Once upon a time, Catholics (in contrast to Protestants) were not well-acquainted with the Bible. Although Protestants generally remain more familiar with the Bible, Catholics today — thanks to the revised Lectionary, parish study groups and individual reading — know Scripture better than in the past.
Both Catholics and Protestants, however, share a common ignorance of Patristics, the study of the Church Fathers who lived from about A.D. 100-700. The Orthodox and Eastern Catholics know the Fathers well, but Western Christians are largely unaware of the rich heritage of Patrology.
Jimmy Akin, a Protestant convert, Register blogger and devoted apologist with Catholic Answers, set out to remedy this deficiency. Akin even sees the ecumenical potential of this project: If classical Protestantism sees itself as recovering pure, unadulterated Christianity free of Catholic dross, then how does one discover what primitive Christianity looked like and believed? How does one begin to probe “the many other things” that Jesus did and taught, for which the whole world might not suffice to keep the record (John 21:25)?
“A large majority of Christians today believe that all one needs to know about the early Church can be gleaned from the Book of Acts,” Akin writes. “But if the inspired words of the New Testament do not contain all that the apostles taught the early Christians, then how does one discover the rest of what these early Christians believed? The answer to this — at least for hundreds of modern Protestant ministers who have found their way home to the Catholic Church — is in the writings of the early Church Fathers.”
The author calls his work a “handbook — you do not have to read it from beginning to end.” As in: Pick it up and see what interests you.
This “handbook” is divided into two parts. Part I provides a thorough but popular and readable introduction to the world of the Church Fathers. It includes a discussion of the regions where the Fathers were active (Israel, Turkey, Greece, Rome, North Africa and Western Europe). It also provides brief but adequate biographies of 83 Fathers, short summaries of 18 early Church councils (both ecumenical and regional), synopses of 25 early writings like the Didache, and brief definitions of 28 heresies that plagued the early Church.
Part II considers specific elements of Catholic faith and morality, coupled with excerpts from the Fathers showing just how continuous Catholic doctrinal development has been. Topics include God, one and triune; Christ; creation; the canon of Scripture; the Church, its hierarchical foundations and Petrine Ministry; the sacraments; Mary; moral issues (abortion, contraception, homosexual activity and astrology); and eschatology. Think the Church just dreamed up its teaching against abortion? Akin quotes the Didache, a first-century Christian document, affirming “you shall not murder a child by abortion.”
Critics of this book might say that Akin repeats the same error committed by many Protestants: He relies on “proof texts,” plucking citations out of context to grind his apologetical axes.
On the one hand, owing to its introductory and popular nature, this book neither can nor should get into all the subtleties that historical Patristic exegesis requires. On the other hand, one should not miss the forest for the trees: Despite their individual variations, there exists a common (albeit developing) faith consensus among the Fathers. The Fathers strove to “think with the Church” (sentire cum Ecclesia, as St. Augustine put it). It is that consensus that Akin seeks to introduce to a popular audience.
A good introduction to the world of the Fathers, this book is enlightening, worth the read and definitely worth the price.
Register correspondent John M. Grondelski writes from Bern, Switzerland.
THE FATHERS KNOW BEST
Your Essential Guide to the Teachings of the Early Church
By Jimmy Akin
Catholic Answers, 2010
452 pages, $24.95
To order: Catholic Answers