If there’s one thing I can’t stand…

Cover of "The Teachings of the Church Fat...

Cover of The Teachings of the Church Fathers

…it’s a bad book review.

And this is a lousy book review.

Of John Willis’s The Teachings of the Church Fathers.

Or more precisely, of the 2002 Ignatius Press edition of Fr. Willis’s 1966 book of the same title, a chronological detail which is of some importance as far as the lousy review of it goes, as we’ll see shortly.

The one thing I can say for C. J. Petersson’s lousy review is that it’s short. (I would also like to say it’s honest, but, as my response will argue, it’s not even that). In his own words:

If you’re looking for a book on the Church Fathers, this one is probably NOT what you’re looking for.

The aim of this book is to present church doctrine. It contains 250 headings that are chosen in accordance with the Cathechism [sic] of the Roman Catholic Church. Each one describes a point of dogma according to the Church’s official teaching and offers some quotes from the ante-Nicene Fathers to support it. The point the writer is trying to make is that the teaching of today’s Catholic Church doesn’t differ from what the Fathers taught. If that is what you’re interested in, then this book might be something for you.

For me, however, it was a disappointment. Willis doesn’t let the Fathers speak for themselves, and the book doesn’t really give an impression of what the theology of the Fathers is all about. Willis is trying to impose a medieval or post-medieval way of presenting the Christian faith on the patristic era.

Sigh. At least I can find some solace in the fact that only 40% of readers find his (?) review helpful.

This is the reply I left under Petersson’s review….

This review is, as noted, both vacuous and polemical. It’s also entirely misinformed. First of all, this book was originally released in 1966, almost three decades prior to the publication of the most current universal Catechism of the Catholic Church. Then again, if Mr. Petersson meant this book was arranged according to the Roman (or Tridentine) Catechism, he’s wrong there, too. Fr. Willis’s compendium begins with revealed religion, moves onto the existence and nature of God, then onto the topic of grace, and then addresses more specific doctrinal topics. The Roman Catechism: The Catechism of the Council of Trent for Parish Priests, by contrast, begins with the Apostles’ Creed and ends with the Lord’s Prayer.

Second, Fr. Willis makes very clear what the basis and intent of the compendium is. I quote:

“The aim of this book is to present a brief outline of Catholic doctrine as it appears in some of the more typical writings of the Church Fathers. It is based on the Enchridion Patristicum: Loci SS. Patrum, Doctorum, Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum of Rouët de Journel, but it departs from that work in two ways. It seeks to present the Church Fathers under topical headings rather than following a strict chronology…. It also attempts to give the best English translation possible for the Greek and Latin texts taken by M. Rouët de Journel from the Migne Patrologia. The idea for this book came from The Church Teaches: Documents of the Church in English Translation, a collection of Documents of the Church in English Translation based on Denzinger’s Enchiridion Symbolorum: A Compendium of Creeds, Definitions, and Declarations of the Catholic Church (Latin Edition). There has been no attempt to present an exhaustive selection of writings from all of the early Church Fathers on all the possible topics in Catholic doctrine. … Our intention is to let the Fathers speak for themselves, and so, apart from short introductions to each of the chapters, commentary has been excluded as well as any interpretation. Yet we have been very careful that each quotation shall be faithful to the context in which it is found. … Finally, it should be stressed that this work has no polemical intention. There is no attempt to prove or disprove any doctrinal point from the writings of the Fathers. The aim has simply been to correlate interesting and more or less pertinent writings under various selected doctrinal topics” (from pp. xxiii, xxiv, xxv of Fr. Willis’s introduction).

Now, in fairness, Mr. Petersson could have gotten the false impression that this was merely a patristic Catholic catechism from something Karl Keating wrote in the Foreword: “The Teachings of the Church Fathers is arranged thematically, much like the Catechism of the Catholic Church, to which it is a useful supplement” (p. xxi). That this statement does not mean Fr. Willis’s compendium is based on the Catechism should be manifest to a careful and unbiased reader. In Mr. Petersson’s case, however, he seems to have read not only with a strong anti-Catholic bias, but also only as far as page xxi. And why might he have stopped at page xxi? I quote Keating’s words at the end of that page: “The Fundamentalist or Evangelical who is curious about the beliefs of the first Christians will find his worst fear confirmed: They believed as Catholics and wrote as Catholics because they were Catholics.”

In any event, if Mr. Petersson would really care to hear more from the Fathers, he can consult David Bercot‘s A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs (Bercot is not, as far as I know, a Catholic), or Jimmy Akin’s The Fathers Know Best (though Akin is obviously a Catholic and, as such, might cause the same befuddling cognitive allergies in Mr. Petersson as displayed in his review here). That he is interested in reading further, however, seems doubtful, given the fact that this appears to be his sole review at Amazon.

