, NOT in human wisdom.
  • Importance of reason & wisdom: “It is far better to accept teachings with reason and wisdom than with mere faith” (14).
  • Human reason & Jesus Christ: For Greeks, God was the conclusion of an argument. For Christians, God was the starting point, and Christ the icon that displays the face of God. Jesus Christ changed human reason. Now one reasons from Christ to other things, not from other things to Christ.

“Reason became man and was called Jesus Christ” ~ Justin Martyr

  • God in creation: When the Church Fathers spoke of the revelation of God in creation they cite the Scriptures, usually Romans, “God’s invisible nature… is clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Rom 1:20, sometimes the psalm, “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps. 19:1). They did not argue that there is a God because there is order; rather, they saw design in the universe because they knew the one God. God was not a principle of explanation. In seeking God they sought to understand the God they already knew (16).
  • Knowledge of God BEGINS with God!

“The Lord taught us that no one is able to know God unless taught by God. God cannot be known without the help of God”  ~ Iraenaeus

“No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known”. ~ Jn 1:18

  • Jesus’ influence on reasonReason became more certain of its starting point, more confident, less abstract, and more purposeful.

 Christianity is a “religion founded on the mystery of the cross of Christ” ~ St. Leo the Great

Chapter 2: An Awesome and Unbloody Sacrifice

Focus = Christian worship & sacraments. Early Christian thinkers were men of prayer who knew the person of Christ not only as a historical memory, but as a fact of experience in the liturgy, in which the events recorded in the gospels, particularly the death and Resurrection of Christ, were “made present.”

Church fathers intellectual work = always in service of praise and adoration of the one God.

“A theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a theologian” ~ Evagrius

  • FocusBible & Worship
  • Christian liturgy: (1) Was a celebration of the presence of the living Christ. (2) Explicitly trinitarian. (3) Distinct narrative. (4) Anamnesis = recall by making present:  Actual participants. Liturgy is always in the present tense. “We re-present the sacrifice” ~ Chrysostom
  •  BaptismWas a communal celebration of the entire community. Moral test prior for adults. God first became known in a human being, then extended to other tangible things like water & oil. Holy Trinity first known at Jesus’ baptism.
  • PreachingVery biblical. Also exhorted congregation to enter into the mystery of Christ (“the present grace”). What was read in the Scriptures is fulfilled in the Eucharist.
  • Community: No Christian thinking without the Church. The communion of saints was a living presence in every celebration. Faithful departed were welcomed into the liturgy as participants.

Chapter 3: The Face of God for Now

Focus = Scriptures. The Bible appeared fresh and astonishing to thinkers schooled in ancient literature and disclosed a world unlike anything they had known before. Reading and expounding the Bible left a lasting imprint on their vocabulary and altered their patterns of thought.

“For now treat the Scripture of God as the face of God. Melt in its presence” ~ St. Augustine

The Bible:

  • formed Christians into a people and gave them a language.
  • The Bible had power.
  • Our Wisdom

Clement of Alexandria: 

  • best example of how the Bible formed his intellectual outlook b/c he was a layman was was very literate and lived in the high culture of the Hellenistic world. The Bible emerges from Clement’s writings as the foundation of a Christian culture. Amazing b/c this was an alien book to Greeks.
  • A book about Christ: Comparing “image and likeness” from a Platonic view & Hellenistic moral tradition VS. biblical view (“image” = what human beings received when created by God, “likeness” = the end towards which our lives aspire… following Christ, to be made over in the image of Christ. For Clement the Bible was a book about Christ.


  • A single story:  Irenaeus showed the Bible was a single narrative whose chief actor was God –> all individual passages are to be read in light of the story that gives meaning to the whole. Single story of scripture – a going out from God, an exitus, and a return to God, a reditus.
  • Christ brings to completion what had been partial and imperfect (the fall for Irenaeus was a necessary stage in the growth to maturity)

The Inevitability of Allegory

  • The Bible, although containing plain and inelegant words, burst forth with a power so palpable, said Augustine, that they pummelled his heart.
  • “No Christian would dare say that the [words of Scripture] are not to be taken figuratively” ~ St. Augustine
  • Figurative speech in the natural clothing of religious thought.
  • Allegory helped Christians to read the Bible as a single book about Christ.
  • The Scriptures = “God’s face for now” ~ St. Augustine
  • Because the words & images of the Bible endure, they provided scaffolding on which to construct the edifice of Christian thought.
  • Seeing Oneself in What is Written
  • The Bible was a book about how to live.

