Nov 132017


(Part One)

So, you’ve decided to get married.  You’ve waited a long time.  You’re middle-aged, but you’ve met a wonderful woman just your age.  She’s got a great since of humor.  You’ve been to her home and she’s a fantastic cook.  You like the same movies, the same music… it’s perfect.  There is, however, a small problem.  You know nothing about her beyond that last eight months when you first met her. 


You don’t know anything about her parents.  You don’t know where she was born.  You have no idea of where she lived during the time she grew up.  You have no idea whether she has any siblings.  You don’t know if she graduated from high school or if she went on to college. You don’t know if she has been married before.  She’s dropped a couple names of some children, but you have no idea if they are her children, or nephews and nieces, or if they are even related. All you have seen is a baby picture and a white bound “Book of Memories” chronicling her first year or two of life.

No problem… we’ll get married anyway.  Really?

History, even in personal relationships, is important.  Yet, it has always amazed me that many Christians ignore or fail to look into the history of the Church.  It is as though somehow at the end of the first century, the Holy Spirit took flight only to descend again in our own time (perhaps stopping in briefly at the Reformation). The reality is that between the death of the last Apostle and our own time, there are almost nineteen centuries in which the Church was led and shaped through the continuing work of God through the Holy Spirit.  

We are not the first ones to have walked upon this road.

All through those nineteen centuries, people like us have struggled to understand the meaning of Scripture and the manner in which the Church should function.  They sought to understand and, before the world, confess their faith in the God revealed in the words of Christ and in the testimony of the Hebrew Bible, the Gospels and the Apostolic writers.  In those nineteen centuries there have been controversies that make our current disagreements pale by comparison.  There have been times of heroic faith in the face of persecution and there have been times of unimaginable decadence.  In these intervening centuries individual figures emerged, often from humble origins, who almost single-handed reshaped the Church.  Moreover, through all the twists and turns of this glorious history, there have been theologians, men and women who spent their lives reflecting on the nature of God and writing to share those reflections with others. In all of this the Holy Spirit was active in guiding and shaping the Church.

Who would not want to know this history? 

I believe that to have a sense of this history, it is best to read the words of the very people themselves. Yet, one needs context and it is in providing context that modern authors can be of great help.  So, in presenting this occasional series of articles, I will share a modern author or two whose work(s) will assist in providing an overview of the era.  Following that, I will list certain works by the authors from the age itself that I consider to be, in some sense, essential.  

Now, I realize that others will have their own lists, preferences and favorites.  That is to be expected when approaching a treasury of authors that span both the millennia and the globe.  My selections arise out of having taught these subjects on a graduate level over the course of four decades and having published somewhat extensively in the course of years.  This is not to say that this selection is better or worse than that of someone else.  It is simply to say that I have found these particular writings to be of value for those who will take the time to read them.

So, where do we start?

Firstly, you might wish to obtain a book that gives you an overall survey of the history of the Church.  While there are many fine studies available, I would recommend Justo Gonzalez, The Story of ChristianityThis is a two volume work, available in a wide variety of formats.  Over the course of the last three decades, it has emerged as a standard text in colleges and universities.  While Gonzalez is a Methodist, there is no real denominational bias in this work, which has made it attractive across the whole spectrum of Christian institutions of higher learning.

With that recommendation, we can move on to the subject at hand for this article.

The Early Church

For someone who has spent the majority of his life in the study of the Early Church, putting together an “essential” reading list has been absolute torture! There is just so much.  My book on The Early Episcopal Career of Athanasius of Alexandria (Notre Dame, 1991) had a bibliography with over 800 entries.  Another book I edited on Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana (Notre Dame, 1995) had almost 300 entries, just concerning this one treatise!  After due consideration, however, I came up with a list that I think will give you a flavor of the life and thought of the Early Church.

