“Why can’t we all just get along? We should go back to the simplicity of the Early Church era before Constantine screwed everything up and when everybody was on basically the same page.”
“Not so fast”, says Paul Foster.
Foster, the editor of Early Christian Thinkers, has compiled a helpful primer on twelve characters from the early church. They are what Foster calls a “motley crew” (although I must have skipped the chapter on Tommy Lee and Nikki Sixx). Speaking of this motley crew, he notes:
It is highly debatable whether they would have felt comfortable in each other’s company. Yet in many way that is what makes this selection of early Christian figures so fascinating, because in a very real sense their diversity represents much of the complex dynamic of early Christianity from the mid second century to the beginning of the fourth century. In no way can early church history be represented as irenic and unproblematic. (xix)
“Who is this motley crew”, you ask?
There is a single chapter by a different author on these twelve early Christian thinkers: Justin Martyr, Tatian, Irenaeus, Theophilus of Antioch, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Perpetua, Origen, Cyrpian of Carthage, Hippolytus of Rome, Gregory Thaumaturgus, and Eusebius of Caesarea.
If after reading that list you are shaking your head and wondering, “who”, that’s what makes this book so helpful and appealing. Even for a history nerd like myself there was plenty information, stories, and thoughts in here to keep me intrigued.
Even the interaction with the more notable of these figures is still helpful. As an example, Paul Parvis’ chapter on Justin Martyr is an outstanding treatment of Martyr in his historical context. Parvis helps the reader to really get an accurate feel for Justin’s influence and give a contemporary model for one that "was trying to explain the Gospel he had received in terms that would be comprehensible to the world around him” (9). Knowing this helps us to come to a better understanding of the intention behind much of Martyr’s writing, while simultaneously spurring the reader on to similar incarnational missions.
As you can expect in a volume written by twelve different authors some chapters are better written than others. Some chapters keep you engaged, on the edge of your seat, and searching Amazon for other resources on the Christian thinker being discussed. Other chapters feel a little like reading a 5th grade history book; somewhat stale but still helpful.
I am not certain that this would serve well as an introduction to the Early Church Fathers (for that I would suggest Haykin’s latest work: Rediscovering the Church Fathers). However, it is not so technical and filled with jargon that the average lay-person could not sift through it and learn a good deal about church history. It’s best audience will probably be for those with a previous knowledge of history and those who are perpetual students of history.
If you want to know more about the thinking in the early church through the lens of several key figures then this book is definitely worth looking into. I may also mention that it is rare to find a book with this much historical quality being sold for under $15. It’s a steal, especially if you get it for 10 bucks on your Kindle.
**I got this book free from IVP in exchange for a review. You’ll have to buy it, which you can do so here. I didn’t have to give a positive review, but I did anyways because I like it.