Reading the Church Fathers: A Beginner’s Guide

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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.


Some related resources:

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