For Christians, when we go to a new place, perhaps a new country, we usually don’t know anyone there. Everything is new. We’re trying to get our bearings on language, places, which side of the road we’re supposed to drive on. But as soon as we meet another Christian, there is a sense of comfort. We’ve met another family member. But when it comes to the past, it isn’t always so easy to feel these warm fuzzies. Who is Augustine? Origen, Cyprian, Ambrose? Why should I care? They write funny, they’re hard to follow, and I don’t see why this is relevant. Should we care to read our forefathers, those who carried the truths of the gospel in difficult times?
Rediscovering the Church Fathers was written by Michael A. G. Haykin who serves as professor of Church History & Biblical Spirituality at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a prolific author, having authored and edited over twenty-five books and written hundreds of articles and book reviews. Haykin has a passion for church history, and while the church today looks quite different than it did two thousand years ago, Christians share the same faith with the church fathers. Although separated by time and culture, we have much to learn from their lives and teaching.
This book is an organized introduction to how to read the church fathers from AD 100 to 500. Haykin surveys the lives and teachings of seven of the Fathers, looking at their role in such issues as baptism, martyrdom, and the relationship between church and state. Ignatius, Cyprian, Basil of Caesarea, and Ambrose and others were foundational in the growth and purity of early Christianity, and their impact continues to shape the church today.
In chapter one, Haykin begins his book by explaining that “far too many modern-day evangelicals are either ignorant of or quite uncomfortable with the church fathers” (13). If the Holy Spirit speaks to us all, should we not think that he spoke to the church fathers too? Haykin lists six reasons why we should not only listen to but engage with the thoughts of the church fathers.
- They free us from our contemporary lens,
- they provide us with a map for the Christian life,
- they can help us understand the New Testament,
- reading the Fathers with our own eyes helps us discern the bad press,
- they aid in defending our faith against both new and reoccurring heresies, and
- they nurture us spiritually.
Chapter two begins the list of seven church fathers Haykin will present to his readers:
- Ignatius of Antioch,
- the author of the Letter to Diognetus,
- Basil of Caesarea, and
In his letters, Ignatius was dedicated to the unity of the church, which led to him encouraging the church to stand together against heresy. This chapter focuses on Ignatius’ letter to the Romans, which centered on his imminent martyrdom. He asks the Roman church not to listen to his possible pleas for freedom, but instead to pray for God to grant Ignatius inward and outward endurance.
To Ignatius, martyrdom—and enduring through it—was in some sense a gift of the Spirit—it was done full of love (1 Cor 13:1–3) for Christ and the Church. Though to Ignatius martyrdom was the clearest path of showing his personal devotion to Christ, he does not deny the other routes.
Chapter three is about a defense from a man who joyously shared the Christian faith to a Greco-Roman pagan (Diognetus) in hopes that he would embrace that faith. Certain stumbling blocks needed to be overcome, such as who the Christian God was or why, if Christianity is true, hadn’t the ancients known about it. The letter’s author lays out how both Jews and Greeks misunderstand God. The true God can only be known by humans if and when he reveals himself—something he did through “his Son” (though the letter’s author doesn’t mention God’s self-revelation in the Old Testament, nor does he mention the Son’s name, Jesus Christ). The Son’s death ransomed his beloved people, a community who express their sincere love for one another, live according to a different set of ethical standards, and are even willing to die for their Lord.
Chapter four surveys Origin’s bold and imaginative hermeneutics of Scripture and his presentation of the Trinity. Haykin notes that Origin was “a profound interpreter of the Scriptures” (71). Origin wrote the first true systematic theology. When Modalism muddied the distinctions between the persons of the Godhead, Origin stressed both preserving the distinction between the Father and Son and affirming the unity of the Father and the Son.
Origin finds no Scriptural evidence that says the Holy Spirit was a created being—though his commentary on John’s Gospel hesitates at the full divinity of the Spirit. Other texts indicate that Origin knew the Spirit possessed the qualities of divinity and was “radically different from the rest of the created realm” (74). Origin provided the soil for the development of both the “coequality of the Spirit with the Father and the Son” (74) and Arianism, both events which occurred in the following century.
