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Michael A. G. Haykin is Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality at Southern Seminary. His book Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church is due out Spring 2011 from Crossway. Here he offers some help on how to start reading the Church Fathers:

For those who don’t know anything about the church fathers, the best advice might be first to read your book! But where should readers go from there?

Well, first of all, I would start with two tremendous secondary sources: Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (Yale University Press, 2003) and Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (Penguin Books, 1993).

Together these will provide an excellent orientation in terms of the history of the Patristic era (Chadwick) and the spirituality of the Fathers (Wilken).

Do you recommend Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine?

Yes. Volume 1, on The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) (University of Chicago Press, 1971) is the finest introduction to the thought of the Fathers.

While not an easy book, it is a gem.

What would be helpful in terms of getting a good overview of this time period?

I’d recommend the relevant pages in Tim Dowley ed., Introduction to the History of Christianity (Fortress Press, 1995) and for the key leaders, see the biographies in John D. Woodbridge, ed., Great Leaders of the Christian Church (Moody Press, 1988). The latter is regrettably out of print, but second-hand copies can be gotten easily.

I have also had published Defence of the Truth: Contending for the Truth Yesterday and Today (Evangelical Press, 2004), which deals with theological challenges faced by the Ancient Church.

What about reading the Fathers themselves?

Any advice here is bound to be somewhat eclectic, but I would recommend starting with Augustine’s Confessions, the masterpiece of Patristic piety.

Then I would read Basil of Ceasarea, On the Holy Spirit, which is a masterly combination of fourth-century piety and theology.

The second-century Letter to Diognetus is an excellent entry-point into early Christian apologetics and The Odes of Solomon an overlooked gem of worship, also from the second century.

In recent years I have had a renewed interest in the Latin tradition, and here I would recommend Cyprian’s Letter to Donatus and Hilary’s On the Trinity, book I, which recounts the story of his conversion.

In the Patristic era many were impacted by Athanasius’ Life of Antony. Personally I find this work somewhat off-putting even if it is a fascinating window into early monastic thought. I much prefer Gregory of Nyssa’s warm account of his sister, The Life of Macrina.

Finally, Patrick’s Confession is a must-read for reasons enumerated in my book.

Tell us a little bit about Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church. What are you seeking to accomplish in this book?

The book seeks to stimulate a thirst for the Fathers and to reveal how rich the Fathers are in theology and piety. As such, it is not an exhaustive study of the Fathers. Rather, it presents six Fathers/patristic texts that reveal key themes of that era of church history and hopefully stir up interest and make the Fathers increasingly a known land.

Many of our Evangelical forebears read the Fathers and that reading enriched their lives and thought. We need to do the same to help us meet some of the great challenges of our day.


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16 thoughts on “Reading the Church Fathers: A Beginner’s Guide”

  1. Kim in ON says:

    Will Crossway be offering this book on a pre-order basis at some point?

  2. Justin says:

    Thanks for this! If I may, I’d like to add Christopher A. Hall’s series on the church fathers to the list. Those books can be found on his Amazon page. I read “Worshipping with the Church Fathers,” which provided insight into how they viewed baptism, the Eucharist, and prayer.

  3. Brandon Vogt says:

    If you want good introduction to the Church Fathers, read first-hand sources, and go further back than even Augustine. Second-century fathers like Ignatius of Antioch, Clement of Rome, and Polycarp of Smyrna are not only readable, but provide short writings that are freely accessible online (http://www.ccel.org/).

    For people with no experience at all with the Church Fathers, who want an introductory sampling of their thought, I would recommend the three-volume set of writings put out by William Jurgens. There is little commentary–almost all of the material is first-hand writings, though the book has a wonderfully helpful doctrinal index (allowing you to see what different Church Father thought about a particular doctrine or practice). Also, for a more popular take on the Church Fathers and their beliefs, check out any of Mike Aquilina’s books.

    I will warn you though, speaking as a Catholic-convert from Protestantism. Paraphrasing Lewis, “A Protestant can’t be too careful what he reads.” Reading the Fathers and discovering their views on the liturgy, the Eucharist, Church authority, Scripture, and the sacraments will draw you toward the Catholic Church. A huge number of intellectuals who have converted to the Catholic Church have done so after digging into the Early Church Fathers. Simply put, the Early Church was Catholic.

    I encourage you, if you are open to the truth, to explore these great teachers. For every twentieth century Calvin, there are a handful of just-as-brilliant Early Church theologians; for every Luther, a dozen orthodox reformers. As you seek to rid yourself of “chronological snobbery”, read what the earliest followers of Jesus believed and how they worshiped.

    1. Jason Engwer says:

      Brandon Vogt wrote:

      “Simply put, the Early Church was Catholic.”

      Simply put, you’re wrong.

  4. Patrick Chan says:

    In addition to The Early Church, I liked Henry Chadwick’s translation of Augustine’s Confessions as well.

    Also, while I haven’t read it in its entirety, I think I like Philip Burton’s translation too. Not to mention Everyman editions tend to be aesthetically appealing to me.

  5. Gary says:

    Jason and Brandon. You’re both wrong. It was Orthodox. :) Seriously though, Jason would you mind expounding on that? I have to agree with Brandon. It’s not really debateable (based on their own writings) that the early church was liturgical, sacramental, had a heirachial (SP??) structure of govt and had, shall we say, a different view of church authority than do modern protestants.

    1. Grant Alcorn says:

      Hello:

      Please be careful with such an assertion that the Church was either simply Orthodox or simply Catholic as another makes in terms of being Roman Catholic.

      A Very Good History by Judith Herrin, entitled Byzantium, makes an excellent case for the basic point that some of the rituals of the Orthodox Church are simply Cultural ideas that they borrowed from the surrounding culture and incorporated into their rituals of worship.

      Shocking! A Denomination being affected and infected by the culture and its adherents not recognizing that.

      Something all of us can fall prey to. American evangelicalism especially. For a modern tour through how this happens — Stephen Nichols Jesus:Made in America is worth the read.

  6. Gary says:

    oops. Sorry Jason, I failed to see that you provided the link. Thanks.

  7. Brandon Vogt says:

    Jason: I don’t have time to read through the dozens of articles on your site, and I don’t think this comment box is the place to discuss these things, but some immediate reactions:

    – My comment aimed to show that the Church Fathers–specifically the earliest ones (Ignatius, Clements, Polycarp, etc.)–proclaimed Catholicism. You do little to refute that claim on your site, other than through misinterpretation. From the few articles I read your only claim is that “Dsepite the fact that Church Fathers said X, they didn’t really mean X…they meant Y” (ala your post on Ignatius and the Real Presence of the Eucharist). Also, as far as I can find, you didn’t even touch on the liturgy or other sacraments, which are at the center of the Catholic life. I’m guessing it’s because you recognized that these are undeniably present and promoted in the Early Church.

    – Your position is simply untenable, because it is based on nothing more than personal interpretation. Therefore, you never have any basis to claim your interpretation is any better than any other Protestant. Your interpretive conundrum with Scripture carries over to the Church Fathers–all appeal to Scripture (or the Church Fathers) is really an appeal to an interpretation of Scripture (or the Church Fathers). How do we know which interpretation is true? Only by following the ancient, Spirit-protected teachings of the Church. The meaning of the Church Fathers can only be determined by looking to how the Church has understood them.

    – Long, defended articles are usually a sign that someone is stretching to prove their position. On each of the topics from your link, there are clear, unambiguous writings from Church Fathers holding the Catholic position. Yet instead of simply citing these and moving on, you wrestle with issues of interpretation and authenticity at length (for instance, your best defense against Ignatius’ support of the Eucharist is to claim that the letters really weren’t written by Ignatius–even most modern critics hold the main seven letter of Ignatius to be legitimate.) If the Early Church didn’t hold the Catholic position, there should be overwhelming evidence to this that could quickly and easily be provided. Instead, the reader of your articles is forced to time and again agree with your many reaches and assumptions to reach your conclusion.

