[K:NWTS 23/2 (Sep 2008) 68-72]

Book Review

Bryan M. Litfin, Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007. 301 pp. Paper. ISBN: 978-1-58743-196-8. $22.99.

This book is church fathers (and one mother) lite. It is not a book for seminarians, students, scholars or others versed in the current discussions in patristics. It is a popular treatment for evangelical laymen which attempts to introduce the ancient fathers to this broader audience. Litfin’s thesis is that evangelicals need to acquaint themselves with these early Christians. This rather gratuitous assumption—i.e., that there were genuine Christians before the Protestant Reformation—is not so much directed against the ignorance of evangelicals, as their narcissism—a trait Litfin, sadly, feeds with his trivial attempts to make the church fathers objects of the ‘wowie zowie old-time Christian dudes’ approach. In fact, this volume could be subtitled “The Seeker-Sensitive Handbook to the Church Fathers”.

At the risk of being both banal and obvious, Litfin’s summaries are adequate, but neither penetrating nor memorable. They are overviews, but not precise cameos. This is the most unfortunate aspect of the book. Litfin’s conclusions are predictable condensations of traditional popular secondary textbook treatments; they are not informed summaries of the most recent primary document patristic  research. Hence his portraits are frequently misleading and outright misinformed in a number of cases (Origen and Nestorianism, to note just two).

While Litfin appears to be a disciple of Robert Wilken, the accomplished student of the early church at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, nonetheless he has none of Wilken’s gifts for weaving patristic and Greco-Roman cultural elements in a synthetic, even antithetic, manner. This volume does not appear to show that Litfin has learned from Wilken any more than the ‘patristics for dummies’ reductionism. The result is to make the fathers trite and folksy, but without real substance—a superficial overview by which the reader concludes they are important without getting to the heart of the issue. Litfin’s penchant for the ‘relevance’ of the fathers is all too reminiscent of the popular relevance-theology movements in evangelical and mainline liberal Christianity over the past half-century. The reader would be better off with a solid patristic handbook like McGuckin (The Westminster Handbook to Patristic Theology) or the new Drobner (The Fathers of the Church: A Comprehensive Introduction). They are both more reliable, more responsible and better grounded in current research.

As one example of his trite ‘seeker sensitive’, ‘let’s get relevant’ introductions to each of the fathers, we note his appeal to Campus Crusade for Christ’s own Bill Bright and his famous (or infamous) Four Spiritual Laws (53-55). This simplistic evangelical reductionism (Bill Bright) is applied to Justin Martyr. Now there is a quantum leap if there ever was one. Compounding this absurdity is Litfin’s suggestion that Justin embraced Christianity as the safest “philosophy” (58). Anyone familiar with the work of arguably the contemporary world’s leading expert on Justin Martyr, namely Oskar Skarsaune, would realize how facile and misleading is this characterization of Justin’s conversion to Christianity (cf. Skarsaune, “The Conversion of Justin Martyr.” Studia Theologica 30 [1976]: 53-73; also my own article “Justin Martyr.” Kerux: The Journal of Northwest Theological Seminary 21/3 [December 2006]: 53-61). Justin did not exchange an inferior “philosophy” (Hellenism, etc.) for a superior one (Christianity). In Christ Jesus, he found an entire life-changing, mind-altering, spirit-transforming lifestyle, and food for his hungering and thirsting soul. Justin encountered a living and eternal Person—the ontological Son of God: that was what transformed his life, not a ‘higher life’ philosophy.

In addition to neglecting the remarkable work of Skarsaune on Justin, Litfin appears to be unaware of the incisive research of: Allen Brent on Ignatius of Antioch (his basic thesis is that for Ignatius “bishops” and “elders” are primus inter pares; “the apostolic order of ministers is to be found in the council of the prebyterate”); Mark J. Edwards on Origen (the Alexandrian genius was most certainly not a Platonist); Alvyn Pettersen on Irenaeus; W. H. C. Frend on Tertullian (T. D. Barnes is an “aggressive” Tertullian revisionist); Gerald Bonner and Rebecca Weaver on Augustine. On Athanasius, Litfin is aware of Alvyn Pettersen (185), but demonstrates that he has gained no benefit from the latter’s masterful interweaving of biographical and theological material into a seamless garment.

