Beginning to Read The Fathers

Written by Boniface Ramsey Reviewed By Frederick W. Norris

Introductions should be written by masters. This one is. Ramsey, who has obviously spent years in patristic studies, has produced the finest one-volume introduction to the study of the Fathers that exists today. The great patrologies, most notably those of Quasten and Altaner/Stuiber, or the surveys of early Christian doctrine like Kelly, are either too large or too technical for average beginning students or interested non-specialists. This volume, therefore, fills a great need.

It fills the need well. Ramsey has organized his chapters around themes. At first his outline appears lacking since there is no single treatment of the Spirit, but that concern disappears when one reads the chapter on God. My only suggestions for the plan of the book are that more might have been said concerning the early understanding of sacraments, and that there is no index of themes.

The reasons for praise are many. The aids for beginning students are seldom to be found within the pages of an introduction. Not only does the first chapter define the terms and the task; the last 27 pages set out a reading programme in the Fathers, a carefully selected bibliography of works to deepen the understanding, and chronology that juxtaposes the place and time of each Father with important religious and historical events. Such a ready reference is so obviously helpful that it is difficult to understand why it does not appear in other introductions.

Ramsey writes well enough. No reviewer would agree with every turn of phrase, but giving this volume to students or friends will not increase their lack of literary sensitivity as so much theology does. Each chapter covers the ground intended, and insists upon the uneven terrain. This is accomplished not only by treating the expected significant figures of the period, but also by drawing attention to unusual features in this landscape. One anticipates Ambrose and Augustine, Origen and the Cappadocians, but Amoun, Arnobius of Sicca, Chromatius of Aquileia, etc. are gems seldom mined from the earth, let alone polished. These delights make the reading something more than an uneventful treasure hunt, even by specialists. A second edition, however, should add more information about female figures of the period.

In short, no one truly interested in the Fathers should be without this volume.

Frederick W. Norris

Emmanuel School of Religion, Johnson City, TN, USA