Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Introduction to Patristic theology

I have been asked quite a few times recently what to read to begin studying the Church fathers. These are a few of the resources that helped me begin to study Patristic theology.

First, I must recommend two essential volumes. One is J.N.D. Kelly's Early Christian Doctrines, and the other is Jeraslov Pelikan's The Christian Tradition vol. 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition. These are really the two standard scholarly introductions to Patristic theology. While I don't always agree, the extensive one volume treatment of such a broad topic remains unsurpassed.

I do not recommend reading the Ancient Christian Commentaries series, nor do I recommend Jurgen's three volume introduction to the fathers. These are commonly recommended resources that I have found less than helpful. Regarding the Ancient Christian Commentary series, I have found that the quotes are selective, and contain no context. A list of Patristic citations often betrays the author's beliefs rather than the father who is being quoted. I also find it somewhat strange that these volumes contain quotes from known heretics such as Pelagius. Jurgen's volumes betray a heavy Roman Catholic bias. The quotes he selects show continuity with later defined Roman Dogmas which are often far from the majority views in the early Christian period.

Rather than reading compilations of Patristic quotes, I would recommend going to the sources themselves. But where should one begin? There are so many volumes out there, it is just about impossible to read them all. I will give you some of my personal favorites, though there is far more out there, and I'm sure others would list different books than I will recommend.

First, I recommend Augustine's Confessions. This is an easy to read (provided you get a modern translation) autobiography that contains numerous great spiritual insights. Most people I have met who have an interest in Patristics began with this book, including myself. Second I recommend reading the apostolic fathers. I would recommend Michael Holmes translation, as a modern English version. This contains the earliest Christian writings. While you may be flat out confused by the Shephard of Hermas, the epistle of I Clement, the Ignatian writings, and the epistle to Diognetus are spiritual gems.

And on to my personal favorites:
Irenaues's On the Apostolic Preaching This is a great introduction to the Christian faith from one of the greatest early Christian writers. http://www.amazon.com/Apostolic-Preaching-Irenaeus-Saint-Bishop/dp/0881411744/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1321984147&sr=8-1

Augustine's On the Spirit and the Letter This was one of Luther's favorite writings, as it introduced him to what would be known as the distinction between law and gospel. This can be found in a modern translation in http://www.amazon.com/Answer-Pelagians-Works-Saint-Augustine/dp/1565480929/ref=sr_1_10?ie=UTF8&qid=1321984376&sr=8-10

Prosper of Aquitaine's The Call of All Nations. This book is quoted in the Augsburg Confession (though attributed to Ambrose) and was often recommended by Luther. It is by far the best book written on the subject of grace and predestination in the first 1500 years of the church. Prosper defends a moderate Augustinianism which defends both the election of grace, and God's universal saving will. http://www.amazon.com/14-St-Prosper-Aquitaine-Christian/dp/0809102536/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1321984612&sr=1-1

Ambrose's Patriarchal Treatises, specificall On Jacob and the Happy Life. Ambrose is a brilliant rhetorician, and while often his exegesis is strained, his Christ centered pastoral approach brings out some of the best preaching the church has ever seen. http://www.amazon.com/Seven-Exegetical-Fathers-Church-Paperback/dp/081321355X/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1321984807&sr=1-2

Finally, so as not to be too overwhelming in my recommendations, I recommend John Chrysostom's Commentary on Galatians. Chrysostom's commentaries follow a grammatical historical approach, much like a modern commentary would. This is a work I have continually come back to for edification and encouragement in my Christian life. This can be found with some of his other excellent commentaries. http://www.amazon.com/NICENE-POST-NICENE-FATHERS-St-Chrysostom-Thessalonians/dp/1602066140/ref=sr_1_6?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1321985027&sr=1-6

Let me know if this is helpful, or recommend other introductory resources that I may not have come across that you have found useful in Patristic study.


Steve Bricker said...

Your list is good. One I might add is The First Seven Ecumenical Councils by Leo D. Davis. He tends to overly defend the office of pope, but otherwise there is good information of the theological and political maneuvering during this period.

Thomas M said...

Jordan, thanks for the recommendations! This is helpful.

Anonymous said...

