Book Review: Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction By Bryan M. Litfin
Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction By Bryan M. Litfin Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007, pp. 301, $ 23.99 paperback.
Bryan M. Litfin, an associate professor of theology at Moody Bible Institute, provides an intriguing perspective of several of the most renowned church fathers in Getting to Know the Church Fathers. His point of view is one that is often missed by modern evangelicals, simply due to a common protestant disdain for anything catholic. As he points out in his introduction, all too often the patristic writers are dismissed as a result of one of three major misconceptions: 1) the church fathers lacked biblical authority; 2) the church fathers were Roman Catholic (noting the difference in “ ‘lowercase-c’ catholic Christianity” and “ ‘capital-C’ Roman Catholic Christianity”); 3) the church fathers are a representation of the fall of Christianity into the Middle Ages (pp. 20-28). However, Litfin looks to “introduce you in a more personal way to some of your spiritual ancestors” (p. 16). His goal in this text is to convince those who would normally dismiss the need to study the lives of the likes of Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen that, despite the various personal and doctrinal problems the church fathers may have had, they provide a “communal aspect” of the “thrust of Christian faith” (pp. 28-29). In other words, they allow the reader to gain an appreciation of who we are and where we come from, as well as how we got here. Through real life application, personal history and backgrounds of the fathers, and anecdotal contextualization, Litfin’s words capture the reader’s intrigue, not only producing a strong desire to dig deeper into the lives and works of the patristic writers, but produce a greater appreciation for the role they played in the early church.
In Getting to Know the Church Fathers, Litfin wrote ten chapters, one on each of the following church fathers (although one is a woman): Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, Tertullian, Perpetua, Origen, Athanasius, John Chrysostom, Augustine, and Cyril of Alexandria. Providing a more personal perspective of these men is much different than the typical study one would expect to see in a common history book. Each chapter begins with a short story or anecdote to introduce the story of that particular father. For example, Litfin uses Mary Mapes Dodge’s story of the little dutch boy with his finger in the dam as an introduction to Athanasius and his stand against Arianism (pp. 165-167).
Litfin’s portrayal of the church fathers as real people with real lives and problems provides the reader with a much clearer understanding of the underlying factors that were present in their lives; factors which undeniably increase the amount of respect that these early Christians deserve. For instance, Litfin’s narrative on the background and martyrdom of Perpetua (including Felicity, Revocatus, and Saturus) in chapter five is was one of the saddest, yet inspiring stories that one might read about a Christian martyr, or any martyr nonetheless. Given, Litfin’s words may not replace those of Perpetua herself, but his additional information from other sources produce a clear and vivid portrait of Perpetua and her unparalleled faith in the face of persecution (pp. 132-135). In another example, Litfin’s portrayal of not only Augustine’s conversion and his rigorous battle against the Pelagians and Donatists, but of his last wishes and words before his death give testimony of a man whose faith was steadfast and unwavering.
At the end of each chapter, Litfin provides a reflection, several “provocative questions,” a list of resources for further study, and what he calls a small “taste” of each writer. This final portion of each chapter may be the most integral part of the book. Following his reflective summation of the chapter, and the provided questions, Litfin offers small portions of the patristic writings that not only cement the message he produced in his own writing, but produce a desire in the reader to continue reading the works of the patristic writers. These carefully selected windows into the patristic works provide the proper conclusion to the end of each chapter.
Conversely, the major critique one might have with Litfin’s work is his one-sided portrayal of some of the church fathers. Given, Litfin admittedly explains in the beginning of the book that his intent is to produce a different, more personal perspective of the fathers (pp.28-29). Nevertheless, if the reader is to come to a sound conclusion about any figure, it must be done with all of the available facts and evidence. Litfin is forthright in his admission that the church fathers had doctrinal issues that are later deemed unorthodox. However, his explanations of such doctrinal problems are lacking to say the least. In chapter four Litfin admits, “I do not want to portray Tertullian in an idealistic way. He is a conflicted character, and there is much about him to dislike. We’ll mention some of his faults and errors in this chapter” (p. 102). But despite his own admission, Litfin only offers a vague portrayal of Tertullian’s blemished body of work.
In chapter six, Litfin commendably provides a better insight into the unorthodox doctrine taught by Origen, explaining Origen’s belief that the Son was “subordinate” to the Father and that the Holy Spirit was a “created being” (p. 157). He also went on to clarify that “Origen taught that our resurrection bodies will not be physical, or that the purifying fires of hell will reform all creatures (even the Devil!) back to a state of obedience to God” (p. 157). However, in chapter eight, Litfin offers only one paragraph on the “large role in Christian anti-Semitism” played by John Chrysostom (p. 206).
Despite the aforementioned criticism, Bryan Litfin has produced a work that should be read by both seminary students and the average reader. His writing not only offers uplifting and eye-opening stories of faith, but also produces a newfound reverence and admiration for the patristic writers of the church. Litfin’s research and scholarship, combined with his ability to contextualize events of the distant past produce a book that is a recommended read for all Christians.
Robert C. Day II
Liberty University Theological Seminary, Lynchburg, VA