Why is it important to study church history? Why is it important to understand how we got here and where we came from? Why is it important to recognize that 21st century Christians, let alone WELS Christians, are not the be all and end all of Christianity, but simply the newest addition to the rich tapestry of the New Testament church that stretches back millennia to the time of Christ? Why do called workers and laypeople alike need to realize that we stand on the shoulders of giants who faithfully served and sacrificed in generations past? Why is it vitally important that the modern Christian church understand that it owes its very existence to the grace of God poured out through pastors and teachers, spiritual fathers and mothers in centuries past?
While one can easily see why it is necessary for our pastors to study Holy Scripture in its original languages or to understand the nuances of Christian doctrine or to apply Scriptural principles with Scriptural practice, the study of church history is sometimes viewed as a necessary evil that has to be done to finish Seminary rather than a precious treasure to be appreciated. Yet we dare not neglect the study of the Church’s history once we enter the parish.
In studying the history of the Church, we study our own history. We learn of believers who faithfully went before us, of congregations and councils, pastors and teachers, spiritual fathers and mothers through whom the Lord grew and blessed his church and made it what it is today. We learn of the great “cloud of witnesses” who now enjoy heavenly rest as part of the Church Triumphant (Hebrews 12:1). We learn the true meaning of faithfulness to the Holy Scriptures—even to the point of death—and what it means to be truly “orthodox” and “catholic” in the original sense.
It is with this goal in mind that Dr. Bryan Litfin wrote Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction. He writes, “Many books have been written on the history of Christian doctrines or important themes in early church history. But in this book, I hope to introduce you in a more personal way to some of your spiritual ancestors. I want to help you get to know some folks who are part of your own spiritual legacy and heritage in the faith” (16). This book is, therefore, a primer on ten important figures from the Ante-Nicene through Post-Nicene eras and the major theological and practical emphases during those eras. From this reviewer’s perspective, Litfin succeeds at carrying out his goal in creating a book that both educates and encourages further study in the history of the early Christian church.
The book’s design is very user-friendly, no matter whether the reader is a trained pastor or a lay member. He provides a helpful map and timeline as well as an informative introduction that not only explains what a “church father” is (16-20), but also addresses several misconceptions about the study of the church fathers and the early centuries of the Christian church. He addresses those same misconceptions at the end of the book assuming that the reader has taken the time to read the book from cover to cover—a task well worth the effort. From the outset, Litfin utilizes a very engaging style that keeps the reader interested even when discussing often dry topics like asceticism, the papacy, or the Trinitarian and Christological controversies.
This reviewer had little issue with the ten ancient figures that Litfin discusses—Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, Tertullian, Perpetua [a “spiritual mother” in the faith (17)], Origen, Athanasius, John Chrysostom, Augustine, and Cyril of Alexandria. Perhaps the addition of a Cappadocian father like Basil of Caesarea or the influential Ambrose of Milan or Jerome could have been included, but this book is meant to be a primer rather than an encyclopedia.
This reviewer appreciated how Litfin wove brief sidebars on the major emphases and controversies of this time period into his biographical descriptions. It fleshed out not only the life of the fathers (and mother) under discussion, but also the era in which they lived. His resource recommendations for further study as well as a sample of each figure’s writings were also appreciated as were discussion questions at the end of each chapter.
The only real negative that this reviewer found was something that should have been obvious from the title—and one that the Lutheran reader should keep in mind. This is an “Evangelical” introduction to the early church fathers meant for Evangelicals. Bryan Litfin is definitely a classic Evangelical in his theological perspective. He speaks of conversion and free will in the sense of Arminian decision theology (e.g. chapter 2 on Justin Martyr—alongside some overemphasis on conforming the message of the Gospel to the culture). There is mention of the Sacraments—since they were heavily emphasized by the early fathers, but Litfin himself speaks very little to them other than what would be expected from an Evangelical perspective. When referring to the Jews, he tended to use the curious phrase “The Chosen People,” which may or may not reflect a millennial viewpoint (e.g. page 243). Nevertheless Litfin’s own theological perspective is often kept in the background as he seeks to lead modern Christians to appreciate their spiritual heritage and see that concern for Christ and his gospel were at the heart and core of the Christian church as they are today.
In the end, this reviewer thoroughly enjoyed this book and would strongly recommend that busy pastors not only purchase this book as an easy reference on the shelf, but to also take the time to read it. In so doing, hopefully they and their members will grow in appreciation for those faithful confessors who paved the way before them and now stand as a “cloud of witnesses” for us today.
Bryan Litfin (Ph.D., University of Virginia) is associate professor of theology at Moody Bible Institute. He is the author of Early Martyr Stories: An Evangelical Introduction with New Translations, the Chiveis trilogy of novels, and several scholarly articles on the Regula Fidei.