    – If you would like, I would be willing to do a point/counter-point on each of our blogs, each discussing how the Early Church understood particular doctrines or practices. For instance, we could begin by you picking one of the topics on your link that you would like to discuss–just a thought.

    1. Jason Engwer says:

      Brandon Vogt wrote:

      “My comment aimed to show that the Church Fathers–specifically the earliest ones (Ignatius, Clements, Polycarp, etc.)–proclaimed Catholicism….Also, as far as I can find, you didn’t even touch on the liturgy or other sacraments, which are at the center of the Catholic life.”

      Why should we think that supporting something like “the liturgy” or “other sacraments” is “proclaiming Catholicism”? Why would you define Catholicism by things that aren’t unique to Catholicism? There are many groups of professing Christians who have believed in liturgy and sacraments. The fact that you’re appealing to such categories doesn’t reflect well on your position. Why would a Catholic who believes in distinctive doctrines like the papacy and a particular view of Mary want to define his denomination by concepts that are shared by so many other people?

      You write:

      “From the few articles I read your only claim is that ‘Dsepite the fact that Church Fathers said X, they didn’t really mean X…they meant Y’ (ala your post on Ignatius and the Real Presence of the Eucharist).”

      In the example you’ve cited, whether Ignatius said X is the issue under dispute. You can’t just assume your conclusion without an argument for it. I’ve given reasons for concluding that Ignatius didn’t say the X in question. You aren’t interacting with those reasons.

      And I’ve given many examples of the fathers’ contradictions of Roman Catholic belief. I’ve also cited Roman Catholic scholars acknowledging many of those contradictions. See my citations of Klaus Schatz on the papacy, Joseph Kelly on ecumenical councils, Robert Eno on Augustine’s ecclesiology, Ludwig Ott on the veneration of images, Michael O’Carroll on Marian doctrine, etc.

      You write:

      “Also, as far as I can find, you didn’t even touch on the liturgy or other sacraments, which are at the center of the Catholic life.”

      The deity of Jesus and His resurrection, for example, are also “at the center of Catholic life”, but they’re also part of the life of non-Catholics. If we’re asking whether the early church was Catholic, why would we focus on things that Catholics agree with other groups about?

      But I do address the sacraments on the page I linked. See, for example, the thread on the eucharist, the two articles I linked on infant baptism, and the one on justification.

      I don’t know what you have in mind with regard to “the liturgy”. The significance of that category and the extent to which I’ve addressed it depends on how you’re defining it.

      You write:

      “Your position is simply untenable, because it is based on nothing more than personal interpretation.”

      Since I have to interpret before I communicate, I can’t avoid personal interpretation in a context such as this one. The same is true of you and every other human. Your posts in this thread are derived from your own interpretations of church history and other subjects.

      If you’re suggesting that my conclusions are only my interpretation in some other sense, then what sense do you have in mind? If you’re suggesting that I’ve cited no evidence to support my conclusions, then you’re mistaken. I’ve cited evidence. If you’re suggesting that nobody agrees with my conclusions, then see the many scholars and other sources I’ve cited in support of what I believe.

      You write:

      “Your interpretive conundrum with Scripture carries over to the Church Fathers–all appeal to Scripture (or the Church Fathers) is really an appeal to an interpretation of Scripture (or the Church Fathers). How do we know which interpretation is true? Only by following the ancient, Spirit-protected teachings of the Church.”

      How do you know that there is a church and that it has the attributes you claim it has? By your own interpretation of the evidence. But other people disagree with that interpretation. How do we know which interpretation is true? By the same means by which we make such judgments in other areas of life (politics, economics, United States history, etc.).

