Books for Aspiring Patrologists (pt. 1)

In regards to patristics (i.e. the study of the early church fathers) I’ve been accumulating some excellent book recommendations. Some books were recommended in my interview with Dr. Ligon Duncan (listen here), some books have been resting dust-covered on my shelves from previous recommendations, and some from helpful recommendations by Dr. Michael A. G. Haykin.

So this week on TSS I’ll be sharing with you various titles on my reading list for all you aspiring patrologists.

First, Haykin (on his blog) recommends dipping our toes into the pool of patrology with Robert Louis Wilken’s, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003). Wilken serves as William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia.

I have found The Spirit of Early Christian Thought to be a refreshing and stimulating study of the characters and thought of the period. At times spiritually devotional, Wilken is always lucid and engaging. His goal is to draw a connection between the spirit and intellect, between worship and reason, as modeled by the early fathers. As with all books on patrology, this one should be read with careful discernment, the fruit of which, however, will be in the beholding a panorama of patristic intellectual fervor and heartfelt piety. It’s available in hardcover ($35.00) and paperback ($14.00).

Three short excerpts—

“In an essay on the church fathers, Hans Urs von Balthasar once wrote, ‘Greatness, depth, boldness, flexibility, certainty and a flaming love—the virtues of youth, are marks of patristic theology. Perhaps the Church will never again see the likes of such an array of larger-than-life figures that mark the period from Irenaeus to Athanasius, Basil, Cyril, Chrysostom, Ambrose and Augustine—not to mention the army of the lesser fathers. Life and doctrine are immediately one. Of them all it is true what Kierkegaard said of Chrysostom: ‘He gesticulated with his whole existence.’” (p. xviii)

“All the figures portrayed in this book prayed regularly, and their thinking was never far removed from the church’s worship. Whether the task at hand was the defense of Christian belief to an outsider, the refutation of the views of a heretic, or the exposition of a passage from the Bible, their intellectual work was always in service of praise and adoration of the one God. ‘This is the Catholic faith,’ begins an ancient creed, ‘that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity.’ Often their treatises ended with a doxology to God, as in Augustine’s On the Spirit and the Letter: ‘to whom be glory forever. Amen.’ They wished not only to understand and express the dazzling truth they had seen in Christ, by thinking and writing they sought to know God more intimately and love him more ardently. The intellectual task was a spiritual undertaking. In the oft-cited words of the desert monk Evagrius, ‘A theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a theologian.’

The point may seem obvious, yet it is often forgotten. More often than not the church fathers have been interpreted as solitary intellectuals, each working out his own system, beholden chiefly to the world of ideas and arguments, as though they were clandestine members of an ancient philosophical guild. To be sure, many of the best minds in the early church were philosophically astute and moved comfortably within the intellectual traditions of the ancient world. They knew the argot of philosophy, and their books and ideas were taken seriously by Greek and Roman intellectuals. But if one picks up a treatise of Origen or Basil of Caesarea and compares it with the writings of the philosopher Alcinous or the neo-Platonist Plotinus, it is apparent at once that something else is at work.” (pp. 25-26)

“The intellectual tradition that began in the early church was enriched by the philosophical breadth and exactitude of medieval thought. Each period in Christian history makes it own unique contribution to Christian life. The church fathers, however, set in place a foundation that has proven to be irreplaceable. Their writings are more than a stage in the development of Christian thought or an interesting chapter in the history of the interpretation of the Bible. Like an inexhaustible spring, faithful and true, they irrigate the Christian imagination with the life-giving water flowing from the biblical and spiritual sources of the faith. They are still our teachers today.” (p. 321)

5 thoughts on “Books for Aspiring Patrologists (pt. 1)

  1. Tony,

    A very interesting and useful resource tool is Michael Holmes newly edited and revised 1992 diglot edition of “The Apostolic Fathers….Greek Texts and English Translations”.

    This is a collection of the earliest, extant christian writings outside the NT. Many a scholar and research library consider this the best collection of these writings available since Lightfoot-Harmer. Complete with introductions to each document, bibliographies and textual notes. Of particular interest, to me anyway, are the letters of Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch and Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna both of whom were early martyrs.

    This 2007 3rd edition is ‘in memorium’ of the master himself, Bruce Metzger.


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