Book Review: Rediscovering the Church Fathers by Michael A. G. Haykin
Rediscovering the Church Fathers is a convenient and accessible distillation of a selection of the important primary source documents from the first five centuries of church history. The author gives biographical sketches, theological overviews, and aids for properly interpreting and applying the writings of early Patristic writers such as Ignatius, Cyprian, Basil of Caesarea, and Ambrose.
Dr. Haykin is a noteworthy professor with decades of teaching experience and an authoritative researcher in the Patristics with a Th.D. in Church History from the University of Toronto. He has also authored or edited over twenty-five books in history and theology. Engaging with his perspective will help evangelical readers to broaden their historical and theological horizons.
Contemporary evangelicalism often acts as though it was born yesterday—although Christianity is a strongly historically-rooted religion. The literature and music of the twenty-first century North American church is rarely more than a few decades old. The life-or-death theological controversies of yesterday are ignored while ancient errors are expressed by the latest hip Christian teachers as merely a “fresh perspective” on the matter. Rediscovering the Church Fathers offers a thorough corrective to the historical myopathy of our age. As the author says, “Every age has its own distinct outlook, presuppositions that remain unquestioned even by opponents. The examination of another period of thought forces us to confront our innate prejudices which would go unnoticed otherwise.” (17)
According to the author’s assessment, “Far too many modern-day evangelicals are either ignorant of or quite uncomfortable with the church fathers.” (13) In his own words, he wrote this book to address the question, “Why should evangelical Christians engage the thought and experience of these early Christian witnesses?” (17) Haykin then provides solid reasons for studying the early church fathers, including: “to aid [the church] in her liberation from the Zeitgeist of the twenty-first century; to provide a guide in her walk with Christ; to help her understand the basic witness to her faith, the New Testament; to refute bad histories of the ancient church; and to be a vehicle of spiritual nurture.” (28-29)
The author substantiates his case for studying the Patristics by providing a series of vignettes on the lives and theologies of various church fathers from the first five centuries of church history. The individuals included in this book are: Ignatius of Antioch, the author of the Letter to Diognetus, Origen, Cyprian, Ambrose, Basil of Caesarea, and Patrick. There is also a concluding autobiographical chapter on the author’s own lifelong journey in Patristic studies, which highlights much of the fruit of this endeavor for his spiritual vitality and perseverance in faith.
The book is a helpful and brief introduction to its subject, weighing in at a mere 176 pages of text. It serves as an excellent introductory work due to the author’s ability to weave accessible language together with elaborative content footnotes and primary source citation. Even when the author diverges from common evaluations (as with his perspective on Origen’s hermeneutics) he does so without guile and thoroughly explains his reasoning.
Although this book is primarily introductory, it does offer trenchant insights for more advanced readers of church history as well. With only six case studies presented, the author foregoes providing large portions of biographical information, giving only as much as is related to the specific chapter topic. Given his extensive study in the primary sources, he also has the ability to quote and explain them in significantly condensed detail. As mentioned above, even when defending a contemporary minority report on Origen’s hermeneutics, the strength of his position is that it is drawn from the original sources, rather than the usual oversimplified regurgitations on the harmfulness of allegorical interpretations of Scripture. The author’s incorporation of over five hundred citations into such a brief introduction is just one piece of evidence which points to the book’s excellent scholarship.
The first survey chapter discusses the thought of Ignatius of Antioch. Ignatius’ letters provide some of the greatest extant insights on life for Christians in the post-apostolic era—a life marked by suffering and persecution. Ignatius wrote to encourage unity despite the threats of persecution, on one hand, and the false teaching of the Docetists on the other. His letters also reveal that Ignatius believed he was called to martyrdom, and he sought aid and support in his vocation.
Ignatius’ sense of calling to martyrdom has been the source of his strongest criticisms from some scholars, though Haykin interacts sympathetically with the bishop’s letter to the Roman church. The author provides significant linguistic background regarding the development of the term “martyr,” from mere “witness” to “bearing witness to the person and work of Christ to the point of death.” (34) He also gives the general historical background regarding the persecution of the first century church under the Roman Empire and outlines the details available regarding Ignatius’ own arrest. Ignatius’ letters are thus interpreted, not as the unbalanced thoughts of a mentally ill person (as some critics have suggested), but as the intense struggles of a man faced with death or dishonor, who chose to renounce his own life in imitation of Christ.
The next chapter presents the apologetic value of the Letter to Diognetus. The anonymous author of this letter seeks to persuade a Greco-Roman pagan, Digonetus, to embrace faith in Christ. The letter serves as an example of the piety and reason found among the apostles’ successors. It begins with a prayer that God would convert Diognetus, then proceeds into a diatribe against the distinct idolatries associated with both paganism and Judaism. This section is reminiscent of 1 Cor 8 and Acts 17, where Paul argues against the polytheism of the culture.