Origin died as one who confessed Christ (though dying later due to his persecution beatings). He engaged the culture and believed the Bible could change lives because it was God’s Word, authored by the Holy Spirit. Origin did resort to allegory, yet he took a cautioned approach to it, rarely leaving the literal sense of the text. The Holy Spirit interwove “impossible” interpolations into the Scripture so that God’s Word could not be read like the rest of the world’s literature. The exegete must dig further down to reach the text’s divine intention. The ultimate goal of exegesis was spiritual formation of the interpreter.
Chapter five presents the piety of Cyprian and Ambrose around the Eucharist. Both these two men helped clarify the role of the Lord’s Supper in the life of the Church. For Cyprian, the believer knew “afresh the forgiveness of the Lord” when he received the Eucharist, resulting in filling him with joy. The wine (Jesus’ blood) and water (God’s people) were to be mixed together, representing the unbreakable union between believers and with Christ.
Ambrose saw prefigurations of the Lord’s Supper in Melchizedek’s offer of bread and wine to Abraham. Christ was in this sacrament because it was his body. The bread and wine were transformed into Christ’s body and blood when consumed. The food was spiritual more than it was physical.
In chapter six, the reader glimpses Basil of Caesarea and his monastic lifestyle. When Basil converted to Christ, he also converted to that monastic lifestyle. During a period when being a Christian didn’t mean martyrdom but instead enabled one to get ahead, the relevant question became “What does it mean to be a Christian in a ‘Christian’ society?” Basil pioneered the “coenobitic” monastic lifestyle which “centered on living the Christian life together with others who were like-minded” based on Acts 2:44 and 4:32 (109). Monasticism was necessary for renewing the church, though not the way for every Christian. Basil saw the need for spiritual direction from humble Christian leaders who know glory because they know the living God. His theological work On the Holy Spirit helped resolve a controversy—stemmed from the larger on-going Arian controversy—with those who didn’t affirm the Holy Spirit’s divinity.
In chapter seven, the final chapter on the Fathers themselves, Patrick, an upperclassman in the Romano-British world which was soon to become a very different planet. With Saxon raiders to the west, Irish pirates to the east, and the loss (disappearance?) of the Roman legions, Britain’s economy began to deteriorate, although they had yet to lose their Christian witness. Patrick grew up well within the striking distance of Irish raiders. As a result of being ripped away from his family, Patrick turned to God. After being held in captivity for six years, Patrick escaped and traveled back to his family. Though soon he would return to Ireland as a missionary, never to return to Britain again. Certain it was God’s will for him to go and remain in Ireland, he was prepared to die there. Patrick had great success in his missionary activities but was not without opposition. The Celtic Church inherited Patrick’s zeal for the Lord and missions.
In chapter eight Haykin describes his journey into the church fathers being encouraged by his own church-fatherly mentor, Dr. John Egan, S.J, but Haykin found special encouragement from the church fathers themselves (after Haykin’s mother passed away, he wrote a paper on Irenaeus’ concept of the beatific visions—a view of the future which brought comfort to Haykin).
There are two appendices. In the first, Haykin provides a short list of six introductory secondary sources and nine primary sources in which the interested reader can begin to get his feet wet. Haykin concludes his book (Appendix 2) with an examination of one of his mentors, Jaroslav Pelikan, and his thought in Patristics.
Throughout his book, Haykin writes in a conversational—a very well informed one at that—tone. He makes history come alive as he sets these men (and women like Vibia Perpetua and Macrina) in their historical context. For example, for a modern person to look at Basil of Caesarea, he might consider Basil’s desire for monasticism to be extreme. However, once Christianity was accepted as a legal and legitimate religion endorsed by Emperor Constantine, being a Christian no longer meant hiding and possible martyrdom. It actually became a benefit to be a Christian. Thus, who were the real Christians? This is certainly an issue in American today, a country where, in their struggle against sin, most Christians “have not yet resisted to the point of shedding [their] blood.” We must ask them same kind of question that was posed 1800 years ago, “What does it mean to be a Christian in a ‘Christian’ society?”
