If we learn anything from a book like this (and we must) it is that Hermann Sasse had it right: “The church fathers must be read in their entirety” (Letters to Lutheran Pastors, Volume I, xxiv). Reading 275 pages of citations by the “founding” fathers of the Christian Church only shows us the giant shoulders upon which we stand centuries later. This book whets your appetite for more. Oden admits as much when he writes: “This is not just a casual exercise for theological voyeurs or for dilettantes who want to fly to the Nile for a cruise. Rather, it is a window into the earliest Christian reflection on the most decisive points of saving faith” (273).
And you must read more. I fear the lack of context a book like this provides. We must read the fathers not to cherry pick great quotes, but to see the theology they did. And in so doing, you will learn that the fathers were not primitive ignoramuses scrimping and scratching their way through their work. Nor did theology start (or stop) with Luther and the Reformation. These men did phenomenal theology without the benefit of online resources, computers, or widespread and billion dollar publishing industries. They put to shame most “theologians” today (though they could do as much philosophical wandering as any modern theologian).
When we read the fathers, whether in quotation form or in full, we discover not only the greatness of their theology, but that all the errors that the Church has faced throughout the centuries lie within. You find here universalism (Origen), millennialism (Papias), Arianism (Eusebius), purgatory (Gregory the Great, Augustine, Lactantius), praying for the dead (Augustine, Cyril of Jerusalem), free will and works righteousness (Justin Martyr, Cyril of Jerusalem), the treasury of merits (Cyprian). From the fathers came the great papal system and the sacrifice of the mass too.
In other words, as we read the fathers we see how the Church before us both used and abused Scripture. Yet, for all the abuses, our Lutheran fathers abundantly quoted Augustine, Ambrose, and Chrysostom to show how the Lutheran Church is not a new thing (cf. also the Catalog of Testimonies). Despite the abuses, a careful reading of Origen or Augustine or Ambrose would do you more good than most of the Reformed-Evangelical schmaltz, decision theology, and fanatical (in the Lutheran sense of the term) claptrap filling bookshelves today. These guys poured over the Scriptures and found nothing but the Word of God in them, even if they sometimes over speculated, allegorized, and ended up in the theological ditch. Reading the Church fathers in the ditch benefits you more than some modern theologians on their best day.
We understand this as a need to read with discernment. Others do not. Oden, in his summary to the five volume series writes: “The room for private opinion among Christians is vast, provided those opinions are not repugnant to the core of faith. Nothing is required of any believer other than faith in grace as revealed in Scripture” (271). He believes that we can all be fundamentalists. “Jesus loves me this I know and this is all I want to know. The rest is up for grabs.”
This volume focused on the third article of the Creed, especially the Church and her work and about the last things. In the main, it set us up well to see how the fathers had a strong grasp on the Spirit’s work as opposed to those who have swallowed the Spirit, tail feathers and all. The fathers heard God say that He gives life through Word and Sacrament so as to prepare us for the life to come. For example, Origen:
We say that the Holy Scriptures declare the body of Christ, animated by the Son of God, to be the whole church of God. The members of this body – considered as a whole – consist of those who are believers. Now a soul enlivens and animates the body, which of itself has no natural power of motion like a living being. In the same way, the Word arouses and moves the whole body, the church, to appropriate action. The Word awakens, moreover, each individual member belonging to the church, so that they do nothing apart from the Word (from Against Celsus, 6:48).
Even our Roman Catholic editor agreed with this, ditching what his catechism says about the necessity of a visible organization gathered around the pope in Rome: “We will talk of the church as…believers” (xvii). Thus we start on a strong footing.
(Though, beware, Di Berardino displays Roman leanings elsewhere. He mentions Peter’s preminance [xiv, xxxi], the episcopal succession (xvii), the three-fold office of bishop, elder, deacon [xvi]. He calls Clement “pope” in the biographical index , cites the historical need for a unity centered on the bishops and the necessity of the priesthood’s institution (note the significant title) for the church’s unity [99-100]. He puts apocryphal writings on equal footing with canonical books in the “Scripture index.” To be fair, the fathers do all this too.)
As a defense against the general denial of the means of grace then and now, this volume shows us the fathers strong hold on Baptism as a regenerative washing, not just a rite or ordinance (even if the fathers go on to say some funny things about Baptism too, cf. pages 107-114), as well as the reality of eternal judgment and eternal life to come.
In other words, again, this volume reminds us of the power and greatness of those who have gone before us in the faith, and the power and greatness to be found in a theology that does nothing but let the Word speak.
But in our technological age, I think a book like this, a book of quotations, suffers by being put into print. When you have Libronix and other searchable electronic databases, why would you have this book on your shelf? Especially when it does not come equipped with any kind of word, idea, or phrase index? And lists at $50 (though you can get it for less than $30 at Amazon)!
Almost, but not quite making up for that missing index is a wonderful set of biographical sketches on the authors and works, as well as a six page chart laying out where and when all these church fathers wrote in relation to one another.
In summary, I am glad that I got to dabble in the church fathers through this book, and I encourage you to dabble in them as well, but I would not necessarily recommend you buying this book. Who would read this cover to cover? With the availability of searchable online and electronic resources, this may be a title better borrowed from the library than purchased for your shelf.
From the inside cover: “The Ancient Christian Doctrine series offers a unique entry into the sources of early Christian teaching. Following the phrasing of the ancient Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (commonly known as the Nicene Creed), the series organizes and expounds the commonly held doctrines of the most respected Christian thinkers from the Church’s formative period – from about A.D. 95 to 750.”
About the scholars editing the series: “The international team of editors, translators and consultants for this series reflect the wide breadth of the ecumenical teaching traditions.” A Roman Catholic patristics scholar, Angelo Di Berardino, edited this volume. The general editor of the series (who contributed a series summary at the end of the volume), Thomas Oden, is a United Methodist professor and theologian, also well versed in the Church Fathers.
Ancient Christian Doctrine, Volume 5: We Believe in One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, edited by Angelo Di Berardino, series editor Thomas C. Oden, IVP Academic, 2010, xxxii + 316.