Review—Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church

Michael A.G. Haykin, Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church. Crossway, 2011. 172 pp, R232

This review was presented to Dr. Michael A. G. Haykin, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in partial fulfillment of the requirements for 25100.

With over one and half thousand years separating us from the Patristic era, church history presents a gulf in which a mere glance at the plethora of works, peoples, and events are certainly overwhelming for the modern reader. Where do we begin? Who is Athanasius? Was Cyprian a heretic? All such questions are valid and Dr. Michael A. G. Haykin’s Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church provides a sweet, introductory balm to calm our anxieties.

With a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy, a Masters in Religion, and Doctorate of Theology in Church History, Haykin is no stranger to these concerns. Currently serving as the professor of church history and biblical spirituality at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Haykin has authored over twenty books, including his dissertation, The Spirit of God: The Exegesis of 1 and 2 Corinthians in the Pneumatomachian Controversy of the Fourth Century.

In this present work, Haykin attempts to do just as the title suggests: rediscover the church fathers; more specifically, why it is that we need to be conversant with them. To do this, Haykin surveys seven figures through the historical biography medium in an attempt to stir the modern heart to once again ponder those that have gone before us and the unique challenges they faced. These seven “case studies” (29) are men that Haykin has personally “listened to and walked with…for more than three decades,” (29) and thus provide an expert’s insight into their lives, whilst simultaneously dispensing invaluable lessons, ensuring us as to why the church fathers are simply that important for us today.

SUMMARY

As briefly noted above, Haykin’s Rediscovering the Church Fathers seeks to survey seven historical figures. Before delving into the historical biographies, in chapter one Haykin wonderfully sets the scene by stressing the vital need for evangelicals today to invest in the Church Fathers. For many, a “cloud of suspicion” (13) combined with residual “anti-intellectual fundamentalism” (14) in the present day characterizes the modern church’s relationship with the Fathers. Haykin is however convinced that this has begun to change and this title serves to further the Evangelical effort to again immerse ourselves in the “Patristic age” (16).

As such, Haykin provides five reasons as to why evangelical Christians should engage with the thought and experience of these early Christian witnesses: firstly, for freedom and wisdom, so that we might be liberated from the present, and confront our own prejudices (17–18); second, to better understand the New Testament and not plague our present studies with anachronisms (19–20); third, to correct whatever bad press the Fathers had received through the centuries (20–22); fourth, as an aid in defending the faith today, since there are always links between various heresies of old and the present battles of today (22–27); and fifth, for our own personal nurturing in the faith as we contemplate those who, in many senses, made us what we are (27–28).

Chapter two looks at the life of Ignatius of Antioch, specifically his seven letters that furnish us with a wealth of insight into the era that directly followed the apostles. In Ignatius, “bearing witness to the person and work of Christ to the point of death,” (35) is powerfully embodied. Since martyrdom was the experience of many believers during the late first and early second century persecutions, Haykin explores the accompanying spirituality surrounding these ideas: its connection with our Lord’s incarnation and crucifixion, discipleship, the Spirit, and defending the faith.

In chapter three, Haykin looks to The Letter of Diognetus as a paradigm for second century apologetics. The author of this letter, unknown to us, addresses one “Diognetus,” and seeks to offer answers to three very important and historically insightful questions: who is the Christian God?; why do Christians love each other so much?; and if Christianity is true, why has it only come into existence more recently? (52). Haykin surveys the answers given and reflects on the historical significance that these questions and their answers provide. Christianity was inundated in a pagan culture swarming with idolatry and idol worship, just how would Christianity hold up against these competing world-views? The apologist provides a robust response, defending a faith entailing a high Christology (58), the need for God to reveal himself to humanity (57), the timing of the incarnation (59), the necessity of the cross in light of humanity’s depravity (60), and the Christian community as a witness to the truth of the Gospel (61–62).

Chapter four engages with the controversial figure of Origen and his somewhat infamous exegesis. Haykin offers a gracious interaction that looks at Origen’s pioneering efforts in biblical studies; christological exegesis; Christian study of the Old Testament; and his meaningful engagement with the culture. Origen was a prolific writer, penning what is probably the first systematic theology among many other works. Haykin spends some time looking into the contentious matter of Origen’s beliefs on the Trinity, suggesting that he did indeed lay the groundwork for those who would espouse Arianism and deny the deity of the Spirit. That being considered, Haykin regards Origen as a man of his time—a time that came before the careful thinking seen in the Cappadocian trio (74). Haykin however wants his readers to see Origen as primarily a Bible commentator, seeking to establish a christological exegesis and pioneer the Christian study of the Old Testament—a feat that no doubt starved off Gnostic heresy in the second and third centuries (78).