Anyone who begins a reading in patristics with Augustine is a moron. To study the 'fathers' you start at the logical place to start -- the beginning. And you do a chronological study of the development of doctrine. You don't skip to the founder of the heresy of absolutist predestination and original sin. After all, one of the open questions in patristics is *when* did the orthodox actually begin using the Pauline epistles? A true analysis of 1st Clement, the epistles of Ignatius and Polycarp will bear out that they are forgeries from the late 2nd century or early 3rd. No evidence exists that Paul was used or even known by the orthodox prior to Marcion. Our only clearly authentic witness to the pre-Marcionite period is Justin Martyr--who never mentions Paul. Then we get a surge in activity mentioning and quoting Paul a few decades post-Justin. This is the sort of analysis that one needs to do with the fathers--not jump to the writings of a psychopath who is used by certain modern denominations to prop up dead theology.

Jordan Cooper said...

Beowulf- I am greatly aware of Patristic scholarship, as I am working on a masters degree in Patristics. I can assure you that your assertions about the dating of I Clement, Polycarp, and the Ignatian epistles are completely unfounded. There is a near unanimous scholarly consensus that these writings are genuine. Yes, II Clement is agreed to be an inauthentic work along with several other epistles attributed to Ignatius. There is one article I can recall that argues that the seven accepted Ignatian epistles are inauthentic, and one which argues that only 4 of 7 are authentic, but this thesis has failed to prevail in patristic scholarship and is generally considered to be wrong. I would point you to Michael Holmes version of the Apostolic Fathers which has a great introduction, dealing with the issue of the dating of the Apostolic fathers. His bibliography is quite helpful here as well.

Justin is not "our only clearly authentic witness" to pre-Marcionite Christianity. In fact, Justin and Marcion were contemporaries. Actually, Marcion was older. Eusebius mentions a treatise written by Justin titled "Againt Marcion." If Justin in this work argued that the Pauline epistles were inauthentic, this surely would have been mentioned by Eusebius and Justin would be labeled a heretic. Your assertion that Justin does not know the Pauline epistles is also unfounded. I would point you to the following work which deals with Justin's canon: Parvis, Sarah and Paul Foster. Justin Martyr and His Worlds. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007.

Atheists like to claim that they are the ones who use logic, but when it comes to Biblical or patristic scholarship you have to resort to outdated conspiracy theories which have no bearing on the world of real sensible scholarship.

Jordan Cooper said...

Steve- I have heard good things about this work. I will have to pick up a copy.

Nick said...


I've always been interested in how Protestants approach the Early Church Fathers. On one hand, they seem to desire to find continuity, but on the other hand they seem to drop them like a hot potato the moment the Church Father begins to deny this or that teaching (or sound "too Catholic").

For example, you recommend people begin with St Augustine's Confessions, but in the Confessions he clearly teaches as normal Christian truths Baptismal Regeneration, Mass for the Dead (especially Saint Monica his mother), the power of Relics, and Intercession of the Saints. See Here for an example.

The question at the end of the day is: Was Church Father X a heretic, a Christian, or very confused?
I'm sure we can agree that for the Fathers to have any value, two of those three options are unacceptable.

Jordan Cooper said...

Nick- I approach the early church fathers as faithful Christians, in many ways able to correct much of modern exegesis. That doesn't mean that I take everything that I say as gospel truth. No one does because church fathers often disagree among themselves as theologians do today.

I don't think Lutherans approach the fathers in the same way as other Protestants (I don't prefer using the term Protestant to refer to Lutheranism). First of all, Lutherans are sacramental. We affirm baptismal regeneration and the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Second, our Confessions and theologians have referred to the Patristic sources as a didactic authority, albeit a secondary authority always to be normed by scripture. I would advise you to look at Martin Chemnitz' Examination of the Council of Trent. He masterfully interprets Patristic texts and argues for continuity with the Lutheran reformation.

Of course I consider Augustine a Christian, along with Ambrose, Chrysostom, Hilary, Athanasius, etc. but that does not mean that everything these figures said is true. I don't agree with Luther on everything either.

I don't fear the fathers sounding "too Catholic." The more I read the Patristic sources, the more I see Roman triumphalism for the farce that it is. This figures did not teach the Marian dogmas, papal infallibility, indulgences, the seven sacraments, purgatory, the complexities of transubstantiation, the necessity of a complete enumeration of sins in private confession, etc. The fathers were sacramental, yes. Maybe that makes a fundamentalist uncomfortable, but as a highly sacramental Lutheran I love this aspect of the fathers. That does not make them Tridentine Catholics.

