Every now and then, our worship services give us a glimpse of the long tradition we’ve inherited. We’ll recite an ancient creed or sing a hymn with a melody rooted in medieval plainsong. By and large though, I’d contend that we have a fairly thin conception of church history. We’ve inherited a sense that our tradition’s trajectory goes something like this: Jesus, then the apostles, then a load of heretics, and then Martin Luther and John Calvin. It wasn’t until the Reformation that we got things sorted out, theologically speaking.
It’s risky to be content with that story. On a basic level, it’s just not true. But more important, that story can impoverish us. C.S. Lewis once remarked that every age has its own outlook, and if we don’t supplement our contemporary diet with ideas from another era, we run the risk of being spiritually malnourished.
Here are some books that could help balance our diet. They focus on the writers, thinkers, and theologians from the early centuries of the tradition, the folks we typically refer to as “patristic,” or more colloquially, as “church fathers” (though there are some vital church mothers, too).
First, a few recent survey texts. Bryan Liftin’s Getting to Know the Church Fathers (Brazos) is approachable, generous, and a great place to start. So too is Paul Foster’s Early Christian Thinkers (InterVarsity), which has a more scholarly bent and will point to more great resources. I’m also a fan of Pope Benedict XVI’s Church Fathers (Ignatius), a collection of public addresses he gave in 2007 and 2008. Each of these works will give you a marvelous introduction to folks like Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Polycarp, and Origen, urging you on in your exploring.
Meet our ancient brothers and sisters in their own words too. An easy way is to check out the marvelous “Popular Patristics Series” from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Each slim work in the series is concise and translated into accessible English. Start with a classic of classics, Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, and work your way to the prophetic challenge of John Chrysostom’s sermons in On Wealth and Poverty. If poetry is your thing, Ephrem of Syria’s Hymns on Paradise will set your soul alight. If you’d really like to delve into an area of theology we give short shrift in our tradition, you could read Theodore the Studite’s On the Holy Icons.
And on and on. The recommendations could keep coming, because the patristic writers have left us a tremendous treasure. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who, even centuries on, are worthy companions on our journey.
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