The history of the church is long. Unfortunately, our modern reception often goes through a Marcionian filter that weeds out vast portions of our heritage. Particularly, the church fathers are neglected due to their unfamiliarity or refusal to fit nicely into our evangelical box.
Bryan M. Litfin’s Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction (Baker Academic, 2016, 2nd ed.; source: publisher) attempts to reverse this trend. The focus of the work is to introduce the church fathers to a wide evangelical audience. For Litfin, the key to understanding the church fathers is to look beyond just a doctrinal treatment of the fathers, but also to learn of their context and how they lived out their theology.
this book will focus on several key church fathers as individual personalities. 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. Getting to Know the Church Father, 5
But how do we identify the church fathers? Usually, the term is reserved for early church leaders who formed orthodoxy theology in the centuries after the New Testament. Litfin defines the church fathers:
Along with Vincent of Lérins, perhaps we can now define the “church fathers” as those who lived righteously and passed down to later generations the core principles of the Christian faith that they themselves had received from the apostles. In other words, the church fathers and mothers are those men and women whose beliefs and lifestyles were consistent with what is recorded as the apostolic teaching found in the Scriptures. Thus the ancient fathers provide us with the first links of continuity to our Christian past. Getting to Know the Church Fathers, 8
Litfin draws a direct family line from the church fathers to modern evangelicalism. He is not making claims of apostolic succession. Rather, his argument is of theological continuity from antiquity to the present.
To do so, he consistently draws a line between the church fathers and Roman Catholicism. The latter was an institution which first develops well into the Medieval period. The church fathers lived in a completely different period and must be understood on their own terms.
In order to draw out the theological continuity between the church fathers and evangelicalism, he highlights their lived theology. In a way, Litfin allows the thoughts and actions of the church fathers to speak for themselves. When we understand the church fathers, they are not to be feared, but studied as forefathers.
The strength of the work is how Litfin situates the church fathers in their historical context. For instance, in his chapter on Ignatius, Litfin describes the significance of Antioch in the Hellenistic world, but also for the early church. Litfin narrates the progression of the New Testament church and Antioch’s role in this development. Each chapter provides a different setting, as the fathers represent a wide geographical area and several centuries of history.
You will not find too much criticism of the church fathers in the book. It would have been nice to have a more nuanced critical perspective, as the church fathers were not perfect and it would benefit readers to be aware of this side of the church fathers. A slightly more balanced presentation of the church fathers would prevent the newly initiated from constructing a false impression of the church fathers.
In addition to well-known church fathers such as Augustine, Litfin also includes chapters on people such as Perpetua. The second edition also includes chapters on Ephrem the Syrian and Patrick of Ireland.
The chapters are meant to be individual introductions to the fathers. They provide a historical treatment of the church fathers, addressing their response to the gospel and their surrounding world, and their writings and theological thought. The chapters are not lengthily, but each ends with resources for further primary and secondary research. As the title states, Getting to Know the Church Fathers, Litfin’s book does just that. If you have had little exposure to the church father and are hoping to learn more, Getting to Know the Church Fathers is a great place to start.