After completing his reductio against the rival religions of the day, the author of the letter begins to extol the majesty of Christ, presenting his case for accepting Christianity and rejecting its competitors. This case is built firmly upon the revelatory nature of Christianity, with Christ himself at the center as the pinnacle of divine self-revelation. Haykin helpfully points out that the only apparent weakness in the author’s case stems from his wholesale rejection of Judaism, leaving Christianity as something of a novel revelation—rather than being rooted in the prior revelation of the Old Testament. Despite this flaw, the letter presents a strong example of worshipful apologetics, what John Frame calls “a presuppositionalism of the heart.”
The succeeding chapter gives a very interesting presentation on the exegesis of Origen. As Shawn Wilhite points out in his review, “Modern interpreters of Origen frequently dismiss his hermeneutics without analysis.” In contrast, Haykin presents a more nuanced understanding of Origen’s three levels of Scripture interpretation, a view which has exerted influence upon biblical exegesis ever since (particularly the medieval Quadriga). Origen’s hermeneutic is not as easily dispensed with as its modern caricature and his understanding of allegory was not as central to his exegesis as some have claimed. He was the pioneering Christian exegete of the Old Testament.
The subsequent chapter surveys the Eucharistic piety shared by Cyprian and Ambrose. These two Latin Fathers played key roles in the development of the church’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper. Interestingly, it was the drinking of communion wine which produced in Cyprian a “Eucharistic insobriety” distinct from worldly drunkenness, revealing to us the “richness of [his] experience of the Lord’s Table.” (96) This experience of the Eucharist was spiritually sobering, drawing believers’ hearts back to spiritual wisdom and away from the distractions of that age.
Ambrose of Milan was one of the key defenders of Nicene orthodoxy against Arianism. He found a Eucharistic typology in the OT accounts of Melchizedek’s offering of bread and wine to Abraham. He also drew several arguments from OT miracles in favor of the physical presence of Christ in the Eucharist. For him, the importance of union with Christ by faith was fulfilled in participation in the Lord’s Supper. He was also among the first to present an interpretation of the Song of Songs as an expression of the experience of the Eucharist.
Basil of Caesarea’s monastic reforms and influence in theological controversies are also discussed in their own chapter. He was influential in refuting Arianism and providing a defense of the full divinity of the Holy Spirit against semi-Arians and the Pneumatomachians.
The final survey chapter provides an analysis of the mission of Patrick of Ireland. Despite the collapse of the Roman Empire, the influence of Christianity on the British Isles persisted, largely due to the legacy of Patrick’s missionary efforts. In his youth he was taken to Ireland as a captive, where he met the Lord and strove for daily communion with him while tending sheep. After escaping from slavery he pursued a theological education and returned to Ireland to preach to those who had formerly enslaved him.
His missionary zeal was driven in some part by his belief that he was living in the “last days,” a commonly-held view during the fall of the Roman Empire. He also had a dream in which God strongly called him to evangelize Ireland. Patrick speaks of thousands converted under his ministry, despite strong opposition from Celtic pagans. He was taken into captivity twice more and mentions being near death a dozen times. The Celtic church inherited Patrick’s missionary spirit, spreading the gospel throughout Western Europe for centuries thereafter.
The book concludes with a motivating autobiographical picture of the author’s own engagement with the writings of the church fathers, followed by two appendices. The first appendix acts as a beginner’s guide to reading the Patristics, while the second is a critical reflection on the influential text The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) by Jaroslav Pelikan.
In evaluating Rediscovering the Church Fathers, two strengths and two weaknesses will be surveyed and discussed, respectively. This evaluation will be followed by some brief concluding remarks on the overall value of the book.
This book provides evangelical readers with a valuable introduction to an era of church history which is often overlooked, if not altogether rejected as unhelpful. It deserves a wide reading. Two strengths of the book include: the author’s engaging writing style and the introductory chapter provides an excellent apologetic for reading early Christian authors.
Engaging writing style. The author’s writing style is engaging and personable throughout, but the introduction was particularly disarming, helpfully addressing the concerns which often preclude evangelicals from reading the church fathers. While the concluding chapter brings the book itself to an end, it also functions rather unexpectedly as yet another introduction. In this case, it introduces the reader to a lifetime of engagement in fruitful study of the church fathers. As will be discussed later, the editing of the survey chapters might have been stronger, but the introductory and concluding chapters were rhetorically brilliant, providing literary structure to a collection of otherwise seemingly unconnected chapters.
The book is structured to provide an introductory apologetic for evangelical readers to engage the church fathers, then gives a sample of the early Patristics with some aids in interpretation in order to whet the readers’ appetites, concluding with an appetizing example of a life lived enjoying the fruits of studying the early church fathers.