Chapter 4: Seek His Face Always

Focus: the Trinity. Recapitulates first 3 chapters to illustrate how history (the Resurrection of Christ), the Trinitarian formulas of Christian worship, and the Scriptures all worked together to forge a Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

“Let us set out on the street of love together making Him of whom it is said, “Seek his face always” (Ps 105:4) ~ St. Augustine

“Christianity began as a trinitarian religion with a unitarian theology. The question at issue in the age of the fathers was whether the religion should transform the theology or the theology stifle the religion” ~ Leonard Hodgson

The Resurrection of Christ and Plurality within God

Hilary of Poitiers (315)

  • “I AM WHO I AM” –> led to his conversion.
  • Wrote The Trinity – his book is an exercise in trying to understand the nature of God who is known in Christ…  in seeking to know & understand God, we discover that God is always “prior to our thinking”.
  • “God can only be known in devotion” ~ Hilary –> allow God to change our thoughts so that they become worthy of God
  • The knowledge of the Triune God is grounded in Christ’s coming in the flesh, what the early church called economy.
  • Resurrection of Christ changes everything – Jesus is God! The Resurrection alters the conditions under which reason worked.

The Divine Wisdom

  • Origen mentions Wisdom first in his list of titles for Christ.

Titles for Christ should NOT be taken in isolation.

  • they help to explain divinity of Christ without compromising unity of God.

The economy was the engine that drove trinitarian thinking –> God’s descent into human affairs allows us to perceive a true conception of God’s nature.

The Son never acts alone

Holy Spirit

  • 4th century – full article on Holy Spirit added to Creed.
  • 5th century – did Pentecost emerge as a feast on its own.

“Theology reaches maturity by additions” ~ Gregory the Theologian

The truth arrives through time.

God’s revelation in Christ is confirmed and mediated through the presence of the Holy Spirit.

  • Christian thinking works off the language of the Bible and the res, the reality to which the Scriptures and Christian worship testify.

Finding God and Seeking God

  • St. Augustine’s work The Trinity.
  • Augustine wants to find the Trinity through burning love, a pure mind and open heart that changes him in his finding.
  • Seek His face ALWAYS. –> loving God, knowing God as one is known. All finding leads to further seeking.

CHAPTER 5: Not My Will but Thine be Done

Focus: The work of Christ. Specifically, through the work of Maximus the Confessor, in relation to one event in the gospels, the “agony” of Christ, when Jesus said, “Not my will but thine be done“.

Difference on important matters is a mark of intellectual seriousness.

Central question: If Christ was fully God, “of the same substance” with God the Father, as the councils had confessed in the 4th century, in what sense is he fully human?

  • Monothelite (One Will) Controversy: Did Christ have a human will or divine will?
  • Agony of Christ event: “Not my will but thine be done” (Luke 22:39-42)
  • Mary Mother of God: Nestorious wanted christotokos instead of theotokos for Mary.. “Since the holy Virgin gave birth to God according to the flesh… we say that she is the mother of God” ~ Cyril
  • Chalcedon 451 = tried to find unity… Jesus is “perfect in godhead… perfect in manhood… one person in 2 natures…”… created conflict though. “In 2 natures” = issue. People thought it tore Christ into 2 independent agents loosely joined.

How were the divine and the human united in the actual life of Christ?

  • Always grounded in Scripture.
  • Cyril’s thinking was shaped by the Bible.

“Now is the son of man glorified” ~ John 13:31-32

  • How is the Son of God glorified now if He, as the 2nd person of the Trinity, is already crowned with glory?
  • Glory in the destruction of death for the life of all… Christ became 1st man to conquer death and corruption. Christ triumphed over death b/c fully human, so we too can conquer death in Him.

Maximus the Confessor

  • combines intellectual fireworks with emotional force in his writing.
  • Christ’s humanity is most evident in the agony in the garden.
  • If Christ does NOT have a human will he cannot be fully human. Our will, our self-determination, is the characteristic feature of our human nature, and freedom its supreme token.
  • Christ’s FIAT as man. In the garden of Gethsemane, Christ the man willed the salvation of the world. Christ showed us a “wholly new way of being human” b/c his human will became more human since it was in harmony with the divine will.