In chapter five, Haykin introduces us to the Eucharistic piety of Cyprian of Carthage and Ambrose of Milan, two figures who stand in the Latin Patristic tradition. It is the opinion of Haykin that the Lord’s Supper enjoyed centrality and intensified thought during the Patristic era, as evidenced by the writings of these two men. Haykin introduces the modern reader to Cyprian’s Letter 63, the first authentic Eucharistic treatise in the pre-Constantinian era (95). No doubt, both these men, in retrospect, paved the way for erroneous views on the Eucharist, such as the change from sacrificium laudis to sacrificium propitiatorium (98), and transubstantiation (102–3), however we also learn of the sobriety accompanied in the Supper (96), of separating oneself from the world (97), of commemorating the deep bonds that tie the members of Christ together (97), and of the Spirit’s inebriating presence among those members (102).

Chapter six sees Haykin delve into the life of Basil of Caesarea. Haykin’s pronounced familiarity with Basil renders this chapter as being particularly endearing. Basil is presented as an arduous man who endured a monastic life fraught (108–111) with persistently debilitating ailments (110), as well as conflict and rejection from close friends (121). Basil is upheld as an honorable man whose efforts in the Arian controversy and the Pneumatomachi paved the way for orthodox proclamation, which, no doubt, we see the fruit of in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 AD (126–127). Basil’s theology reflects a man of deep thought, a life-long zeal for holiness, and a careful articulation of orthodoxy that would go on to serve the church indefinitely, in spite of the hardships and interpersonal relationships it cost him.

Patrick of Ireland was a welcomed figure as Haykin’s final biographical sketch. This chapter details the far-reaching effects of the Gospel in the first two centuries of its inception—reaching as far as Britain. It is here where we are introduced to Patrick, a former captive of Irish invaders, who, once converted, supplanted himself among the Irish as an evangelist. Patrick’s ministry there is marked by vigorous achievements and success, with upwards of thousands coming to Christ (143). From Patrick, the Celtic Church inherited an evangelistic zeal unparalleled in Ancient Europe as well as a richness of biblical literacy, which was characterized by a depth of biblical theology and Trinitarian belief, so much so that Patrick’s Christianity is said to be “very much a religion of the book” (148).

The final chapter of Rediscovering the Church Fathers sees Haykin provide a personal manifesto of his own journey with the Fathers. Here, the reader is invited to consider those who mentored Haykin, along with their works. Two ideas are pressed upon the reader with any interest in furthering their knowledge of the Church Fathers: firstly there can be no substitute for engaging with the primary sources, and secondly, wide historical reading is a necessity since one cannot adequately conceive of the Fathers accurately without being familiar with the “larger social and political context” in which they lived (156).

CRITICAL EVALUATION

Does Dr. Michael Haykin provide an opportunity for the reader to ‘rediscover the church fathers’? I am of the opinion that this brief introduction does accomplish just that. Given the various benefits that Haykin initially presented in the introduction, one has only to complement his efforts in convincing the reader as to the necessity that the Fathers ought to play in instructing the twenty-first century Church.

This sentiment appears to be fairly widely held by those who have critically engaged with Haykin’s work. Deron J. Biles notes the fitting place Haykin’s contribution enjoys in a field that is, for the most part, “overlooked.”[1] Similarly, Thomas Meissner[2] believes that Haykin’s work provides a needed “stepping stone” for those estranged from the Patristic era. In this regard, Haykin has successfully gone about his aims in persuading the modern reader that the Church Fathers are necessary for today, providing a fitting primer that sparks further investigation.