As with the Gonzalez survey, a single volume giving an overview of of this period is helpful.  Again many fine texts are available.  I would particularly commend Henry Chadwick, The Early Church. It is a small readable volume based upon impeccable scholarship, without denominational bias, and available in numerous formats. In the interest of full disclosure, Prof. Chadwick was an Anglican and a friend who acted as an early reader of my PhD thesis, for which I have been ever grateful.  When I would be in Oxford to deliver a paper or lecture, to see Henry in cassock, surplice, tippet and hood, long grey hair streaming behind him rushing to Evensong in the cloister of Christ Church, was to find oneself in the 18th century…

Now, on to the writings and voices of the Early Church.

I have chosen ten works (a pattern I will follow for other periods).  This list is not exhaustive, but I hope it will be suggestive of the great wealth of resources at our fingertips.  Most of these works are available online, but you might find that you want a hardcopy version to mark and annotate with your own discoveries. (NB – for those with koine Greek, the original text in the first three items listed is not difficult.)

1. The Didache – this is a “snapshot” of the early Christian community, written right at the end of the first century, within living memory of the apostles.  

2. The Letters of Ignatius of Antioch – these were written to several churches by Ignatius as a bishop while journeying to Rome where he was to be martyred c. 107.

3. The Letter to Diognetus – The earliest Christian apology written c. 150 gives us some sense of the Christian self-understanding in the second century.

4. Irenaeus of Lyon, Against Heresies – a detailed defense of Christianity, c. 180, over against Gnostic heresies. It is important for the use of much of the New Testament canon as well as defending the physical/incarnate nature of Christianity.

5. Tertullian – The Apology – written in 197, here we find the early development of Trinitarian theology. This is notable in that Tertullian later became a Montanist, a movement very similar to present day charismatics.

6. Athanasius of Alexandria – On the Incarnation – simply a classic, written about 319 or 320.  Be sure to read an edition containing the amazing preface by C.S. Lewis.

7. Hilary of Poitiers – On The Trinity – written about c. 360, in the midst of the Arian controversy, it is a summation of the theology of his day.

8. Basil of Caesarea – On The Holy Spirit – an exposition on the divinity of the Holy Spirit, based on Scripture and tradition written c. 364.

9. John Chrysostom – On The Priesthood – written c. 390, if you are a pastor – Baptist, Anglican, Orthodox, Calvary Chapel, Methodist, Lutheran… read this book!

10. Augustine of Hippo – Confessions – written c. 399, it is the story of one man’s conversion, who then shaped the theology of the Church.

So, there you have it.  Oh… a warning is in order. Read these works at your own peril. They might just change your life.

Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD

The Project

  46 Responses to “The Essentials: Dr. Duane Arnold, PhD”

  1. Thank you for the recommendations, Duane!

  2. Jean

    You are very welcome. I think there are some you will enjoy…

  3. This is something I’ve hoped to have happen here for a long time…thank you, Duane.

  4. Michael

    Thank you for hosting it! I hope it will be helpful.

  5. I was thinking about this series last night.
    Genealogy studies have become so popular…people want to know their ancestry so that they might understand who they are and where they came from.
    It roots people in history and facilitates understanding of how they came to be who they are.
    This is our faith genealogy…and I think it every bit as important.

  6. Michael,

    It’s our “theological DNA”. Scratch NT Wright and you find Michael Ramsey… scratch Michael Ramsey and you go to Newman and the Tractarians… Scratch Newman and on it goes to the English Reformation, Benedict of Nursia, Augustine, Athanasius and all the way back to Ignatius. Whether we realize it or not, whether we admit it or not, this is what makes us who we are…

  7. Duane,

    The other thing I was thinking is that life…in terms of cultural and political issues…is never going to be as we once knew.

    Division is here to stay and will only get worse over the next few years.

    We have to find common roots with the Christian community if we’re going to find real spiritual and temporal community at all.

  8. Michael

    I think that is what Bob Webber thought when he wrote his book, “Common Roots”. When we go back, especially to the first few centuries, we can find “commonality” – an identity that goes beyond the self-identifying labels of the 16th – 20th centuries…

  9. One thing that hasn’t been mentioned, and one of the reasons I like the older theologians, is the Enlightenment. We are not even aware of how impacted we are by the Enlightenment. Therefore, you almost have to go before it to get free of it, at least in your study.

