One of the questions I get a lot about theological retrieval is where to start. Lots of people see the value of reading ancient texts but are unsure exactly where to dive in. So I thought it might be useful to identify five classic texts from the church fathers that (1) are significant, theologically and historically, (2) are relatively easy to read and understand, and (3) in some cases tend to get neglected.
Any list like this is bound to be somewhat arbitrary and leave important works out, so take this all with a grain of salt. But these works at least give a diversity of topics and a good cross sampling of both East and West, some earlier and some later.
1) Augustine, Confessions. This one is a no brainer. It is such a profound book spiritually, theologically, psychologically, and literarily. It has also been massively influential over Western thought. I suspect most readers will also find it a personal and relatable book—a very human book. So if people haven’t already read the Confessions, I think this is a great place to start. If you are looking for a good translation, F.J. Sheed’s older one captures something of the stately feel of Augustine’s Latin. I tend to use R.S. Pine-Coffin’s (pictured here) more often, which is, for me, a bit more accessible.
2) Athanasius, On The Incarnation. This is an important work that is also highly accessible (you could get through it in one sitting, probably). It is often focused on for its defense of the deity of Christ, but also draws you into larger issues, for instance, concerning the meaning of the atonement and the nature of Christ’s humanity. There is an excellent edition in the Popular Patristics series with a foreword by C.S. Lewis on “The Reading of Old Books” that is itself worth the price of the book.
3) Irenaeus, On the Apostolic Preaching. This is Irenaeus’ lesser-known and more catechetical work (“catechetical” meaning used for formal teaching, often in preparation for baptism). Irenaeus was the 2nd-century Greek theologian who lived in what is today called France. He is famous for his Against Heresies and for his emphasis on a recapitulatory understanding of the atonement. He gets into recapitulation a bit in On the Apostolic Preaching, but it is also a broader work that gives you a sense of how Irenaeus works with Scripture, and how he understands the gospel as a whole. It’s also briefer and more accessible. Once again there is a great addition in the Popular Patristics series.
4) John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition on the Orthodox Faith. John is sometimes called the “final Father” as he lived in the 7th century in the East. He drew from a variety of earlier Eastern theologians, especially Gregory of Nazianzus (whom he called “The Theologian”), and this work is a summative collection of the work of earlier fathers. As a result, reading John introduces you to the Eastern tradition as a whole, which is often neglected by evangelicals. Once again, this is a relatively brief and readable book. I cannot speak for the translation of this edition (I use one from part of a series), but it is probably the cheapest you will find!
5) Gregory the Great, The Book of Pastoral Rule. John Calvin had profound respect for Gregory. He called him a “godly man” and thought of him as the last good Pope. This book is a classic of pastoral theology that is filled with wisdom, particularly regarding how pastors should balance the practical and spiritual dimensions of their calling. It was also hugely influential up until more recent generations. Once again the Popular Patristics edition is great.
Okay, that is just getting things started. What books would you add?
Chrysostom’s Six Books on the Priesthood. Completely flipped the script on my pastoral theology and theology of leadership. The leader/pastor is to possess the quality of virtue above all other qualities. You just can’t find teaching like that anymore.
Hello Gavin, great choices, I have read them all except Gregory the Great. I have it on my shelf, just haven’t picked it up yet. I would add Chrysostom’s “On the Incomprehensible Nature of God.” It is a great set of sermons again the Anomoeans; who happened to be sitting in his sermons. I am using it now in a sermon series on the Attributes of God. Also, though I am a huge fan of the Cappadocian Fathers, I would recommend the lesser known Mark the Monk “Councels on the Spiritual Life.” Many of the essays in the two volume edition by SVS Press, but my favorite is his only theological treatise “On the Incarnation: A Doctrinal Treatise Addressed to those who say the the holy Flesh was not united with the Word but rather Partially Clothed it, like a coat” The title is actually longer, I just got tired of typing. His treatise on Baptism is also very enlightening.
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Good ideas, thanks Tony!
Hi Gavin, I have an unrelated question to this article but that I was wanting to ask. First of all I’ve really appreciated your website and it’s definitely helped me to understand especially the interaction of science and faith, so thank you for your work! My one question that has been bothering me has been this. The idea of open vs closed genealogies. It seems quite difficult to say where there could be gaps. I’ve read many articles on gaps and the rebutalls to those arguments and am trying to find at least one place where there is certainly a gap, so that I can know there is the possibility of gaps. For example, they shut down the argument that Cainan in Luke 3 could be a chronological gap even if it is a genealogical gap, since the age of the “descendant” wouldn’t be affected by intermediate generations. Do you know of any definitive way to say that the chronologies (not just the genealogies) have gaps? For example, I am aware that Matthew’s genealogy has gaps and Ruth’s genealogy has gaps and that there’s 10 generations before and after the flood in the Genesis genealogies. I guess my question is this: even if yalad can mean “great-grandson” or “descendant”, wouldn’t this mean that Bob lived x years and begat y means that Bob was x years old when y was born, even if y was a great-grandson or descendant? So it almost becomes irrelevant whether y is a great-grandson or grandson, because either way Bob was x years old when y was born. I can go with an old earth, but this is the one question that’s causing a hangup for me. I’m not sure if I can go with an old humanity, although I’m completely open to it if someone can show at least one certain chronological gap. Is there a way to say that the chronologies have gaps? If someone can’t definitely show there’s gaps, do we just use some non-conclusive arguments like the 10 generations before and 10 after the flood, and just say that general revelation gives us warrant to assume there’s gaps even though we can’t prove it? Also, are there any scholars who take the view, in light of this difficulty, that humanity is young, but the earth is old? So any human remains were either planted there somehow, or these are not real humans? Thank you so much for your help and I really appreciate any help with understanding this, but thank you for your other articles either way!
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From which series are you getting your John of Damascus work?