Earnest Preaching

Charles Spurgeon’s thoughts on the importance of earnestness in the manner and content of preaching. From Lectures to My Students.

“Brethren, you and I must, as preachers, be always earnest in reference to our pulpit work. Here we must labour to attain the very highest degree of excellence. Often have I said to my brethren that the pulpit is the Thermopylae of Christendom: there the fight will be lost or won. To us ministers the maintenance of our power in the pulpit should be our great concern, we must occupy that spiritual watch-tower with our hearts and minds awake and in full vigour. It will not avail us to be laborious pastors if we are not earnest preachers…

Now, in order that we may be acceptable, we must be earnest when actually engaged in preaching. Cecil has well said that the spirit and manner of a preacher often effect more than his matter. To go into the pulpit with the listless air of those gentlemen who loll about, and lean upon the cushion as if they had at last reac…

The Spirit of Early Christian Thought


The questions of the extent to which early Christian thought was influenced by Hellenism and whether that influence should be met with disapproval or approbation have been debated by theologians for at least a century and a half. In 1892 A. M. Fairbairn edited and posthumously published a collection of lectures by Edwin Hatch titled The Influence of Greek Ideas and Usages Upon the Christian Church. Since that time it has generally been accepted that the thought of the early Christians was largely shaped by Hellenism.
Because of this historical trend in scholarship, it is common for writers about church history to assert that shortly after the time of the apostles, or even during the time of the apostles, the essentially Hebraic, biblical framework of the gospel message was replaced or greatly influenced by Hellenistic thought and philosophy. In the Spirit of Early Christian Thought, Robert Louis Wilken argues that this is not the correct way to view the early church. He asserts that, “The notion that…early Christian thought represented a hellenization of Christianity has outlived it’s usefulness,” and that, “a more apt expression would be the Christianization of Hellenism.”[1] Wilken proposes that, instead of being dependent on Greco-Roman thought, early Christian thinkers showed independence from the philosophical ideas of their surrounding culture.
Wilken goes beyond a mere narrative of events or catalogue of ideas in order to show what motivated the leaders of the early church as they developed the intellectual and liturgical expressions of the Christian faith. He argues that three particular marks of early Christian thought show this independence of mind. Early Christians argued from Old Testament history and the life of Christ, from the experience of the ritual of Christian worship, and from the Scripture themselves. Of these, he says that he was most impressed in his research by “the omnipresence of the Bible in early Christian writings.”[2] Early Christian thinkers certainly interacted with their culture, but because they were beginning from these three points, they were able to “acknowledge the good and right qualities of Hellenic thinking,” while at the same time “transform[ing] them so profoundly that in the end something quite new came into being.”[3] If Wilken is correct in his assessment, then the history of early Christian thought should be read not as a cautionary tale of biblical thinking being subverted by pagan worldviews, but as a picture of how a pagan culture is transformed by Christianity and as a model for Christians today in a culture that is increasingly hostile to the faith.
Wilken arranges his book around these three starting points, history, worship, and scripture, and shows how these affected the thought of early Christians in five areas. He begins with foundational beliefs, covering the knowledge of God, worship and the sacraments, and scripture. He then focuses on specifically Christian teachings regarding the Trinity, the work of Christ, and creation. Next, he discusses the lives of believers both in their private faith and in their relationship to society. He then writes about the development of unique Christian culture in the realm of poetry and art. Finally, he addresses the moral and spiritual aspects of Christian life, showing how a Christian view of morality acknowledged the best ideas of Greek ethicists while framing morality in the context of Biblical teachings on holiness.[4] Through all of these discussions, Wilken says that he intends to “show the indispensability of love to Christian thinking.”[5]