Chapter 6: The End Given in the Beginning 

Focus: The account of creation in the first chapter of the book of Genesis. Specifically, through the writings of Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa, two key lines: “In the beginning God created” and “made in the image and likeness of God”. Their goal was to forge a view of creation and of human beings that was biblical, yet intelligible and coherent to all reasonable persons.

“Since the creation came into being at the beginning through God’s power, the end of every thing that exists is inseparably linked to the beginning” ~ Gregory of Nyssa

The power of Genesis’ opening lines.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” ~ Gen 1:1

“God saw that it was good” –> therefore whatever is is good (St. Augustine)


  • The word that captivated early Christians.
  • St. Basil: Basil’s Hexaemeron – the work of creation in 6 days.Wrote 1st treatise on Holy Spirit in Church’s history.

Continuity within Christian families over several generations helped spark the flowering of the Christian intellectual life in the late 4th century (St. Basil example with grandmother taught by Gregory the Wonderworker).

The study of cosmology begins with the things of the spirit, one reason why Moses is such a reliable guide.

Christian thinking about the origin of the world was shaped by the creation account in Genesis.

Gregory of Nyssa

– Basil’s younger brother.

Genesis cannot be taken literally – impossible for one part of nature to be created before other parts.

“God made the heavens and the earth summarily” ~ Aquila’s translation = simultaneous work.

Sequence of actions to display interdependence of natural order = Moses presents in a historical narrative what are in fact necessary natural interrelations.

LOGOS = inheres in things = world is purposeful and intelligible = so you can discover order in structure.

On the Making of Man

Gregory of Nyssa – 1st to deal systematically with the Christian doctrine of man in its fullness.

Proceeds from “an interpretation of Scripture” (like all Christian thinkers in the early Church)… becomes a commentary on “Let us make man in our image and likeness”... but also draws in arguments based on reason –> reason’s role is to aid what is revealed in Scripture.

Humans are NOT like the created world, but they are made in the “likeness of the one who formed the world” ~ Gregory of Nyssa

We know ourselves by LOOKING AT THE FACE OF GOD.

Mystery of the human mind = evidence that human beings are created in the image of God.

Freedom = most important divine quality we received.

Human nature in Christ = appeared in its original and authentic form.

Only in Christ that we know what was made in the 1st creation.

Garments of Skin

“Garments of skin” = that is, subject to death and at the mercy of “unruly passions”. Adam is, as it were, living in us…

Aspects of image remained after fall = reason & freedom, though reason darkened by sin and freedom captive to the passions

“The image is always there, even if it is worn away almost to nothing” ~ St. Augustine

We are already made according to the image of God and we hope to become God’s likeness (cf. 1 John 3:2).

Bodies are Not Ornaments

Soul and body = formed together & have a single beginning in the will of God.

“The body, after its separation from the soul [at death], is not simply called body, but the body of a man, indeed the body of a certain man” ~ St. Maximus the Confessor, pg. 158

Resurrection of the body

In the absence of a body a soul is NOT a person.

“Care for the bodies of our dead is an affirmation of our firm belief in the resurrection” ~ St. Augustine

The soul needs the body to complete the perfect measure of its being and find perfect joy.

The Christian doctrine of the Resurrection shaped Christian understanding of the human person and in turn formed the culture of the West.


Chapter 7: The Reasonableness of Faith

“Nothing would remain stable in human society if we determined to believe only what can be held with absolute certainty” ~ St. Augustine


Summary: The Christian intellectual life shows the reasonableness of faith. Faith is the way of reason. Since all historical knowledge demands faith on the veracity of those who have witnessed the event, Christian thinking is inescapably bound to the witness of others. We are confident in the martyrs, the Greek word for witness. Faith is the distinctive way we know God. Life is not necessarily “what should I believe?” but rather “whom should I believe?”

