Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction

By Smither, Edward L. | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, March 2008 | Go to article overview

Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction


Smither, Edward L., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction. By Bryan M. Litfin. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2007, 304 pp., $ 22.99 paper.

Bryan Litfin has rendered a great service to students of early church history (and the professors who teach them) in this introductory pa tri s tics text. In ten chapters, Litfin narrates the stories of ten Church fathers-seven Greek (Ignatius of Antioch, Justin, Irenaeus, Origen, Athanasius, John Chrysostom, and Cyril of Alexandria) and three Latin (Tertullian, Perpetua, and Augustine). The reader will immediately notice the author's rightful inclusion of a woman, Vibia Perpetua, in his account of the Fathers-a group largely determined by their literary and theological output in the first five centuries.

As an introduction to patristics, this book generally resembles Ramsey's Beginning to Read the Fathers (a work cited by Litfin for further reading in his introductory chapter) yet it is distinct because Ramsey organizes his survey around themes (e.g., Scripture, prayer, monasticism) and certainly writes from a Roman Catholic perspective. Litfin's book might also be compared to Chadwick's The Early Church; yet, this work, first published nearly forty years ago, focuses more on early Christian movements and is generally more difficult reading. Litfin, correctly noting that most patristics texts are doctrinal in nature (e.g. Kelly's Early Christian Doctrines), chooses a biographical and narrative approach instead. Not only does this approach successfully invite and engage the modern reader, it is faithful to the patristic worldview that valued remembering the lives and concrete models of faith through a tradition of sacred biography (a corpus that numbered over 8,000 individual biographies by the medieval period).

Litfin's unique biographical approach is a necessary complement to existing patristics scholarship. He has made the early Church fathers accessible and inviting to evangelical students who may have little exposure to, background for, and consequent interest in this period. Litfin's work contributes to the growing evangelical interest and scholarly output in patristics that presently includes works like Chris Hall's Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers and Learning Theology with the Church Fathers; InterVarsity's Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Thomas Oden, ed.), and Baker Academic's present series, Evangelical Ressourcement: Ancient Sources for the Church's Future.

Liftin's work has numerous strengths, including being resourceful, inviting, accessible, integrative, and engaging. I will comment on each of these areas of strength.

In the opening pages, Litfin includes a helpful map (p. 8) of the Roman world to which readers can easily turn when unsure about the location of Nicea or Hippo, for example, or when distinguishing between Eusebius of Cappadocian Caesarea and Eusebius of Palestinian Caesarea, for example. Furthermore, he includes a timeline dating from 800 BC to AD 500 noting key events in the church and politics as well as the lives of the Fathers (pp. 9-10). At the end of each chapter, Litfin includes a bibliography with key secondary sources and a reference to the Fathers' writings in English translation, providing students with immediate resources for research.

Litfin's work is inviting to current evangelical undergraduate and seminary students. He accomplishes this is by beginning each chapter with a captivating anecdote that bridges into the narrative of the particular Father to be treated. A man on death row introduces Ignatius of Antioch (pp. 31-33); Tertullian is likened to a gun blazing, Wild West cowboy (pp. 97-99); and C. S. Lewis's imaginative depiction of Narnia introduces the reader to Origen's exegetical method (pp. 142-43). These anecdotes serve to draw readers into the upcoming stories and pique interest in the Fathers. Furthermore, Litfin narrates these stories in an inviting way. For example, he winsomely tells of Justin's journey to faith (pp. …

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