Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction

Bryan M. Litfin Brazos Press, Grand Rapids October 1, 2007
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Many evangelical Christians in recent years have become aware of a need to revisit the earliest centuries of the faith for inspiration and instruction. Notions of moving forward by going back, of returning to the sources, and of finding premodern answers to postmodern problems, have stimulated the publication of a number of treatments of the early church fathers by and for evangelicals. Bryan Litfin, associate professor of theology at Moody Bible Institute, provides a helpful resource for those evangelicals searching for the historical roots of a faith that some feel has veered from its original center and trajectory.

Getting to Know the Church Fathers presents a biographical treatment of the early church, selecting ten people to highlight as he leads his readers through the first five centuries of Christian history. The author writes, “I hope to introduce you in a more personal way to some of your spiritual ancestors. I want to help you get to know some folks who are part of your own spiritual legacy and heritage in the faith” (p. 16, italics his). Yet through each of the early church fathers (and one church “mother,” Perpetua), Litfin is able to reach behind the individual life and touch on important theological issues, challenges, and events necessary for understanding the development of early Christian thought.

Ignatius of Antioch gives a glimpse of Docetism and early gnostic ideas. Justin Martyr is an early apologist. Irenaeus of Lyons helps explain the earliest heresies and realize the need for a developed canon, creed, and authority in the orthodox churches. Tertullian grants an opportunity to explore Montanism. Perpetua’s moving story of martyrdom underscores the role of suffering for the faith in the early church. Origen of Alexandria displays the allegorical hermeneutic. Athanasius’s life introduces Arianism, Constantine, and the Nicene Creed. John Chrysostom’s chapter explores monasticism and asceticism as well as the vital role of preaching. Augustine exposes the reader to the heresy of Pelagianism and the Donatist controversy. And Cyril of Alexandria calls attention to the importance of a sound Christology as well as the sometimes brutal politics of theological debate.

Along with the biographical sketches and exploration of related events and ideas, Litfin also includes a current bibliography of original sources in English and accessible secondary studies on each church father. The brief excerpts from the fathers’ works are perhaps too brief, but they represent the spirit and tone of the authors quite well and whet the reader’s appetite for more.

Throughout the book Litfin exhibits careful scholarship, relying on primary sources, interacting with current scholarly discussions, and offering a nuanced treatment of subjects under debate in patristic studies. Yet at the same time Litfin takes a decisively popular-level evangelical approach to the evaluation and presentation of the material. This is especially apparent in Litfin’s questions for reflection and discussion at the end of each chapter. They are some of the most well-crafted, though-provoking, and relevant questions for his evangelical readers, and they reflect the work of someone who has labored hard at bridging the dark, ugly gap between evangelical Christians and the early church fathers.

At times the treatments of the fathers border on hagiography rather than historiography, as Litfin paints even ecclesiastical personae non gratae like Tertullian and Origen in a more positive light than is typically done. Like an Eastern Orthodox iconographer, Litfin’s portraits accentuate the golden character strengths and brilliant heroic deeds of his ten saints, though he acknowledges the flaws and failures as well. Yet this emphasis on the redeeming qualities—this reading of the fathers through the lens of grace—compensates for the often exaggerated negative appraisal so many evangelicals have leveled against the early fathers. Many Christians begin the study of the early church assuming a model of historiography that assigns a rapid doctrinal decline or even sudden apostasy to the first few centuries of the church, regarding the church fathers as villains and usurpers rather than heroes and heirs of the apostolic teaching. Litfin’s reintroduction of the fathers is more in keeping with the general view of the great Protestant Reformers, who originally saw themselves as restoring the wayward medieval church to the biblical and old catholic tradition of the patristic period through the sixth century. Evangelicals today forget that Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli all strived to be “catholic” in the original sense of that term.

Besides serving as a great introductory text for students at the college level, Litfin’s Getting to Know the Church Fathers would be an excellent resource for serious-minded churches and small groups. To be sure, readers who want an accessible introduction to the early church will find this an easy, compelling book to read, but they will find themselves wanting to share the experience with others—especially the discussion questions in each chapter. Litfin’s treatment does more than merely spin yarns about the saints of old; it serves as a well-rounded introduction to the people, places, events, ideas, and developments of the patristic period in lay-friendly terms that should prove compelling—even transforming—for evangelical readers. 

—Michael J. Svigel

January 1, 2009
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jan-Mar 2009 vol. 166 no. 1 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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