Thursday, November 20, 2008

Book Review: Getting to Know the Church Fathers

Brian Litfin is associate professor of theology at Moody Bible Institute. This book is primarily written as an introduction to the church fathers and is written at the level that a college student in a survery of church history could handle.

This was a helpful introduction to some of the major church fathers. Not only did Liftin introduce you to the church fathers but he introduced you to significant events that went on in their life and times. It is a helpful primer on the early church. Liftin works hard at connecting the reader to the life and times of these men (and one woman). He ends the books with the image of us standing on the bow of a ship: we press towards the future but we are driven by what is behind us. This is a good metaphor for how Liftin handles the church fathers. He is excellent at inspiring the reader by the weightiness of some of these men yet he does not gloss over their failures.

To deal with the church fathers for evangelicals, Liftin already has a hurdle to over come. He begins by debunking three common misconceptions about the church fathers: (1) that they were not biblical; (2) that the Roman Catholics; (3) that they represent the "fall" of Christianity. For those who tend to read church history from Acts straight to the Reformation, this book is a welcome.

This was obviously an introduction and so was too brief at times, particularly in discussing Augustine and Pelagius. Liftin had some excellent discussion of early Trinitarianism and Christology. The book places the issues in context without overwhelming the reader while at the same time imparting the true significance to the events. He surveys of the martyrs and early apologists are impresses upon the readers the true passion of these early heros. When he discusses Chrysostom and the asceticism of early monks, he does a good job of clearing the brush of prejudice that a twenty-first century Christian might have against such rigorous bodily discipline. Liftin will not let the reader simply write off such devotion as 'legalism'. The brief introduction to Alexandrian and Antiochene hermeneutics is helpful. Liftin often writes with decisive visual images for those who are not technician in church history. At points he effectively draws the reader to identify with the devotion of the particular church father.

As a pastor, I found myself often highlighting and marking the book not so much for content (although it is certainly not void of it) but for the illustration of the church father and the reflection on devotion or how the modern church is void of someparticular point that was common to the early church.

Overall Liftins writing is helpful particularly for a layperson or college student. I could easily see this being a recommended reading for a church Sunday School class on the church fathers. Each chapter had an introduction that was usually a story from contemporary life so as to bridge the gap to the past.

I would recommend this book to someone with little or no familiarity to the church fathers but if you are looking for a more substantive treatment other books would be better. Liftin is helpful in having questions to ask at the end of each chapter. A big resource is the recommended reading at the end both in primary sources and important biographies or secondary sources. This is a plus for those who are looking to get more. Also each chapter has a small 2-3 page excerpt from the Church father's writings themselves. Overall a good book although this reviewer wished it had said more.

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"The Voyages..." Forays into Biblical studies, Biblical exegesis, theology, exposition, life, and occasionally some Star Trek...