  10. #9 Jean

    Yes, we’ve been taught that “reason” is superior to “mystery”… it changes the whole playing field…

  11. I created a pdf of The Didache that is available by clicking the link in the article.

    Read ahead…

  12. hmmm… Dr. Duane’s thoughts on marriage are wise ones – usually, you do marry the family

    Michael, thank you for the link to the Didache (i have a copy hiding somewhere)… it neatly sums up the standards God has for His people, i think…

    “reason” and “mystery” are on equal footing in my not so humble opinion – the Church cannot rely on reason, but then neither can it assign those things that are not understood to mystery… at least, not without some soul searching, asking the question am i avoiding this or is it truly beyond the human mind’s capacity… and then, taking a cue from the Didache, am i praying for my teachers? are they teaching sound doctrines? sometimes a little prayerful reasoning is necessary… fainting worshippers and smoke coming from the balcony just may not be a move of God… no matter how much the guy up front waves his arms and gasps praise Jesus

  13. i guess i should have clarified that there are some doctrines that are the in category of mystery… i was thinking of the misuse of the term to cover things we may face on this journey that we either don’t want to deal with or are bogus 🙂

  14. #13 Em

    Good distinction. My use of “mystery” is very much in the category of doctrine – the Trinity, the dual nature of Christ, the Eucharist, etc.

  15. Duane,

    This article really makes me wish I had more time to read! I am intrigued….

    As for the mystery aspect, I’m glad the distinction was pointed out. I have talked with a couple co-workers who refuse to believe in anything that science cannot prove. IMHO that’s just pride, pure and simple.
    In the words of the song linked below, “give up on your pondering, and fall down on your knees.”

  16. #15 Owen

    A number of these pieces are short – literally just a few pages, like the Didache or maybe and evening like Ignatius…

    Yes, I think the idea of “mystery” is a stumbling block for some and a relief to others.

  17. Duane, Thank you. You’ve done a lot of the heavy lifting for someone who wants to dig into Church history.

    These “primary sources” set the foundation for the faith.

    I grow weary of folks who almost run away if you try to get them to go back past the Reformation. I had an acquaintance say “Oh, I don’t need to go that far back I really don’t need to go back past Ryrie.” I thought, OK nothing like narrow revisionism. I find the anti-intellectualism among certain Christians profoundly dangerous.

  18. #17 David H

    I hope you enjoy the suggestions.

    Yes, it’s interesting that we will give credit to the work of the Holy Spirit in our own life and time, but ignore what God has done for two thousand years! It never ceases to amaze me…

  19. It is a travesty that Evangelicals disregard intellectual pursuits. Even as difficult as he is to read, Jonathan Edwards was quite an intellectual. It’s funny that despite their general leaning towards deism men like Jefferson, Franklin, Mason, and Madison had a sound understanding of theology, and philosophy.

    I’m so glad that my grad advisor emphased the value of political philosophy, even as he sarcastically claimed that it was useless (LOL). History is much more about defining the depth of knowledge, and wisdom, than dates and facts.

  20. “History is much more about defining the depth of knowledge, and wisdom, than dates and facts.”

    That’s gold, David…

  21. #19 David H

    Agree with Michael… gold.

  22. Michael and Duane, thank you.

  23. “…men like Jefferson, Franklin, Mason, and Madison had a sound understanding of theology, and philosophy.”

    I don’t think they had a sound understanding of theology (the study of god) but perhaps an understanding of the philosophy of religion.

  24. To the fathers – for those who do not want to take the fire hose approach of getting into the fathers – may I recommend “A Year with the Church Fathers: Meditations for Each Day of the Church Year.”

  25. While I would encourage use of any edited volumes that help people approach the Fathers of the Church (including anthologies), I would say that reading pieces in their entirety provides context and the ability to follow a line of argument, which is especially important in the apologetic works.

  26. However, for the uninitiated that may be like having a newbie begin reading the Bible in Leviticus. Much of reading the fathers is in understanding the context and if it is not plainly stated, it could be problematic.

