Book Review — Early Christian Thinkers

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Originally published in the Expository Times, this collection of essays edited by Paul Foster explores the life and thought of twelve pre-Nicene Christians. Many of these thinkers you would expect to see, such as Origen and Irenaeus. However, some of them may surprise you, such as Perpetua.

One of the strengths is that the variety of authors results in a less formulaic presentation from essay to essay. However, this also results in unevenness in the writing. Some of the essays were page-turners, while others were a chore to finish. Fortunately, there are only a few that were in the latter category.

Another nice feature of these articles is the juxtaposition of introduction and scholarly dialogue. Many articles give a clear statement of established facts, but also follow up by advancing scholarly opinions on more recent academic debates or textual analysis. For example, Rick Rogers proposes that Theophilus of Antioch’s To Autolycus is more protreptic than apologetic in nature, and Paul Foster discusses the textual criticism surrounding the work of Tatian.

I was also pleased to see that many of the authors showed a connection between these ancient writers and contemporary thought, such as Denis Minns’s observation from Irenaeus that “written documents do not carry their own tools for interpretation with them” (42). That’s a good word for those who fail to realize that any interpretation (of Scripture or any other communication) relies on an interpretive framework.

I was excited to see the Perpetua included in the list. The introduction states, “Her inclusion among other figures is not due to the attempt to embrace the feminist agenda for its own sake, or to feign some other type of ‘trendiness'” (xv) and acknowledges that she “may not have been the greatest theologian” (xvi). However, Sara Parvis’s essay failed to convince me that Perpetua belonged in this collection of significant thinkers. There was just too much supposition and extraction necessary to make a solid case for Perpetua as a thinker.

All things considered, Early Christian Thinkers is a welcome contribution for those interested in a more scholarly introduction to the lives and legacies of a handful of early Christian theologians who have left their mark on the church and her theology.

– Reviewed by Adam Reece

* Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy.

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Book Review – Worshipping with the Church Fathers

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  • Paperback: 280 pages
  • Publisher: IVP Academic (November 2009)
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    Worshipping with the Church Fathers is the third volume in a series from IVP Academic. The earlier two volumes are Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers (1998) and Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (2002). The working title of the upcoming fourth volume is Living Ethically with the Church Fathers.

    The volume under review can be divided into three main sections. The first section is a treatment of the church fathers’ views on the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist. Hall initiates his discussion of the sacraments by acknowledging that “some readers, particularly those from an evangelical background and perspective, may find themselves surprised, bewildered and perhaps troubled to discover that the church fathers thought, lived and worshipped sacramentally” (21).

    Hall gives good examples of the hermeneutic that the church fathers employed as they sought to understand the sacraments. I’ll label this hermeneutic principle metaphorical extension. By that, I mean that he gives many examples of how the fathers looked for references, for instance, to water beyond the immediate context of baptism in order to understand baptism (30 ff). This approach seems mystical or esoteric to modern readers, but that is another matter. “We must first have listened carefully to the text, entering willingly into its rhyme and reason, before we have the right to disagree” (16).

    The second section, on prayer, is the largest of the three. In fact, the title of the book was originally Praying with the Church Fathers (12). In my opinion, this section was also the strongest. Drawing heavily on Gregory of Nyssa, Origen, Tertullian and John Cassian, we learn how the fathers answered questions many of us encounter. Questions such as: What is prayer (85 ff)? How can we pray without ceasing (113 ff)? How do we avoid distractions while praying (91 ff, 132 ff)? Why do my prayers go unanswered (155 ff)?

    Hall closes the book by looking at the ascetic practices of the Desert Monks. Much of his attention is directed towards Athanasius’ Life of Antony, which is to be expected. However, he also references many other fathers and mothers, such as Abba Issac and Amma Matrona. One perspective that was new to me was that they were not withdrawing into the desert to escape the world; instead, they advanced into the desert as an assault on the Kingdom of Satan. The wilderness was thought to be Satan’s territory in their worldview—Jesus had encountered Satan there, after all. Another valuable offering from this section was the discussion of acedia (laziness, sloth) and gluttony and the willingness to confront these sins which too often we tolerate at our peril.

