Book Review: Brian M. Litfin, Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2007.
Author: Bryan M. Litfin
Number of Pages: 304
Publication Date: Oct. 07
I want to thank Brazos Press and Caitlin Mackenzie for their generosity in allowing me the opportunity to review this book.
The majority of books written about the fathers of the church are more often than not well out of reach of the layperson. But now Dr. Bryan Litfin, professor of Theology at Moody Bible Institute, has filled a gap in the realm of Evangelicalism by provide an introduction that is welcoming and thoughtful. All the way through, Litfin uses anecdotes and illustrations to make the stories and thought of ten church fathers accessible to believers who perhaps have not yet obtained their Ph.D’s. The fathers dicussed include Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, Tertullian, Perpetua, Origen, Athanasius, John Chrysostom, Augustine, and Cyril of Alexandria.
Litfin begins his book with a story of a small boy named Billy. As a child, Billy spent much of his time at his grandmother’s house, but as he grew and become more independent, he spent less time there. It was only after his grandmother died that he went back and discovered in the attic the remarkable legacy of his grandparents and his family and he regretted all the years he had lost. The intent of the story is, of course, to put in perspective how Evangelicals (and Protestants in general) today often view the church fathers. We do not often spend time asking about our heritage as a church one hundred years ago, much less fifteen hundred years ago!
In contrast to Billy’s digging through his grandmother’s hope chest, the typical way we hear about the church fathers is more often in a proof-texting manner to prove that such-in-such theological point is orthodox or unorthodox. Litfin rightly states, “Such an approach is unfair to authors who never intended that their writings be excerpted out of their whole corpus to serve as ammunition in a modern-day war of words” (15). But this misfortune of this fact is doubled. Because the writings of the fathers are abused in theological arguments outside of their historical context, Evangelicals today miss out on the rich stories about the fathers (and mothers) of the Christian faith and their lives. If our faith is to be understood as one grounded in history, then that history ought to be cherished beyond simply the doctrinal ideas.
With this in mind Litfin sets out to correct three important misconceptions about the church fathers, their lives and beliefs. For one, many evangelical Christians are under the impression that the church fathers were not biblical. This is seen especially among the most conservative evangelicals and seems to have developed from the protestant view of the Roman Catholic Church with its emphasis on tradition. “Patristic teachings and creeds are sometimes referred to as ‘the doctrines of men,’ as opposed to the divine revelation given in scripture” (20). Litfin rightly observes that such a statement reveals a profound ignorance of the fact that while the church fathers were not always correct in what they wrote, in general, their beliefs fall very much in line with those of scripture. In fact, their writings are full of scriptural citations in every paragraph. Typical evangelicals also tend to be unaware of the fact that especially the Apostolic Fathers, such as Ignatius, lived within a generation or two of the Apostles themselves.
A second, but related misconception that Litfin has run across in evangelicalism is the idea that the church fathers were Roman Catholic. Ironically, while the previous misconception resulted from attempts to avoid Roman Catholic doctrines, this confusion is caused from hearing and believing what the Roman Catholic Church says about itself. The bishop of Rome may very well go all the way back to Peter, but the authority he claims today did not exist until the Western half of the Roman Empire fell to European invaders if not later. The fact is that what we today call uppercase Catholicism developed over the past twelve hundred years and the church that the protestants left in the Reformation was extremely different from the church we see in the writings of even those like Chrysostom. “We must recognize that catholic Christianity predated the emergence of its later namesake … to be catholic is simply to be part of the worldwide body of Christ. Catholicity entails a sense of the universality of the Christian church” (24).
Litfin’s third misconception is that “the church fathers represent the ‘fall’ of Christianity. Not only is this view poor historiography, as Litfin notes, but it is also a bit prideful for believers today to assume that only the apostles of the New Testament and today’s evangelicals (as a result of the Reformation) were able to correctly read and interpret the Scriptures. But this view does not fit with the Reformers themselves, who believed that they were very much inline with the church fathers against abuses of high medieval Roman Catholicism.
So then, why study the church fathers? Brian Litfin argues for two important reasons for their study. When one recognizes the dangers and abuses outline previously, the church fathers have much to teach us about the historical doctrines of our faith. “The ancients give us insight into what historic, orthodox Christianity is all about. …There is a ‘mere Christianity’ which defines the very essence of the Christian faith. This is where the church fathers have blazed the trail for us” (28-29). The second reason for study is a “communal” one. As noted above, the writings of the fathers are more than merely doctrinal. “When we get to know the church fathers as individuals, we will begin to understand something of the grandeur of the community to which we belong–what the Apostles’ Creed calls the ‘communion of saints’” (29).
