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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).

Categories
Theology

How Did St. Augustine Get Saved?

St. Augustine of Hippo is a giant of the faith. He was monumental in helping the church establish a doctrine of grace against Pelagianism.  He also wrote many influential works, the two most famous being Confessions (his spiritual autobiography) and City of God. The story of how he came to Christ is marvelous and encouraging to all who are longing for true rest.

Augustine’s life can be characterized as a search for joy. His main pursuit was carnal pleasure, which left him empty. Augustine reflected on his search, “I did not ask for more certain proof of you, but only to be made more steadfast in you.”[1] Augustine did not want a water-tight argument for Christianity. He wanted a water-tight Person who would promise and deliver true joy.

His pursuit led him to sexual promiscuity. Aside from some very wild teen years, he lived with one woman (whom he never names) for a long time, though they never married. He admits that this experience helped him discover the difference between a marriage covenant with the purpose of raising Christian children and a “bargain struck for lust.”[2]

In search of deliverance from this lust, Augustine sought out his friend Simplicianus. Simplicianus told him the conversion story of Victorinus. Augustine remarks that the story “shows the great glory of your grace.”[3] Most likely, Augustine meant that the story shows God’s grace in Victorinus’ life, but also how God used it to change his own life.

When Augustine heard of Victorinus’ public profession, he “began to glow with fervor to imitate him,” which was precisely why Simplicianus told the story in the first place.[4] Mere imitation cannot change a heart, but what transpired after this encounter was that Augustine increasingly realized his depravity and need for a Redeemer.

Augustine describes his conversion in terms of being “released…from the fetters of lust.”[5] Another story brought that about. One day with his friend Alypius, Augustine was visited by a fellow-African named Ponticianus. Just like Simplicianus, Ponticianus shared a story with Augustine: this one about release from the world through monastic living.

Augustine realized God was using Ponticianus’ story to help him see “how sordid…how deformed and squalid” his heart was.[6] But Augustine prayed, “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.”[7] The Holy Spirit overcame such resistance and God drew Augustine to Christ. After Ponticianus left, Augustine was in the spiritual birth canal, as it were: “I was beside myself with madness that would bring me sanity,” Augustine wrote. “I was dying a death that would bring me life.”[8]

Augustine’s self-understanding heightened as he wrestled with his desire for holiness and carnal pleasure.[9] After a physical assault on his own body,[10] he isolated himself from Alypius and asked his soul, ‘How long shall I go on saying, ‘tomorrow, tomorrow’? Why not now? Why not make an end of my ugly sins at this moment?”[11]

As Augustine surrendered, he heard a voice saying, “Take it and read!” He returned to Alypius where Paul’s letters lay on the table. He read Romans 13:13-14 and embraced the call to clothe himself with Christ. Augustine wrote, “You converted me to yourself, so that I no longer desired a wife or placed any hope in this world.”

Who saved Augustine? God did. But he did not use not water-tight, rational arguments to save Augustine. God used two stories that exposed Augustine’s desire for worldly pleasure and showed the glorious, eternal joy available when God is the object of pleasure.


[1] Augustine Confessions 8.1.
[2] Ibid., 4.2.
[3] Ibid., 8.2.
[4] Ibid., 8.5.
[5] Ibid., 8.6.
[6] Ibid., 8.7.
[7] Ibid., 8.7.
[8] Ibid., 8.8.
[9] In 8.9-10, Augustine enters into a fascinating reflection on the nature of the will.
[10] Ibid., 8.8.
[11] Ibid., 8.12.

Categories
Theology

Welcome to Advent

Advent is the historical church name for the Christmas season. It comes from the Latin word adventus which means “coming.” Thus, Advent is the season of preparation, expectation, and celebration of Jesus’ incarnation (literally his “taking on flesh”) at Christmas. The Advent Season also points us forward to the Second Advent when Jesus will return at the end of the age to usher in his kingdom in the new heaven and new earth.

Each year I write a number of Advent posts to help myself (and you!) worship Jesus as God in the flesh, the one who came to save his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21). This year, I wanted to start with a beautiful hymn that is based on the prophecy in Isaiah 11:1-2 that Jesus will be from the root of Jesse, King David’s father.

The hymn is “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” written in 15th century Germany and was translated to English by Theodore Baker in 1894.

Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming, as men of old have sung.
It came, a floweret bright, amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.

Isaiah ’twas foretold it, the Rose I have in mind;
With Mary we behold it, the virgin mother kind.
To show God’s love aright, she bore to men a Savior,
When half spent was the night.

The shepherds heard the story proclaimed by angels bright,
How Christ, the Lord of glory was born on earth this night.
To Bethlehem they sped and in the manger found Him,
As angel heralds said.

This Flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air,
Dispels with glorious splendor the darkness everywhere;
True Man, yet very God, from sin and death He saves us,
And lightens every load.

O Savior, Child of Mary, who felt our human woe,
O Savior, King of glory, who dost our weakness know;
Bring us at length we pray, to the bright courts of Heaven,
And to the endless day!