Thursday Review: Ancient Christian Doctrine

A review of Thomas Oden (series editor), Ancient Christian Doctrine, five volumes, InterVarsity Press, 2009.

See below for details of each separate volume and purchase information.

I’ve often thought about lashing out for the complete set of early church Fathers. Last year I nearly got as far as pitching the idea to my wife. But three things put me off: the cost, the shelf space and, perhaps most of all, the suspicion I’d rarely use it because I’d never know where to go. Enter the new Ancient Christian Doctrine series.

The five volumes provide a selection of primary Greek, Latin, Coptic and Syriac sources from 95-750AD in translation (some for the first time) organized around the Nicene Creed (an outline of the series is below). Each volume contains the whole Creed in Greek, Latin and English, a guide to using the series, abbreviations and an introductory essay. The main body of the book is divided up by lines of the Creed. The relevant section of the creed is repeated, again in Greek, Latin and English. There is then an essay on the historical background, an overview and the extracts themselves. Each volume ends with an outline of the contents, and author, writings and Scripture indices. The final volume also includes great short biographical sketches and a timeline (both available online). This series is styled as a companion series to the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series in which the exegetical writings of the Fathers are similarly extracted and collected by Bible books.

These books are everything you could wish for plus some things you would have wished for if only you’d thought to do so. They’re beautifully produced (although sadly they are glued rather than stitched) – a joy to hold and behold.

But above all they’re a joy to dip into. I’ve spent a happy weekend doing so. More to the point, I can readily see myself using them in the future. When I’m speaking on some point of doctrine, for example, I now know where to go to find insights from the Fathers. For non-Patristic scholars, the Fathers just became accessible!

In the introduction to the second volume John Anthony McGuckin says: “It is one of the great tragedies of the current state of divided Christianity that this patristic literature is so little known by so many, or, worse, regarded as not a real heritage of the Protestant world.” (2:xix) This series is a great remedy for that malaise, especially as it is avowedly designed with both academics and lay-readers in mind. In the closing essay Thomas Oden talks about looking at the phrases of the creed “in slow motion” (5:273). This series offers an opportunity to do that for yourself alongside the early church Fathers (2:xvii). Oden’s introduction to the series emphasizes the importance of the Nicene Creed, not only as an ecumenical statement of faith, but as a teaching tool. It also argues that the “new ecumenism” needs to be nourished what it calls the “old ecumenism”.

The list price for the series is $250, but Amazon.com is selling the individual volumes for $31.50-$33.75. Still not cheap, but a good idea for your next birthday. Besides it’s only a third the price of an iPad. At Amazon.co.uk they’re all £29.76 a volume. There is one reason why you might decide to defer: they’re promising a searchable CD Rom at some point in the future which some might prefer.

One or two other points of interest caught my attention. John Anthony McGuckin decries the idea that the synoptic Gospels represent christology “from below” while the Fathers were attempting christology “from above”. These are terms the Fathers themselves would not recognize and which do little to aid our understanding of their accomplishments. Meanwhile Mark Edwards resists modern attempts to reinterpret Patristic soteriology in our own image, arguing for a variety of models which combine to form a unified whole, rather than competing with one another.

Series Outline

Volume One: We Believe in One God—the knowledge of God the Father—the triune God revealed in creation, providence and human history (Gerald L. Bray, the Latimer trust and Samford University). Available here from amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.

Volume Two: We Believe in One Lord Jesus Christ—the coming of God the Son—the incarnate God, one person in two natures, truly God, truly human (John Anthony McGuckin, Union theological Seminary and Columbia University). Available here from amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.

Volume Three: We Believe in the Crucified and Risen Lord—the revelation of divine love—the reconciling work of Jesus Christ, his earthly ministry, death and resurrection (Mark J. Edwards, University of Oxford). Available here from amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.

Volume Four: We Believe in the Holy Spirit—the ministry of God the Spirit—the person and work of the Holy Spirit in justification, salvation and the holy life (Joel C. Elowsky, Drew University). Available here from amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.

Volume Five: We Believe in One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church—the triune God in the church and in history—the glory of God in the church and the fulfilment of history (Angelo Di Berardino, Augustinian Patristic Institute of Rome). Available here from amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.

Detailed Contents of Volume One

Here are the contents of volume one which give an idea how the series works.

General Introduction
A Guide to Using the Commentaries in the Ancient Christian Doctrine Series
Abbreviations
Introduction: The First Article of the Creed

We Believe

  • The Form and Content of our Faith
  • Knowledge of God in Nature
  • The Word of God Revealed in Christ, Proclaimed and Written in Scripture
  • The Inspiration of Scripture
  • The Antiquity of the Scriptures
  • The Authority and Sufficiency of the Scriptures
  • The Canon of Scripture
  • The Translation of Scripture
  • The Interpretation of Scripture
  • Scripture, Tradition and Faith

In One God

  • Who God Is
  • Attacks on Pagan Idolatry
  • The Unknowable God
  • The Unity of God’s Being
  • The Sovereign Freedom of God
  • The Divine Will
  • The Divine Attributes
  • The Wrath of God
  • God’s Goodness and Love

The Father

  • The Name of the Father
  • The Father-Son Relationship
  • Father, Son and Holy Spirit

The Almighty

  • The Meaning of God’s Omnipotence

Maker

  • God the Creator
  • God’s Foreknowledge, Providence and Predestination

Of Heaven and Earth

  • The Creation
  • Space and Time

Of All That Is, Seen

  • The Creation of Man and Woman
  • Evil and the Fall

And Unseen

Angels

  • Guardian Angels
  • Demons
  • Satan
  • Hell

Outline of Contents
List of Ancient Authors and Texts Cited
Author/Writings Index
Scripture Index

One thought on “Thursday Review: Ancient Christian Doctrine

  1. The new series certainly looks interesting and wets the appetite.Thomas Oden’s own theological journey is also an facinating one to look at.Like yourself I was put off the complete series of Early Fathers due to the expense and lack space!

    I’m sure you know but you may also like your readers to know that the originals can be accessed free at http://www.ccel.org/fathers.html

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