    Again, the author recognizes that some of what the fathers say will “remain foreign—even loony—to us,” but encourages us to listen and learn from them rather than discount them completely (249). He also suggests that his non-sacramental readers visit a more sacramental service in order to more fully understand the world and worship of the church fathers.

    Reviewed by Adam Reece

    * Many thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy

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    Book Review – Why You Think the Way You Do

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  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Zondervan (August 1, 2009)
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  • In this book, Sunshine attempts to explain “the development of Western civilization from the perspective of the changes in worldview from the Roman Empire to the early years of the twenty-first century” (16). While referencing major thinkers on occasion, the interest is more specifically on the non-elite, wider culture. He further contends that one cannot understand Western culture without an understanding of Christianity (17). While this is likely true, Sunshine turns this survey of Western worldviews into an apologetic for Christianity, specifically Evangelicalism.

    Central to his argument is the premise that Christianity has had a positive cultural influence on the West, starting with its transformation and redemption of the Roman world in which it was introduced (54). While Sunshine would likely admit that sometimes Christians have done bad things in history, the overall effect of Christianity has been positive. Clearly, this is directly antithetical to the claims of the New Atheists. Consequently, Sunshine argues that the further Western culture moves away from Christianity, the more it returns to the barbarism of Pagan Rome (211).

    In the interest of accessibility, very few citations are included. This omission makes many of the more controversial historical claims hard to support in dialogue with others who may not share Sunshine’s interpretation. For example, while the flat earth myth has been thoroughly debunked, it would be helpful to cite that since it is a common myth (109). A citation for Pascal, Gassendi and probabilism would have been helpful since at first glance Pascal opposed probabilism in his Provincial Letters and Gassendi was interpreting Pascal’s barometric experiments rather than the other way around.

    While an interpretation of history is often an aspect of communal identity, this work could have benefited from a more balanced handling of the shortcomings of Christians within history. As it stands, the author’s evident bias for Christianity and conservative American political values (such as capitalism and democracy) comes off more like partisanship than a survey of Western worldviews.

    – Reviewed by Adam Reece

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    Book Review – The Making of an Atheist

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  • Paperback: 144 pages
  • Publisher: Moody Publishers (February 1, 2010)
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  • First, I should disclose that I agree with Spiegel’s thesis that “atheism is caused by a complex of moral-psychological factors, not a perceived lack of evidence for God’s existence. The atheist willfully rejects God, though this is precipitated by immoral indulgences and typically a broken relationship with his or her father. Thus, the choice of the atheist paradigm is motivated by non-rational factors” (113-114). I noticed the patterns first in the lives of Nietzsche (whom Spiegel mentions) and Foucault (whom he does not) prior to this reading.

    Spiegel expects that the idea will encounter resistance (and it probably will). He compiles previously released information and packages it for popular consumption, drawing significantly from Alvin Plantinga, Antony Flew’s “conversion,” and Paul C. Vitz. In fact, Spiegel does Plantinga the honor of dedicating the book to him as “a gigantic intellect with a humble heart.” Moreover, Spiegel maintains a humble tone throughout which honors Plantinga and is often lacking in apologetics.

    Spiegel’s goal is unique. He is not making a case for theism or defending it against the attacks of atheists. His argument is a flanking attack that responds to the “New Atheists” by calling into question the source of their unbelief.  Even though they claim their unbelief is rooted in reason, Spiegel sees the rational component of their unbelief secondary to their immorality or broken paternal relationships.

    He blends biblical ideas (Romans 1, Ephesians 4, etc.) and virtue epistemological concepts to produce an account of how behaving badly and thinking badly decay into a downward spiral of moral and intellectual blindness (particularly in the areas of ethics, theology, and human nature).

