For many of those cracking open the pages of Bryan Litfin’s book, Getting to Know the Church Fathers, this is their first real glimpse of the ancient Christian church. Rather than returning to old, familiar friends, they are embarking on an exploratory journey that will hopefully enrich and deepen their appreciation for the church fathers (p.1).
As the book’s subtitle indicates, it’s oriented towards evangelical readers who might not know much about the Patristic era. Litfin, who is himself an evangelical professor at Moody Bible Institute, has a task made more difficult by the suspicion and skepticism towards the early church fathers held by some parts of the evangelical community. It seems that keeping his audience in mind is important for properly understanding the purpose of Litfin’s efforts. He is striving to accomplish two main goals: acquaint readers with some of the early church fathers (and a mother), and dispel harmful misconceptions held about them by some (though not all) parts of contemporary Christianity.
Learning about the Fathers
Rather than mainly recounting the development of Christian doctrines, Litfin focuses more on introducing his readers to the church fathers “as individual personalities” (p.5). He tells readers that, “I want to help you get to know some folks who are part of your own spiritual legacy and heritage in the faith” (p.5).
What does it mean to call someone a church father? This term strikes some as odd given Jesus’ words in Matthew’s Gospel, “And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven” (23:9, NRSV). Jesus also speaks out against calling people “teachers” or “instructors” in the same passage, terms that are regularly used without much controversy. Therefore, Litfin thinks it wasn’t the title itself that mattered to Jesus so much as the hypocritical way it was being used by some of the scribes and Pharisees (p.7). Having dealt with that objection, Litfin shifts to explaining the origins of the term “church father.”
In the ancient world, “The idea of one’s spiritual mentor serving as a father figure was very common” (p.7). Paul even referred to himself as a father to his audience in 1 Corinthians 4:15, “Indeed, in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel” (NRSV). The term was used in a similar way throughout the first few centuries of Christianity by writers like Clement of Alexandria.
Litfin explains that the Church has generally used a fourfold standard for identifying someone as a “father of the church”: such figures must be “ancient, orthodox in doctrine, holy in life, and approved by other Christians” (p.8). The presence of these categories can already be seen in the writings of the 5th century theologian Vincent of Lérins (p.8). Of course, there were also a number of influential women in the Patristic era (for example, Macrina the Younger, sister of Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa) (p.5). Unfortunately, few works written by them have survived, and it’s necessary to remember that the Patristic church could be, and lived in a society that often was, all-too-patriarchal. In sum, Litfin suggests that readers see the church fathers as “men and women whose beliefs and lifestyles were consistent with what is recorded in the apostolic teachings…Thus the ancient fathers provide us with the first links of continuity to our Christian past” (p.8).
Misconceptions about Patristic Theologians
The first myth Litfin addresses is the idea that the church fathers weren’t biblical (p.9). It’s true that the church fathers were fallible and susceptible to error. However, that doesn’t mean that they ignored Scripture or have nothing to offer us in terms of wisdom. For Litfin, this myth comes from viewing the fathers through an anachronistic Reformation era lens (p.9). Litfin believes that the Roman Catholic Church over-emphasized the significance of the great traditions of the faith during the time leading up to the Reformation, leading to a “two-source” theory of revelation with Scripture and Tradition pitted against each other (p.9). Arguments can be had about how fair of a characterization this is, but either way it’s anachronistic to read it back into the early church fathers’ view of Scripture and Tradition. Here’s Litfin’s summary of the issue:
The truth of the matter is that the church fathers loved the Scriptures immensely. You cannot read the fathers without immediately noticing how the pages of their writings reverberate with scriptural quotations and themes. Scripture was in the very air they breathed; it was what nourished their souls. (p.10)
Some people also think that the church fathers aren’t worth studying because they were all Roman Catholics (which is understood to be bad). Litfin writes, “Once again, we commit the error of anachronism if we read our later concept of ‘Roman Catholic’ back onto the church fathers” (p.11). He explains that the term “catholic” is derived from a Greek expression that speaks of “pertaining to the whole” or being “universal.” Therefore, “When it was used to describe the Christian church in the patristic period, it referred to the unified community of all true believers in the world” (p.11).
Litfin dates the rise of a centralized Roman Catholic church, one that understood Rome to be the seat of Christianity in the world, to the late 5th and early 6th centuries AD, during and following the time of Leo the Great (pp.12, 246). Indeed, some of the wrangling that occurred during the Christological controversies that culminated in the Council of Chalcedon were influenced by power struggles between major Christian centers like Rome, Alexandria, and Constantinople (p.246). Hence, Litfin contends that during this time period, “Rome, though an important center of Christian life, was not the dominant head of a unified church hierarchy that always did its bidding” (p.246).