I believe that one reason many modern-day Christians so rarely read or even consider the church fathers is because their language—even in many English translations—is so “otherly.” First, they’re difficult to read. Secondly, why would many care was Basil believed about monasticism? Americans have no use for that today.
That isn’t to say that this like reading a short fictional novel. This is a scholarly piece of work with extensive high-quality footnotes, though the water rarely gets too deep (only once did it get deep, and it was when Ignatius left Troas with Roman soldiers. Do we really need to know each stop on their route?).
Some reviewers have said that the flow between the chapters is virtually nonexistent, resembling “six unrelated journal articles presented in succession rather than a single, continuous text on the subject.” I partially disagree. Each chapter is a snapshot of sorts of different church fathers, and while some kind of historical reference notes could have been placed to connect some of them together, that wasn’t the purpose of this book, which was to introduce the church to some vital fathers of church history so that she could see “the need for Patristic studies in the ongoing life of the church” (28).
Nor do I agree with the assumption that certain church fathers who were missed (i.e., Augustine, Athenasius, Polycarp) needed to be included. They are important figures, but it is entirely Haykin’s prerogative whether he wants to introduce his readers to them, and he decided that he wanted to write about other figures. This book is not intended to be a “catch-all” introduction on every church father.
Chapter seven’s introduction contains two long paragraphs on the reticence of some historians to talk about a “fall” of Rome. This discussion gave me insight into the views of differing historians, but it didn’t give me more insight into Patrick. Whether crumbling or transforming, Haykin acknowledges that Patrick was experiencing the “traumatic passing of the empire” (133).
Chapter eight was a cliffhanger to me; it didn’t give me much information about why I should be reading the church fathers (besides the last two sentences). The contemporary significance to reading the church fathers was given in chapter one, but I would have found this book more applicable if more significance or application had been provided for each chapter. More particular relevance from each one would have made their faith more concrete in my own time and place.
Modern-day relevance was easier to recognize in some chapters over others. In the chapters on Ignatius and Diognetus, I saw that the Christian faith is one worth dying for, and one that is both worth defending and certainly sensible enough to be defended. But what of the texts on Origin, Cyprian, or Ambrose? What about his life as an exegete should encourage me today? I can still be encouraged by Cyprian and Ambrose even if I don’t agree with their view on the Eucharist, but how can I challenge myself and other Christians to view the Eucharist with more importance? I wasn’t completely sure.
What is encouraging is to see how these men worked through their struggles biblically. They were mocked and attacked, they needed fellowship, they felt the need to evangelize, they desired to know God, they worked to study his word, and they exhaustively defended his word. They had to work through many of the same issues we have today (without 1500-1900 years of books and commentaries). They had to go directly to the source, God’s Word, because they loved Christ and desired to know only him and his cross alone.
Haykin begins this book by stating its purpose in the first chapter: the need for studying the Fathers among evangelicals. Haykin states that we should study the church fathers for such reasons as freedom and wisdom, understanding the New Testament, correcting mistaken views about the Fathers, apologetic reasons, and for spiritual nourishment. Haykin desires the spiritual formation of his reader through through presenting models of doctrinal faithfulness and dying well for Christ as seen in the Fathers. Above all, Haykin showed that the Christian message, our confession, is “so central [to] Christian orthodoxy, that it was [is, and always will be] worth dying for” (48). Evangelical readers interested in the historical roots of Christianity will find this to be a helpful introductory volume.
 For example, B.C. Askins, “Book Review: Rediscovering the Church Fathers by Michael A. G. Haykin” (blog), entry posted December 17, 2013, https://bcaskins.wordpress.com/2013/12/17/book-review-rediscovering-the-church-fathers-by-michael-a-g-haykin/.
 Allen Mickle, “Book Review – Rediscovering the Church Fathers” (blog), entry posted June 8, 2011, https://allenmickle.com/2011/06/08/book-review-rediscovering-the-church-fathers/.
- Author: Michael A. G. Haykin
- Paperback: 176 pages
- Publisher: Crossway (March 2, 2011)
- Read the Intro + Chapter 1
Buy it from Amazon or Crossway!
Disclosure: I wrote this review for a Church History class. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review.