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The gospel’s first millennium

12 December 2014

Peter Forster praises  a single-volume study with a broad sweep

The First Thousand Years: A global history of Christianity
Robert Louis Wilken
Yale £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50 (Use code CT670 )

ROBERT WILKEN is a distinguished ecclesiastical historian, and in this survey of the first millennium of the Christian era he brings together a lifetime's work. Concise and elegant, the book weaves together the very divergent paths that Christianity took.

The central theme of the book is the way in which Christianity shaped, and was shaped by, the very different cultures that it encountered. This adaptability is the most distinctive feature of Christianity, as compared with other religions. There is a particularly interesting discussion of why the Eastern Christian traditions were more attractive to Slav and Russian culture than the Western alternatives.

In the early centuries, the Roman empire was crucial to providing the political stability that enabled Christianity to spread: as Rome conquered the world, it made the world welcome. Different religions were generally tolerated, because religious practice was more significant than religious beliefs. Successive Emperors found Christian doctrinal disputes rather baffling, but realised that settling them was crucial to religious and political peace.

Although in the history of the Church the failings of bishops have been many, Wilken presents the office as remarkably resilient. This stability of the ordained ministry seems to be a counterpoint to the divergences in the Church, as particular "micro-Christendoms" crystallised into definite forms.

Alongside the ordained ministry - again as a sort of counterpoint - there was the authority of the martyrs and other charismatic figures. During the period, as martyrdom generally became a memory, the monastic movement took over this role. The transfer of the centre of learning from the ancient schools and academies to the monasteries undergirded their importance.

The often neglected interaction between the Christian Church and diaspora Judaism is given a helpful assessment, as is the extraordinary history of Jerusalem itself. Those looking for succinct accounts of such diverse subjects as the part played by music, or icons, in the developing tradition, or the beginning of Islam, will find authoritative treatments in separate chapters.

The overall trajectory was towards a sharp split between Eastern and Western Christian traditions, and sub-divisions within the East in particular. The impact of Islam hastened and exacerbated these divergent tendencies, as did the coronation of Charlemagne as a new Western emperor.

This excellent book can be read for pleasure, or by a theological student wanting a modern version of Henry Chadwick's The Early Church, but covering a wider canvas.

It is a pleasure to encounter a book that is so learned and accessible, in equal measure, and moderately priced.

Dr Peter Forster is the Bishop of Chester.

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