Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. It seems that recently there is a renewed interest in the past, specifically early Christian thought. InterVarsity Press deserves thanks for its role in publishing several series that help make the writings of early Christians accessible. Time has yet to tell if this interest in the past will result in avoiding any of the pitfalls of heresy.
The present volume is part of a series of books intended to set forth the doctrines of the Nicene Creed as taught by the ancient church. Specifically it focuses on the portion of the creed that deals with Christ’s work. It is arranged around the phrases of the creed. Each chapter addresses a different phrase. Subsections in each chapter focus on a specific thought tied to the overall theme of the chapter. While the table of contents focuses only on the chapter headings, a helpful outline of the contents is included at the end of the book (182-184).
The book follows a pattern that tries to present the information in a helpful way. Each chapter begins with a brief summary of the historical context. This is helpful in that it identifies some of the historical debates and controversies that the fathers were responding to in their writings. Next comes an overview that strives to provide a very brief summary of the quotations. The balance of each chapter is made up of quotations from the church fathers.
These quotations are the meat of the book. Those selected present a mosaic of patristic thought. This fragmentary nature of the commentary requires a little mental dexterity to shift gears from one quotation to the next. Each father has his own style and each quotation comes from a document with its own purpose. For instance, on page 121 the styles of literature represented are polemical, poetry, letters, sermons, and catechetical. While this can make for slow and difficult reading, there are many gems to be appreciated.
Of course, the quotations are not all equally sound. An example of a quotation that is doctrinally unsound is this one from Maximus the Confessor: “When the Logos of God became man, he filled human nature once more with the spiritual knowledge that it had lost; and, steeling it against changefulness, he deified it, not in its essential nature but in its quality. He stamped it completely with his own Spirit, as if adding wine to water so as to give the water the quality of wine. For he becomes truly man so that by grace he may make us gods” (47). There are several examples of allegory (e.g. Origen’s comments on page 50). At times the fathers are pious but speculative, such as Ambrose’s thought that the crucifixion happened at the site of Adam’s burial (93-94). While there are such substandard quotations, these are few and far between.
There are some interesting editorial decisions. For instance, the discussion of the phrase, “He was crucified” includes the three offices of Jesus as well as examinations of his parables and miracles. It seems the arrangement of the volume was designed to give a more complete examination of the life and work of Jesus than the phrasing of the creed provides.
Despite these flaws, there are many interesting thoughts and insights offered by the fathers. Tertullian has a wonderful discussion of the Sabbath (58-60). Cyril of Alexandria’s discussion of the term “only-begotten” highlights the value of the term and makes one wish it was retained more by the modern church (71). Augustine’s comments on Jesus’ weeping in Gethsemane are profound and repay careful meditation (84-85). These are just a few of the highlights, there are too many other interesting and insightful comments to mention.
One of the greatest joys in reading the fathers is their respect and high regard for Scripture. In his forward, the author notes this perspective in contrast to most of modern scholarship (surprisingly, himself included). “Our business in this volume is to read and not to judge—though we may be certain that, if judgment were to be rendered by all parties, the Fathers would combine to denounce the critical maneuvers that persuade us that the Scriptures do not mean what they plainly say, or did not say it in some hypothetical archetype or meant it for other times but not for ours” (xv). It is refreshing to see the church in the ardor of its youth express its first love for the Savior.
While there are many features to commend in this short tome, there are other, easier resources to get into the church fathers. One such resource is the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series, also by InterVarsity Press. That series provides pastors with access to patristic thought in a format that can be easily used for sermon or Bible Class preparation. This volume of the Ancient Christian Doctrine series does not have such an easy connection to the regular study of the pastor. Nor is it set up to be an outstanding reference resource. Though the detailed contents outline provides some help in finding comments, the lack of a subject index hampers this book’s usefulness.
In conclusion, every pastor will find value in mining the insights of the fathers of the church. Surprisingly, their insights from the first centuries of the New Testament church still speak to the challenges facing the church in the current century. That said, a pastor will probably want to acquire other resources that have a more user-friendly setup for reference use.
Mark Edwards is tutor of theology at Christ Church and university lecturer in patristics at the University of Oxford. He also served as the editor for the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture volume on Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians.