Reviews Theology

Review: Getting to Know the Church Fathers

Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction by Bryan M. Litfin. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2007. 301 pp. $14.47 paperback.

Bryan Litfin (Ph.D., University of Virginia), associate professor of theology at Moody Bible Institute, provides a much needed introduction to the church fathers for evangelical Christians. Burdened by the fact that many evangelicals lack any kind of connection to the rich history of the church, Litfin writes so that Christians will learn to think of the fathers as those who can play a guiding role for the faith today (p. 18). Every Christian should find himself on the path of orthodoxy—a path the fathers labored to create (p. 29). When Christians get to know the church fathers and what they believed, they will “begin to understand something of the grandeur of the community to which we belong…the ‘communion of saints’” (p. 29).

In his introduction, Litfin explains how one is considered a church father: he/she must be “ancient, orthodox in doctrine, holy in life, and approved by other Christians” (p. 19). He then highlights three common misconceptions evangelicals have about these giants of the faith: 1) the church fathers were not biblical; 2) the church fathers were Roman Catholics; and 3) the church fathers represent the “fall” of Christianity (pp. 20-27). Perhaps the second is the most widely held misconception. Unfortunately, evangelicals have equated “catholic” with “Roman Catholic” and have thus been robbed of their rightful spiritual heritage (p. 22). “Catholic,” as it relates to the fathers, writes Litfin, “referred to the unified community of all true believers in the world: those whose loyalty was given to the risen Christ” (p. 23).

In each of the ten chapters, Litfin covers the life and influence of a church father. It is difficult to coalesce the themes of the fathers (which rightly includes one woman, Perpetua), for each had many different themes associated with their lives and eras. Nevertheless, Litfin masterfully communicates his main idea: church fathers matter because they are people whom God used at a critical time in history to defend and continue the spread of the gospel. This means that present-day evangelicals are part of something much greater than their own relationship with God (p. 264).

Three areas of strength in Litfin’s book are noteworthy. First, Litfin’s writing style is engaging. He makes ancient history accessible and compelling as he begins each chapter with a modern story that will help connect the reader with the church father’s life and work. His devotional style moves the reader toward worshiping God for what he has done in history more than the average biographical work. Each chapter includes reflection questions and a few resources to “dig deeper” into the particular father’s life. Litfin also provides a select portion of writing from each father to close the chapters.

Second, modern day theological controversies continually rise to the surface in each chapter. This may seem obvious (there is nothing new under the sun), but Litfin helps today’s Christian understand where controversies came from, what the orthodox response was, and why it matters for today. There are an abundance of examples; a brief sampling will suffice.

Already in the first quarter of the second century, Ignatius fought two main opponents: legalistic Jews and Gnostics. Both had heretical views of Jesus. Litfin writes, “Both of these christological errors had harmful consequences: they located salvation somewhere other than the cross” (p. 45). Faulty christology has not been extinguished today, and the discerning Christian will detect where legalism and Gnosticism still rear their ugly heads. Ignatius is proof that theological battles can be fought on multiple fronts. Moreover, Ignatius reminds Christians to cling to the cross if they are zealous to authentically live out their faith. As Litfin says, “Understanding the doctrine of grace inevitably yields gracious people” (p. 46).

Irenaeus played a key role in determining what it meant to be orthodox in doctrine, thus establishing himself as one of the first to contribute to the emergence of catholic Christianity (pp. 77, 79). Irenaeus was also one of the first patristic writers to understand human history as the story of God’s redemption. Irenaeus also blessed the church with the “Rule of Faith.” The Rule is the basic synopsis of the Bible (pp. 90-91), and it helps believers to remember that, above all else, the Bible centers on what God has done in Jesus Christ to bring about salvation to sinful men and women.

Athanasius’s life can be summed up in the phrase de decretis (“Defending the Nicene Creed”). Athanasius’ main opponent was Arian, who charged that Jesus was not eternal but was created and therefore could not be God (p. 175). After Nicaea, Emperor Constantine tried to order Bishop Athanasius to readmit Arius to the church but Athanasius refused, for Arius rejected the Nicene principle of homoousios (the Father and Son were of the same substance), which Arian rejected (p. 178). For Athanasius, this was not simply a matter of semantics. “The Incarnate Christ had to be fully man and fully God in order to lift human beings back into God’s life” (p. 182). Orthodox evangelicals are indebted to Athanasius for articulate responses and tremendous courage as he stood against the world in the fight for truth (p. 183).

Third, Litfin winsomely expounds the events surrounding the lives of the fathers. Litfin details the nature of completing the canon when covering Tertullian (pp. 108-110). In the chapter on Perpetua, the reader can nearly feel the pressure of the Roman persecution that weighed down on the martyrs (pp. 132-135). Reading on Augustine, one can hear faint whispers of the Pelagian debate (pp. 226-230). Litfin also covers the rise of monasticism in Chrysostom’s chapter (pp. 192-197).

Weaknesses are hard to find in Litfin’s book; nevertheless a few must be mentioned. Some readers, particularly those in academia, may balk at Litfin’s use of informal writing (contractions, second person, etc.), but the devotional nature of the book justifies Litfin’s choices in these matters. What is of greater concern is Litfin’s glossing of some of the fathers’ character. At times, he paints the fathers more graciously than history has done, almost to a fault. Origen, for example, was later accused of heresy for his view of subordinationism, yet Litfin writes, “To be fair we must remember that the theological position of the Christian church on these points had not yet been firmly established” (p. 157). This seems to be a simplistic response to a very disturbing theology found in Origen. Litfin also fails to mention much at all about Tertullian’s involvement with the Montanists, which was considered a heretical sect by many orthodox believers.

One further suggestion, perhaps more for the publisher than Litfin, is that a Scripture index and glossary of terms would be welcome resource. Regarding the index, most foreign phrases are explained, but lay readers may find some terms distracting and lose track of Litfin’s point.

Overall, Getting to Know the Church Fathers is a helpful, lively, and accessible introduction to the early Christian church. This book will help evangelicals who are unfamiliar with patristic church history grow familiar with their spiritual ancestors and the issues, places, and events that shaped early Christianity. Litfin’s closing exhortation is a welcome one for evangelicals longing for a breath of fresh, ancient air to give life to a contemporary, and sometimes stale, faith: “Embrace your inner catholic, and see where it will take you” (p. 265).