Personally, Rediscovering the Church Fathers is unique in that it clearly reveals the heart and mind of an expert who is doubly concerned about the health of the church today. Haykin’s biographical sketches provide an intimacy of knowledge that is brought out through slight and peculiar details and events. It appears, though, that this very sentiment has been the cause for some criticism. Certain individuals[3] are of the opinion that Haykin indulged in an arbitrary selection of biographical sketches, that is, at best, “unique.”[4] Biles, in particular, raises questions as to Haykin’s preferences. The underlying assumptions of those with this question is somewhat perturbing: I am not aware that there are rules as to who should and who should not feature as biographical sketches from the Patristic era. Those selected are, in Haykin’s own words, figures for whom he has “listened to and walked with now for more than three decades” (29). I believe that it is Haykin’s very own intimacy with such men that renders this work as being particularly insightful and quite free of any generic page wasting. Because of Haykin’s precise knowledge, the applications and connections to contemporary ministry are judicious.

A final word concerning critical engagement with Rediscovering the Church Fathers must include Haykin’s insertion of Origen. Here, Haykin presents a generous amount of charity, endowing Origen as a man of his time, one whose own stated aims in the field of biblical exegesis concerned “spiritual formation” (90). For Meissner, however, the inclusion of Origen, a man who clearly erred when it came to the doctrine of the Trinity, distort the parameters of orthodoxy[5]. Two things must be maintained in response to this criticism: first, is the somewhat anachronistic evaluation of Origen on the part of Meissner. The careful and clearly delineated language of the likes of Basil of Caesarea and others, used to describe Trinitarian relations, does not appear for another one hundred years. This should caution any harsh evaluation of Origen in respects to the Trinity. In this instance, the thoughts and evaluations of both Shawn Wilhite[6] and Biles[7] is indicative of a more careful and liberal reading of both Origen and Haykin’s decision to include him in Rediscovering the Church Fathers. Wilhite helpfully observed, that the modern day “emphasis on single-meaning and negative reactions to allegory have created an environment prejudicial to Origen’s ideas.”[8] Those who think otherwise would do better to consider the wide gulf of time between Origen and ourselves.

Second, is the balanced perspective of Origen provided by Haykin himself. Stated at the outset as one of the many benefits of studying the church fathers was precisely the need to correct bad press that many— in this case, Origen—had endured throughout history. Haykin charitably shows a fallen man, bound to blind spots (like all of us), but nonetheless a man who “refuses to employ allegory to escape the difficulties of the text” (84), a man whose efforts in biblical studies very much salvaged the Old Testament from the present attacks of Gnosticism (78). Again, I am in agreement with Wilhite, who affirms, along with Haykin, that the “allegorical interpretation is not primary nor the majority of Origen’s foci.”[9] In the end, Haykin carefully navigates the mysterious waters of historical figures such as Origen, presenting the man replete with his own weakness, yet undeniably significant in the history of the church. Such a presentation is admirable and worthy of imitation for students and scholars as they seek to interact with those who came before and who have, in varying degrees, made us who we are today.

Without the fathers, indeed without history, our theology will be bleak.

CONCLUSION

Haykin has roused the alarm for all to come, stand, and consider the bedrock that has been sitting underneath us all this time. Rediscovering the Church Fathers is a fitting introduction to seven favored and dear figures of Dr. Michael Haykin from the Patristic era. In each man we sense the momentous price of the Gospel weighing on him as they fought various battles in order to place down yet another stone on the cornerstone, which is Christ. Will we persist in being ignorant of their ways, of their battles, and of their challenges? If so, we in all likelihood will only face similar obstacles, yet without any insight as to how the grace of God preserved many who have gone before. Without the fathers, indeed without history, our theology will be bleak. History, as presented in the biography of the fathers, allows us to enter into history vis-à-vis, and, to mix the metaphor now, in Rediscovering the Church Fathers, Haykin surely presents us with “living plants” to study, as opposed to mere “cut flowers” (165).

***

[1] Deron J. Biles, “Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 56, No. 2 (2014): 295.

[2] Thomas Meissner, “Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church,” Review: Rediscovering the Church Fathers, Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, n.d., accessed January 22, 2019, https://www.wls.wels.net/review-rediscovering-the-church-fathers/.

[3] Biles, “Rediscovering the Church Fathers,” 294.

[4] Meissner, “Review.”

[5] Meissner, “Review.”

[6] Shawn J Wilhite, “Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 17, No. 2 (2013): 93–94.

[7] Biles, “Rediscovering the Church Fathers,” 295.

[8] Wilhite, “Rediscovering the Church Fathers,” 93.

[9] Ibid., 93.

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