Monday, February 11, 2008

Book Review: Bryan M. Litfin, Getting to Know the Church Fathers. An Evangelical Introduction.

In what seems an ongoing series, I decided to hunt down the newest entry in Protestant introductions to the Church Fathers: Bryan Litfin`s Getting to know the Church Fathers from Brazos Press. I was particularly intrigued by this volume because of the reviews I found in blogsphere during the November Patristics Carnival.

The starting point with this book, I think, is to consider where it is coming from. It is part of the evangelical resurgence in interest about the Church Fathers. This movement is a source of perplexity among many Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox readers, I recognize, because, except for some notable converts, most of these writers remain evangelical and Protestant, while emphasizing the importance of both the Fathers and catholicity in their theology. This perplexity is understandible, of course, because of the aversion that many Protestants, especially those of the free church persuasion (Baptists, Mennonites, non-denominations evangelicals of all varieties), have to reading anything earlier than the Reformers (and, even then, one has to be careful of the magisterial ones). Never mind, that the early Reformers were as ready to scrape about the Fathers and the early Church as any Roman Catholic. Never mind that Protestantism remains very Augustinian in its theology, even if in a different way that Roman Catholics (this being something which drives Eastern Orthodox writers to despair).

I think the important way to review this Protestant patristic revival is that it is often intended as a way to deal with the shortcomings of the free church tradition. Most notably, the Fathers are frequently employed as a prophelactic against hte Protestant disease: splitting at the drop of a hat. Unfortunately, when the first Reformers split from the Roman Catholic Church, they opened up a new precedent in allowing for the possibility of having to leave a church with which one disagrees. This has lead to a steady fragmentation of Protestantism; a fragmentation which has only accelerated in the last century. What bringing in the Fathers does is to inject a dose of catholic ecclesiology which, it is hoped, may well get people to stick with their churches and work their problems out, rather than splitting off in a huff. As an Anglican catholic, I can only applaud that approach.

Litfin's volume fits into this revival, but in a peculiar place. One of the features of many of the introdutions I've read (D.H. William's Retrieving Tradition or Christopher Hall's Reading Scripture With the Church Fathers (and its companion volume, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers) is that these volumes are intended for educated laymen, pastors and theologians. Litfin's audience, I think, is broader. As my wife suggested (without disrespect, I note), Litfin is trying for more of a "Dummies Guide to the Fathers" approach. This means an accessible and sometimes folksy writing style (which masks good content, I note) and an assumption that the audience doesn't know anything. This makes it a splendid introductory volume for the evangelical layman to the Fathers.

Litfin structures his book on the biographies of ten Fathers (well, nine Fathers, one Mother): Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Ireneaeus of Lyons, Tertullian, Perpetua, Origen, Athanasius, John Chrysosthom, Augustine and Cyril of Alexandria. He gives a biography and a discussion of their theology in light of their contribution. He ends each section with a passage from each author and reflections questions. This is, clearly, a book meant to be studied in church book studies and with a Bible close at hand.

Litfin's introduction deals with the perennial issue of why Protestants should want to read the Fathers: the Fathers aren't Biblical, they are Roman Catholics, they represent the fall of Christianity. He also deals with whether they are relevant. All of these, of course, are the perennial issues for Protestants (and, to a lesser degree, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox), but Litfin deals with them well. He does have a tendency to over-defend the Fathers, especially on the issue of allegory and Constantinianism. But, then, I'm not exactly know for my sympathy to either patristic theme.

Still, this is an excellent introduction to the Fathers and deserves to be taken seriously. If you are looking for a book to introduce the Fathers in an evangelical setting, this one is an excellent choice.



mike said...

Phil, Its nice to see a more positive review of Litfin's book. I'll admit that I was a bit bias in my review being that I had him as a professor five years ago.

I don't know if you noticed before, but the other two reviews, the negative ones, came from a Catholic perspective - one of them even argued the point that the Fathers were Catholic with a big "C" - if I remember correctly.

Phil Snider said...

Hi Mike;

I was hoping you'd comment. I did notice the other two reviews were strongly RC. I understand what they're driving at, but I can't say I agree.


Bryan Litfin said...

thanks for reading the book. your wife is right, I often think of this book as "The Church Fathers for Dummies." I am trying to reach a skeptical audience and show that I am "one of them" yet still appreciate the Fathers.