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Book Review: Rediscovering the Church Fathers

Michael Haykin’s renown as a distinguished scholar of the patristic era is clear in his work Rediscovering the Church Fathers. Haykin serves as the professor of church history and biblical spirituality at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is the director of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies, and is the prolific author or editor of over twenty-five books. His passion for the patristic fathers is pronounced in this work.

In Rediscovering the Church Fathers, Haykin aims to give evangelical Christians reasons to re-embrace the patristic era. He considers this a “vital need for evangelicals” (9). He hopes that this work will help rescue the church from the Zeitgeist of the twenty-first century, give necessary guidance in understanding the basic witness of the New Testament, refute the bad history that is often given, and provide spiritual nurture to believers today (25). To complete this tall order, Haykin shares the story of seven key figures within their historical contexts.

Summary

Chapter one presents the road map for the rest of the book. Haykin chooses his figures on the importance of the issues that they grappled with as believers. He separates these issues into four categories: (1) martyrdom, monasticism, and discipleship; (2) witness to unbelievers and the mission of the early church; (3) the interpretation of Scripture and the assembly of the canon; (4) the “supreme issue of this era,” the Trinity and how to worship God (25).

Haykin begins with Ignatius (c. 35–c. 107/110) in chapter two. Ignatius was one of the most prominent martyrs executed by the Romans (37). Ignatius was primarily concerned about three areas: (1) unity in the local church, (2) faithfulness to Scripture amidst heretical attacks, and (3) martyrdom. Haykin’s focus in this chapter, however, was on Ignatius’s letter to the Romans that expressed his desire to be martyred. Ignatius saw the “passionate engagement of the entire person, even to the point of physical death” as a witness to Christ and His church (33). He asks influential Roman believers not to interfere with his execution. Ignatius speaks “for himself and about himself” as he does not “see martyrdom as being essential to discipleship” (40, 46). Haykin depicts Ignatius’s martyrdom as a “powerful defense of the saving reality of the incarnation and crucifixion” (48).

In chapter three, Haykin provides a historical commentary on the Letter to Diognetus (c. 175 - 200). This letter reads more like a treaty and is hailed as the “pearl of early Christian apologetics.” This work is noteworthy as it conveys the shift that has taken place by the latter quarter of the second century in responding to three main objections to Christianity: (1) who the Christian God was; (2) why Christians loved one another so well; and (3) how the claims of Christianity could be true if ancient cultures seemed to know nothing of them (61). Haykin points out a principal tenant of patristic doctrine that is identified in the letter: “Only God can reveal God, and we can know nothing about God unless he reveals himself” (65). The letter highlights two of Christianity’s strongest apologetics, the remarkable love that existed between members of the community and the unshakeable confidence of those who gave up their lives for the faith, recognizing “there are some things more important than life itself” (76).

Haykin discusses the life, work, and exegetical methods of Origen (c. 184 - c. 253) in chapter four. He demonstrates how Origen’s memorization of much of the Greek Bible as well as his father’s martyrdom when he was young served him well in developing into the “foremost biblical exegete of his day” (82). Origen crafted nearly three hundred scriptural commentaries and pioneered the “Christian study of the Old Testament” (90). He was “renowned for his holiness,” concerned “with a Christological exegesis of the scriptures,” and emphasized the importance of engaging his culture (89).

In chapter five, Haykin portrays the shift in Eucharistic thought that developed in the fourth century through a study of Cyprian (c. 210 - 258) and Ambrose (c. 340 - 397). Cyprian required the mixture of water (representing the unity of the people of God with each other and their Lord) and wine (representing the shed blood of Jesus; 117). Cyprian’s appointment of the “priest” as the one to preside over the communion table furnished a foundation for stronger sacerdotal interpretations of the Lord’s Supper in the future. Haykin describes Ambrose as a “pioneer of new ways of thinking about the Lord’s Supper” (119). Ambrose concluded that when the words of Christ “have been added [to the communion elements], it is the body of Christ” (120). His stress on the transformation of the communion elements into the physical body and blood of Christ—which he describes as a “glorious inebriation”—marked a dramatic deviation in the celebration of communion. What had been a place of “community celebration” became a place of “adoration, reverent awe, and fear lest something be done wrong” (122).

