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This post originally appeared on The Shepherd’s Study, a blog reviewing resources for pastors to use. You can read the original here. (If you poke around on the Shepherd’s Study, you can also find my review of Religion on Trial, if you’re interested.)
I just had to repost this because it’s so heartening to me to see other Christians, and other pastors, willing to listen to the great leaders and shepherds of the past. They were human, sure, with all that carries with it, but the remove of time between us and them allows us to appreciate their strong points and their accomplishments and look charitably on their errors or mistakes — while still not excusing them, of course. The church fathers really are astonishing when you start reading them at any length. Their depth and breadth of teaching that they delivered in a single sermon, for instance, puts most of us walking the face of the earth right now utterly to shame. They make me want to preach more, and preach better…the way they do.
The fathers that Haykin lists as good places to start are worthy of mention; from my own reading and experience, I’d add Chrysostom, Augustine, Leo the Great, and Gregory the Great. The last two especially had a popular, direct style of preaching. You can really see why they were so lauded in their lifetimes, and afterward. Reading the fathers helps teach you how to preach. You pastors out there, of whatever theological stripe or persuasion you might be, if you expound the Word of God regularly on a public basis, you will not fail to find help and improvement with the church fathers. If you feel smarter or more talented than everybody who’s come before you, then I guess the fathers won’t help you, but then again, if that’s your attitude in preaching, there’s an excellent chance nothing will help you. I surely don’t feel that way, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. If you crib from people smarter than you, that makes you smarter in turn. That’s the theory anyway. 🙂
Interestingly, when I was thinking about different reasons why the fathers are valuable to read and study, I came up with a list that was different than Haykin, the author of the book reviewed below. They have much to teach us, if we have ears to hear — and if you can get past the oftentimes unfortunately stilted or unnecessarily archaic translations with which the fathers are often saddled. Even with that handicap, they still shine. And newer translations are available, if you do a little looking around. Haykin’s book looks interesting and worthwhile. The fathers are always worth reading. As one of my professors once told me, “They are our guides.”
Title:
Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church
Author:
Michael Haykin
Reviewer:
Pastor Thomas Meissner

Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church, by Michael A.G. Haykin. Wheaton: Crossway, 2011. 172 pages.

Dr. Michael A.G. Haykin is the professor of church history and Biblical spirituality and director of The Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. He is also the editor of Eusebeia: The Bulletin of The Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies. Haykin is a prolific writer having authored numerous books and editorials, over 250 articles, and over 150 book reviews.

In his introduction to St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, C.S. Lewis advised, “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period” (4 – St. Vladimir Press Edition).  Among the mistakes of our time are strains of anti-intellectualism and the aliteracy (as opposed to illiteracy) which results from its contraction. “Gilbert Beers, a past editor of Christianity Today, has noted, ‘We owe much to many whom we have never met.’ In times past, when there was a reverence for the past, this reality was acknowledged gratefully. But as Beers goes on to note, ‘We live in a throwaway society; we dispose of things we consider a burden. My concern is that we do not add our predecessors to the collection of throwaways, carelessly discarding those who have made us what we are’” (27).

Dr. Haykin’s book, Rediscovering the Church Fathers is intended to help Christians get to know some “members of the family” as it were, and from that point regain a connection to the wisdom, the experience, the courage, and the fortitude of faithful believers who came before us and followed Christ. Haykin gives Hebrews 13:7 as one of his key rationales for studying church history as well as the Fathers, “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.”  It is well noted, and refreshing that he understands a proper balance must be kept between the word of the Fathers and the word of Holy Scripture. “The Fathers are not Scripture. They are senior conversation partners about Scripture and its meaning. We listen to them respectfully, but are not afraid to disagree when they err. As the Reformers rightly argued, the writings of the Fathers must be subject to Scripture” (29).