All too often, his bibliographical lists (“Good Books to Dig Deeper”—emphasis added) commend books which are slanted against the orthodoxy of the particular father (e.g., Barnes on Tertullian and Athanasius) or the orthodoxy of the early (particularly Nicene) church (R. P. C. Hanson’s revisionist The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God) or Walter Bauer’s Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (whose ‘trajectories’ approach has demonstrated the following august asininities—the heretics in the early church were actually orthodox; it was the ‘orthodox’ who were really the heretics, but like the ‘golden rule’ [“those who have the gold make the rules”], these heretics triumphed because they had the swords, knives and armies. How’s that for real, objective unbiased ‘scholarship’. But our author ingenuously commends Bauer’s book. Ugh!!). Litfin could benefit from a strong dose of Van Tillian antitheses, i.e., check out the presuppositions! Barnes, Hanson and Bauer have presuppositional biases. Reveal them as you ‘commend’ them or you are an uncritical and a misleading amateur. All of this is disastrous to the uninitiated reader. These recommended works are drafted from premises hostile to orthodox Christianity and the orthodoxy of the fathers who promoted it. They are controversial, biased and even flat-out wrong at many points. The general reader will not be helped by reading them without an extensive exposure to primary sources as well as less ‘agenda’ oriented (i.e., presuppositionally biased) secondary works.

Liftin repeats the age-old canard about the allegorical Platonism of Origen. He seems totally unaware of the decisive critique and rejection of this slander from the work of Mark J. Edwards and John D. Dawson. Ironically, even Litfin’s mentor, Robert Wilken, wrote an appreciative review of Dawson’s work on allegory in general (with reference to Origen) in which he concluded, anent Dawson’s brilliant book, Christian Figural Reading and the Fashioning of Identity: “Christian figural interpretation” is not allegorizing; it is the standard patristic method of reading the Old Testament in the light of the New. Historical accomplishment brings the fullness and realization of historico-spiritual existence in union with the historico-glorified (in the Spirit) Christ. Or as Wilken expresses it: “the spiritual sense was the historical sense.”

But then Litfin continues to labor with many of the myths of the past about Origen (and other fathers in this volume). He rolls out the self-castration myth ignoring John McGuckin’s statements (in a book he cites, pp. 160 and 287). The latter has written: “only an idiot would consider” Origen’s reference as a literal self-mutilation (p. 6 of McGuckin). Notice Litfin’s remarks on this topic (156).

When we come to Augustine, we find Litfin suggesting an “unhealthy codependency” (217) between Augustine and his mother, Monica? What is he alluding to with this comment? Is he just borrowing a contemporary relevant buzz word—‘codependency’? And where are his primary document references to back it up? Or is he just re-imaging the bishop of Hippo for a post-Britney Spears world? Perhaps this comment is just another ‘attention grabber’ like his banal ‘real world’ story introductions to the career of each figure in the book.

With Litfin on Chrysostom, we get a paean on monasticism, even though in note 12 on page 293, he admits that the Biblical proof-texts he cites have nothing to do with monastic asceticism or it would have flourished in the first century apostolic church (from which it is totally, utterly and entirely absent). We rejoice that the Protestant Reformation delivered us from this madness of renouncing the world to indulge the lusts intra muros. But why focus on Chrysostom’s monasticism to the neglect of his bold rebuke: of monks who kept private virgins for their libidinous pleasure; of royal and aristocratic female ‘fashion plates’ who dressed to the nines, decked themselves with bobbles and gems so that they could parade their luxury before the poor in the church at Constantinople. There is the heart of Chrysostom—puncturing the vanity and hypocrisy of the hoi polloi of snob Constantinople and its over-dressed, over-sexed church. Truly prophetic stuff in the best tradition of the OT seers and the eschatological Prophet himself—that is what emerges from the heroic career of Chrysostom, not the drivel Litfin recounts.

Litfin is a typical evangelical—not a scholar, just a popularizer or ‘make ’em relevant’ to the evangelical mass audience writer. While this book is not exactly pulp fiction, it is not scintillating or even accurate (in many places) scholarship. The erstwhile “evangelical introduction” to the early fathers still awaits a competent author.

—James T. Dennison, Jr.