This review will examine the manner in which Wilken makes his case regarding each of these five areas of Christian life and belief. Next, the benefits of the transformation of Hellenistic culture by Christianity will be examined. Finally some potential pitfalls of this process of transformation will be highlighted.
Wilken’s Case
Foundations
Wilken says that a good place to begin the story of early Christian thought is with the questions posed by outsiders.[6] Far from believing that Christians were accepting and adapting to Greco-Roman thought, “Christians, it was thought, jettisoned the wisdom of the past.”[7] Breaking with the Platonic idea that the soul is eternal in itself, Christians believed that the soul was a creation of God, and the continued life of the soul is a gift of God.[8] God is known not through arguments or through internal illumination but through His self revelation in history and by trusting those who have recorded and testify to that revelation.[9]
This way of knowing God stands in stark contrast to the typical philosophical approach to knowing God. In the philosophical world “all knowledge of God came through the activity of the mind purged of impressions received by the senses.”[10] Origen highlights this difference in his work Against Celsus where he argues that the knowledge of God must being with God’s descent to human beings in history. In this way, the gospel is a self validating proof.[11] Wilken argues that in all of this, Christians did not fully abandon the philosophical tradition, but gave it a different starting point, God’s revelation. “Now one reasoned from Christ to other things, not from other things to Christ.”[12] Far from demolishing reason, this starting point “gave men and women new confidence in reason.”[13]
Wilken follows this up with a discussion of worship. Though it made use of philosophy, the starting point for Christian thought  was the Word of God and the worship of God. “Christian thinkers always began with specific biblical texts,” and, “what they believed is anchored in regular, indeed habitual, participation in the church’s worship.”[14] Wilken shows that the doctrine of the Trinity, far from being a Greek philosophical way of talking about God, is rooted in the prayers of the early church to the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.[15] Wilken also discusses the way that the celebration of Baptism and the Eucharist shaped Christian views about sacraments and the liturgical year. Preaching as part of worship, likewise, was rooted in the Bible. Combining the two emphases, Sacrament and Word, Wilken states, “…in the early church the words of the Bible were the linguistic skeleton for the exposition of ideas,” and, “The liturgy provided a kind of grammar of Christian speech, a key to how the words of the Bible are to be used.”[16]
In regard to the text of the Bible as  a foundation for early Christian thought, Wilken focuses on Clement of Alexandria. Clement is often used as an example by scholars of an early Christian thinker who was completely influenced by Greek thought. Wilken acknowledges that Clement presented the Bible in ways that sounded more like the prose his readers were accustomed to, and frequently made use of the Greek philosophers and rhetors. However, “[a] rough calculation indicates that on average there are seven or eight biblical citations on every page of his writings. There are more than fifteen hundred references to the Old Testament and close to three thousand to the New Testament.”[17] In other words, thought Clement adapted his writings to his Greco-Roman audience, he remained rooted in the Bible as the primary source of his thought. Wilken goes on to show how Clement shifted ideas of likeness and telos from Greek philosophy to a more biblical foundation by relating them to creation in Genesis. Deliverance from sin, not developing good habits is the first step toward achieving the chief end of human life.[18]
Teachings
In the next section of the book, Wilken focuses on three particular areas of Christian teaching and how they developed: the Trinity, the Work of Christ, and Creation. He begins his discussion of the Trinity with the Resurrection of Jesus. The thinker Wilken chooses to follow in this chapter is Hilary of Poitiers who wrote the first great western work on the Trinity. For Hilary, the doctrine of the Trinity begins to arise from the fact that early Christians “were observant Jews who every morning recited the Sh’ma,” the declaration that God is one.[19] However, after Christ’s Resurrection, Thomas, a faithful Jew, addressed Jesus as “My Lord and my God,” the same terms that appear in the Sh’ma.[20] Hilary argues that because of the Resurrection we know Jesus to be God, but we also know God to be one. This creates the necessity for the doctrine of the Trinity. Wilken further shows how the person of Divine Wisdom seen in Old Testament writings came to be equated with Christ[21] and how the tripartite prayer of early Christians led to the recognition of the Holy Spirit as God as well.[22] Thus, the doctrine of the Trinity did not arise out of a scholastic tendency influenced by Greek thought, but from the history of the church, the words of scripture, and the worship of Christians.
