Recovering the Chruch’s Memory

An alternative to the willful amnesia of modern theology.
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Remembering the Christian Past, by Robert L. Wilken (Eerdmans, 180 pp.; $17, paper). Reviewed by Christopher Hall, who teaches biblical and theological studies at Eastern College.

Robert Wilken, professor of the history of Christianity at the University of Virginia, possesses a well-developed memory, and he clearly desires to lengthen that of his readers. Wilken has spent many fruitful years exploring the world of the early church. His books include an analysis of Saint John Chrysostom's response to Judaism in the fourth century (John Chrysostom and the Jews), an insightful study of how the Roman world understood the early Christians (The Christians as the Romans Saw Them), and more recently a treatise on the central place of Palestine in Christian history and reflection (The Land Called Holy). In Remembering the Christian Past, Wilken gathers together a series of essays, many previously published in journals including Pro Ecclesia, First Things, and the Journal of Early Christian Studies.

Throughout these essays, one clear theme surfaces repeatedly. Many modern Christians find themselves rootless and drifting in a barren secular and ecclesiastical landscape, largely because they have forgotten their past. Indeed, the modern mind, Wilken argues, has lost any "sense of obligation to the past." Instead, modern thinkers, including a number of modern theologians, have purposely limited their reliance upon past ideas and traditions, viewing autonomous reflection as the heart of rationality. One discovers truth only by purposefully separating oneself from the object of knowledge. For the modern Christian, this autonomous stance has spawned an unrelenting suspicion of tradition.

David Tracy, for example, contends that while the "traditional ...

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