Thursday, April 21, 2011

"Rediscovering the Church Fathers" Book Review

There seems to be a resurgence of interest as of late in church history. No doubt this is in part to authors such as John Piper, who quotes extensively from Jonathan Edwards and John Calvin. Men such as N.T. Wright have also sparked much interest in Early Judaism as well. However, one area where students in my generation simply do not seem as interested is the early church fathers. Michael A.G. Haykin's book Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church seeks to educate and, hopefully, rekindle an interest in the church fathers.

Unfortunately, Haykin's book, while educational, does little to rekindle interest. The book mostly feels like a random collection of essays concerning different fathers in the church. Perhaps the biggest shortcoming of the book is that Haykin provides little commentary on why these church fathers are relevant for today. While he insists on their contemporary importance, little application is given.

Some chapters are particularly perplexing within his book, such as his chapter on Origin's exegetical practices. After spending the entire chapter pointing out the shortcomings, Haykin never comes around to explaining what we can learn. The question is simply crying out to be asked, "Why did he decide to pick Origin?" Again, Haykin spends a great deal of time discussing Ignatious of Antioch's somewhat graphic (and joyous) description of martyrdom. While he dismisses any suggestion that Ignatious was wrong in his perspective on suffering, he never builds a conclusive case as to why we should listen to Ignatious.

Haykin's book also seems to ramble. His final chapter discusses his own experience with the church fathers. While interesting, the chapter simply concludes with Haykin essentially saying, "That is how I got into the church fathers." What is left out is how they are relevant, what we can learn from them, and how to apply them to today.

All is not lost, however. Chapter 6, on Basil of Caesarea, stands out as a particularly practical and powerful chapter. His chapter on St. Patrick is also quite interesting as well. Also, Haykin should be commended for his use of quotations of the early fathers. He quotes extensively from the original sources without using so many quotes that it disrupts the flow of the book. Each chapter was also quite readable and the chapters seemed to be a good length.

Perhaps the biggest problem with Haykin's book is that it does not really offer anything new to the market of introductory studies on the church fathers. For example, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers by Christopher Hall offers both a thorough introduction to the thinking of individual fathers and provides relevant application. In my mind, at least, Hall's works are a sort of paradigm for introductory material. Rediscovering the  Church Fathers simply does not measure up. With so many better books out there on the church fathers, I would suggest passing this one up.

*Thanks to Crossway publishers for providing a review copy of this book in exchange for a fair review*


  1. Sounds disappointing. As I have suggested with Luther (and Calvin!), stop reading ABOUT the fathers and read them. Start with the Ante-Nicene Fathers.
    Why? (1) These people were closest to the apostles. Some were actually discipled by an apostle and others discipled by someone who was. This should give a pretty good idea of what they taught and meant. This can be illuminating and raise questions about the church today. (2) This will affect your preaching and teaching. (3) Always better to read the man instead of books about the man!

  2. “What was critical was not primarily the choice of figures but the issues that they wrestled with in their lives as believers, for these issues are central to the Patristic era: martyrdom, monasticism, and discipleship; witness to an unbelieving world and mission; the canon and interpretation of Scripture; and the supreme issue of this era, the doctrine of the Trinity and worship” (Page 29). Though Haykin notes several other important, if not vital, patristic scholars, he clearly sets his agenda by focusing on the needs of the church during the time of the patristics. I would urge you to give the book another read. These issues are timely and eminently practical to today's church.