    For the link between atheism and broken paternal relationships, Spiegel draws heavily on  Paul C. Vitz’s Faith of the Fatherless. “The lack of a good father is a handicap when it comes to faith (70),” but not an insurmountable barrier. While this link will likely be unpopular or attacked as irrelevant on ad hominem grounds, let’s not forget that non-theists have already applied similar psychoanalytical criticisms against theists. Furthermore, enough examples are given to give us pause to reconsider the role of a paternal relationship in shaping our perceptions of God.

    I think the value of this book is really threefold. First, it helps encourage believers that matters of belief and unbelief are not purely a matter of the intellect, but are issues of the heart and will. Secondly, it should remind believers to be sensitive to the things which may be going on in the hearts of the unbelievers they want to reach with the gospel. Thirdly, it is a call to unbelievers to consider non-rational factors that may be barriers to their belief in God.

    It is a witty, quick read and is worth the couple of hours invested. I hope it is read by many. If you are strapped for time, but the concept interests you, please check out the author’s blog post on the topic here.

    – Reviewed by (polymath) Adam Reece

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    Book Review – Life in the Trinity: An Introduction to Theology with the Help of the Church Fathers

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  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: InterVarsity Press (November 30, 2009)
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  • This was not the book that I was expecting. I anticipated a study of the doctrine of the Trinity and its development in the early church. What I found was not nearly as academic as that, though this was published by the Academic imprint of IVP. Donald Fairbairn doesn’t seem to do theology in the modern sense, so much as offer his personal reflections on scripture within the context of the Church Fathers who have shaped his views. In fact, the quantity of scriptural references far exceeds those from the Fathers. Fairbairn references forty-five books of the Bible, but less than a dozen of the Fathers. Fortunately, he provides paragraph-length quotes from the Fathers which help to give a broader context than the single- sentence snippets we sometimes see in similar works.

    Fairbairn attempts to follow what he considers the most helpful theological theme through the Bible and the early church: theosis or deification, which he defines as sharing in the relationship of the Trinity by participating with God the Father as adopted sons through the person and work of Jesus Christ who is the natural son, or Son according to his nature. He then ties theosis into other theological topics such as Creation, Fall, Incarnation, Resurrection, soteriology, justification, sanctification, and ecclesiology.

    The overall tone of the book is almost devotional. Due to lack of in-text citations from the Fathers it is difficult to assess where they end and Fairbairn begins. It seems that he has immersed himself in dialogue with the Fathers and even undertakes to use their hermeneutic. Fairbairn articulates the most important difference between the patristic and modern methods of hermeneutics as one of direction. The Fathers start with the context of the whole Bible and then read individual passages in light of the wider context (deductive approach), whereas modern exegesis attempts to study each passage in its immediate context and work from the narrow context to the broader context (inductive approach).

    Fairbairn’s work is also very ecumenical in tone, but I was somewhat unhappy with the balance he tried to strike. First, he is obviously conversant with Eastern Christian theology. The theme of deification is a major one in Eastern Christianity and Fairbairn has written on the topic before in Eastern Orthodoxy Through Western Eyes. However, Fairbairn seems to cling too tightly to the Protestant distinctives for me to feel like he has given Eastern Orthodoxy a fair shake. It feels more like he has attempted to plunder the Egyptians.

    I was similarly disappointed in his treatment of the current justification debate. Early in the book he distances himself from modern theological debate by emphasizing that he is a Patristic scholar, not a systematic theologian and by claiming to avoid the standard loci of Western theology. However, the book is still roughly organized according to the standard loci and when he does address the issue of justification, he comes down very squarely in the Reformed camp.

    Overall, I deeply appreciated Life in the Trinity. If you are looking for an academic study of the doctrinal development of Trinitarian Theology within the early church you will need to look elsewhere. If you are seeking to deepen your appreciation for how at least some of the early church understood the Christian life and their relationship to God, this is the book for you.

    Reviewed by Adam Reece

    Thanks to Adrianna at IVP for this review copy.

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