Justin Martyr. Ignatius of Antioch. Clement of Rome. Tertullian. Irenaeus.
So. You recognize some of the names, but have you ever read any of them?
For many, Christianity is like leaping into the middle of a conversation completely unaware of the discussion that took place before our arrival. This conversation has been taking shape over thousands of years, and many of us don’t even know the terminology.
To be fair, it’s not entirely our fault. Often, those writers to whom we owe our theological heritage make for incredibly droll reading, and poor translations only heighten the problem. It is hard to fault someone for never finishing Augustine’s City of God when the first few pages of that massive work prove a better sleep aid than Benadryl.
Still, there is something powerful in becoming immersed in the opening dialogues of our millenia-old faith. Christianity is nothing if not rich with history.
Rediscovering Ancient Wisdom
I have long been a lover of the study of our Christian history.
Despite this, it was not until I was faced with the dual powerhouses of Eugene Peterson (best known for his Bible translation The Message) and Dr. Steve Harper that the vibrant history of our faith and the hope-filled future of our personal spiritual growth truly came to overlap.
Harper is arguably the preeminent Wesley scholar of our day, but his deepest love is spiritual formation. I had the privilege of studying spiritual formation in a course he taught in conjunction with a seminar led by Eugene Peterson. Dr. Harper had just come off sabbatical where he had spent much of his time immersing himself in the writings of the desert fathers. As a result, he wished to imbue us with similar opportunity, and required a certain number of the resources we engaged with for our final paper to be drawn from the those church fathers prior to Nicaea. It was here that I came to read Polycarp, Ignatius of Antioch, Clement of Rome, and Irenaeus.
It was here that I discovered just what I had been missing.
The Book Of Saints
Just over a month ago, I was faced with yet another opportunity. The Nazarene Publishing House had contacted me about possibly reviewing a new book entitled The Book Of Saints: The Early Era. They billed it as a devotional reading of the early church fathers. Before accepting, I decided to take a look at the publication and what some others have to say about it to see if it would be something that interested me.
The first thing I found was an endorsement from none other than Dr. Steve Harper, the same scholar that pushed my own reading of the ancients. I was convinced.
A week later, my copy arrived in the mail.
What I Love About This Book
When the Nazarene Publishing House described this as a devotional, they were right on the money. The book is broken into five sections, gathered together by classifications of their writers. These five sections are:
- The Apostolic Fathers
- The Greek Apologists
- The “School” Of Alexandria
- The Church In The West
- The Eastern Church After Origen And Before Nicaea
In each section, they break the classification down into different writers. Each writer includes an introduction that gives a short biography and historical background, after which follows a series of devotional excerpts from their writings. These excerpts were then linked to a traditional hymn or prayer, and followed by applicable passages of scripture.
The result is a work that not only introduces the reader to the many ancient voices of our faith, but does so in such a way that these writings are accessible and spiritually formative. One of the things I particularly enjoyed was the way that the reader would get an excerpt that would prompt spiritual reflection, driven home by a hymn or prayer that was both thematically powerful and historically significant.
In addition, the summary list of passages allows one to then dig into the word of God, exploring scriptures specifically selected to pertain to each theme. This allows a devotional time that combines study, history, and spiritual vibrancy. As most devotional readings that I come across are depressingly superficial, the depth that such a combination provided was a welcome breath of fresh air.
What I Didn’t Like
Unfortunately, the nature of a devotional reading requires that one engages with pieces of the ancient writers rather than the full passage that they had written. While this is a necessary element of such a book, and the benefit is that it makes such reading palatable and accessible as an introduction, the drawback is that it necessarily strips any citation of context.
This means that the full nuance that the author is driving at can easily become obscured, and passages may just as readily have context read into them which can confuse the intended meaning. If modern Christianity is like leaping into the middle of a conversation that has been taking place for thousands of years, a collection of excerpts is like eavesdropping on that conversation when you can only make out every couple of sentences.
Such a drawback is to be expected from such a work, however, and the book serves the purposes for which it was intended quite admirably.
In my opinion, at least a passing familiarity with the voices of the ancients is essential for a deep spirituality. In The Book of Saints: The Early Era, their lingering specter echoes down the hallways of time, inviting us into the conversation that first began all those years ago.
You can find the book here.