Rediscovering the Church Fathers

April 14, 2011 — 4 Comments

  • Paperback: 176pgs
  • Publisher: Crossway (March 2, 2011)
  • Westminster
  • Amazon
  • Monergism
  • Bible School (and maybe some general readers)
  • Prophetic explorations of selected church fathers’ theology

[You’re reading this review of Rediscovering the Church Fathers because I asked Crossway for a review copy and they said yes!]

Overview

In some ways, I might not be the best person to offer insight into the value of a book on the Church Fathers. I haven’t particularly studied them in depth while here at seminary, although I own both ANF and NPNF series 1 and 2 (thanks Logos!). I’ve read a few books here and there (Augustine, Athanasius, and a few others) but I plan to read through the whole series once I’m done here. This introduction was just the thing I needed to prime the pump so to speak.

While I may not have a background with the Fathers, I do know a well-written and researched book when I see one, and this definitely fits those criteria. All of the main chapters have at least 50 footnotes in them, yet are relatively short and can be worked through in about 30mins or so of careful reading (or less if you’re like me). You can tell, both from the author’s conversational tone, as well as his extensive references (and the quality of those references), that he knows his stuff well and can talk freely of his own intellectual journey with the Fathers as he guides you through this brief introduction.

As the subtitle of the book states, this book looks at who they were and how they shaped the church. One may choose to criticize Michael Haykin’s choice of examples, but his survey is not comprehensive. He is giving snapshots of different aspects of the Church Fathers and presumably picked those he was most familiar with and those who we felt were best suited to his purposes. In that light, the purpose of the book seems to be aimed at whetting the reader’s appetite and inviting them to dig into the fathers further. In each chapter, Haykin briefly orients the reader to each of the figures (and in one case The Letter to Diognetus) looking at their personal biography and historical context. He then guides you through a portion of their writings (with a good use of quotations straight from the sources) and offer insights and comments, mostly aimed at pointing out how their ideas have proven influential in shaping the church’s understanding of Scripture and theology.

As Haykin sees it, rediscovering the Church Fathers is a vital need for evangelicals because “far too many modern-day evangelicals are either ignorant of or quite uncomfortable with the church fathers” (pg. 13). He notes that is unfortunate that while people of The Book, evangelicals have lacked interest in the earliest people of the book (i.e. the Fathers, pg. 14). Haykin then gives eight reasons (that I counted) why we need to read the fathers:

  1. Studying the Fathers liberates us from captivity to the present (pg. 17)
  2. Studying the Fathers can provide us with a map for the Christian life (pg. 18)
  3. The Fathers can help us understand the New Testament (pg. 19)
  4. Familiarity with the Fathers keeps us from falling prey to bad history or bad press they might receive (pg. 20)
  5. Understanding the heresies the Fathers fought and how they fought can help us in present theological skirmishes (pg. 22)
  6. Studying the Fathers informs evangelicals about their predecessors in the faith who helped to shape them (pg. 27)
  7. The Fathers provide a model for living like a Christian in a hostile society (pg. 27)
  8. Generations of believers have found the writings of the Fathers to be soul-nourishing food (pg. 28)

From there, Haykin gives a selective survey of some of the Fathers and their writings:

  • Chapter 2 focuses on early Christian martyrdom by looking at Ignatius of Antioch
  • Chapter 3 demonstrates early Christian apologetics through the Letter to Diognetus
  • Chapter 4 presents a more sympathetic reading of Origen and his advances in exegesis
  • Chapter 5 splits between Cyprian and Ambrose and looks at piety
  • Chapter 6 looks at Basil of Caesarea and gives a superb background to his On The Holy Spirit
  • Chapter 7 explains the mission of St. Patrick and looks at his Confessions
  • Chapter 8 gives you a look into Haykin’s own journey into the Fathers

There are two appendices as well, one giving a brief guide to starting a reading journey into the Fathers. The other examining the strengths and weaknesses of Jarislov Pelikan’s work on the Fathers. I am looking forward to reading that particular book myself and the whole series for that matter, so Haykin’s praise and criticisms were very helpful.

Reflection

Overall, I found this book to be a great introduction for someone starting into a study of the Church Fathers. I am more advanced than most given my theological background, but given that this is an area where I have not studied extensively, I felt that Haykin does a great job focusing his years of scholarship into a short accessible introduction to the Church Fathers. I showed the book to one of my profs here who specializes in the Fathers and he was excited himself to pick up a copy. From that, I think we could gather that this book is great for anyone with little to no background in the Church Fathers but interested in knowing more, as well as for the seminary professor who has done doctoral work in the Fathers and teaches classes on them.

To the extent that you look at this book as simply whetting your appetite, breaking down misconceptions about the Fathers and inviting you to feast on them further on your own, I think it is a clear success. If you wanted a more in depth treatment of the Fathers, or wish Haykin had picked different conversation partners for you, it might be disappointing. But, I found it to be just right and am looking forward even more this summer to getting first hand acquaintances with the Church Fathers myself.

 

Nate

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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

4 responses to Rediscovering the Church Fathers

  1. Thanks for this. This is an area I’m seriously planning on expanding my knowledge in.

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