Chapter 8: Happy the People Whose God is the Lord

The Holy Scriptures of the Hebrews says, “Happy is the people whose God is the Lord” (Ps 144:15). It follows then that a people alienated from that God [of the Hebrews] will be miserable ~ St. Augustine (pg. 186)

St. Augustine, in his City of God, wrote the 1st treatise that dealt in depth with the relation of Christianity to social and political life.  Augustine states that justice and peace can only be found where the one true God is worshiped. If Rome does not worship the one true God, it is a city devoid of true justice and peace. Although we are on pilgrimage and will never fully realize these goals on earth, we are full citizens and must take full efforts to achieve peace and justice.


A society that has no place for God will disintegrate into an amoral aggregate of competing, self-aggrandizing interests that are self-destructive of the commonweal. In the end it will be enveloped in darkness ~ 208

Chapter 9: The Glorious Deeds of Christ

Before the 5th century, few books written by Christians would have been considered literary, that is, works of the imagination to be read for pleasure at one’s leisure.

Christianity was beginning to create its own distinctive culture. Christian poetry begins with the Bible.

Prudentius – 1st Christian poet who saw poetry as his vocation. Wedded religious, civic and literary themes to edify the soul, please the mind, and delight the ear. He presented martyrs as new heroes for Rome. Psychomachia (Spiritual Warfare) = 1st to create an entire poem of compositional allegory (taking a moral principle or spiritual truth and creating a fictional tale to display them in narrative form).

Ambrose – 1st Christian poet to achieve genuine success. Ambrose wrote metric hymns.  Prose hymns not popular because divorced from Latin literary traditions.

Chapter 10: Making This Thing Other

Painting and icons. Became objects of veneration.

John of Damascus defended idolatry accusations. Rooted in the incarnation. Because God had taken flesh it was possible to paint an image of God. Matter is good and has the potential to become an image of God and of the things of God. Images become essential to mature Christian piety. Places, like the Holy Land, and things, like the cross, can become receptacles of divine power – God’s presence on earth.

Only by turning to what can be seen do we learn to see the God who cannot be seen ~ 253

Theodore of Studium (d. 826) – because Christ came as a human being with a body, the icon is the most visible testimony of God’s saving plan. Anagogical sense – in looking at the image one is able to anticipate seeing God face to face. Without the icon, the Incarnation would become an illusion. Wood and paint become something other while remaining wood and pain.

Chapter 11: Likeness to God

In the 3rd century, Christians began to write about the lives of their holy men and women. Used to teach virtue. The goal is to be like God. This goal was inherited from the Greeks. But now means “imitation of Christ.”

Imitation, the virtues, interior disposition, character, likeness to God – here was the soil in which early Christian ethics took root  ~ 271


For Christians the moral life and the religious life were complementary. Although thinking about the moral life moved within a conceptual framework inherited from Greek and Latin moralists, Christian thinkers redefined the goal by making fellowship with the living God the end, revised the beginning by introducing the biblical teaching that we are made in the image of God, and complicated the middle with talk of the intractability and inevitability of sin.

Virtue can never be simply a matter of spiritual athleticism. It is possessed in Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit. Christian life is trinitarian, oriented toward God as the supreme good, formed by the life of Christ, and moved toward the good by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit ~ 278

For early Christians the moral life was the religious life, a life oriented to God in love.

Chapter 12: The Knowledge of Sensuous Intelligence

The language of the heart characterizes Christian intellectual tradition.

Love is the one human endowment that moves us to seek the face of God ~ 293

Desire draws us to God. As one comes into the presence of God desire gives way to love, and what was formerly sought by desire is now possessed in love. Desire feeds on absence, love lives off presence.

God is ever new, and it is only love that allows us to dwell within the house of God’s abundant life.

God can only be known in love.

Love gives reality to faith and makes hope present ~ Maximus the Confessor, 306

There is a need for the blessed passion of holy love that binds the mind to spiritual realities [that is, God] and persuades it to prefer the immaterial to the material and intelligible and divine things to those of sense ~Maximus the Confessor, 307

St. Augustine describes the Christian life as a “holy desire”

The Christian intellectual tradition is an exercise in thinking about the God who is known and seeking the One who is loved.

Reason has short wings. Without love, it is tethered to the earth.


“Amor ipse notitia est” (Love is itself a form of knowledge) ~ St. Gregory the Great

The aim of Christian thought is always the love of God and holiness of life.




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