Truth be told, in college Bercot’s and Willis’s books played a real though not overwhelming role in my eventual conversion to Catholicism. Along similar lines, I’ve recently been reflecting on which books were most influential on my thinking, at least with respect to theology and Catholicism (i.e. e.g. which books I wouldn’t get rid of even if I could get the PDF or eBook versions of them). In the approximate order I read them:

Henri Crouzel’s Origen

patristic compendiums like Willis’s and Bercot’s and the Summa Theologiæ

St. Augustine’s On Free Will

Scott Hahn’s Rome Sweet Home

John Zizioulas’s Being and Communion

Mark Shea’s By Whose Authority?

D. H. Williams’s Retrieving the Tradition & Renewing Evangelicalism

Steve Ray’s Upon This Rock

There are plenty others, for sure, but those books in particular, as physical objects I distinctly remember holding and reading, really stand out. Happily enough, I scored a used copy of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s compendium of Origen’s writings, Fire and Spirit, for free (after trading in other books!), and finally manned up and put a copy of Jean Danielou’s Origen on hold. Why “manned up”? One of the best used bookstores in the United States (and perhaps the best thing there is about my hometown, Jacksonville, FL), Chamblin Bookmine, has it for $45, but that’s better than the Amazon.com price of currently no less than $85. Plus, after my teacher discount, it’ll be only $40.

There’s just… something about Origen. He was, for instance, Henri de Lubac’s mentor in many ways. In 2007 Pope Bendict XVI said of Origen that he was “one of the greatest writers [of Church history.]” Origen, said the Pope, “took up the legacy of Clement and carried it towards the future in such an innovative way as to effect an irreversible turn in the development of Christian thought. He was a true master … and an exemplary witness of the doctrine he transmitted.” My own exposure to him, via Crouzel’s book, had a profoundly Catholigenic (!) impact on me. Origen was my first portal into the world of the Church Fathers (though Augustine was the most like a true spiritual father to me). Though he was later condemned, Origen is neither a heretic nor a defunct Platonist in Christian grab; he is a passionate teacher to whom all Christians should give a hearing.

Unfortunately, however, books about Origen are generally either very hard to come by or, what’s the same, very expensive. For instance, Elizabeth Clark’s 1992 The Origenist Controversy currently goes for no less than $135 at Amazon.com. Similarly, Henri Crouzel’s Origen currently goes for no less than $310 at Amazon.com. (Time to ring up some friends at nearby universities and get to scanning!) More reasonably priced titles are Edward Moore’s 2005 (revisionist) Origen of Alexandria and St. Maximus the Confessor (though Moore’s dissertation on the exact same topic is available (as a PDF) here) and Joseph Trigg’s 1998 Origen. Having said that, you’re better off reading Origen himself via New Advent’s bountiful online listing of patristic writings. As I believe De Lubac put it in Catholicism, “All renewal in the Church has been a return to the Fathers.”

[Speaking of Catholigenicity and the Fathers, I caused a fair share of controversy (albeit only in the tempestuous teapot known as Blogdom) five or six years ago at my dear old veniaminov.blogspot.com when I posted my “Eastern Papal Florilegium” on Papal Supremacy. Have a look! I am inclined to review it and add any pertinent quotations that I think I have found in the past few years.]

* * *

A funny sidenote… funny, at least, in that it happened today (dry laugh-cough):

In a little conversation at Facebook recently, wherein I lamented the head-bending powers of apophatic theology, a much more learned acquaintance left a link to Mark DelCogliano’s 2010 Basil of Caesarea’s Anti-Eunomian Theory of Names. I joked about the price––a measly $135, psshh––but another friend said that, for an academic book, it’s almost a steal. (Which is sad but true.) The original link-leaver, who has a rather cranky demeanor, sermonized that I ought not blame him for the price of truth. (Well!) I blame no one, I replied, but I wish Avicenna had been right: a collective consciousness would be much more affordable! As it turns out, after a little bit of digging online, I found DelCogliano’s dissertation about Basil (the Great)’s anti-Eunomian theory online (PDF)––so we’re actually not that far from the hive-mind!

Happy reading!


About The Codgitator (a cadgertator)

Catholic convert. Quasi-Zorbatic. Freelance interpreter, translator, and web marketer. Former ESL teacher in Taiwan (2003-2012) and former public high school teacher (2012-2014). Married father of three. Multilingual, would-be scholar, and fairly consistent fitness monkey. My research interests include: the interface of religion and science, the history and philosophy of science and technology, ancient and medieval philosophy, and cognitive neuroscience. Please pray for me.
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