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A Great Intro to the Fathers

Generally, I am a tough critic when it comes to book reviews, giving books three stars if I thought they were well written and informative. Yet, every once in a while there comes across my way a book that that compels me to dig in deeper and to appreciate the subject matter in a more refreshing way, such is Michael Haykin's new book entitled Rediscovering the Church Fathers. Haykin, a professor of church history and biblical spirituality at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has written a lucid, provocative, informative and appreciate book on the early church fathers. I have not quite read a book written both as an apology for reading the fathers and as an introduction of the early fathers that is so compelling as this book.

The first chapter of the book devotes itself to the renewal of interest in church fathers study by evangelicals, the question of who are the church fathers, and the more actute statments regarding the value of studying the fathers. In reading through his analysis of our debt to the church fathers, I was once again reminded that, "Every age has its own distinct outlook, presuppositions that remain unquestioned even by opponents. The examination of another period of thought forces us to confront our innate prejudices, which would go unnoticed otherwise" (17). To study the fathers is to cast off the mask of historical amnesia that we put over our faces, proclaiming that our era is better and that we are more advanced than the past generations. Haykin's claim is that without adequate study of the past, especially the church fathers, we live uncritically by accepting the culture's main philosophy and ideas without seeing how other Christians lived their faith out in the world. Although most Western Christians do not face persecution on a daily basis, many others do face the threat of death and physical damage. Many church fathers were able to stay strong in their faith in the midst of terrible atrocities, and therefore give us a firm witness on how to stand firm in the midst of persecution.

Secondly, Haykin points out that studying the church fathers gives us a 'map for the Christian life' (18). We can go back to the Nicene Creed, to Athanasius's defense of the Trinity and see how these men sought to integrate a biblical understanding of their faith in concrete terms, therefore fending off abberant ideas. Although the fathers are fallible, they provide concrete examples of the setting down of their faith in forms that point us to key doctrines that we must understand. I hope from here on out to point out some of the highlights in an overall stunning book filled with great examples of these faithful fathers.

In the second chapter, Haykin focuses on Ignatius of Antioch. Arrested in Antioch between 107/110, Ignatius was to be taken to Rome for execution (37). Ignatius knew many influential and well to do Christians who were in Rome who could easily pull some strings and get him out of his sentence, and yet he vehemently wanted silence on this issue. "In other words, the silence of the Roman believers will mean that Ignatius, by his martyrdom, can proclaim to the world the sincerity of his faith" (40). Martyrdom was not taken lightly for Ignatius, it was an honorable way to show forth the redemptive faith that he held. Just as the Son's death was pleasing to his Father, so Igantius's death is an example of pleasing God in sacrifice (42). What is amazing is both the tenacity at which Ignatius held his faith and the desire to imitate Christ in his own life. In understanding this great act of faith, Ignatius wed his theology with his practice, his life with his faith in an unyielding way, even to the point of death.

The next chapter dealing with the Letter to Diognetus is an amazing ecample of the clarity with which early Christians bore witness of their faith through argument and example. The recipient presumably named Diognetus is a 'Greco-Roman pagan' whom the author is seeking to make a case for the Christian faith (50). As we read on, we find that the author arguments much in the same vein as Paul does in his address to the Athenians at the Areopagus. This author makes a hard case against the absurdity of the false Greco-Roman idols and their ability to be none other than common objects. At one point, the author says, "Do you really call these things gods, and really do service to them? Yes, indeed you do; you worship them-and you end up by becoming like them. Is it not because we Christians refuse to acknowledge their divinity that you dislike us so? (54). From this point on, the author builds a case for the existence of the one true God and the way in which we receive knowledge and true understanding of Him via revelation. Later on in the letter, the author posits five different ways that Christ is our substitute (60). The richness of the letter combined with its theological integrity and clarity are hallmarks of the author's witness to the Christian faith. Secondly, the author makes a strong apologetic against what he sees are the crass consequences of paganism in order to build his testimony on the basis of revelation.

The rest of the book is filled with concrete examples of those early fathers who laid their lives on the line for their faith. When writing about St. Patrick, Haykin writes, "His Confessions reveals a transparent personality: a zealous evangelist and loving pastor who was willing to be a stranger in Ireland not his own that Irish men and women might come to know the Savior" (148). In due course, we learn that Patrick was not originally from Ireland but rather from Northern Britain. The only small criticism I have of the book is rather a fault of mine own, for I could not get my head around the section on Basil of Caesarea. Haykin writes, "to come to the Spirit for sanctification we must have purified our souls" (124). This reference comes after a section of text from Basil's work on the Holy Spirit. What I don't really get is what is regarded as purifying one's soul and what kind of process does this entail?

Haykin does a great job at providing the reader with a glimpse into his journey with the church fathers from early on in college all the way through to his doctoral work. Haykin is wise to point out that careful study of the fathers demands ancient language acquisition and a careful study of the ancient world surrounding the Fathers (156). For pastors, those starting their church history course in seminary, or those in church who are asking questions regarding the first few centuries of the church, this book is a rare gem. Part of the reason I rated it so highly is that a great book should cause the reader to want more of the subject, to go on into the sources themselves. This work has certainly caused me to see the need for a careful primary source study of the Fathers, for none other than a good study points us back to our Savior.


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