John A. McGuckin, The Westminster Handbook to Patristic Theology. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004. 367 pp. Paper. ISBN: 0-664-22396-6. $39.95.
The quandary facing the beginning student of Patristics (in the West, Early Church History from Clement of Rome to Isidore of Seville [ 632 A.D.] and, in the East, from Clement to John of Damascus [ ca. 754 A.D.]) is to find an affordable handbook to the Fathers that is comprehensive, current and not out-of-print. The older Roman Catholic standard by Bardenhewer, though useful, is dated (1894, German edition; 1908, English translation). The handy Altaner, Patrology (1958), is out-of-print and nearly fifty years old. Much has happened in Patristics in the last half centuryas those who know and read the literature realize. Two German scholars (Döpp and Geerlings) assayed to update Altaner and in 2001 released Dictionary of Early Christian Literature (Crossroad, $75). The revision is more severely biased than its predecessorparticularly against the historic orthodoxies of the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant communions. In this era of revisionism, we are not surprised at this. The ghost of Walter Bauer and his 'trajectories' school is alive and well; these 'scholars' argue that 'orthodoxy' is the story written by the winners in church history. Bauer's disciples are out to write the (new) story of the losers! Yet it is sad to see the solid Altaner abused with such jaundiced presuppositions. Ironically (or perhaps intentionally?), McGuckin omits the updated Altaner from his list of resources.
Pride of place in this search for Patristic 'helps' goes to Angelo Di Berardino for his magisterial 2-volume Encyclopedia of the Early Church (Oxford, 1992). Alas, all this erudition (and the contributors are first rate!) will elude the poor student who does not have $200 for the price of the set. Happily, there is always the library copy. Alongside this 2-volume set is another: the 2-volume set edited by Everett Ferguson, Encyclopedia of Early Christianity (2nd edition, 1997, Garland)also prohibitively expensive at $290. Johannes Quasten's 4-volume Patrology (Ave Maria) provides the most depth for a given Father, but the paperback edition (at $149 and with very poor binding) ends its coverage with the 5th century figures, Augustine (430) and Leo the Great ( ca. 461). This continues to leave the Oxford set the front-runner due to thoroughness of coverage, with Ferguson close behind.
Now comes the Leibnitzian solution to this dilemma. John McGuckin's Handbook is compact, affordable, thorough, up-to-date and (best of all) available. This makes it a winner on all counts (orthodoxy included!, see his article on the "Trinity"), especially for the beginning student who needs at hand a summary of Athanasius, Gregory Thaumaturgos, etc. But the busy pastor, interested in an affordable refresher survey, will also find McGuckin a boon. Advanced students may be slightly disappointed (some of the bibliographies are dated), but there is enough here to steer them in the right direction for further research.
McGuckin has provided articles from "Abortion" to "Women, Early Christian". In between, we have the standard canon: Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Clement of Alexandria, Athanasius, Arius, Nicene, Constantine, Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzus, Gregory Nyssa, Chrysostom, Nestorius, Cyril of Alexandria, etc. We also have a few unfamiliar entries: Apophaticism, Benedict of Nursia, Cyril of Scythopolis, Ibas of Edessa, John Moschus, Melania the Elder, Nitria, Romanos the Melodist, Theodotus the Cobbler. Each entry is clearly written and supplemented by a brief bibliography. The whole is adequately introduced by a "Preface" which is followed by a neat "Thematic Guide".
However, there are blunders. "Over the last century the origins of the Gnostic movement have been much studied, and its pre-Christian roots are now generally admitted" (p. 147). Edwin Yamauchi and Hans-Josef Klauck would certainly be surprised to learn about "pre-Christian" gnosticism. These scholars, uninfluenced by the prevailing Bultmanian and religionsgeschichtliche fashions of the early to mid-20th century, have argued persuasively that there is no credible evidence for "pre-Christian" gnosticism.1 That their books and articles therefore are missing from McGuckin's bibliography on the topic is not surprising.
With awareness of McGuckin's Eastern bias (he is, after all, a priest of the Orthodox Church), this is now the single volume of choice for an overview and introduction to the Patristic period. No academic library should be without it. No seminary course in Patristics or Early Church History should consider it an optional purchase.
James T. Dennison, Jr.
1 See now the new release from Hendrickson Publishers by Carl B. Smith entitled No Longer Jews: The Search for Gnostic Origins. Smith suggests that Gnosticism originates in the revolt of Jews in North Africa during the reign of the Emperor Trajan (98-117 A.D.). Smith's volume carries the commendation of Edwin Yamauchi.