The life of Basil of Caesarea (330 - 379) is described in chapter six. Depicted as reserved and shy, Basil provides several substantial contributions to Christianity. First, he establishes coenobitic monasticism, which focuses on life with, rather than apart from, other like-minded believers. Second, he articulates the need for humility. Derived from his “constant reflection and meditation” on the life of Christ—the “paradigm of what humility looks like”— Haykin shows the beauty of Basil’s orthodoxy driving him to an orthopraxy that was wholeheartedly Christ-centered (139). Basil articulates that this humility is a God given gift that can break people’s innate inclination to “save ourselves by our own good works” (138-139). Last, Haykin expresses the impact of Basil’s work, On the Holy Spirit, in laying the foundation for the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (381).

In chapter seven, Haykin gives the story of the great missionary to the Irish, Patrick (c. 389 - 461). Patrick was from a wealthy family who lived in the northernmost province of a Roman Empire in decline. Pirates violently tore Patrick from his home when he was sixteen. He became a slave in northeastern Ireland. It was this experience that caused Patrick to “be converted with all my heart to the Lord my God” (171). He escaped Ireland six years later to find his family back in Britain. Following a remarkable dream, Patrick returned to Ireland to share the gospel with the Irish, never to return to his homeland. There are several reasons Haykin gives for the high repute of Patrick. First was Patrick’s great passion was to take the gospel to Ireland, a place that he regarded as “literally the last nation to be evangelized” (174). Second was his evangelistic zeal that led to the conversion of thousands. Third, his fervor for missions—at a time when missions was unpopular—inspired other notable missionaries like Columba, Columbanus, and Aidan with “a reservoir of spiritual vigor, which would . . . fructify the parched lands of western Europe” (178). Last, others recognized Patrick as a “man of one book” (172). Patrick’s missionary success because of his high view of Scripture became a major catalyst for improved literacy rates in the largely illiterate country of Ireland (180).

Haykin shares several personal stories that drew him to “walking with” the patristic fathers, as well as the personal lessons that he has picked up along the way, in his final chapter. He notes how he became hooked on this era following his early reading of Novatian’s On the Trinity. His doctoral thesis then led him to see ways in which Scripture shaped Athanasius and Basil’s response to the Pneumatomachian controversy (193). Based on his study of Athanasius and Basil, he advises exegetes today to ask the biblical text “questions that will yield a truer interpretation” while warning against allowing one’s “own context to ask questions that distort the message” (193). He encourages the reader interested in the patristics to (1) read primary sources, (2) interact with other patristic scholarship, and (3) seek to gain a better understanding of the history of the ancient world (195). Haykin concludes that his “lifelong love” has helped shape his theology, refresh him spiritually, and help him understand what it means to be a Christian (195).

Critical Evaluation

Haykin provides several reasons for evangelical Christians to re-engage with the patristic era. First, the vivid historical contexts into which he places each of these figures plays as valuable a role as the figures themselves. It comes as no surprise in appendix two that Haykin’s main contention with Jaroslav Pelikan’s historical methodology is his isolation of the people and doctrine from their surrounding contexts. Haykin packs his work with background detail as he contends that patristic doctrine and writing were almost always “embedded in personal contexts” (206). In this light, Haykin makes excellent use of his seven figures to show who “produced the themes for the chorus” (204). For instance, in the chapter on The Letter to Diognetus, he records the “noticeable shift” in the orientation of Christian literature to rightly responding to the ridicule and objections of unbelievers (58). Haykin portrays what were most likely the thoughts of the unknown Diognetus by sharing the thoughts of another pagan, Lucian of Samosata (c. 125–after 180). Lucian notes how Christians were “always incredibly quick off the mark” in helping others, ignoring “their own interests completely” because they worship “that crucified sage of theirs . . . they are all each other’s brothers and sisters” (71). Such detail provides the reader with the necessary information to understand the beauties of Christianity from the background of an unbeliever of this era.

