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Drawing Up the Map
A review of How the Church Fathers Read the Bible: A Short Introduction by Gerald Bray
Grace and Peace to you all, before I jump into today’s book review, for those of you who missed it yesterday here is the link to this week’s episode of Consider the Ravens.
We interviewed Benjamin Vrbicek, husband to Brooke and Father to six children! Benjamin lives in Harrisburg Pennsylvania, where he is the teaching pastor of Community Evangelical Free Church. Benjamin is also the head editor for GCD, where he hosts the Writers Coaching Corner. He has published multiple books including books Shepherds + Sheep and Blogging for God's Glory in a Clickbait World, which are both available to order now.
Without further adieu:
Drawing Up the Map
In today’s day and age, with Google Maps one passcode and a click away, we have very little need to read maps. I’m old enough though, just about, to remember learning how to look at an Ordnance Survey map, figure out where I am, and then calculate how long it would take to get from A → B, which roads to take by foot, by car, or by public transport.
Though these maps would inevitably be incomplete or lack up to date details, being able to take stock of not only where you were, but also the other landmarks and key points to help you on your way, meant that over time you wouldn’t just learn to read the map, but you’d also start to fill in the gaps with your own knowledge. This is, to my mind, the best way to accrue knowledge.
When someone asks me to help them learn something, I tell them to take a bit step back and take as wide a view of the subject matter as possible, to identify landmarks, key events, recurring details, and the like. Once they’ve done that, they’re then better equipped to learn the finer details because they know how they fit within the bigger picture.
Gerald Bray has done an excellent job of mapping out the context and thinking present in the early church, as well as a brief history. With such a broad view, it does inevitably miss some key points, so if you’re well versed in that period you’ll likely finish this book and find it wanting. I would argue that if that’s you, you’re not the intended audience. I would recommend this short book to anyone asking any of the following questions:
Why is the Early Church Important?
Should we be just like the Early Church?
Is our understanding of Theology consistent with the Early Church?
Who are the Church Fathers?
What was Christianity like after Jesus ascended into heaven?
Two things to understand before reading this book are:
Bray’s work is not perfect
The Church Fathers were not perfect
I’ll be upfront and say that Bray and I come from different traditions and have differing views on theology in places, but that’s not what I’m referring to here—put simply, I’m not saying “He’s wrong because I’m right.” Rather, as I’ve already mentioned, this book covers too much ground to fully represent the source material and historical period, it’s just not long enough. That’s okay, I’m not going to sit here and suggest it should have been better, I certainly couldn’t have written anything half this comprehensive, but if you read this book and are affected by it, the reality is that you’ll end up reading other more detailed works down the line which will then tell you something different, or expand on a point of history in a different way than Bray has here. If someone met me quickly at a bus stop one day and we exchanged some pleasantries, but then met another day while I was with my wife and they remarked, “Oh, I didn’t know you were married? It’s nice to meet you Anna,” it wouldn’t be because I’d misrepresented myself, but simply because the timeframe didn’t permit for a full picture.
Secondly, the Church Fathers were not perfect, Bray says this well when he says:
“The fathers were not perfect, and not everything they had to say has stood the test of time, but on certain fundamental principles they remain authoritative guides for the church today.”
Gerald Bray, How the Church Fathers Read the Bible: A Short Introduction, (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2022), 181.
To hold to the protestant dogma of Sola Scriptura still means that we hold certain things outside of the bible as authoritative, including Elders, Parents in the home, Laws, Creeds, Confessions, but that none of these are of ultimate authority, that title belongs to the Scriptures alone. That’s important to remember when reading a book on Church History, listening to a particular preacher, or learning Theology, we don’t believe in hidden knowledge, or that “if only Billy Graham/Augustine/Chrysostom/Ambrose/Aquinas was still here, that would make everything okay!” This simply isn’t true, all of mankind is fallible, and so though we ought to learn from Church History and especially from the Early Church, doing so will not save us from the possibility of heresy, they couldn’t even do that themselves.
What does that mean?
Something I’m particularly struck by is how well Bray explains the meanings of certain words and terms, which happens so rarely, so it was wonderful to see. It’s always difficult opening up introductory materials hoping to find a new resource to use in discipleship and then coming up against one-hundred words in Christianese within the first five pages. That said, you will, if you’re just getting started on this subject, come up against words you’re unfamiliar with. This is not a problem, it’s actually a solution.
Here’s an example of why. What do you call this fruit?
If you’re from an English speaking country/region, you’ve probably said Pineapple, which is fair, that is the name of the fruit in English. Take a look at the following chart though:
If you were to go to almost any of these countries and ask for Ananas fruit, they’d know what you’re talking about? Why? Because there’s a common word shared by them all which means one thing, that being Pineapple.
When we come to new topics, or old topics new to us rather, there are a plethora of terms like Hermeneutics, Doctrine, Patristics, which might not mean anything to us when we first begin, but over time, they help us to distil what we’re saying so that we can tie together principals more simply and with greater effectiveness.
If you’ve ever met someone with a particularly long job title you’ll understand this. I used to be in a job with nine words in my job title… it was ridiculous. It might seem easy right now to say, “The study of the early church fathers,” but it would certainly be easier, in the long run, to simply say, “Patristics.”
One thing which makes this work stand head and shoulders above others we could look at is that Bray isn’t shy with his use of examples.
In his explanation of how the Early Church Father’s study of the bible, he uses ten separate examples—five from the new, and five from the old—to help illustrate. To borrow a term from fiction writing, Bray is excellent at showing, not telling.
Bray could wax lyrical I’m sure about the in-depth peculiarities of these techniques, or the exact dates and times of certain events, like others have done, but he seems far more interested in showing us narratively or painting a picture of how people did things back at that time. The only other book I’ve seen do this with quite so much skill and clarity was Church History in Plain Language by Bruce Shelley—which I would also recommend picking up.
Neither Bray nor the Fathers are perfect, but you should learn from both
Terms are helpful in the long run, and this book will help to lay a foundation
Bray is both a theologian and a storyteller, which is beautiful
Please go and pick up this book, as well as a copy of the Apostolic Fathers, which are the writings of many of the men mentioned in this book, and get stuck in. The book comes out in April, so you’ve got ample time to go and pre-order it.
Side-note for Pastors and Discipleship Leaders: If you’re looking for a book to help you teach people about the early church, this would be a good one to choose, there’s a really clear path through this book which you could build on with other resources, but even if you just used this book, disciples/church members would go away with a broad understanding even if they come in with little to no prior knowledge of the subject matter.
Grace and Peace,
Adsum Try Ravenhill
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