Nick said...

Hello Jordan,

I disagree with your statement that the Church Fathers often disagree among themselves in so far as that was a norm or common occurrence on key doctrinal issues. In reality, there was a strong consensus on various "Catholic" things that simply cannot be denied. For example, the Church Fathers were unanimous on Apostolic Succession and thus rejected the cornerstone of Protestantism which is self-appointed clergy. This fact alone casts serious doubt on Lutheran ecclesiology.

Martin Chemnitz, unfortunately, badly proof-texted the Fathers and thus put words into their mouth.

The real litmus test is this: whatever Luther, Lutherans, or Protestants in general consider "serious error" in the Catholic Church is astonishingly the very doctrines found in the Fathers. And "if not everything a Father said was true," this only pushes the question back to it's presuppositions: what is true and how much error is to be tolerated?

In other words, if St Augustine denies Sola Fide, denies Sola Scriptura, affirms the Deutero-Canon, affirms Marian doctrines, affirms purgatory, affirms Mass as Sacrifice, affirms Apostolic Succession, affirms Papacy, considers Lutherans to be Pelagian, denies Penal Substitution, etc, etc, the question you must ask yourself in all honesty: how can this man be a Christian while Catholics are not? And if your answer is that Catholics are Christian along with Augustine, then where did the Reformation come from?

Jordan Cooper said...

Badly proof-texting the fathers is something that Rome often does, not Chemnitz. So often Catholic apologists will take any quotes they can find that have something positive to say about tradition, Mary, or Peter and assert these as full blown Roman dogma which is completely foreign to these writers. Have you read Chemnitz yourself and looked at the fathers along with him, and read contemporary Patristic scholarship on the same figures and controversies that Chemnitz cites? I have, and found Chemnitz to be a great interpreter of Patristic sources. Sure, he probably pulls a quote out of context every once in a while to prove a point (we all do) but for the most part, I have found him to be a great resource for the teachings of the early church.

I disagree with what you claim about St. Augustine. Functionally, the fathers practiced sola scriptura by always giving primacy to the scriptural witness over the tradition of the church. For example, read Athanasius' anti-Arian writings. In fact, read any of the fathers anti Arian writings. The argument is not "the Papacy defined this as a dogma at the council of nicea therefore the matter is ended." No, they argue from the careful exegesis of Holy Scripture.

Augustine did not affirm the Marian dogmas, nor did any father in the first five centuries. You can't take a statement that Mary is the second Eve and draw out of it the bodily assumption, immaculate conception, or the title of co-mediatrix. Augustine does not affirm the modern Roman view of the Papacy, purgatory, or the sacrifice of the mass. Sure, he acknowledged the bishop of Rome as an authority over him, speculated once about something kind of like purgatory, and held to the Eucharist as a sacrifice of thanksgiving, but this doesn't even begin to approach how these ideas would later be defined by Rome. Stating that Augustine considered Lutherans to be Pelagian is anachronistic and just plain doesn't make any sense. If by "denies penal substitution" you mean he prefers other motifs of the atonement, I see no problem there. Scripture is far from limiting the atonement to the idea of penal substitution.

I never stated the Roman Catholics are not Christian, nor would I. What I do say is that there are some serious errors in Roman dogma which greatly obscure the gospel.

I'm not sure you understand where Lutherans are coming from. We are not the fundamentalist evangelicals you are likely trying to debate.

Thomas M said...

I just finished reading Prosper's "The call of all nations" and I see why you like it! Would you comment on the distinction that he makes between "special grace" and "general grace"? (for example book II, chapter 25) Would you agree to this terminology?

Ryan Clevenger said...

Robert Louis Wilken's book, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought is the first book I recommend to those unfamiliar with the Early Church.

Anonymous said...

Saint Vladimir's Seminary Press (SVS Press) puts out a set of Popular Patristics with readable translations of the Church Fathers. They are also quite affordable. I recommend the works of Saint Basil. Most of his works, letters, homilies and tracts have been translated into English. Basil's Treatise on the Holy Spirit is an excellent example of patristic theology, showing how Scripture and tradition are intertwined.