Wednesday, March 3

Reading Even More of the Patristics

I received a flurry of responses to my blog yesterday about reading the Patristics. Among the sundry attaboys and amens was a very helpful list of books from my friend, the writer and educator, Patrick Poole.

He wrote: “I finished G.L. Prestige's God In Patristic Thought recently, and found that it had the best explanation of Hilary's role in trinitarian development by introducing coinherence. Solid scholarship on the whole topic of theology proper by the Fathers. Advanced reading but worth the effort. You might have seen Christopher Hall's two books from IVP: Learning Theology With The Church Fathers and Reading Scripture with The Church Fathers. I found both extremely helpful, with the former being very accessible for novice readers. I've lent out my copy of W.H.C. Frend's The Early Church several times as an easy read in the history of the period. Bettenson's The Early Church Fathers has great topical selections from all of the patristic luminaries. Also, you might have noticed that Liberty Fund has just republished Cochrane's Christianity and Classical Culture. It looks like a spectacular volume, especially for the $10 price for the kevar softcover. Very well bound. My 1961 edition is falling apart, so it is next on my purchase list. Needham's The Triumph of Grace: Augustine's Writings On Salvation and Carol Harrison's Augustine: Christian Truth and Fractured Humanity were great reads on my list last year. Finally, over the weekend I started re-reading Gerald Bonner's bio on Augustine. Food for thought.”

Food for thought indeed. I've read all of the books Patrick suggests except the Learning Theology volume by Hall--and it is on my must-read list.

In addition to the volumes Patrick recommends I have found the histories of Schaff, Pelikan, and Needham very helpful, the anthologies of Lightfoot, Staniforth, and Sparks delightful, and the comprehensive set edited by Schaff, Wace, and Donaldson of all the Patristic writings indispensible. But the single most valuable volume I have stumbled across in the last couple of years is the massive encyclopedia edited by Allan Fitzgerald for Eerdman's, Augustine through the Ages. It is a treasure house of information and inspiration, not just about Augustine, but about the whole of the Patristic age.

All this talk of books covering the wide ranging period from the Didiche to The City of God obviously raises the question of just who is it that we include when we talk about the Patristics. I suppose that speaking in a general way, the epoch of the Fathers was, in the Western Church, the first five centuries after Christ. In the Eastern Church, the Patristic Age may be extended to embrace John of Damascus in the middle of the eighth century. Scholars have traditionally arranged the writers, not unnaturally, into four groups. In the first group are the Apostolic Fathers and the Apologists, or those writers who were roughly contemporary with the formation of the New Testament canon. These all wrote in Greek. In the second group are those writers from the third century--approximately from the time of Irenreus to the Nicene Council. They wrote partly in Greek and partly in Latin. In the third group are the Post-Nicene Latin Fathers--those writers from the age of the great Ecumenical Councils. In the fourth group are the Post-Nicene Greek Fathers--those writers from the Golden Age of Byzantium.

Most modern collections of the Patristics include only writings from the first group--which is a great pity. To ignore Clement of Alexandria means that we lose much of our knowledge of classical antiquity. John Chrysostom can no more be left out of the world of letters than Chaucer or Shakespeare. And the Confessions of Augustine is one of those rare books which belong to the whole human race, and should always live. That said, the first and formative period of the Patristics--the Formative Period--is a great place to start. This will be the focus of the conference Servant Group International and King's Meadow will be sponsoring on April 17. I am very much looking forward to reading and preparing for that conference.

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