A Year with the Church Fathers: Meditations for Every Day of the Church Year, by Scott R. Murray. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2011, 408 pages.
Scott Murray is an LCMS parish pastor since 1983 who currently serves in Texas. The Fourth Vice-President of the West-Southwest region, he holds a number of degrees including a Ph.D from New Orleans Baptist Seminary.
To many, the Church Fathers can be intimidating, even off-putting. Their context, their language, the victories they won or the losses they endured, can seem very remote and out-of-touch with modern 21st century America. Even setting those considerations off to the side, the Fathers are often viewed with a jaundiced eye by some. Didn’t they teach false doctrine?, one is apt to wonder, upon mention of the Fathers. Or even worse: weren’t they Catholic?
Yes, some of them taught false doctrine – even false doctrine congenial to papism. But many of them were straight and true. But before a preemptive dismissal of the Church Fathers, we do well to ask ourselves: Why not listen and learn from the Fathers themselves?
Concordia Publishing House has recently offered a more accessible and user-friendly way to do just that, with their recent volume A Year with the Church Fathers. The interior layout of the book will be immediately familiar to anyone with a passing acquaintance to CPH’s Treasury of Daily Prayer — it’s virtually identical. In fact, A Year with the Church Fathers follows the same daily lectionary that both TDP and Lutheran Service Book use. This volume provides an able complement to TDP, or it can be used as a stand-alone resource. Each day appoints readings from the Old Testament, New Testament, the Psalms, plus more recommended Psalmody. A collect is also provided, and of course a short section (between one to five paragraphs) from a writing by a particular Church Father. The selections come from fathers both famous and obscure – Chromatius and Apringius as well as Augustine, Ambrose, and Chrysostom. This writing is also introduced by a brief paragraph or two from Murray which helps set the tone and introduce the father’s words. Here a bit more finesse in formatting would have been appreciated – Murray’s words are not always immediately discernible from that of the Church Father he’s introducing. (CPH ran into a similar problem with the first edition of their Reader’s Edition of the Book of Concord.) The introductions themselves are worth reading and may provide useful preaching or teaching thoughts. They are of a higher caliber than one might expect, as befitting one who imbibes the wisdom of the Fathers regularly. (Murray writes a devotion every weekday based on the Church Fathers.)
A Year with the Church Fathers follows the civil calendar straight through, with major liturgical divisions placed in the text about roughly where they would occur in the civil calendar. For example, “The Time of Christmas” begins with the reading for November 27, even though Advent began on December 1 this year. This seems simpler than TDP’s rather convoluted half-civil, half-liturgical calendar, which can take some getting used to. All the commemorations, feasts, and festivals appointed in LSB (and TDP, for that matter) are noted in A Year with the Church Fathers – its sanctoral cycle is the same. This strengthens the links between the three volumes. For Wisconsin Synod or other users, a few differences may be noted, principally that LSB et al. have a fuller sanctoral calendar than Christian Worship. There’s some value in commemorating more saints than just those mentioned in Scripture, and if one prefers, the historical, non-Scriptural saints are easy to ignore. It’s still worth having them, if only to remind ourselves that we are not a sect, nor the sum total of the Christian Church, but rather part of a greater whole, the Body of Christ. Their lives furnish useful instruction and material for preaching and teaching illustrations. It makes sense to include them in a volume devoted to the writings of the Fathers.
One of the best things about this book is the translations of the Fathers’ words themselves. As anyone who has slogged through volumes such as Schaff’s landmark series of selections from the Fathers, or even Toal’s The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, will attest, the Fathers are often presented as speaking in a way that’s as hazy and pompous as it is obscure and archaic. Their gimlet insight and forceful proclamation of the truth too often are buried in outdated language. Murray clears away the fustiness and lets the Fathers speak clear, natural English. They still retain their native dignity and habits of expression, but then again, we wouldn’t want the content of what they say to be changed – both because that would be tantamount to falsifying the history bound up with their teachings, and because the Fathers taught nothing less than the eternal Gospel, which tolerates no tampering. The translations are Murray’s own, and they make for a very readable experience. The greatest compliment that can be paid a translator is that the translation doesn’t sound like one. Murray succeeds ably on that count.
This book is manna from heaven especially for those who pray the Daily Office, or Liturgy of the Hours. Whether using TDP, the Brotherhood Prayer Book, or even CW, provision is usually made for a sermon or reading from the Fathers. Unless one opts for a volume with shorter readings such as Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, one of Gerhard’s devotional works, or something by Luther, scant resources present themselves for that part of the Daily Office. CPH is to be commended for filling a real need for those who are just starting out in the practice of liturgical daily prayer, or for those who are looking to expand and strengthen their daily devotions.
The Fathers preached Christ, and they did so with a depth of insight, a knowledge of God’s Word, and a feel for human nature that is simply astounding. Their methods of exegesis have often been unfairly maligned in the past, irreparably damaging their reputation in some quarters. The Fathers deserve better than that. They were human, too, just as we are – but they concentrated on Scripture as few have before or since, and you can judge for yourself the quality of the results. You don’t get to be considered a Church Father on the strength of a sparkling personality alone – it takes a backwards-and-forwards, upside-down-and-sideways knowledge of the Scriptures, humility before the divine Word, and faith in the Son of God. Their words were delivered to attentive audiences of simple Christians, as are the words that many of us preach – real Christians in real-life situations, looking for guidance from God’s Word. That naturally makes their applications and preaching more lively and useful – these are not dry commentaries dissecting arcane points of grammar. Consider seasoning your preaching and teaching with a dash (or more) of the Church Fathers. You – and your hearers – won’t be disappointed.