Thursday, January 7, 2010

Pulpit Review: Patristics

Litfin, Bryan M. Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2007. 301 Pages. Paper. $22.99. (LHP)

Drobner, Hubertus R. The Fathers of Church: A Comprehensive Introduction. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007. 632 Pages. Cloth. $44.95 (LHP)

Charlesworth, James. H., translator. The Earliest Christian Hymnbook: The Odes of Solomon (The Odes Project). Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009. 134 Pages. Paper. $20.00 (discounts available). (LHP)

Patristics, the study of the early church fathers, can be a fascinating study. It can easily become overwhelming. There is so much material out there! The three books featured in this review can give you a great introduction to a life-long reading hobby.

Getting to Know the Church Fathers is a decent introduction to the subject in a mere 300 pages. He is associate professor of theology at Moody Bible Institute. You will note decision theology (55), a misunderstanding of a proper "distinction" between Law and Gospel in a discussion of Marcion, Luther, and Harnack (107, 279), leading questions with regard to the Holy Spirit (137), and an attempt at a modern "relevant" story (215). Apart from these weaknesses, Litfin helps motivate the reader to delve into the reading (or reading about) Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Irenaus of Lyons, Tertullian, Perpetua, Origen, Athanasius, John Chrysostom, Augustine, and Cyril of Alexandria.

Most QBR readers, I would imagine, would be looking for something more comprehensive. Hendrickson's tome is double the size and much smaller print. It is a more academic and complete presentation and is overall a stronger book than the Brazos book because of scholarliness of the Hubertus R. Drobner, Professor for Church History and Patrology of the Theological Faculty at the University of Paderborn, Germany.

Please also note that both covers feature the same cover art, a Byzantine mosaic from the Court of Martyrs of the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna Italy. It features Saints Martin, Clement, Sixtus II, and Lawrence.

What does Drobner include? A little on just about everything.

  • Extensive material in the front matter, so future scholars and current readers can learn more and double-check the author (151 pages in Roman numerals)
  • Introduction (Who is a Church Father?)
  • One: Apostolic and Postapostolic Literature (The New Testament and beyond, including Odes of Solomon)
  • Two: Persecution-era Literature (Greek and early Latin)
  • Three: Imperial Church (Constantine through Augustine and all the hereses in-between)
  • Four: Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (more theological controversy)
  • Five: Christianity in the East
Note: This is an English translation of a German original. It's pretty high-powered stuff, more of a reference work than a book you'll read cover-to-cover, though that is what I did over a week or so. Use the index to research what you need. The author will give you at least a brief overview of your topic and then provide an extensive list of academic literature and books to peruse for further information. 

So far we have seen two works that give the big picture of patristics, one more comprehensive than the other, but both of service to their different intended audiences. Now, let's move from the forest to the trees, one tree in particular called the Odes of Solomon.

You are correct to presume that Solomon had nothing to do these Odes, early Christian psalms/hymns that bear his name.

I often disagreed with the interpretations of the editor and translator, James Charlesworth. It is true that some of the psalms in this collection have a more obvious Christian confession of faith. Others ponder the mystery of Christ. Some have a Jewish flavor. I am not convinced that any are necessarily Gnostic or "proto-gnostic" (xviii-xix). He also has a preoccupation with the sacred feminine side of God (xxxii-xxxiii).

The translator posits a Christian Odist who was a Essene Jew (xvii) and enourages modern Christians to embrace the Jewishness of Christianity (xxxv).

The publisher has given this collection of early Christian hymns an attractive cover, unique book size and shape, and a very readable ivory paper.

The so-called Odes of Solomon are an example of one of the goals of patristics, actually reading what the fathers wrote rather than merely reading about them. Theologically, we should be mindful of not merely speaking about the Gospel of Christ, but speaking the Gospel of Christ to a dying world in need of Life.

The Rev. Paul J Cain is Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming, Headmaster of Martin Luther Grammar School, Wyoming District Worship Chairman, and Editor of QBR.