Rediscovering the Church Fathers: A Review

by Austin Thompson

Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who they Were and How they Shaped the Church by Michael A.G. Haykin, opens with a quote by the late Catholic theologian Edward T. Oakes,“There can be no healthy theology without a solid grounding in the Fathers” (12). From the perspective of the author, “many modern-day evangelicals are either ignorant of or quite uncomfortable with the church fathers” (13). Whether the issue is rooted in ignorance, veiled in a “cloud of suspicion” (13), or barred by “strangeness” (14), Haykin endeavors in his short work “to commend the reading and prayerful study of the church fathers…” (29).

In the opening chapter, the author lists five main reasons the reading and study of the church fathers is necessary in the ongoing life of the church: freedom and wisdom, insight into the New Testament, confronting bad historical representation the Fathers, aid in defending the faith, and spiritual nurture (17-27). The introductory chapter ends with a word of caution reminding the reader not to elevate the writings of these pillars above the ultimate authority of Scripture (29), and that the New Testament is to be consulted alongside Patristic writings (17).

The first step in alleviating some of the modern evangelical confusion regarding the fathers is to clearly define the parameters of the Patristic age. While no official list of church Fathers exists, there are four main characteristics that help qualify a man for consideration: orthodoxy of doctrine, being accepted by the church as an important link in the transmission of the Christian faith, holiness of life, and living between the end of apostolic era (ca. 100) and the deaths of Isidore of Seville and John of Demascus (ca. 636-749). The author stays true to this set of criteria in the selection of men presented in the book.

The Structure of the Book
Next, it is pertinent to consider the structure of Haykin’s work. When critiquing the structure and content of the book, it is important to consider that numerous books of various sizes have been compiled on the inexhaustible subject of church history. The purpose of the book is not to provide a comprehensive overview of all the church Fathers, but rather a brief introduction to the impact and importance of Patristic influence on Christianity.

The author selected a specific group of men—Ignatius of Antioch, the author of Letter to Diognetus, Origen, Cyprian, Ambrose, Basil of Caesarea, and St. Patrick—based on issues that were central to the Patristic era and issues that they wrestled with in their lives as believers (29). Among these issues are martyrdom, monasticism, discipleship, missions, the canon and interpretation of Scripture, and the supreme issue of the doctrine of the Trinity and worship (29). While the specific fathers chosen for the work accomplish the author’s initial goal, Haykin assures the reader that the Patristic era contains other qualified men who are equally sufficient to demonstrate its influence on Christianity (29).

The general structure of each chapter in the book contains aspects of the historical culture for context, biographical information about the main character’s life (if possible), and a critique of their contribution to church history through interaction with primary sources. This format succeeds in presenting information about the Fathers in a way that commends the reading and prayerful study of the church fathers to the reader. However, there are most certainly alternate ways of arguing the same material to accomplish the goal desired by the author.

Throughout the book, Haykin highlights how the Fathers often played a great role in preserving and defending the doctrine of the church. Had the author desired to emphasize this point more, the book could have been divided into chapters that addressed the main issues of the Patristic era listed above and focus on the specific church fathers whose ministries most intersected with each issue.

Secondly, Haykin affirms the importance of reading primary sources, in the original language if possible (156), and demonstrates a commitment to their value by including translated excerpts in every chapter. Had the author desired to highlight even further the significance of primary sources, each chapter could have begun with a more significant portion of each father’s writing followed by the necessary historical and personal details required to confirm the source’s value. This approach would be similar to the author’s strategy in his work centered on the spirituality of Oliver Cromwell, To Honour God. Though there are different ways of structuring the material, the method employed in the book best displays the life and work of each church father and their influence on Christianity.

Haykin’s academic foundation and wealth of knowledge on the subject of the church fathers is of great benefit to the reader in the organization of information into clear, succinct sections. This is can be seen not only in the material included on each father, but in his interaction with the primary sources in their own language. In addition to primary sources, the author takes advantage of and appreciates the wealth of secondary resources available on the subject of the Patristic era and quotes many throughout. The first appendix contains a list of primary and secondary sources recommended for beginners seeking further study.

Haykin’s academic foundation and wealth of knowledge on the subject of the church fathers is of great benefit to the reader in the organization of information into clear, succinct sections.