Subsequent to the development of the doctrine of the Trinity, early Christians had to come to grips with how Jesus could be both God and man. This led to the major Christological controversies, and heresies such as Docetism and Ebionism. Rather than focus on these controversies, however, Wilken chooses to follow Cyril of Alexandria as he wrestles with the identity of Christ, and he shows how Cyril was motivated, not by Greek thought, but by an attempt to understand Christ’s drawing back in the Garden of Gethsemane. Specifically it was the equation of Christ’s glory with His suffering that perplexed Cyril.[23] If Christ’s glory lay in suffering then His death on the cross, more than simply the abstract fact of God taking on human flesh, was at the heart of His purpose and our redemption. Likewise, if Christ did not take on all that it meant to be human, then humans are not redeemed by His substitutionary death. Maximus the Confessor recognized this as why it is essential to argue that Jesus had a human as well as divine will. “’If it is only as God that he wills these things,’ then his flesh is ‘lifeless and irrational.’”[24] Again, these issues are raised by the text of Scripture itself rather than by outside philosophical concerns.
Finally, Wilken shows how, by beginning with Creation in Genesis, early Christians rejected large portions of Greek thought on the world and mankind. Augustine was emphatic about the fact that the Bible portrays creation as good.[25] This stands in stark contrast to Platonism and to neo-Platonic philosophies and religions such as Manichaeism which we explicitly or implicitly dualistic. Basil of Caesarea likewise found insight in Genesis, especially in the fact that special creation  shows “’artistic reason,’ not a matter of ‘arbitrary power’ or chance.”[26] This idea that creation is purposeful flies in the face of Epicureanism which rejects the idea of telos and Stoicism which believes in an impersonal fate. Finally, Wilken shows how Basil’s brother, Gregory of Nyssa, takes up the interpretation of Genesis and develops it further. Gregory challenged the common Greek perception that man is a microcosm, a small scale model of the universe itself, so necessary to Plato’s ideal of the Republic. Rather, in viewing man as being made in the image of God, Gregory concluded that man’s mind resembles God’s superior nature and that man has a freedom and liberty that makes him above the rest of creation.[27] Again, these are examples Wilken portrays of Christian thought, rooted in Scripture, transforming Greek culture and ideas.
Believers
In the following section of the book, Wilken expounds on an idea he raised earlier. Christianity, far from subverting reason, rescued reason and gave it new life. By insisting that knowledge of God begin with faith in the facts of revelation, Christians established that different kinds of knowledge require different sorts of demonstration.[28] Historical claims are not subject to scientific demonstration; nor are they subject to mathematical proof. They constitute a different sort of claim that can be argued for with evidence, but which, in the end, requires faith or trust to be believed. Augustine originally rejected the word “knowledge” for this kind of belief, preferring to distinguish the two kinds of knowledge. However, later in his life, he recognized that in common usage the word “know” has a range of meaning that includes historical belief.[29] In doing this, Augustine shifted the question from “What should I believe?” to “Whom should I believe?”[30] This gets at the root of the Christian idea of “faith” from the word “peitho” meaning “I am persuaded.” Faith, then, forms a foundation from which to reason by appealing to the trustworthy testimony of those who have gone before and witnessed the original historical events of the Christian faith.
Next, Wilken turns his attention to the relationship of Christianity to culture. The major theologian here is, of course, Augustine, and the work Wilken focuses on is City of God. Unlike Plato’s Republic, which presents the philosopher’s ideal city, one in which all parts are in perfect balance, just like the perfectly balanced soul of a just man, Augustine does not present an ideal city. Augustine’s city “is not an ideal but an actual city, a living community to which one belongs.”[31] Augustine posits the City of Man, the political reality in which Christians find themselves, but also the City of God a city that exists among the people of God whose aim is “perfectly ordered and harmonious fellowship in the enjoyment of God.”[32] Again, Wilken emphasizes the way Augustine digresses from the culture around him and looks to Scripture and Christian life as the models for his thought, while still showing a vast knowledge and familiarity with the culture and thought of the pagan world.
