What do I think of Robert Wilken’s book? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.
Recently someone suggested on Facebook a book called “The Christians as the Romans Saw Them.” Naturally, seeing a book mentioned like that, I went straight to the library web site. I also saw listed “The Myth of Christian Beginnings” which seemed like a curious title so I went and ordered that as well.
This is an odd book in how it reads. One gets catapulted early on into the 4th century to read about the history that Eusebius wrote. This was the first official history of the church and Wilken says that it is in fact not a history at all. It is because Wilken says Eusebius treats all dissent from the traditional path as heresy and therefore, there is not any real opposition the way we’d think. There is not progress so much as just a straight line as the church remains faithful to the teaching of the apostles.
Wilken says that this has been done throughout church history. When the Reformation started, the Reformers claimed that the Catholic Church had moved away from the traditions and they wanted to remain true to the teaching of the apostles. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church wanted the reformers to show that they had a teaching that was with the apostles. They were insistent that they were holding on to the tradition of the apostles. It was the Reformers who were the innovators.
As I’ve said often, in the ancient world, novelty was viewed with suspicion. In fact, in many ways, it still is. Novelty in technology can be seen as a good thing, but when it comes to that which is traditional, we can often just as much view it with suspicion. This is especially so in the church. How often do we hear “We’ve always done it that way!”?
When N.T. Wright started his teaching on justification, someone I knew sent me a video of Al Mohler speaking on the topic with some other leaders. One of them gave a line that has always stuck with me where he said “N.T. Wright may think that he’s found something new in the Scriptures, but he’s going against the tradition!”
For those of us who are Protestants, isn’t that what the Reformation was about? Wasn’t it saying we were holding on to traditions that didn’t come from the apostles?
The downside with Wilken’s book is that it doesn’t really argue the case the way that I’d think. It more just asserts with just-so stories. To be fair, this was written in 1971 so there has been more research done since then, such as early Christian creeds being shown more often. Wilken instead gives a kind of just-so story about two people going separate ways and starting churches and having radically divergent paths of what a Christian should be.
The problem is that these ideas are more just asserted. Evidence is not given. Wilken says that there was no Christian beginning. There was never a pure golden age. Now of course, I don’t think the apostles walked in lock-step on everything, but they were certainly unified on several matters and the oral tradition would have made sure that these teachings were preserved. Now of course, it could be the case that I am mistaken in that, but Wilken does not make the case that I am not or that his view is correct.
Of course, I do think some doctrines have had their understanding focused more over time. I would not say Christ taught the Trinity for instance, but rather left the seeds of the doctrine for us to work out, and we did. That is the role of a disciple after all. The disciple gets the student started on the path of learning and the student is to go and work out the rest of the way how he is to learn.
Still, Wilken’s book does provide a good service. It will get us looking at history and wanting to make sure we are being true to history. While I do think there was an apostolic teaching that was agreed to by all, that too must not be assumed and we must be willing to look at the evidence. Church history really does matter to those of us who are Christians. To know where we are today, we need to know where we came from.