Robert Louis Wilken, professor of the history of Christianity emeritus at the University of Virginia, is a great historian who has written some excellent works focusing specifically on the early church. He now turns his attention to a larger, more comprehensive task, that of an overview of church history: The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity (New Haven: Yale, 2012). These sorts of works have to be selective, which is generally a strength and a weakness. In spite of this, good works like this, though hard to come by, are necessary. This is one of those “good works” that is actually a great work!
Peter J. Leithart, who serves on the pastoral staff of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and senior fellow of theology and literature at New Saint Andrews College, recently reviewed Wilken’s book.
Leithart begins this way:
Historical surveys are typically marred by predictable blemishes. Some so generalize that the personalities and specific contours of historical life get smoothed over. Others are too particular, veering dangerously toward the genre of “list.”
Robert Wilken’s new book is remarkably free of these stains. Only at one or two points does he slip into listing, and he never overgeneralizes. By the end of the book we have not only read about Origen and Constantine, Nicea and Ambrose and Augustine, the spread of Islam and Justinian, Pope Nicholas and Boris the Khan of the Bulgars and Charlemagne. We have met them, taken tours of their buildings, frequently heard them in their own voices.
A few of the “distinctive contributions” Wilken makes, as emphasized by Leithart, are the following:
- Christianity is not just about doctrine, though it is certainly not less, but that it is doctrine that is transformative, Christianity consists of a “culture-forming religion.”
- The Roman Empire had been greatly influenced by Christianity even before Constantines’s conversion, and this was unique and unusual from what had occurred prior in history. Thereafter, kings were often the first to undergo a religious conversion which led to the expansion of the Church in Europe. In much writing of history today, there is an anti-Constantine sentiment. Wilken has a different take on this, which is refreshing in what has become for too many a given.
- The role of Christian art and the influential public role it played is profound, particularly as it influenced the culture in distinctively Christian ways.
- The expanse and influence of Christianity is global. Wilkin has moved beyond the provincial to make this work global, and he has done so adeptly.
- Interacting with Islam makes this a contemporary work. But it also makes it a historical work, as Christianity and Islam is a major story in the second half of the first century of the Christian church, implications with which we still live today.
Here is Leithart’s conclusion:
The First Thousand Years is a substantial historical study, but Wilken assumes little prior knowledge. He includes the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and other documents familiar to most Christians. This makes this nearly blemishless book an ideal gift for a non-Christian, especially one whose view of the church is infected by the notion that “religion poisons everything.”
I would add that this is also a very good book for a Christian to read, either one who needs a refresher on the first thousand years of the Church, or one who needs to learn the history of Christianity for the first time.