Book Review: Getting to Know the Church Fathers

Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction By Bryan M. Litfin, Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007, 301 pp, $24.99 paperback.

Getting to Know the Church Fathers coverBryan M. Litfin, professor of theology at Moody Bible Institute, provides a concise and cursory glance at ten pillars of early Christianity in his book Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction. Writing from an evangelical perspective, Litfin targets his work specifically to an evangelical audience “because Catholics have been exposed to the fathers of the church. But evangelical Christians haven’t” (p. 11). This, he believes, is lamentable because “we are inextricably bound to the church fathers. They are our spiritual ancestors, for better or for worse” (p. 14). Too often the only exposure evangelicals have had to these leaders are quotes taken out of context to defend one theological point or another. These excerpts are wielded as weapons, rather than their work being allowed to stand as a whole, and in the process evangelicals have missed out on the rich heritage of the early church fathers.

Thus, rather than focusing on the theology of the fathers, Litfin aims to introduce readers “in a more personal way” to those who make up their “spiritual legacy and heritage in the faith” (p. 16). Litfin defines early church fathers as those who are “ancient, orthodox in doctrine, holy in life, and approved by other Christians” (p. 19). And in keeping with his evangelical perspective, while focusing on the lives and personalities of the church fathers, Litfin also hopes to dispel three prevalent misconceptions that evangelicals have regarding these early leaders: 1) that they were not biblical; 2) that they were Roman Catholics; and 3) that they represent the “fall” of Christianity from the purity of apostolic times (pp. 20-28).

To do this, Litfin devotes a chapter to (in order): Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, Tertullian, Perpetua, Origen, Athanasius, John Chrysostom, Augustine, and Cyril of Alexandria. He gives a summary of each person’s life, highlighting important works and theological contributions along the way, and concludes every chapter with a reflection on the father discussed and an excerpt of his work.

In many ways, the book reads exactly as Litfin intended it to. It is difficult not to be drawn into the personal stories of these heroes of the faith. The story of Perpetua, who loved her Savior more than her newborn child (p. 120), and her slave, Felicity, who gave birth while in prison (p. 127), bravely standing up to their tormentors in the hope of attaining Christ’s reward tugs at the heart. The conduct of Athanasius’ adversaries when he refused to compromise with Arianism (pp. 178-181) inspires outrage.

However, the book does not relate stories at the expense of weightier subjects, so Litfin does not shy away from explaining Origen’s allegorical method or Cyril’s definition of the hypostatic union. Neither is he afraid to point out areas where the church fathers have something to teach us. In particular, he believes that asceticism like that taught by John Chrysostom “is almost always misunderstood by modern evangelicals. Too often, our outlook has more in common with the American dream of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ than with a biblical view of bodily self-mortification” (p. 193). Litfin also refrains from giving a hagiographical view of the church fathers. He concedes that Tertullian has been suspected of Montanism (p. 103) and “was a deeply flawed character,” who “could be harsh and moralistic” (p. 113), that “Origen did teach some doctrines that are now viewed as unorthodox” (p. 157), and that Cyril sometimes resorted to “down-and-dirty politics” and failed “to speak out against the murder of a female pagan philosopher by a frenzied Christian mob” (pp. 241-242).

However, this is also one of the weaknesses of Getting to Know the Church Fathers. While Litfin does not deny the faults of these ten esteemed people, he does sometimes minimize them, perhaps to make the church fathers more palatable to his evangelical audience. He points out that “Cyril wouldn’t have viewed his actions as anything other than the zealous defense of vital truth. We must recall he lived in a world where truth mattered and accurate theology was essential” (p. 241). Similarly, he makes the case that “our final picture of Tertullian really is quite fuzzy” (p. 103), and joins Henry Chadwick in comparing “Origen to the little girl in the Longfellow poem who had a curl in the middle of her forehead: ‘When she was was good, she was very good indeed, but when she was bad, she was horrid’” (p. 158). He ultimately concludes that perhaps “it was inevitable that so brilliant a man would leave us such a conflicted inheritance” (p. 158). Yet this belies the fact that Litfin’s own definition of what a church father is could have kept Tertullian and Origen from being included in the book due to them failing one of the four criteria (i.e., orthodoxy).

Similarly, the inclusion of Perpetua is questionable, not only due to her connection with Montanism, but also due to the fact that she did not have the impact of the other nine. Two of Litfin’s running themes throughout the book were that the church fathers made significant contributions to theology and the understanding of Scripture (through sermons, commentaries, treatises, etc.). Perpetua did neither of these things. She seemed to be included primarily because 1) her story of obedience and martyrdom are inspiring; and 2) she helps defend against accusations of patriarchy and chauvinism among the fathers by showing that “many Christian ‘mothers’ contributed greatly to church history as well” (p. 17).

However, despite these faults, Getting to Know the Church Fathers is indeed a work that should be read by evangelicals who do not know much about the rich spiritual heritage of the first few centuries of church history. There is much historical and theological value within the pages of Litfin’s work.

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