The final—and possibly most damaging—misconception addressed by Litfin is that church fathers represent the “fall” of Christianity from its unblemished biblical roots (p.13). He explains:
It seems there is a certain historiography… subtly being transmitted among many evangelicals today. It goes something like this. The New Testament era was “good,” and for a century or two the church was “pure.” But then the subsequent generations started perverting the apostolic truth… I know this historiography is being taught today because I have encountered it many times in my students. (p.13)
Who is the guilty culprit in this construal of church history? Most often, blame falls on the Emperor Constantine, who granted toleration to Christianity in the early 4th century (pp.13-14). It is argued that Constantine caused the Church to become watered down and corrupted. In the aftermath of Constantine, most of the Church became the Body of Christ in name only.
Litfin opposes this historical narrative for a number of reasons. “First of all, I find it to be an overly-simplistic way of doing history… History tends to be messy, not easily lending itself to portrayals that make absolute statements about positives and negatives” (p.14). Another obstacle for proponents of this “fall” narrative is that the Reformers themselves, according to Litfin, didn’t think that the church fathers represented the early Church’s “fall.” On the contrary, they “often used the ancient church as an exemplar, the very thing to which they were trying to return” (p.14). The final reason that he judges the “fall” historiography to be inaccurate is because it “robs contemporary believers of vast portions of their historical legacy” (p.15). He resolutely maintains that “all the centuries of Christian history are our rightful possession” (p.15). Each period of church history has both its bright spots and ugly stains, and we have to take the good along with the bad.
Of course there are some areas of scriptural interpretation where most evangelical readers will disagree with the church fathers, and that’s okay. Nevertheless, “when it comes to the general thrust of Christian doctrine, we must stand alongside them if we want to be considered orthodox” since “the church fathers have collectively blazed a theological trail for us” (pp.16-17). Litfin also points out that:
When we get to know the church fathers as individuals, we will begin to understand something of the grandeur of the community to which we belong—what the Apostles’ Creed calls the “communion of saints.”… [This] should give us a sense that we are not alone, that we are part of something grand and magnificent, that we must fight the good fight in our own generation like those who went before us. (p.17)
Having set out his reasons for valuing the church fathers, Litfin spends the rest of the book actually introducing his readers to them. He discusses twelve figures: Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, Tertullian of Carthage, Perpetua of Carthage, Origen of Alexandria, Athanasius of Alexandria, Ephrem the Syrian, John Chrysostom, Augustine of Hippo, Cyril of Alexandria, and Patrick of Ireland (p.iii).
In each chapter, Litfin begins with a brief biographical narrative, explores the theological issues/controversies that the church father was involved in, and ends by reflecting on the importance of the person for later Christian belief and practice. He also includes at the close of each chapter a list of further, usually more academic, books and translations available for those wanting to dig deeper. At certain points, the evangelical lens through which he reads the church fathers does become unhelpfully noticeable. Some of his analogies are also clunky. For example, I was distracted by his comparison of Tertullian with a cowboy from the wild west, firing “white-hot pamphlets at the heretics like bullets from his six-gun” (p.83).
Similarly, Litfin approvingly compares Justin Martyr’s apologetic framework to Bill Bright’s The Four Spiritual Laws tracts (p.42). He praising Bright’s tracts for presenting a “spiritual version of the American Dream” that captures the idea of a solitary all-American hero striving for a goal and obtaining the blessings of God (p.43). I cannot help but find The Four Spiritual Laws to be a significantly incomplete, overly-individualistic conception of the gospel. That’s not to say that people didn’t come to Christ through it, only that it’s an unfortunately “thin” rather than “thick” version of the good news about Christ, missing out on the communal nature of the faith that Litfin rightly highlights earlier in the book.
Despite these shortcomings, Litfin’s Getting to Know the Church Fathers is a fairly solid introduction to the patristic writers, especially for those suspicious that they are too “Catholic” to have anything good to say to evangelical ears. Litfin’s portrayal of the fathers is not flawless, but I’m whole-heartedly onboard with his overarching project of rehabilitating the reputation of the church fathers in the evangelical community. What are some good next steps for those hungry to learn more after finishing this book? I would definitely suggest Robert Louis Wilken’s beautiful The Spirit of Early Christian Thought. Another excellent choice for further immersing oneself is Christopher A. Hall’s series of books: Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers, and Worshiping with the Church Fathers. What many Christians seek in this day and age is a greater sense of rootedness. The Patristic era isn’t the only place to turn to, but I do think it truly is a rich resource that many readers can use to grow deeper in their faith. Getting to Know the Church Fathers is a fairly good starting point for that journey.
*Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Academic for review purposes. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review.