Why spend time trying to rediscover the Church Fathers? After naming it “A Vital Need for Evangelicals”, Haykin lists six reasons:

  1. “Study of the Fathers, like any historical study, liberates us from the present” (17).
  2. “The Fathers can provide us with a map for the Christian life” (18).
  3. They “may also in some cases, help us to understand the New Testament” (19).
  4. “We also need to read and know the Fathers since they are sometimes subjected to simply bad history or bad press” (20).
  5. “Reading the Fathers [serves] as an aid in defending the faith” (22).
  6. There is value in “reading the Fathers for spiritual nurture” (27).

With two thousand years of Christianity from which to choose, who would you pick to meet this “vital need”? Haykin chose seven, presented in what he describes as “case studies.” All of whom he says have been his close companions “for more than three decades” (29), men to whom he has come back time and again “to learn theology, to be refreshed spiritually, and to think about what it means to be a Christian” (156):

  1. Ignatius of Antioch (ca. 35/50-c. 98/117)
  2. The author of the Letter to Diognetus
  3. Origen (ca.185-254)
  4. Cyprian (ca.200-258)
  5. Ambrose (ca.339-397)
  6. Basil of Caesarea (c. 330-379)
  7. Patrick (ca.389-ca.461)

“Not…that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palatable, will not endanger us.” C.S. Lewis’ words from his introduction to St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation (5) remind the reader to keep his eyes open for mistakes and insights both in books of the past and books of the current age. In the case of this particular book, Haykin displays expected Baptist biases, most notably in regard to the Lord’s Supper. One wonders if Haykin is of the opinion that the doctrine of the real presence did not exist before the Fourth century (102).

One puzzling inclusion in this book, particularly because he was an errorist, is the chapter on Origen, “Interpreting the Scriptures: The Exegesis of Origen.” The quote from 1 Corinthians 2:12-13 with which Haykin begins the chapter cues the reader into the fact that he sees in Origen someone who sought to “engage his culture” with the Word of Christ. This desire, he says, shows Origen was “without a shadow of a doubt the greatest thinker of his day, pagan or Christian, one who was always writing to convince others of…‘the importance of Christian life and why a person should become a Christian’” (79).

Should such a desire trump holding fast to the truth of Scripture? Certainly not! Origen placed “the Son and the Spirit on a level subordinate to the Father” (75). It is true enough that Origen stated in a homily on Luke 16:6, “I want to be a man of the church, not the founder of heresy. I want to be named with Christ’s name and bear that name, which is blessed on earth.  I long to both be and be called a Christian as much in deed as in thought” (76). As seriously as we should take such a desire and put the best construction on it, however, Origen’s teachings were not in line with Holy Scripture.

Perhaps some worthwhile reasons for reading chapter four are a greater understanding of how human experience can shape a person (i.e. persecution against Christians which Origen and his family experienced), the vital importance of good exegesis, and the need for every pastor to strive for excellence each day as he cares for souls. Also worth learning from this chapter is the truth that not even the “divine ends” of evangelism should justify any means.

Overall Haykin’s method of presenting these seven Church Fathers is unique, readable, and his goal is laudable: let’s learn from our fathers and grandfathers in the faith and “fight the good fight” of faith. Haykin reintroduces the reader to these real people with strengths and weaknesses, people who lived in a real context, people from whom we can learn.  That said, why not go right to the source and read the Fathers for themselves?  This book is a stepping stone for people who wouldn’t normally do so, and as such this book provides a relatively short introduction to the Fathers and gives enough quotes to whet the appetite for primary source reading. Also included are two appendices.  The first is a beginner’s guide to reading the Fathers and the second is a reprinting of Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600).

What’s the take away?  “To do theology without history is to study cut flowers, not living plants” (165). Read this book and you will see living plants; real people who reveal to us that people share the same desires, the same needs; the same hopes and fears today, as they did in centuries past. Maybe, just maybe, we can learn something from them as we seek to follow Jesus Christ who is “the same, yesterday, today and forever.”

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