Why You Should Study the Church Fathers
Regarding the work as a whole, it is necessary to evaluate the content of the book and its effectiveness in supporting the five reasons to study the church fathers outlined in the introduction. First, the church fathers should be read for freedom and wisdom, with the end goal of liberating us from the present by examining the perspective of a different period (17). Historical context can shed light on presuppositions and confront prejudices that might otherwise go unnoticed (17). While this principle might reveal the need to reassess a doctrinal stance on a specific issue, it also has the potential to positively confirm it. A great example of this can be seen in Athenagoras’ denial of Christian cannibalism while simultaneously condemning the practice of abortion (64). It is encouraging to look back to the past for wisdom and discover men of the early church standing against issues that plague the world to this day.

Second, the church fathers are to be read for insight into the New Testament (19). Given that modern day Christians are far more distant from New Testament times than Christians in the early centuries after the apostolic era, the study of their writings can prove greatly beneficial for information related to all aspects of Christian life. Despite errors in his biblical interpretation, the translation work and writings of Origen are a wealth of resources that pioneered the world of biblical studies, commentaries (76), and first truly systematic theology (71).

The witness of Ignatius of Antioch’s writings concerning martyrdom and suffering for the name of Christ can encourage and comfort those who face modern persecution to the point of death (48). While the church fathers can give us great insight into the New Testament, the reader does well to remember the warning presented in the introduction regarding the subjection of all extra biblical writings to Scripture (29).

Third, the church fathers are to be read in order to dispel bad press and misrepresentations (20). Throughout history, especially in modern-day academic criticism, Origen is often the subject of great ridicule and occasionally labeled a heretic. While there are statements in his writings that are questionable, and others that are unquestionably heretical, I was personally convicted after reading the chapter on the prolific Egyptian theologian. I believe Haykin summarizes it best:

In fact, it is very evident to anyone who has spent time seriously interacting with Origen’s massive exegetical and homiletical corpus that one is dealing with a man of profound spiritual maturity owing to his immersion in the Scriptures, whether or not one agrees with the methods and details of the Eyptian exegete’s interpretation.

Rediscovering the Church Fathers, 90.

I was challenged by these statements to be more diligent and study a theologian’s life and writings in order to understand what he has said before I question the legitimacy of his faith in Christ.

Fourth, the church fathers are to be read as an aid in defending the faith (22). One of the earliest and most divisive heresies in church history is the Arian teaching that denies the full deity of the Son and Holy Spirit. Though the Nicene Creed of 325 staunchly affirmed the homoousios (same essence or nature) of the Son’s full divinity with the Father, it lacked a similar defense for the deity of the Spirit. Moved to defend the Trinity, and specifically the deity of the Spirit, Basil of Caesarea wrote a defense titled On the Holy Spirit that is regarded as one of the most important works of the entire Patristic period (121). Outlining significant doctrinal points from Basil’s work on the Holy Spirit, the author demonstrates that the work of the church fathers can aid in defending the faith from damnable heresy.

The few words, “I am bound by the Spirit,” can help inspire every believer to kindle afresh the love of Christ within them and lay aside every encumbrance in order to run with endurance the race set before them (Heb 12:1-2).

Fifth, the church fathers are to be read for spiritual nurture (27). Included in the introduction is Spurgeon’s famous quote, “It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others” (14). It is hard not to be moved by Ignatuis’ passion in the face of martyrdom, the author of the Letter to Diognetus’ defense of the Christian faith, and Basil’s patient exhortation and correction of Eustathius regarding his view of the Holy Spirit. Closing the book with the missionary life of Patrick, the author includes a powerful quote that testifies of Patrick’s deep affection for Christ. The few words, “I am bound by the Spirit,” can help inspire every believer to kindle afresh the love of Christ within them and lay aside every encumbrance in order to run with endurance the race set before them (Heb 12:1-2).

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Haykin’s introduction to the Patristic era, and feel he accomplished his goal of fueling a desire for further reading and prayerful study of the church fathers. Throughout the book I learned new information, had my own presuppositions challenged for the better, rejoiced in the wealth of sources defending the Triune God, and was deeply moved by the commitment of great men moved by the Holy Spirit to forward the kingdom of God. I have already strongly recommended this book to believers in my congregation, and will look for more opportunities to incorporate the church fathers into my weekly teachings.

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