The First Thousand Years: A global history of
Robert Louis Wilken
Church Times Bookshop £13.50 (Use code
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
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
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
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.