As one with a foot in both camps, the church fathers are to reformed evangelicals as the puritans are to many charismatic theologians. Though we’d be hard pressed to deny their belonging to Christ, there is a certain distrust of their works and even at times a lack of knowledge of the primary texts of these pastors, disciples and authors. I say this with at least the certainty that I have been one to self-suffer under such arrogance.
Haykin has provided a brief primer on key figures from the church fathers. Each case study is not exhaustive but exists to prepare the reader to dig deeper and give a more careful eye and ear to the voices of the early church. Unsurprisingly, reading this material unearths that we are not the revolutionaries we sometimes think we are. Issues of baptism, sacrament, biblical interpretation, missional living and so forth are all dealt with, with respect to the context of the historical figure, and with special focus on the writings of the fathers. Today we wrestle with the issues that Christians across millenia have worked through. There is comfort in that, and a good dose of humility too!
I am especially appreciative that Haykin does not gloss over the more uncomfortable elements of the primary texts, choosing rather to explain how those lines of thought may have come about whilst not seeking to apologize or explain these things away. Sometimes, people make errors on important points of theology. We do not need to jettison all that has been written, but we cannot treat theologians as Scripture. Their words must be carefully sifted and the truth that remains in accord with the Bible can be embraced.
My favorite part of this book is the inclusion of good portions of primary texts, allowing for a more contextual reading whilst encouraging further reading of the church fathers themselves.
I want you to know that, subjectively, I’m not that big a history buff. I was never that focused on it at school and, as much as I have tried to repent of that attitude, it is a lot of work for me to read history books. Keep that firmly in mind when I say that this book dragged at times for me. The reason I bring it up is this – a good history book will present the information with transparent bias and purpose, leaving room for alternate readings of the data but being honest enough that the author has an opinion; a great history book will draw multiple strands together and follow the course of history as she wends her way across time, presenting the data with honesty and skill whilst showing the source from which it springs and the impact further downstream. An outstanding history will do all that and make people like myself sit wide-eyed and enthralled. Haykin’s book sits in the good and great, but didn’t reach outstanding to me. Again, this is the subjective realm so if you disagree, please do so in the comments!
More objectively, it seems that the application and relevance of the church fathers to contemporary thought and life is implicit but not explicit. If we see this book as an attempt to reinvigorate the interest of the church in the early fathers, it would make more sense to explicitly show why the fathers are important and can teach us things today. This was a work left more to the reader – and I’m all for making people work a little when reading – but when you are dealing with a potentially hostile audience, it is possibly more prudent to be more forthcoming in reasons.
Overall, this is a good volume for jumping into a very large arena of history. It achieves what it sets out to do, painting a broad-stroke history of an era that has gathered too much dust for too many of us. Non-historians may need to commit to reading the volume with more determination, but I suspect the rewards will be worth any effort but forward.
A review copy was provided to me at no charge by the publisher. No attempt was made to gain a favorable review, and all opinions and recommendations expressed are the author’s own.