      Besides, as I’ve documented, if we follow “the ancient, Spirit-protected teachings of the Church”, we don’t arrive at Roman Catholicism. And we shouldn’t assume that previous generations of professing Christians held only one view on a given topic. Sometimes they held multiple views, and they sometimes contradicted each other from generation to generation.

      You write:

      “Long, defended articles are usually a sign that someone is stretching to prove their position.”

      Should we apply that reasoning to lengthy articles and books written by church fathers, Popes, Roman Catholic theologians, Roman Catholic apologists, etc.?

      You write:

      “On each of the topics from your link, there are clear, unambiguous writings from Church Fathers holding the Catholic position.”

      That’s a misleading claim. For example, if fathers A, B, C, and D in the earliest centuries refer to Mary as a sinner, but fathers E and F from a later century refer to her as sinless, what’s the significance of pointing out that the Catholic position has support from “writings from Church Fathers”? A position could be held by some fathers, but rejected by others. And if a belief doesn’t appear in the fathers until some later century in the patristic era, then what significance does that later belief have? Etc. Your approach is simplistic.

      You write:

      “your best defense against Ignatius’ support of the Eucharist is to claim that the letters really weren’t written by Ignatius”

      That’s false. You’re accusing me of doing the opposite of what I’ve done. See here, where I’ve defended the authenticity of the letters.

      You write:

      “If you would like, I would be willing to do a point/counter-point on each of our blogs, each discussing how the Early Church understood particular doctrines or practices. For instance, we could begin by you picking one of the topics on your link that you would like to discuss–just a thought.”

      You just criticized “long, defended articles” at my blog. Now you’re suggesting that we produce “point/counter-point” posts.

      You can post whatever you want on your blog. But I have a lot of other things to tend to, so I can’t commit to a lengthy interaction with you. I’m posting here primarily for the benefit of other readers. So far, you haven’t given me much reason to participate in a discussion centered around your blog. Your responses to my material up to this point have been highly inaccurate and misleading.

      I’m glad that you’re interested in Christianity and early church history. I hope you’ll continue to study both. But Roman Catholicism is a false conclusion to the evidence, and you’re using a lot of faulty reasoning to get there.

    2. Grant Alcorn says:

      Hello:

      In reading on Baptism, the basic point was made over and over again in the literature that Catholicism’s views on infant baptism underwent dramatic shifts. Influenced by historical conditions and cultural settings.

      So, if culture and history can effect one understanding of what the Scriptures are saying it can in other areas.

      The New Testament makes clear how the teachings of the Scripture were in danger of being muddled even then. And those writers are the ones we consider to be our sure guides. Not next century authors who because of cultural and historical influences might be tempted to overlay their own interpretations and say because we worship this way that this is the only way to worship.

      A basic point is — Christ having Ascended and being now our mediator makes any other mediatorial role performed by anyother person null and void and contrary to the Scriptures.

      Traditions can err … Scripture cannot ….

      If Rome is so correct why did they nearly concede every demand of the Reformers prior to Trent?

      Have a great day.

      1. Gary says:

        Grant,

        Regarding your point “Traditions can err…Scripture cannot….”

        How then do you deal with 2 Thess 2:15 where St. Paul tells the Thessalonian believers to “stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.” ?

        1. Grant Alcorn says:

          Gary:

          Good question.

          I like this response from BIble Scholar, the late F.F. Bruce:

          “There is a distinction in the Pauline writings between the
          gospel received by revelation (as in Gal 1:12) and the
          gospel received by tradition (as in 1 Cor 15:3), and the
          language of didache [“teaching”] and paradosis
          [“tradition”] is appropriate to the latter, not to the former.
          Even communications made dia pneumatos [“by the
          Spirit”] must be tested by their conformity to the paradosis
          and if they conflict with it they are to be refused (cf. 1
          Thess 5:19-22).”67 Bruce, F. F. 1 & 2 Thessalonians. Word Biblical Commentary series. Waco: Word
          Books, 1982

          Hope that helps.

          Shalom

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Justin Taylor, PhD


Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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