Excellent apologetic for reading early church history. While the primary content of this book is found in the survey chapters, the introductory and concluding chapters were worth the price of the book alone. As discussed above, in his introductory chapter the author provides a strong apologetic for studying early church history. Several of these points have already been highlighted in this paper, such as the way in which studying church history helps to illumine otherwise unrecognized presuppositions commonly held in our contemporary context.
A more potentially controversial assertion is that the writings of the Fathers will help to illuminate the intent of the NT authors. While the exegesis of the Fathers has often been disparaged, particularly in Protestant circles, it is an incontrovertible fact that the early Greek Fathers had a far better grasp of the Greek of the NT than contemporary scholarship (if only due to their historical proximity and common language). Haykin gives two brief but specific examples of ways in which the exegesis of the Fathers might act as a corrective to twenty-first century interpreters: the first regards Cyril’s understanding of 1 Cor 7:5 as a reference to liturgical, rather than individualistic, prayer; and the second draws insight from the Epistle to Diognetus for addressing the justification controversies associated with the New Perspective on Paul. (19-20)
The exegesis of the church fathers is a veritable gold mine of grammatical, syntactical, and linguistic aids for the contemporary exegete. As with mining, discovering this exegetical gold will be a process of hard work, heavy lifting, careful sifting, and thorough polishing—but well worth the efforts for the payoff of understanding the language of the NT with greater clarity and broader applicability.
Despite providing an insightful introduction and valuable survey, the book also had some drawbacks. Admittedly, these issues are comparatively minor in the context of the overall usefulness of this text. The many strengths of the book far outmatch its few weaknesses; however, two problems in this book include: discussion of certain subjects at a non-introductory level and the editorial flow of the chapters resemble six unrelated journal articles presented in succession rather than a single, continuous text on the subject.
Discussion of certain subjects at a non-introductory level. Allen Ray Mickle has argued in his book review that “the language and details offered put this book out of reach of most average Christians.” Mickle overstates his case, since the concept of the “average Christian” is fuzzy at best and what language is and is not “out of reach” for them is an even more subjective matter; however, there were still a few points in the text where more than an introductory familiarity with church history would be required in order to understand the author’s contentions.
An example of this problem occurred in the discussion of Origen’s theology, where the “uncreated/unbegotten” versus “created/begotten” debate in the Christological controversies of that time was mentioned without any explanation. (73) This is problematic, in part because the distinction is likely to be unfamiliar to most readers who are not already well-versed in the theological controversies of the early church period, but also because the term “begotten” is no longer commonplace in contemporary English discourse. The problem of discerning the definition of an unfamiliar term (such as “begotten”) is easily resolved by reference to a dictionary; however, many readers would likely be grateful for a brief content note on the nature and significance of the theological controversy mentioned.
Somewhat disjointed editorial flow. It is quite clear that the main survey chapters in this book are generally unrelated articles which have been edited together for a single volume. This was not deeply problematic for an introductory historical text such as this one, because it is based on selected writings rather than chronology or a unifying theme. The introduction and conclusion help to hold the book together and provide useful intratextual cataphoric and anaphoric references, respectively. Those chapters do provide some editorial cohesion (where there would have been little without them), but there was no engagement of the subject matter between chapters, even via footnote.
For example, the low views of Judaism found in the Epistle to Diognetus contrasts sharply with Origen’s devout exegesis of the OT, presenting an opportunity for greater critical engagement between the chapters at some level. This is a minor point of criticism in contrast with the overall usefulness of the book, and may simply be an example of certain strengths entailing certain other weaknesses.
This book was roundly successful as an engaging introduction to the Patristics. It provides vignettes which focus on some historically influential but contemporarily overlooked church fathers. More well-documented churchmen, such as Augustine and Athanasius, were omitted while the apologetic value of the Epistle to Diognetus and the hermeneutical influence of Origen was extolled.
The book fills a valuable niche in the broader category of church history, serving to “whet the appetite” for deeper reading in the Patristics. In a time when much of evangelicalism appears to have lost its historical roots, this book provides fresh discussions of some of the earliest leaders in the church, some of their theological insights, and devotional fervor drawn from their examples. May Rediscovering the Church Fathers be the gateway to many readers’ lifelong engagement with the faith of our fathers.
Frame, John. Apologetics to the Glory of God. Philadelphia: P&R Publishing, 1994.
Claiborne, Nathaniel. Review of Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church, by Michael A. G. Haykin. Nate Claiborne, April 14, 2011, sec. 1. Accessed October 22, 2013. http://nathanielclaiborne.com/rediscovering-the-church-fathers/.
Mickle, Allen Ray, Jr. Review of Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church, by Michael A. G. Haykin. Working Out Salvation with Fear and Trembling, June 8, 2011, sec. 1. Accessed October 22, 2013. http://allenmickle.wordpress.com/2011/06/08/book-review-rediscovering-the-church-fathers.
Wilhite, Shawn. Review of Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church, by Michael A. G. Haykin. Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, 17, no. 2 (Summer 2013): 93.