Reading the Church Fathers: A Review

Sophia Press

As I was reading Reading the Church Fathers: A History of the Early Church and the Development of Doctrine, a brand new magnum opus by scholar James L. Papandrea, I wondered whether the author might be Catholic. At first I was not sure, but the book seemed written from such a perspective. It was not until I read on the penultimate page that Dr. Papanadrea is currently on faculty at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, and wondered whether they would hire a ‘papist’. But, lo and behold, a few clicks here and there, and I discovered that Dr. Papandrea is a convert to Catholicism from Methodism, and has been featured on EWTN’s ‘Coming Home’ show. His work certainly evinces a deep knowledge, appreciation, even love, of Tradition, the Fathers, the mystery of the early Church, and the life, worship and even sufferings of her members.

All in all, Reading the Church Fathers is a welcome addition to the Christian intellectual treasury, compiling in an easy-to-read, yet very scholarly, format an overview of the first centuries of the Church. The focus is on the Fathers, with a summation of their works, and how, in general to read and interpret them. Papandrea wears his deep erudition lightly in his prose, and shines through all the more.

One could learn much from perusing this work, even from the occasional dip into its 442 pages, as time and proclivity permit. It would make a good textbook, or as a helpful supplementary reference for an academic course.

The subject matter begins at the beginning, with an intelligent and thoughtful discussion of God and the Church, and what we mean by those terms. Then, a vibrant and vigorous tour through the Patristic sources begins, from the Apostles, through the post-Apostolic era, and on into the age of the Fathers, from Clement, to Tertullian, Origen, Augustine, the Cappadocians, with each century, and its primary patristic sources, discussed in turn. Sections are short, and easy to read and digest, with helpful summaries and timelines at the end of each chapter. The book covers the primary conciliar era, from Nicaea I (325) to Nicaea II (787), before concluding with an overview of the scholastics, Anselm and Thomas, in particular. Overall, however, this book is a help to appropriating our own Catholic history and foundation.

Not everything is covered. The author discusses only the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist. The Real Presence is mentioned, along with the Mass as an agape meal, but there is not a lot of emphasis on its nature as a sacrifice. Perhaps he is striving for an ecumenical approach, so that non-Catholics may not be put off. But overall, the Catholic nature of the one, true Church shines through these pages.

We can hope that this work bolsters the faith of Catholics, as they see the contours, the controversies and crises of this Church from the very beginning. What is old is new again! As well, it may lead others, by the grace of the good God, to follow the great Cardinal Newman, who himself delved into the Fathers and the early Church, hoping to find an early Anglicanism, and…well, the rest is history.