Posted: October 28, 2013
obert Louis Wilken is hardly the first historian to attempt a narrative of early Christianity. His predecessors, however, generally concluded that the period of early Christianity lasted for about 500 years, whereas Wilken, the University of Virginia's William R. Kenan Professor of the History of Christianity Emeritus, chronicles the first 1,000. By doubling the number of years assigned to the epoch of early Christianity, he does not simply make his story longer, because the first five centuries of the Church suggest an ecclesiastical plotline of one sort, but the second five are quite different. His book winds up telling a very different story than that told by previous ecclesiastical historians, and it prods us to rethink entirely the relationship of the Church to temporal affairs. This longer story poses problems Wilken doesn't solve, or perhaps fully realize.
Standard histories of the early Church almost always chronicle an advancing and irresistible tide of faith. Such a theme was established with the very first such history, the New Testament's Acts of the Apostles, according to which the new faith, beginning in Jerusalem, spread rapidly—not only despite resistance but even because of it. The principal human character in the story is Paul. After receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit he preaches Christ crucified, first to Jews and then to Gentiles. Although he and his fellow missionaries are opposed by entrenched religious opinions and authorities, they carry the faith into increasingly remote areas, especially regions of the Roman Empire north and northwest of Jerusalem—Syria, Asia Minor, and even Rome.
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Eusebius, who wrote the Ecclesiastical History and other important works in the early decades of the 4th century, is generally credited with being the first author to extend the biblical account in a significant way. He chronicled the many persecutions of the Church both prior to and within his lifetime, emphasizing that although Christians indeed suffered at the hands of the Empire, especially during the "Great Persecution" of the early 4th century, the witness of the martyrs had in the end persuaded all opposition and had even ushered in the remarkable era of Constantine. The obstacles had been formidable, to be sure, but were ultimately no match for the ever-advancing faith. Eusebius's confidence, verging on triumphalism, occasionally makes modern Christians uneasy, but the story he told was largely accurate. The Christian faith really did spread astoundingly during its first centuries.
Over the subsequent 1,700 years, histories of early Christianity written from within the Christian world have generally followed the Book of Acts and Eusebius. A case in point is Henry Chadwick's The Early Church, originally published in 1967. Written by an esteemed Oxford and Cambridge scholar, it soon became a standard history of the topic, well respected and widely read. His volume covers, roughly, the Church's first 500 years, whereas Eusebius died in 339. Chadwick expressly distances himself from Eusebius, taking a more cautious approach, but in the end The Early Church also tells a tale of progress that culminates with Christianity largely victorious over all enemies.
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Given Christian historians' almost unanimously favorable judgment on those early years, it is not surprising that one of the few things Christians of all varieties agree on is the wisdom of emulating them. Early Christians were the best Christians, it seems, the model and prototype as the Church pursues its temporal pilgrimage. Protestantism, for example, was originally a conservative or retrograde movement, seeking to restore the patterns and structures of the early Church against the innovations of the Middle Ages. Even the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) understood itself to be especially concerned with ressourcement, a return to the writings and practices of early Christianity. Christians living in Western, secularized regimes may debate whether Emperor Constantine's patronage of the Church was beneficial, but even those criticizing the "Constantinian settlement" do not extend their criticisms to early Christianity tout court.
The only possible discordant note within this harmonious self-assessment of the Church is that in the 5th-century Germanic peoples overran the western, Latin-speaking regions of the Empire. With a bit of massaging, however, even this disaster can be fitted to the theme of irresistible progress. No one disputes that Christians suffered during the invasions, but the Church appears to have regrouped almost immediately and launched major and successful attempts at converting the Germanic invaders. In fact, even as chaos was destroying imperial political structures, the faith was spreading beyond the Empire to the Irish, who would soon help bring it back to any European lands that had returned temporarily to heathenism.
The first half of Wilken's book, covering the period up to about 500 A.D., offers little to challenge this standard view of early Christianity. The author writes as a neutral observer, not an advocate like Eusebius. Nevertheless, the story he chronicles is primarily one of growth and expansion. He often calls attention to events and episodes that do not receive treatment in most single-volume histories, such as the stories of Basil and the foundation of the first hospitals by Christians in Asia Minor; the Roman catacombs and their art; and early Christian architecture. All this is fascinating and worthy reading, and Wilken explains it well. But the general drift of the argument is not especially novel.
