[K:NWTS 23/3 (Dec 2008) 75-77]

Book Review

Hubertus R. Drobner, The Fathers of the Church: A Comprehensive Introduction. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007. 632pp. Cloth. ISBN: 978-1-56563-331-5. $44.95.

In 1938, Berthold Altaner published, auf Deutsch, the first volume of his famed Patrologie. Passing through five editions in Altaner’s life-time, the German 5th edition (1958) was finally translated, auf Englisch, by Hilda C. Graef of Oxford in 1960. Altaner’s Patrology was the handy one-volume ‘bible’ of patristics and took its well-deserved place on the shelf of every scholar pastor who wanted an overview of the church fathers from Clement of Rome (fl. 96) to John of Damascus (ca. 650-ca. 750). Providing more detail than the standard church history dictionary, Altaner, his Roman Catholic bias notwithstanding, became the standard single-volume handbook of Patristics. Even after it went out-of-print, it was eagerly sought on the secondary market as a treasure. But Altaner could not compete with his replacement—Quasten. Beginning in 1950, Johannes Quasten began to release his Patrology. In first one and then other densely packed volumes, Quasten exhaustively summarized and cited the biography, theology and bibliography of all the church fathers. When he died in 1987, his authorial and editorial labors were assumed by Angelo Di Berardino (assisted by seven others), so that the three English volumes he left (extending from Clement of Rome to Theodoret of Cyrus [ca. 393-ca. 466]) were extended even further to encompass the “Golden Age of Latin Patristic Literature” (Nicaea [325] to Chalcedon [451]). At this writing, Quasten’s Patrology has grown to five superb volumes bringing coverage of the Christian fathers (and noted mothers), their theology and bibliography to John of Damascus. Each of the five volumes is a vade mecum with details and summaries of each writing personality in the patristic period. Particularly useful are the synopses of individual works.

But Quasten, like the bulky and over-sized works by Ferguson (Encyclopedia of Early Christianity) and Di Berardino (Oxford edition of the Encyclopedia of the Early Church, 2 volumes), is expensive ($255 for the five-volume set in paperback). It also takes up much more shelf space. McGuckin’s Westminster Handbook to Patristic Theology[1] is too brief, though it is an excellent introductory work. Döpp and Geerlings (Dictionary of Early Christian Literature) is too radical, being in many places a revisionist work. Moreschini and Norelli (Early Christian Greek and Latin Literature: A Literary History, 2 volumes)[2] is decent, but unlike Altaner not a handy one-volume resource.

Now comes Drobner, and the long-sought replacement for Altaner has arrived. More comprehensive than McGuckin; handier than Ferguson, Quasten, Di Berardino and Moreschini; more accurate than Döpp and Geerlings: this is a gem worthy to be Altaner’s noble successor. While slightly truncated in its coverage and hence not as comprehensive as Altaner, nevertheless every major Christian figure from Clement of Rome to John of Damascus is surveyed. A brief overview of each figure’s life is the entrée to standard bibliographical surveys, followed by summaries of select major works. Hence, Drobner is an up-dated version of Altaner in one-volume. It is the current worthy addition to the scholar pastor’s library who wants a handy overview of the fathers. More thorough and exhaustive work will require consulting Quasten. But our volume has a splendid “Supplemental Bibliography” by William Harmless (581-604) which updates (to 2004) the thorough general bibliography appearing on pages xli-lvi. Included in these bibliographies are microform sources, electronic databases (e.g., CETEDOC, TLG, PL CD-ROM, In principio CD-ROM, etc.) and websites. NB: the complete second German revision of this work (2004) has not yet been incorporated into this English translation of the original 1994 German edition.

The explosion of patristic research over the past fifty years makes tools such as those listed above essential to the study of the church fathers. As entry level works, they orient the reader to the person, his theology and to his writings. They are welcome helpers in tracing out the history of doctrine, as well as the history of the (early) Christian church to the 7th century. We commend the publishers for making this volume available to a wider audience auf Englisch.

—James T. Dennison, Jr.

[1]  Cf. our review: The Westminster Handbook to Patristic Theology (John McGuckin). Kerux: The Journal of Northwest Theological Seminary 19/3 (December 2004): 38-40.

[2]  Cf. our review: Early Christian Greek and Latin Literature (Claudio Moreschini and Enrico Norelli). Kerux: The Journal of Northwest Theological Seminary 22/1 (May 2007): 47-48.