Haykin, Michael A.G. Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church. Illinois: Crossway, 2011.
Rediscovering the Church Fathers is an enlightening resource that reveals the faithfulness and perseverance of a few who would seek out truth in their day which would shape the world for generations. Christianity’s heritage is expounded upon and the reader has a better understanding of where and how the church has matured. Michael Haykin, professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, clearly writes about the Church Fathers with passion. His experience involving the Church Fathers is clearly shown within this elucidative book.
Haykin seeks to reason that readers should read the Church Fathers for Freedom and Wisdom (17-18), to Understand the New Testament (19-20), because of the Bad Press about the Fathers (20-22), as an Aid in Defending the Faith (22-27), and for Spiritual Nurture (27-28). While all of these exhortations are part of Haykin’s goals for the reader, he also seeks “to commend the reading and prayerful study of the church fathers” (29). Haykin informs his readers well with rich content of case studies. Haykin does reach his goals from chapter one sufficiently as well as whetting the appetite for the reader to desire to read more from the church fathers.
The case studies that he presents include that of Ignatius of Antioch, the author of the Letter to Diognetus, Origen, Cyprian, Ambrose, Basil of Caesarea, and Patrick. Each have a chapter devoted to their lives and the impact they have had on Christianity. The exception is the chapter on Cyprian and Ambrose in which Haykin decided to write together because they both focus on the eucharist.
Haykin deals with a diverse group of church fathers that the readers may or may not be familiar with prior to reading. He walks through the years consecutively starting with Ignatius of Antioch and finishing with the missions of Patrick in Ireland. He reveals how the church fathers dealt with martyrdom, apologetics, hermeneutics, baptism, holiness, and missions. Each chapter shows an exposition of how each topic was matured through the lives and thought of the church fathers.
Haykin’s final chapter is a small memoir of how he came to love the church fathers. He tells the readers of his first encounters and those who encouraged him to study them. He also tells of his doctoral studies on Athanasius and Basil. It is an informative chapter on the life of the author and gives the reader a better understanding why the author would write this particular work.
The book ends with two appendices. The first informs the reader how he can begin his own journey in the lives of the church fathers. Haykin offers a variety of resources and in which order the reader should read them. The other appendix is a reflection of Jaroslav Pelikan who Haykin says “is quite evidently at home with both the details of Patristic scholarship” (159).
One of the first observations the reader may have is that a book that proclaims a rediscovery of church fathers contains only a fraction of the patristic fathers found in church history. The book could use a few more examples found in history. Since there are so many church fathers that played a vital role within its history, it is a wonder why Haykin chose the particular fathers he did and left out others. Deron J Biles notes in his own review, “Haykin refers to the Fathers whom he has included in this work as ‘case studies.’ His criteria for selecting them is somewhat arbitrary…but he adds that part of the reason for their selection are the issues with which they dealt.” Yet, every church father had some issue to be dealt with within their time that shaped the church in some form or fashion. If the reader is truly rediscovering the church fathers, then it could serve the reader well if there were a few more additions to the already well-chosen list.
Even though Haykin’s selection may be arbitrary and could possibly use a few additions, those he chose to include were exceptional. The reader will be greatly impacted, if not forever changed, by the life and theology of Basil of Caesarea. Two issues that Basil addressed within his lifetime are issues that the modern Christian wrestles with today. The American church is filled with people who lack an understanding of what it means to follow Christ when there is no advantage to do so. Haykin mentions the same issues in the days of Basil. He states, “In other words, during the fourth and fifth centuries nominal believers entered the church in significantly large numbers to bring about an identity crisis within the church. In essence that crisis can be boiled down to this question: What does it mean to be a Christian in a ‘Christian’ society?” (108). In addressing this particular issue, Haykin does a good job at making the reader begin to ponder this question for themselves. While Basil set out for a life of monasticism, Haykin clearly points out the heart issue Basil focus on, humility.
In a world that is filled with self-promotion through various social media aspects, Haykin’s focus on Basil does well to combat such vanities. Haykin uses a good amount of original texts by Basil to show that he was deeply concerned with the importance of humility in a Christian’s life. Some of the resources he draws from are Basil’s Long Rules, Shorter Rules, and Homily. The reader is then faced with a convicting representation of Basil’s view of humility. Haykin writes, “The way of salvation—Basil assures his hearers then, and his readers now—is a path of humility” (113). The reader is forced to look to the grace of God and see that he has no other righteousness than what God gives. Again, Haykin states, “Foundational to humility…is the recognition by men and women that they are entirely destitute of all true righteousness and holiness” (113). Truly, Haykin’s selection on Basil of Caesarea is a particularly exceptional one in light of the modern-day reader.