Christian Culture and Life
In the final sections of the book, Wilken focuses on culture and daily life. He shows how early Christian poetry developed, from the simple and elegant hymns of the New Testament to the non-liturgical poetry of Prudentius. Prudentius wed “metrical virtuosity and…verbal allusions to Virgil and Ovid and Horace”[33] to Christian virtues and “the glorious deeds of  Christ.”[34] This stands as another example of a Christian who was not simply transformed by Greco-Roman thought, but who took Greco-Roman forms and transformed them for the glorification of Christ. An account follows of the rise of Christian art, especially in the form of icons. Wilken shows that the defenders of icons against the iconoclasts argued, not from completely pagan arguments, although there are some such examples, but largely from the incarnation of Christ. A rejection of icons was seen by many as a rejection of the idea that God became a visible man in the incarnation.[35]
Wilken concludes his book with a look at the way Christian thought transformed pagan views of moral and spiritual life. He most specifically shows how the Greek idea of telos in morality, the happiness acquired by the practice of virtue is transformed by the idea of Christian repentance and the ultimate telos of fellowship with God.[36] Because of this, habitual practice in the four cardinal virtues is not enough for Christian morality. Spiritual virtues such as the fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5 and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love were added.[37] Virtue was seen not “simply a matter of spiritual athleticism…Christian life is Trinitarian, oriented toward God the supreme good, formed by the life of Christ, and moved toward the good by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.”[38] Likewise early Christian thought removed from the life of virtue the idea of emotional detachment, and made love and wrath part of virtue.[39]
Evaluation
Overall in this book, Wilken does an excellent job of proving his point that early Christians were part of their Greco-Roman culture but that they did not use that culture as a starting point for thought. Rather the history of the faith, the regular rituals of Christian worship, and the words of Scripture formed the foundation of their thought. This allowed Christians to embrace whatever was acceptable and true in their culture while rejecting the errors of pagan thought.
Wilken does not specifically address the potential pitfalls of this approach to cultural engagement. In his book, the potential dangers are most clearly seen in the chapters on the person of Christ and icons. With regard to the person of Christ, the treatment of the incarnation as a philosophical abstraction was in danger of obscuring the real historical Jesus of Nazareth until the discussion was re-centered firmly on the gospel accounts. In the case of icons, many of the iconodules created straw man arguments of their opponents and used justifications of the use of icons that had been used by philosophers as well to defend using statues of the gods whom they claimed to be transcendent. In this case, though Wilken has sympathy with the iconodules, it appears that the iconoclasts were the party more rooted in biblical thought, and they lost out in the historical arena.
As a whole, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought proffers a persuasive reading of early Christian thought as transformative rather than transformed, and in the process holds up a model of cultural engagement for Christians today while demonstrating the potential dangers inherent in such an approach.



[1] Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), xvi.
[2] Ibid xvii.
[3] Ibid
[4] Ibid xix.
[5] Ibid xviii
[6] Ibid 3.
[7] Ibid 2.
[8] Ibid 6.
[9] Ibid 7.
[10] Ibid 8.
[11] Ibid 12-13.
[12] Ibid 15.
[13] Ibid 23.
[14] Ibid 26-27.
[15] Ibid. 31.
[16] Ibid 43.
[17] Ibid 56.
[18] Ibid 59.
[19] Ibid 90.
[20] Ibid 91.
[21] Ibid 98-99.
[22] Ibid 101.
[23] Ibid 119.
[24] Ibid 129.
[25] Ibid 137.
[26] Ibid 142.
[27] Ibid 153.
[28] Ibid 169.
[29] Ibid 169.
[30] Ibid 173.
[31] Ibid 190.
[32] Ibid 195.
[33] Ibid 222.
[34] Ibid 223.
[35] Ibid 244.
[36] Ibid 274-275.
[37] Ibid 282.
[38] Ibid 278.
[39] Ibid 297.

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