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Tuesday, November 1, 2016

"Getting to Know the Church Fathers" (Bryan M. Litfin)

TITLE: Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction
AUTHOR: Bryan M. Litfin
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016, (288 pages).

One of the most interesting things about Church history is to study the characters who have shaped the Church and Christian thought through the centuries. There have been great accomplishments as well as terrible tragedies. Tracing the way Christianity has developed over the years will reveal many important lessons of gratitude as well as warnings. We show gratitude for our forefathers for their faithfulness and determination to uphold the truth. We learn that each generation has to fight their own theological battles and we should also do the same for our own generations. This book highlights twelve examples of courage and true allegiance to the faith. It teaches a love of history and the powerful encouragement to hold on to the tenets of our faith, many of which our ancestors have bled and died for.

As an introductory text, the author takes nothing for granted and spells out the meaning of the standard terminology. He defines the 'Church Father' like a regular father who guides his children and teaches the way in wisdom and spiritual thought. This terminology includes females like "Church mothers" as well. He highlights the misconceptions and tells us why they are wrong. He then lists the reasons why we should study the Church Fathers.

  1. They help us understand the general thrust of the Christian faith
  2. They provide a doctrinal perspective that is important for our learning
  3. We learn about what orthodoxy means, which gives us a reference point to reflect about our own paths as well.
  4. They supply reasons for communal living.

Twelve individuals are singled out for unique contributions to shaping our understanding of the Christian theology and Orthodox faith. Ignatius of Antioch observed the events unfolding in the Early Church led by Paul and Barnabas and saw why the truth was worth dying for. He wrote seven letters to show his concern for the churches in Asia Minor. His life was an example of what it means to hold on the the truth and at the same time love one another. Justin Martyr blazes the trail of what it means to confront heretics and false teachings. Defending the truth among people of various groups in society, he is well-known for planting the seeds of modern day apologetics through his "Apology" letters and dialogues. Irenaeus of Lyons argued against the gnostics and his monumental work "Against Heresies" became one of the most important works of the Church. Due to his vigorous defense of the gospel, he managed to stem the rising tide of the Gnostic movement. The great Tertullian of Carthage set in motion the canonization of the Scriptures, that the way to defend the changing heresies and false teachings, there is a need to solidify the basic tenets of faith held through the years. Perpetua of Carthage is a powerful story of a woman who died as a martyr. Her life and love for the Church is a great reminder that faith is beyond gender debates. Women are widely respected and the life of Perpetua definitely reflected that. Origen of Alexandria formidable scholarship and intellectual strength gave the Church a whole new appreciation of allegorical interpretation of Scripture. Called a theological "Man of Steel," he stood strongly against heretics and while some of his teachings are considered unorthodox, he is convicted in Christ and the Church. Athanasius of Alexandria was tenacious against the Gnostics and he helped formulate the Athanasian Creed that became a classic creed to strengthen our understanding of the Trinitarian doctrine. Ephrem the Syrian stood between the Roman and Persian culture and testified beautifully the truths of the gospel. An expert teacher of doctrine, he was credited for being a major influence in the spread of the gospel to the other parts of Asia, such as China. John Chrysostom is a master of words and a powerful orator. Augustine of Hippo exemplified a person whose weaknesses ultimately became his greatest strengths. Cyril of Alexandria stood for the unity of the doctrine of Jesus as both Divine and Human. Patrick of Ireland became a missionary to Ireland and forever remained a spiritual hero of the land. The Irish hymn, "Be Thou My Vision" captures his life aptly.

Each chapter begins with a contemporary story and illustration before it links to the actual character figure. Litfin goes into the history, the childhood, the cultural nuances, the political and economic situations, and the unique contributions of each church father who endured persecutions; fought heretics; engaged frequently in theological debates; upheld the truths of Scripture; stood for the orthodox faith; and faithful to Christ and the people of God. Each chapter follows a common framework:

  • Introductory story of contemporary life
  • Historical overview of the character's world and circumstances
  • Challenges of the day
  • Unique contributions
  • Reflections on the character's life and contribution
  • Provocative Questions
  • A Snippet of the work of the church father.

In our modern world of technological advancement and scientific prowess, there is always a tendency to believe in the latest-and-greatest inventions. Hence, there is a relative disdain of history and things of old. CS Lewis calls this "chronological snobbery." It is an arrogance that could very well set us on the path of re-inventing the wheel. Books like this will enable us not only to appreciate the contributions of the past, it reminds us to be faithful and careful of the modern threats that are to come. Perhaps, by learning from the Church Fathers, we would be embolden to face the challenges rather than to ignore them. We would go back to be strengthened in the Scriptures and to remember that the baton has been passed on through the ages and we are now responsible to do the same both for our generation and the next. The words of Steve Green aptly captures what we ought to do.
"Oh may all who come behind us find us faithful May the fire of our devotion light their way May the footprints that we leave Lead them to believe And the lives we live inspire them to obey Oh may all who come behind us find us faithful."
May this book spur us on to do the same, to the best of our ability, just like the Church Fathers had done during their time.

Bryan Litfin is Professor of Theology at Moody Bible Institute and is also a prolific writer.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Baker Academic and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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