Getting started with the Fathers

Via Twitter I learn of this post at Triablogue, answering the question:

Jason, where would you recommend someone start with the church fathers, both in terms of primary and secondary reading? It seems such a dauntingly large field to a non-specialist…

The answer is worth reading, but inevitably I disagree profoundly!

If you are interested in history, and have some idea about Greeks and Romans, then I think that I would recommend the following.

First, read the Didache, or “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles”.  It’s a first century work (one of the few not in the New Testament), which combines a Jewish moral manual (boring) with some practical instructions on how congregations should treat apostles and prophets! (very interesting).  I would suggest getting a modern translation; but a Google search will bring up others.  This is the only ancient text outside the New Testament to mention them.  It’s short.

Secondly, go and look at this page.  It’s the table of contents (sort of) for a massive collection of old translations of the Fathers, in chronological order.  It will give you a  bunch of names, and centuries, at a very high level.  You can click through and get the very olde-worlde translations too; but the main reason to look at this is just to get a high-level view of who wrote when.

Thirdly … get hold of a modern translation of Eusebius of Caesarea’s Church History.  There is a Penguin edition, translation by G.A. Williamson, which is excellent (the older version with Williamson’s own notes is better than the one with Louth’s, in my opinion).  This was written around 325 AD.  It’s in 10 books (some 480 pages of English – sorry!), and it contains any amount of very early sources in quotation, which aren’t preserved otherwise.  This gives you a strong, primary source account of how the church rose and progressed, right down to the legalisation of the church in 313 and the first ecumenical council (of Nicaea) in 325 AD.  It will also tell you how the early church thought about the New Testament.

After that … I would suggest looking into the earliest literature, known as the “apostolic fathers”.  It’s all boring, but on the other hand it isn’t very extensive.  You should certainly read “1 Clement” (written ca. AD 90, and a bit of a follow-up to 1 and 2 Corinthians in the NT).  The martyrdom of Polycarp (you read about him in Eusebius) is good.  The letters of Ignatius are worth a look also.

But from here you can find your own way in the sources.  Generally you find that the Fathers have “lovely moments, and dreadful quarters of an hour”, as was said of Wagner.  You have to learn to skim-read.

Now, secondary sources.  What you need here, obviously, is an overview of what exists.  For this there is no better source than J. Quasten, Patrology.  It’s in 4 volumes; the first two of reasonable size, the last two both immense.  But it really does list all the works by all the writers.  And it gives them in chronological order — so you can read it from cover to cover –, it discusses what they thought, quotes some “good bits”, and it has a very useful reading list at the end of each small chunk, including where to find the texts, translations, and studies.  The only drawback is that vols. 1-3 are now 50 years old (vol. 4 is 20 years old), and so don’t include more recent stuff.  The main omission is the Nag Hammadi library, which only got into the hands of the public in the 1960’s.

This may be overkill; but I’m rather fond of such volumes.  Just skimming, you get a very, very good idea of everything that exists.

I have no suggestions for more recent studies, since I specialise in primary sources.  I would caution you against modern American scholarship, which pretends that all the heresies were Christians, and then sneers that early “Christianity” believed all sorts of unbiblical things.  The Fathers think different; as you will see.

Let me recommend a couple of personal favourites.

S.L. Greenslade’s translation of Tertullian, De praescriptione haereticorum – on the Prescription of heretics.  It can be found here.  It gives principles on arguing with heretics — liberals, in our day –, some pitfalls to avoid in using the bible in such arguments, and ends with a skit on the frequency with which heretics change their minds.  Chapters 1-8 and the last couple are the really good bits.

Origen’s Contra Celsum is very long, but certainly the opening chapters are worth reading.  Henry Chadwick’s translation is the one to use.

The opening few chapters of Evans’ translation of Tertullian, Adversus Praxean, here, are well worth reading.

Don’t work at it; just potter around, and look at stuff you find interesting!  And … good luck!

14 thoughts on “Getting started with the Fathers

  1. A fifth volume of the Patrology covering the Eastern Fathers, 451-740 came out in 2008.

    Also there is a three volume patrology called ‘The Faith of the Early Fathers’ (1979) by WA Jurgens which is considerably more affordable.

  2. My Quasten was pretty affordable, because I got a reprint from a used bookstore. Of course, the dark side was that they only had volumes 2-4…. But seriously, a fair number of people buy Fathers stuff for seminary classes, college, etc. and then dispose of them afterward. They’re not going to be out of date, so take a look.

    St. Augustine’s Confessions is a good starter book for some. The major thing is that every humanities/history/English teacher I’ve had, who taught it, was teaching it as autobiography and not as a Fathers book (or a book on thought, psychology, neurology, linguistics, etc.). There was a tendency to skip the parts that didn’t fit easily into the autobiography model. That’s no good.

    So be careful about that. Bible quotes and religious contemplation aren’t extraneous to anything the Fathers write; they’re key.

  3. A work that I really liked and highly recommend is “On the Incarnation” by St. Athanasius, who lived in Alexandria in the 4th century. The translation I have has a forward by C.S. Lewis and was only 99 cents on the Kindle.

    In many ways this is almost like a book that Lewis would have written if he had lived in the days of Athanasius as the arguments are very straightforward and clear.

  4. Yes, I love that translation of On the Incarnation! It’s public domain, but 99 cents for a good Kindle-formatting is fair.

  5. May i suggest that before (and during) reading the Church Fathers, one should frequently read the Bible (or at least Genesis, Psalms and the NT) to remain in the mental universe of the fathers and be abble to “have a walk” with some of them. This beeing said, beginning with the Didache and the apostolic fathers is a good choice…

  6. Great post. I’ve been working on Cyril for a while now and am looking to cast my net wider when I am done with my thesis. I’ll be taking some of your advice.

  7. I’m not sure why Triablogue thinks The Shepherd of Hermas is low priority. I mean, anything that was in the serious running for being considered inspired literature is worth attention, and for centuries after it was counted out, the Shepherd of Hermas was in the back of tons of Bibles as a supplement.

    And if you’re going to read the third book of Irenaeus’ Against Heresies for historical heresy info, why wouldn’t you read the fourth and fifth books, which have content that is much more relevant to today’s Christians? They’re a lot easier and faster reads, too.

  8. I think the Shepherd is largely unreadable, tho. And it is long, and hard to relate to. The idea is to gives texts that will not put off the reader.

    Irenaeus is fascinating; but long, and better as a source for reference.

    IMHO, of course. There are no rights and wrongs here.

  9. My personal favourite, which Roger mentions, is Origen’s ‘Against Celsus’ (Contra Celsum). Origen quotes large chunks from a lost book by a snobbish pagan writer, Celsus, who sneered at the early Christians as uneducated charlatans who peddled a preposterous bunch of lies that appealed only to slaves, muddleheaded women and lower-class riffraff. True philosophers, such as himself, could see through the Christians’ message, and he felt that he had a duty to alert all right-thinking people to the dangers of listening to them. There is just enough truth in Celsus’s accusations to annoy Origen intensely, and he gives as good as he gets, methodically demolishing Celsus’s attacks one by one. In my view, there is no better way to think yourself into the early worldview of both the pagans and the Christians than to read this fascinating text. Chadwick’s translation is excellent, as is his very informative introduction.

    Eusebius’s ‘History of the Church’ is indispensable, and for those who, like myself, like beautiful books, is available in a recently-published Folio Society edition, with an excellent foreword by Rowan Williams.

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