The One Thing That Has Always Been Central to Truly Christian Thinking

Written by Mark Farnham

On June 17, 2010

From The Spirit of Early Christian Thought by University of Virginia history professor Robert Louis Wilken (Yale, 2003), xvi-xvii (with commentary):

The notion that the development of early Christian thought represented a hellenization [“Greekification”] of Christianity has outlived its usefulness. The time has come to bid a fond farewell to the ideas of Adolf von Harnack [don’t let your eyes glaze over just because you see the name Adolf], the nineteenth-century historian of dogma [theology] whose thinking has influenced the interpretation of early Christian thought for more than a century [error has staying power!]…A more apt expression would be the Christianization of Hellenism [Greek culture and thought], 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.

Neither does it acknowledge the good and right qualities of Hellenic thinking that Christians recognized as valuable, for example, moral life understood as virtues [and might I add, certain philosophical concepts]. At the same time one observes again and again that Christian thinking, while working within patterns of thought and conceptions rooted in Greco-Roman culture, transformed them so profoundly that in the end something quite new came into being [this is an interesting thought for missionaries struggling with cultural issues].

There are many ways to account for this transformation—for example the person of Christ and the events associated with him, the sacramental character of Christian worship [I don’t agree with his description of worship as “sacramental”], the communal life of the church [love this part of church]—and each has its place in the story I tell [stay with me, now, it’s about to get good].

But what has impressed me most is the omnipresence of the Bible in early Christian writings. Early Christian thought is biblical, and one of the lasting accomplishments of the patristic period [the first five hundred years of the church] was to forge a way of thinking, scriptural in language and inspiration, that gave to the church and to Western civilization a unified and coherent interpretation of the Bible as a whole.

[And now comes an important word about the importance of church history] Needless to say, this means that any effort to mount an interpretation of the Bible that ignores its first readers [I don’t think he means we have to accept every interpretation of the early church, but we should at least consider it] is doomed to end up with a bouquet of fragments that are neither the book of the church nor the imaginative well-spring of Western literature, art and music. Uprooted form the soil that feeds them, they are like cut flowers whose vivid colors have faded. [emphasis mine]

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