Each chapter following the introduction has the same basic format. Litfin begins with two or three small sections about the lives and historical background to each of the fathers. Often this includes various anecdotal stories that help connect the twenty-first century reader with the early years of Christianity. An excellent example is chapter eight on John Chrysostom, which in Greek means “Golden Mouth.” Litfin writes,
In modern times, no one has wielded word more powerfully than Sir Winston Churchill, the heroic prime minister who led Great Britain through the dark days of World War II. Today he is regarded as the greatest orator of the twentieth century. In a time of crisis Churchill’s words steadied a nation. When Hitler’s armies forced France to surrender in 1940, his evil eye turned to the shores of England….All who lived through those days remember the courage that was infused into their veins by their prime minister’s stirring speeches. It was not just the power of guns and planes, but the power of words, that saved England in 1940….In this chapter we will meet a church father whose ‘golden mouth’ helped him rise to the highest ranks of the ancient church. John loved the Bible and preached it with passion to the adoring masses (189-191).
Such introductions to each of the fathers do well to capture the reader. Generally there are a few such stories for each chapter that help connect the ancient world with today. They are threaded through several key points of historical background to acclimate the reader to the story and life of father being discussed. For Chrysostom, these points include his childhood and training in public speaking in rhetoric, the ascetic and monastic lifestyle of his early years, his “theorizing” Antiochene hermeneutic in reading Scripture and preaching as Bishop in the city of Antioch, and his rise and eventual fall as the Bishop of Constantinople.
Litfin does especially well when he explains to his readers the causes of John Chrysostom’s exile. It was not Chrysostom’s moral failure, but rather his moral uprightness in the midst of the moral failure of Constantinople and political intrigue. “The many people whose morality John had criticized over the years now leapt at the chance to get revenge. The final outcome was dire: John was banished from his congregation and sent to a remote village in the cold, bandit-infested mountains. There the exiled bishop—much loved by his people but resented by the rich and powerful—lived out his remaining years in cheerless desolation” (205).
Following this historical survey of each father’s life, Litfin provides a helpful section of reflection on each of the church fathers discussing not only the father’s strengths, but also their weaknesses and what we, today, can learn from both. In Chrysostom’s case, this means acknowledging the fact that part of his writings contain rather provocative words against the Jews. And the tragedy of this is not to be ignored. As Litfin writes, “I mention this not to leave us with a bad impression of John, but to remind us of the power of words—for good or ill” (206). Litfin is to be commended for his honesty about both the strengths and failures in our Christian heritage, just like physical families, our Christian ancestors were not perfect.
Each chapter concludes with three final sections the first provides “provocative questions” about the content of the chapter and a quick bibliography and lastly, selected readings from the fathers themselves. The questions help to draw together the strands of the church in order to connect the church fathers both forward and backward. Forward to the present day and also backward to the first century church and Scripture. This is quite helpful in a couple ways. For one, these questions help connect the present day reader not only to the church father under discussion, but also connect both the reader and the father back to the Scriptures themselves, creating a unified picture of our great Christian heritage. Secondly, these questions encourage and challenge the reader to think critically about the thoughts, beliefs and life of the father under discussion.
The bibliography section has plenty of potential for being very helpful to the reader. Each chapter lists, if available, important translations of the father’s writings, scholarly introductions about the father, and overviews of his or her life. Each chapter contains some unique material as well. For example, in the chapter on Perpetua, a historical fiction novel is listed in the bibliography. On Athanasius, important works on his theology are listed. The final readings of each chapter hopefully give the reader a taste of Origen or Tertullian so that they might go look for more. They are well chosen and Litfin provides quick explanations of the context in which they were written for better understanding.
While there might be some merit to providing some overview of each of the ten church fathers discussed, I hope that the above summary of John Chrysostom has perhaps whetted your appetite. Litfin’s book has many strengths and while some might argue weaknesses as well, these potential weakness have less to do with the author or the book and more to do with the reader. Too often people criticize a book because it is not the kind they would have written. That is not a fair criticism. A good example of this is the fact that as a reader, I do not care for endnotes at all. But Getting to Know the Church Fathers is not written to an audience of people who read Athanasius and Ignatius for pleasure or feel as if they must read every note in the book. This would not be a fair criticism. The intended audience consists of evangelicals who have little or no prior experience reading about the church fathers and perhaps know nothing more than the name Augustine.
The subtitle of the book is An Evangelical Introduction. The two fold aim of the book is best seen in these words. How well does Litfin meet his goal? Extremely well. Both college freshman or sophmores and laypeople of evangelical churches would (and probably should) benefit greatly from this primer on the church fathers. This is the kind of book I would love to see Sunday school classes and small groups reading through and discussing. There is a theological and historical richness in this book that is lacking in books like Blue like Jazz. The questions toward the end of each chapter have potential for an introductory church history classes in a church or school. In fact, the next time I teach at my church, Getting to the Church Fathers will be quite high on my priority list. It’s at least as readable as Roger Olson’s The Story of Christian Theology, if not more so, and much more accessible in size for those who might be intimidated by a 650 page tome.
Finally, those who are informed about contemporary theological discussions and debates about Gender between Kevin Giles and Wayne Grudem will likely find Litfin’s reflections on Origen interesting. He uses Origen’s view of the Trinity of the trinity as an example of one of Origen’s unorthodox beliefs. What did Origen believe? Well, if you don’t know, I’d suggest picking up Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction and find out.
 Another very good example is the use of a scene from C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to introduce Origen’s allegorical interpretation.