Second, Haykin infuses his work with practical wisdom for today’s believer in every chapter. Like a rich tapestry, Haykin’s work has power because the implications are so well embedded into the stories themselves. For example, in discussing the passion that bursts forth in the letter to Diognetus, he notes that Christian apologetics need not be “dry and lifeless” but must “speak to the heart as well as to the mind” (70). A chapter on what Patrick’s missionary zeal in returning to Ireland as a “man of one book” to share Christ with the unreached at a time when missions was nearly unheard of would only cheapen the raw effect of the story. Haykin writes on Basil that it was from his position of humility that one could truly “know what is great and to cleave to it, and to seek after the glory from the Lord of glory” (138). The chapter on Basil has no need for additional commentary as the biography itself will stir many to long for a deeper walk with Christ. Thus, the critique that this book could use a summary chapter that provides lessons for today’s church is unfounded.[1]

Finally, another strength of this work is Haykin’s kindness in looking upon each of these historical figures charitably. For example, Haykin writes with sympathy for the historically embattled Origen. Haykin sympathizes with Origen’s place in history coming before the doctrines on the Trinity were ironed out. He also illustrates how Origen was “broken on the rack” and would later die from the injuries he suffered for his “devotion to Christ, to his Word, and to his people” (91). While his defense of Origen is admirable, Origen’s inclusion in this particular work is also a liability to Haykin’s main aim.

The selection of the controversial figure Origen to the exclusion of others is perhaps the greatest weakness of this work. Origen’s inclusion within this work does not fit the first parameter Haykin gives for “those meriting the title of church father: their orthodoxy of doctrine” (12). Origen is often scrutinized for his (1) allegorical methods of exegesis, (2) lack of emphasis on Scripture’s historicity, (3) imprecise terminology of the Trinity that held God the Son and God the Holy Spirit as subordinate to God the Father (which the Arian heresy would spring from soon thereafter), (4) speculation concerning the salvation of the Devil, and (5) his contention that “created souls have an eternal existence before embodiment” (88). While Origen’s location on the spectrum of orthodoxy is beyond the scope of this review, his inclusion within this work is problematic for the reasons noted above. The inclusion of this controversial figure works directly against Haykin’s aim of giving reasons to re-engage the patristics.

The other weakness of this work is the lack of key figures. While Haykin gives seven figures from a time-span of seven-hundred-years, it is the omission of the most significant individuals of this era that is perplexing. Timothy Scott remarks, “it is hard to imagine a patristic introduction that does not include discussions of Tertullian, Athanasius, Augustine of Hippo, Clement of Alexandria, or John Chrysostom.”[2] While the lack of chapters on these men is unfortunate, it is the absence of a chapter on Augustine, one of the most influential theologians since the apostles, that is most striking.

Conclusion

While the inclusion of some (Origen) to the exclusion of others (Augustine) is the biggest critique of this work, Haykin is superb in inspiring evangelical Christians to re-embrace the patristic fathers. His affections for these men that he has “listened to and walked with now for more than three decades” stir one’s affections to do the same. Haykin’s research, contextual development, and ability to tell the stories of the patristic fathers make this work an inspiration to read. Rediscovering the Church Fathers will be a great encouragement to those interested in history and long to grow in Christlikeness. It will be particularly motivating for ministry leaders, preachers, teachers, and missionaries who long to play their part in God’s mission. It is the delight in the glories of God that exude both from the patristics studied as well as the author himself that leave the audience yearning for more.


[1]Deron J. Biles, “Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church,” Southwestern Journal of Theology, January 1, 2014, 294. [2]Timothy Scott, “Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 16 (2011): 117–18.

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