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The second half of The First Thousand Years begins in the same "spreading-like-wildfire" genre: while Christians of the empire's western regions are busy with German invaders, the eastern empire's Greek-speaking Christians are continuing to advance the faith into new lands, many beyond imperial boundaries. From Alexandria, the Church moved south up the Nile valley through Nubia and Ethiopia, and indeed all the way to India. From Antioch, Damascus, and other Syrian cities Christianity spread to Iraq, Armenia, Persia, and even into Central Asia and China, while a strong Syriac-speaking Christian church emerged within the Persian empire. Wilken writes of three quasi-independent but flourishing churches at this point in history: the Latin imperial Church directed from Rome; the Greek imperial Church led by Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch; and the "Church of the East," centered in Persia. While the first two of these have long been studied, only in recent decades has scholarly attention focused on the Syriac-speaking Christians of the East. Much of this story is unknown to the English-speaking world, and even if what Wilken says is known to specialists, his ability to present these complicated developments in a straightforward manner makes this aspect of his book particularly important.
Wilken's narrative suddenly reverses itself with the unanticipated and truly astonishing eruption of Islam. Roaring out of the deserts of Arabia, the Muslims quickly overran the great Christian churches of Antioch, Damascus, and Jerusalem. Alexandria and Carthage were not far behind. By 750—only 118 years after the death of Muhammad—more than half of all Christians in the entire world were living under Islamic rule. Wilken emphasizes that a few Christians managed to move up within the new Muslim society. Most of the conquered, however, either began to convert to Islam or struggled on and lived, like pre-Constantinian Christians, with little access to political power. The great church of northern Africa, which had offered the world saints like Cyprian and Augustine, died out completely. Christianity surrendered its tenuous presence in China, and the Church of the East soon found it necessary to translate its literary works into Arabic.
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Wilken's treatment of Islam within his history of early Christianity is awkward, presumably because the rise of Islam is hard for the Christian faith to understand and explain. "I have made the rise and spread of Islam integral to the history," he writes in the introduction to his volume. "No event in the first millennium of Christian history was more catastrophic than the Muslim conquest of Christian lands, and none more consequential." Yet, Wilken does not actually turn his book to what his introduction says is so "consequential" and "integral" until its last 70 pages; even then, the spread of Islam within Christian regions must share space with other topics. While reading The First Thousand Years, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the author simply does not know how he should treat Islam in a book on the early Church, yet treat it he must because he has extended the period of early Christianity to a full millennium. Ever the professor, he adheres diligently to his established neutrality and avoids saying anything that could be construed as criticism of the new overlords. He relates, for example, that Christians, although they were forced to pay a special tax to their Arabic conquerors, were legally protected and permitted to practice their faith. He refers to the eloquence of the Koran, says that "the power of its words is palpable," and calls the Dome of the Rock "dazzling."
Only after his history is finished, in the "Afterword," does Wilken finally murmur slightly against the Islamic overrunning of Christian churches. There, in the book's last pages, in looking ahead to the eventual conquest of Asia Minor by the Muslims in the Middle Ages and the concomitant destruction of the Christian churches founded by Paul himself, he says that modern moralizing about the Crusades is overdone, for the Crusades "ended in failure" since the territories the Crusaders conquered were soon reclaimed for Islam anyway, whereas the Turkish conquest of Asia Minor was permanent: "The Turkish conquest of Asia Minor was of far greater significance than the Crusades."
However awkward it is for him to talk about the Islamization of Christian lands, Wilken does finally draw our attention to the elephant in the room, but again, only in the final pages of the "Afterword": "Set against the success of Islam and its staying power, the career of Christianity is marked as much by decline and attrition as it is by growth and triumph." In other words, in the end Wilken tacitly admits that the old Eusebian model for writing Church history is undone if one extends the period of early Christianity to the year 1000 or even, it would seem, 750. Offering such a conclusion—albeit after much hesitation—makes Wilken's book enormously valuable for contemporary Christians, for friends don't let friends remain ignorant and self-deceived about their own inadequacies.
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He would have done even better, however, by sharing with his readers the proper Christian response to such inadequacies, if inadequacies they are. The basic problem was solved in Augustine's The City of God, which explained to the careful reader that Eusebian optimism regarding the temporal vigor of the Church militant was thoroughly misplaced. Providence, Augustine argued, works in mysterious ways, and there is no reason to think the Church, although momentarily triumphant at the beginning of the 5th century, might not suffer great persecutions and tremendous setbacks in the future. It was the pagans' mistake, he boldly concluded, to think that correct worship of the divine results in worldly success. Augustine suggested that a great many Christians, despite the lessons of the Cross, exhibit the attitude of pagans rather than pilgrims regarding earthly rewards.
The curious subtitle of The First Thousand Years is A Global History of Christianity. Wilken clearly knows that the Church was not truly global by the end of its first millennium, but thinks it significant that the faith he writes about possessed global aspirations from the beginning. Although the Church is charged with the mission of preaching the Gospel to the ends of the earth, honest attention to the historical record reveals that the believer cannot even know with confidence whether in the lands already evangelized the Christian faith will endure. Thoughtful contemporary readers of Robert Louis Wilken's book will contemplate this lesson with care and sobriety.