Book Review – Rediscovering the Church Fathers

Michael A. G. Haykin, Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church (Crossway, 2011).

I consider Michael Haykin a dear friend. He previously had been my boss at Toronto Baptist Seminary and a one-time mentor to me on a now defunct PhD dissertation. I consider him one of the keenest theologians and historians in Evangelicalism today and am so thankful for his ministry in my life. One might think that would make the following review too biased to be worth reading. This would be true if the reviewer had nothing negative to say about the book. But while I think it is a wonderful contribution to Evangelical thinking on the Fathers, I think there are a number of deficiencies that create for it a rather limited market.

Haykin is a Patristics scholar par excellence and this volume brings his writings back to a subject area so precious to him. The introduction and the conclusion make reading the book imperative for any thoughtful Christian. His pilgrimage with the Fathers is something of an encouragement and challenge to us all as we seek to live out the historic Christian faith with our ancestors. Especially helpful is how Haykin lays out important and practical reasons for studying the Fathers that most of us would not have considered.

The main bulk of the book is chapters on particular Fathers treating particular issues in Christian thinking and practice (most of the chapters have appeared elsewhere). To those who are widely read in significant Christian theology or in Patristics these chapters are welcome additions from an Evangelical perspective on key issues. Yet, for those average Christian these chapters would be difficult to read and focus upon as they are fairly technical. If Haykin wants us in the church to learn to love and appreciate the Fathers then I would argue perhaps he should identify that his book is really written for pastors and scholars. Yet, the issues that are treated in it are imperative to have a firm understanding of. Ignatius of Antioch’s thinking on martyrdom, apologetics from the Letter to Diognetus, hermeneutics with Origen, the Lord’s Supper with Cyprian and Ambrose, holiness and the Spirit from Basil of Casesarea, and the missionary piety of Patrick are all important things to consider. Yet, the language and details offered put this book out of reach of most average Christians.

The other weakness of the book is the Fathers that Haykin leaves out. Interestingly, in his appendix on a guide to reading the Fathers, Haykin talks about reading Augustine, The Odes of Solomon, Hilary, Athansius, and Gregory of Nyssa. None of these were dealt with directly in the book. It is a shame that Haykin asks us to read the works of those that we might be unfamiliar with and does not introduce us to them through his book. Would not it have been better then to treat these as well if he wants us to become familiar with the Fathers? In the opinion of this reviewer, two monumental Fathers were left out of the main section of the book and it is virtually unforgivable: Augustine and Athanasius. No book seeking to introduce us to the value of the Fathers should leave out these two men.

Now, this is not to say the book is without value. If you are patient and read thoughtfully you will glean fantastic material that will challenge your mind and warm your heart and motivate your hands to serve God more faithfully. We have much to learn from those who have gone before us and those willing to mine the details that Haykin presents will not be disappointed. But, if you are looking for a basic introduction to the Fathers from an Evangelical perspective, I would not recommend Haykin. Instead I would recommend Bryan Litfin’s helpful, Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction. In it he surveys the life, thinking, and major contributions of the major Fathers including Augustine and Athansisus and includes reading recommendations and study questions for each Father. Now, if you want to move further than an introduction, then Haykin is where you should turn, but for the novice looking to study the Fathers, Litfin is a better introduction.

So, while Haykin is a dear friend and I think his book makes a wonderful contribution to Patristics, it is not for those looking for a basic introduction to the Fathers. But, again, for those who want to mine the riches of the Fathers that Haykin does address, it is worth every penny.

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