The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity
A Denver Journal Review by Denver Seminary Professor Scot Wenig.
Wilken, Robert Louis. The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012. 379 pp. Hardback, $35.00. ISBN 978-0-300—11884-4
Occasionally we are blessed to come across a book that is not merely readable but compelling in both its content and presentation. When that happens, we experience something that the saints have always described as “joy.” That’s the feeling I consistently had while making my way through Robert Louis Wilken’s masterful volume, The First Thousand Years. Here we encounter a brilliant scholar at the pinnacle of his career, providing us with a magnum opus on the history of the church over its first millennia. This is a rich book, filled with delicious insights and profound observations on the nature and development of Christian faith through those first ten centuries. Perhaps of greatest importance, it shows time and again that the sub-title is spot on: Christianity has been, and always will be, a global religion.
Wilken begins his survey in Jerusalem and focuses on the westward expansion of the new faith, primarily to Ephesus and Rome and also to the east, specifically the city of Edessa. While never neglecting the more familiar story of Christianity’s spread in the Roman Empire, he gives due attention to its advance thru Syria, Central Asia and then beyond to India and China. Moreover, he shows how the church moved past a strict east and west axis from Jerusalem to encompass a more southern direction to Egypt, all of North Africa, Ethiopia, Nubia and, eventually, to portions of Arabia. From the fourth century on, Christianity spread northeast of Jerusalem to Armenia and then further on to Georgia (north of Armenia) so that by the fifth century there were two distinct national churches in those respective realms. By the mid-6th century Christianity was a truly universal religion with innumerable followers of Jesus in much of Asia, major portions of Europe and significant sections of eastern and northern Africa.
Of course, as the Faith matured and spread there were critical differences and divisions that arose over doctrines such the nature of Christ, assorted elements of worship and the dates of key celebrations such as Easter. Controversies like these often disturb contemporary believers who, to paraphrase a figure of contemporary pop culture, just want “us all to get along.” But Wilken does a fine job of clarifying what created these various and sundry divisions and how they were eventually resolved – either by the creation of orthodoxy – or the development of different faith practices. His discussion implicitly shows that God’s kingdom is a large and multi-layered matrix that allows for a range of Christian traditions. Given the vast complexity of different people groups, local practices and geographical contexts that Christianity engaged over the centuries, this historical reality should be cause for joy because it shows the enormous cultural flexibility of Christ’s church.
In addition to his superlative description of Christianity’s expansion, Wilken devotes a number of chapters to showing that, by its very nature, the Faith is a marvelous “culture creating” phenomenon. Over time and in an assortment of geographical locales, Christians developed new architecture, produced art, composed music, gave birth to hospitals and invented canon law by which society was to be led and organized. This process began in early third century Rome with the construction of a Christian cemetery and proceeded to take on more significant public manifestations in the ensuing eras. It’s not going overboard to say that the modern world in general, and western civilization in particular, owe an enormous debt to the devoted labor of thousands of first millennium Christians who laid the medical, political, and cultural foundations of a society that we simply take for granted.
Another strength of this book and one of its most enjoyable aspects are the various chapters devoted to specific individuals, some well known, others less so. Origen always makes for fascinating reading and Wilken’s discussion of him as perhaps the first Christian genius is no exception. While Origen went too far in his eschatological speculations that ended in a sophisticated form of universalism, his rigorous scholarship in biblical studies and apologetics gave the church a remarkable intellectual legacy. We are also introduced to the third century bishop and martyr, Cyprian of Carthage, a magnificent example of ecclesiastical leadership and spiritual fortitude in the face of Roman persecution. In Wilken’s view, Cyprian illustrates the changing role of the church in Roman society and how Christian leaders began to recognize and adapt to that. My personal favorite was the chapter on Augustine, twelve mesmerizing pages that are worth the price of the whole book. Wilken astutely notes that “Augustine surpasses measurement” (p. 183) and argues, rightly in my view, that “during his lifetime he was the most intelligent man in the Mediterranean world” (p. 183). In a wonderful knock on the contemporary philosophers, artists and politicians who write self-serving autobiographies, Wilken observes that Augustine knew he was a great man and therefore did not need to act in so foolish a manner. Despite his brilliance (or perhaps because of it?), he was a man of real flesh and blood who had a “deep empathy for the suffering of his fellow human beings” (p. 184).
One of the more important things this book does is to counter the still popular but mistaken view of the anti-Constantinians who argue that Christianity rapidly went downhill after the Emperor legalized it in the early fourth century. This, as Wilken conclusively demonstrates, is utter nonsense. Following the decline of Roman rule in the West in the early fifth century, it’s impossible to understand the ongoing expansion of Christianity without recognizing the crucial role that kings (and queens) played in the process. Wilken illustrates this through the stories of the conversion of Clovis, king of the Franks, the creation of a Christian empire by Justinian, and Charlemagne’s eager work for the church in the early medieval era. Collectively, these men showed that it was possible to be both a powerful politician and an effective agent of Gospel expansion.
Two other elements of Wilken’s superb work also require our attention. The first of these is the impact of Monasticism. Not surprisingly he devotes a whole chapter to the topic and covers all the familiar territory of its origins, development, and expansion from the desert fathers in Egypt to more communal settings throughout the east. This is supplemented later on with a brief overview of the Benedictines and their role in early medieval Europe. But in The First Thousand Years monks are like cell phones in a modern airport; they seem to be everywhere. For example, in his discussion of the Coptic church in Egypt, Wilken introduces us to Shenoute, a tremendous leader and fierce evangelist, who served as the abbot of an enormous city-like monastery in upper Egypt filled with 2200 men and 1800 women. There is also Mashtots, an extraordinarily gifted, multi-lingual monk who translated the Scriptures into the Armenian tongue and leveraged that to evangelize and disciple the people of that region. And we cannot fail to mention Macrina, sister of the great Cappadocian father Basil of Caesarea. She not only profoundly influenced her more famous brother towards the ascetic life but also initiated a new kind of monasticism focused on community service.
The second and more ominous topic is the rise of Islam. No other external factor impacted Christianity as much during its first millennium than did the religion of Mohammed and his followers. Within ninety years of its origin, Islam spread like wildfire, conquering the three major Christian centers of Damascus (634), Alexandria (635), and Jerusalem (636), and then subjugating all of North Africa and much of Asia. By the early eighth century the Muslims had also taken Spain and were only stopped by Charles Martel and his Frankish warriors in 732 at the pivotal battle of Tours. Early on, the Muslim overlords allowed Christians to practice their faith in private enclaves on the condition that they submit to Islamic law in civil and criminal matters and pay the jizyah, a tax levied on non-Muslim males of military age. But as time went on, Islam’s ubiquitous nature began to slowly but surely eliminate any Christian influence in those vast regions of Africa and Asia where it had once been dominant. History was profoundly changed, the growth of the church stopped and the Faith would, in the next thousand years, move to the West – and then to other parts of the globe.
Wilken concludes his book with a summative Afterword that briefly reviews what he has covered in the previous 350 pages of narrative. While perusing the rise and achievements of Christianity over its first millennium, he also emphasizes the melancholy reality that it suffered more than its fair share of declines, attrition and, even in many places, extinction, primarily due to Islam. In my view, this objective historical reality should serve as a much needed wakeup call for contemporary Christians in the West. There has been and continues to be a spiritual struggle on a global level for the hearts and minds of humanity. May the example and experience of the church in her first thousand years as recounted in this fine book serve as a poignant reminder of the beauty of Christian faith and the significant challenges it faces at the beginning of our third millennia.
Scott Wenig, Ph.D.
Professor of Applied Theology