Meditational Reading from the History of the Church

Meditational Reading from the History of the Church

I just finished reading a chapter on faith and reason in the early church.  You would think I have had enough of that since it is now more than 35 years ago that I finished my doctoral dissertation (and a very seldom read book) on that subject. But I learned something and want to pass it on.

It seems that we who work in academia on history write things that people are not interested in. And at the same time in our society and churches seem increasingly distant, if not disdainful of our history. I want to recommend a couple of books not for academic purposes, but for reacquaintance and maybe for contemplation and renewal.

The first is the book from which the chapter I mentioned above comes. It is The Spirit of Early Christian Thought by Robert Louis Wilken (Yale, 2003). Wilken is one of the more prominent scholars of early Christianity, a professor emeritus of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia (who would have thought that there would be such a chair of history at Jefferson’s school?).  It is not an academic book, but a series of meditations on the ways of thinking and understanding in the first eight centuries of Christian belief. In the chapter I mentioned, and in others as well he notes that Christianity attracted some of the most brilliant minds of the ancient world. So much so, that pagan thinkers found it necessary to challenge them, and debates ensued, with all of the rational argumentation that philosophers employed.

But the book is not so much about rational debate as about the ways and depth of understanding that those thinkers developed. Chapters are entitled “An Awesome and Unbloody Sacrifice,” “Seek His Face Always,” “Not My Will But Thine,” “The Reasonableness of Faith,” and “Likeness to God.”  What was it he asks that is the “spirit” behind the thinking of the leaders of the church? Each chapter is reasonably short, patient in its explanation (we do not need to be experts to read it), focused on one or two representative thinkers, rich in content, and meditational in form. 

I have been reading it a chapter at a time, slowly, and with attention to the many quotes, asking myself “what does this have for my faith and understanding?”

The second is a “theological commentary” on the book of Acts, by Jaroslav Pelikan, entitled simply Acts (Brazos Press, 2005). Pelikan is the premier historian of Christian doctrine of the 20th century. His five volume history of Christian belief and teaching is the standard now, and maybe greatest and best written to date. (I think so, others might not.)  He, like Wilken is a historian of the church, and of theology, not a Biblical scholar.  He works through “The Acts of the Apostles” and comments on how the biblical record of the history of the earliest church was received, what the early church (and sometimes much later) saw in Acts or developed out of it. 

For instance, in the very beginning, he notes that Christ appeared to the Apostles after the resurrection teaching them for 40 days, just has during his life Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days. During these 40 days, he explained what they had failed to understand during his life about him, about the “kingdom of God,” and about what was to come. He peppers his explanation with quotes and illustrations from the history of the church, ancient and modern, commenting on how a tradition of understanding began, and has developed and deepened.

He uses the various passages to comment on the ways the church has developed, and believers understood. Acts 15 recounts the first council of the church. Act 17 a debate with the philosophers in Athens. Acts 18 tells a story of the need to instruct a brother, and how he received instruction. In a number of places Paul appeals to the rights he had by virtue of Roman citizenship. These sections offer chances to discuss how the church has governed itself, its intellectual tradition, its way of handling differences of opinion, how the Christian is and is not a citizen, and on Church and State. These examples reveal not only how we in our churches have been shaped by this history, but how its shaping influence has been powerful in our broader culture as well. Choose your favorite episode in Acts and you will find surprising and thoughtful reflections on its relevance for us and elements of it that we have missed.

As with Wilkens volume, I have been reading slowly, in small bits to force myself to wonder and reflect. Those very early years come alive as we read and meditate on how Acts teaches us to understand and live in the world together.

Were I teaching church history these days, I might assign these two books. Students would be delightfully surprised, I think, by the relevance of our academic work. And both of these are there for those who are not academics or formal students but want to understand the nature of our belief, understanding, and way of life in the Body of Christ, and in this world.

Educated State
Steve Varvis

Steve Varvis

Tagged: Church History History