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Two Patrological Must-Reads

Christians who want to get a handle on the faith of the early church need to do two things. First, they need to read deeply in the primary sources. Second, they need to ask questions about how they read those sources. In this post, I’d like to commend two good books that each deal with one of those tasks.

The Fathers of the Church by Mike Aquilina (Our Sunday Visitor, 2006) is an excellent reader for those wanting exposure to the writings of the early church. Aquilina writes well, but the benefit of most volumes of this nature is when the writer says as little as possible so as to let the primary sources speak for themselves. This is also something Aquilina does well. The book begins with a somewhat lengthy introductory essay dealing with the place of the early church fathers and their overall importance in the church’s theology, worship, and witness. Next comes over 200 pages of primary source material, prefaced by sufficient biographical information for each father to help the reader get her bearings but not so much as to be a distraction.

With any project of this nature, it is inevitable that different readers might have wished their “favorites” got more ink. It is also inevitable that the writer’s biases will show through. Mike Aquilina is a devout Catholic, and therefore he approaches topics such as the papacy, for example, where an Orthodox (or even Protestant) writer might have selected different passages to cast the topic in a different light. As a non-Catholic, however, I appreciate Aquilina for striving to make the strongest case he can for what he believes. If an Orthodox or Protestant patrologist wants to bring to light other early interpretations of such controversial matters–and this is certainly possible–I say let them!

On my personal “wish list” would have been some of the liturgical texts discussed in detail in The Mass of the Early Christians. But since I already have both volumes, and since I doubt a 500-page reader would really serve the purpose for which this book was written, I’m not going to complain other than to ask for a few more Ephremian and Ambrosian hymns, please. I would have also appreciated some attention to non-literary indicators of the life and thought of the early church, or even the writings of the church’s enemies (the Letter of Pliny, fragments of Celsus or the Gnostics culled from orthodox writers, etc.). But again, these bits of the puzzle don’t properly belong in a book on “the fathers,” no matter how relevant they are to understanding what life was like in the early church.

If there are actual “fathers” that I would have liked to hear more of, they would of course be the ones Protestants most ought to know and love: Hilary’s discussion of “justification by faith” in his Commentary on Matthew, for example, or Jerome disputing the place of the Deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament, or Cyril of Jerusalem pleading with his catechumens not to accept anything he says unless he backs it up from Scripture. No, Hilary’s understanding of justification is not the same as Luther’s, nor was Jerome’s view of the canon. And Cyril was certainly not advocating the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura. Still, these voices are also part of the early church’s witness. I took notice of their absence.

For what it is intended to be, I would not hesitate to recommend The Fathers of the Church. I can see myself assigning it in a college-level church history class as an economical way to put an abundance of early Christian writings in the hands of students.

As I’ve indicated, Aquilina writes from a particular interpretive grid. That is by no means an accusation but simply a statement of fact: all of us bring our assumptions to these texts if we care at all about Christian truth. It is appropriate, however, to name these assumptions and perhaps to challenge them. In Evangelicals and Tradition by D. H. Williams (Baker, 2005), one can read a different kind of introduction to the life of the early church that begins with completely different assumptions. Where Aquilina, writing for a Catholic audience, is free to begin with the assumption that the fathers of the church have something of importance to say, Dan Williams is a Baptist (although he taught for a while at Jesuit Loyola University) writing for an audience that is largely hesitant when it comes to the patristic era. In fact, his earlier book, Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism (Eerdmans, 1999), is appropriately subtitled, “A Primer for Suspicious Protestants.”

Whereas Aquilina essentially dives into the primary sources, Williams seeks to provide a model by which evangelical Protestants may come to appreciate the contributions of the early church fathers and embrace them as a vital and necessary part of their own spiritual patrimony. His chapter titles are indicative of his traditional Protestant concerns:

  1. Conversion and Construction
  2. The Early Church as Canonical
  3. The Confluence of the Bible, the Tradition, and the Church
  4. Protestant Tradition and the Christian Tradition
  5. Glimpses at the Resources of the Ancient Tradition

Williams deals with the relationship between the tradition of the early church and the apostolic preaching, teaching, and mission (chs. 1-2), the place of Scripture (ch. 3), and justification by faith (ch. 4): all key issues in classic Protestantism. But Williams is no evangelical apologist! He is forthright about where the fathers would have diverged from what evangelicals teach today, even as he argues for the validity of evangelical faith in creative engagement with the patristic sources. At the same time, Williams raises questions about how we read the fathers. Do we accept their words at face value and attempt to recreate in the here and now the same expressions of faith, life, and liturgy they did in late antiquity, or shall we seek to understand the intentionality the words express and recontextualize their message?

Only in his final chapter does Williams provide a cursory survey of some of the key primary sources, including creeds, catechetical instructions, the rule of faith, Bible commentaries, sermons, hymns, and major theological treatises. Although the fathers are cited in abundance throughout this volume, it is not a reader so much as a framework for understanding. In my hypothetical college-level church history class, I would definitely ask my students to wrestle with Williams. I think he and Aquilina together would make a formidable patrological tag team.

Some will embrace this book and be drawn closer to the fathers; others will no doubt complain that Williams, by not following in the footsteps of other evangelicals whose study of the fathers eventually led them to leave Protestantism for Rome (or Constantinople!), has not gone far enough. Be that as it may, Williams clearly loves his evangelical heritage even though he sees its faults: faults he is convinced would be mitigated by a deeper appreciation for the fathers of the early church.

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