    The biggest misunderstanding in reading Luther is to assume he is writing like Calvin – just pretty much developing doctrine or systematics – where almost all of Luther is addressing a current problem, answering someone’s question or answering charges leveled against him.

    Reading the fathers can be quite the task 🙂

  27. I’m sure you have much more and far superior experience in these matters…

  28. Well, since you are going to take the snotty road – yes – as a non professional knowing what folks on a blog probably need to start slowly – yes.

    Hey, I just offered a simple alternative for daily reading.

  29. As usual you misrepresent what is said and/or presented to draw attention to yourself. I did not list all the works in the Ante-Nicene Fathers. I presented a selection of easily read pieces with a certain didactic understanding behind what I presented.

    I welcome any material that assists people in approaching the Fathers, but – no – the anthology approach was not what I was presenting, for a very particular reason which I laid out above in my first reply.

    Of course, however, you are the font of knowledge who knows what people on the blog need. Of course…

  30. Hey – so what do you think of those Colts?

  31. I’m looking for ways to make this material as accessible as possible for people as we go through this series.

    We already made a pdf of The Didache available on site.

    I wish I’d been able to take a guided tour through the fathers with someone who had a doctorate in patristics…this will be anything but a fire hose approach.

    I’m very excited to be able to do this here…

  32. I did take a guided tour of the Fathers with someone with a doctorate in patristics and I am inclined to agree w/ MLD.

  33. Xenia

    There are many approaches that can be taken. In my experience, while the anthology route has certain benefits – mainly devotional – over the course of four decades, I have found a documentary approach to be more helpful in the long run. Again, in my opinion, anything that exposes people to the wisdom of the ancient Church is of benefit.

  34. If I was going to read an anthology of the Fathers, I would look for something from a church historian attempting to provide an objective look at a number of notable Fathers and what their particular contributions were. I imagine such textbooks exist.

    By contrast, a devotional piece written by and for Lutherans is going to give you the Lutheran sounding stuff plucked out of the vast works of many of the Fathers. It is almost like proof-texting the Fathers to show they line up with your doctrine.

    I think the Fathers are often more complex in their theology than what can be neatly fit into any particular tradition. Therefore, the devotional route may provide some pithy material and be really good and thought provoking, while still not really giving the reader any deep insight into the author.

  35. #34 Jean

    There is, by the way, a very fine set that looks to particular extracts from the Fathers and then, in the index, breaks it down into doctrinal categories – “Faith of the Fathers”, William Jurgens. Worth it’s weight in gold…

  36. I must say that the strength of the book I suggested is that it brings the person who is unfamiliar with the fathers into the church calendar at the same time – which helps take it from the academic to the useful.

  37. MLD

    Of course, I’m sure you’re right, as always…

  38. Are you that arrogant that you are telling me I cannot evaluate the strength or weakness for a book I read and recommend?.
    That clears up a big mystery – Carly Simon was singing about you.

  39. “Are you that arrogant that you are telling me I cannot evaluate the strength or weakness for a book I read and recommend?.”

    Must be in another thread, as I did not say that…

    As for Carly, I think it was Warren Beatty…

  40. “Must be in another thread, as I did not say that… ”

    Your 37 in reply to my 36 —

    Beatty has nothing on you in the vanity department.

  41. MLD

    I think you need to realize that being personally insulting and abusive does not make you “Martin Luther’s Disciple”… it just makes you insulting and abusive, no more, no less.

  42. I made a book recommendation – you did the rest. Also, you were less than honest with your #39

    So what do you think of those Colts?

  43. While we are recommending old stuff I think (note the personal preference) I think a familiarization with the Apocrypha would probably round out a student of the Bible more so than the fathers.
    Perhaps Apocrypha first and then the fathers.

  44. That’s lovely and a good idea… although the article is on Church History.

  45. I’m hoping and praying that this series actually comes about.
    For those who are not interested or want to pursue other topics, they can make ignore it or do other topics on their own blogs.

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