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 Christianity. This 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.