We read The Fathers of the Church: An Introduction to the First Christian Teachers by Mike Aquilina at our parish Bible class this past year. This was my first year with the Bible group, and to my surprise they don’t just read the Bible. What the group typically does is read a book and meet once a week to discuss it. The read seems to run about nine months. The summer is off.
You have probably seen Mike Aqulina on EWTN, and his expertise is the patristics. The following is my review of the book at Goodreads.
This is a solid book that surveys the Church Fathers (and a few Mothers too) from the very early days - shortly after the New Testament documents were written (first century) to the eighth century. It spans St. Clement of Rome, who was probably a disciple of St. Peter, to St. John of Damascus, who was part of the refutation of the iconoclastic heresies in the eighth century. There are fifty-four different Church Fathers represented, and what is particularly excellent is the background information. Where the Acts of the Apostles leaves off, the Church Fathers pick up to provide the history, theology, and apologetics of Christian thinking. Aquilina states:
"As heirs to the Apostles, the leaders and teachers of the early Church - the Fathers of the Church - were intensely concerned with preserving the unity and integrity of the "company of those who believed," even as that company grew from a small band of several hundred to encompass millions of people speaking dozens of languages and dispersed throughout the Roman Empire."
Aquilina discusses each of the Fathers and provides excerpts of key texts and important biographical information. Take for instance the first paragraph on St. Polycarp of Smyrna:
"St. Polycarp (c. 69-155) could be called the most well-connected man in the ancient Church. At one end of his long life, he was a young disciple of St. John the Apostle. At middle age, he was a bishop-colleague of St. Ignatius of Antioch. As an old man, he was master to the young boy who would grow up to be St. Irenaeus of Lyons. By his longevity, St. Polycarp was able to teach many how to live as the Apostles had taught him to live. By his death as a martyr, at age eighty-six, he taught generations of persecuted Christians after him how to die."
Aquilina concisely explains the shifting political situations as the centuries roll by and the key arguments and heresies of the times. He provides a handy list of the councils and the evolution of the creeds. Mostly Aqulina lets the Fathers speak in their own voice. All the well-known fathers are represented: St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Justin Martyr, St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Origen, St. Anthanasius, St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nazianus, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and so on. I can't name them all, but it includes both east and west traditions. It also includes many that are less well known, ones I never heard of: Hermas, Lactantius, St. Pacian of Barcelona, St. Ramanus the Singer, Theodore of Mopsuestia.
What kind of works are represented? We see in the writings all the Church doctrines we have now. We have an excerpt of St. Aristedes of Athens' apologetic letter to the Greco-Roman pagan (actually addressed to the Emperor Hadrian) world explaining the nature of the Christian deity. Then in a different era with Christianity now the prominent religion, we have St. Ambrose's letter to his emperor explaining how it was out of place for him, a secular leader, to intrude on Christian doctrine. We have a nativity hymn composed by St. Ephrem of Syria in the middle of the fourth century and a Christmas carol from Prudentius composed a century later. We have from St. Irenaeus in the second century a discourse on Mary as the new Eve and from St. Jerome in the fourth or early fifth centuries on Mary's perpetual virginity. We have from St. Basil "On the Holy Spirit" and from St. Augustine "On the Trinity." We have recounts of martyrdoms from an anonymous letter recounting the martyrdom of St. Polycarp, from St. Perpeuta herself leading up to her martyrdom, and the heroic martyrdoms witnessed by St. Dionysius the Great. We have refutations of heresies from St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Irenaeus, St. Clement of Alexandria, and others. We have pastoral texts on how to live the Christian life, how to understand the Church and the sacraments, and how to read and understand sacred scripture. What we have in these excerpts is the complete faith in microcosm.
This is a handy reference for one's bookshelf. If not this book, you should have one just like it.
I gave the book four stars I think. I enjoyed the read and the discussions at the Bible class. I’m looking forward to next year’s read.