Another worthy inclusion in Haykin’s list is that of Origen who was a very important figure in the development of hermeneutics. Still debated today, Origen was an educated man whose methods of interpreting Scripture included allegory as well as literal. Shawn Wilhite notes in his book review, “Haykin helpfully explains Origen’s threefold principle for interpretation. First, all scripture has a present meaning and application. Second, scripture should be interpreted within the ‘rule of faith’…Lastly, any exegete must be indwelt by the Holy Spirit to understand the scriptures (85-86).” Haykin wants the reader to know that Origen must be remembered as an important character in the development of Christological exegesis as he was one of the first to write Bible studies and wrote over three hundred commentaries. Still, Origen would say that the exegete does not live within a vacuum and must see that, while the exegete is working on the Scripture, the Scripture is working on the exegete.
Haykin’s six goals mentioned above are expounded upon throughout his book but not explicitly. While reading through the book, some of the goals are experienced better than others. One could forget what the goals of the book were and get lost in the exposition of the particular church father that a chapter addresses if they were not mindful. Still, other chapters met some of the goals while the reader may have not realized it.
In Haykin’s chapter addressing the author of the Letters to Diognetus, for example, the goal of aiding the reader in defending the faith is met well with its exposition. Haykin does well at showing how the author of this letter addressed the three questions of a Graeco-Roman with his apologetics. Haykin also does well to show the reader that there is much to learn from the principles of patristic apologetics as well. He states, “First, there is the recognition of the vital importance of prayer…Linked with this is the author’s conviction that men and women are unable to reason their way to the truth without God’s help…Third, and understandably, the death of Christ for sinners also plays a prominent role in his witness to the true God” (66). These principles are a clear way the reader is aided to defend his faith.
While the chapter on Letters to Diognetus aid the reader in defending the faith and Haykin’s chapter on Basil of Caesarea nurtures the reader spiritually, whether or not he met his goals in the chapter on Cyprian and Ambrose are a little more obscure. The chapter is very informative for the reader and shows the developing thought of the eucharist. Haykin uses this chapter to show two different church fathers dealing with the same topic. This chapter loses the focus on the in-depth content of the church fathers while it focuses more on the particular topic that is being dealt with in their particular period. Still, Timothy Scott notes in his review of Haykin’s book, “Haykin’s chapters…on the eucharistic piety of Cyprian and Ambrose show some of the theological weaknesses that can be found in the Fathers. These discussions are the great strength of the book in that they model how to ask questions of the Fathers on specific issues.” It is hard to know what to think after reading Scott’s comment as he notes the weaknesses of the church fathers while also saying it is a strength to question them on the specific issues. This would not be a comment that would encourage me to read the fathers further.
As noted, one of the weaknesses of the book is the fact that many of the church fathers are left out. Scott also acknowledges this within his own review. He states, “…the selection is a weakness in that there are a few conspicuous omissions. Though at times mentioned in passing, 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.” This is where the title of Haykin’s work could be confusing with his goals. At first glance, a reader may think this is a piece that will expound upon the life of all the church fathers while, in reality, only get to know a few. Scott correctly states, “The reader who wishes to find out who these men were and how they shaped the church will have to look elsewhere.” Yet, this limited inclusion does help meet his goal to whet the reader’s interest for further study.
Finally, the last chapter and the first appendix could possibly be swapped or combined. There could be a better transition from reading the fathers to Haykin’s journey to how to begin one’s own journey. It feels a bit forced and compartmentalized. Scott states, “One wonders if Haykin’s chapter on how he was introduced to the church fathers could have been moved to an appendix…” Biles also notes, “The first appendix is a brief guide for reading the church fathers, which—while informative—would have been more helpful if expanded.” These assessments are correct as the reader may wonder why they need to know some of the information about the author’s journey while wanting more direction for their own journey.
While there are some weaknesses to Haykin’s book, he does well in reaching his goals expounded upon in his introductory chapter. The book is informative, enlightening, and challenges the reader to better understand their own theological conviction. His chapters on Origen and Basil of Caesarea are extraordinary and moving. This is an encouraging read that any intrigued layperson should read.
Biles, Deron J. 2014. “Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church.” Southwestern Journal of Theology 56, no. 2: 294-295. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed June 28, 2018).
Wilhite, Shawn J. 2013. “Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church.” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 17, no. 2: 93-94. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed June 28, 2018).
Scott, Timothy. 2011. “Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church.” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 16, 117-118. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed June 28, 2018).