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A Patristic Book Club!

Got an email yesterday from a visitor who helps to lead “an ecumenical Patristics books club.” He was trying to put together a program that used primary texts — “actual works (not commentaries)” — well translated, affordable, and easily bought in quantity. I had to ponder this a bit. The simplest route, of course, would be to use The Fathers of the Church, Expanded Edition and The Mass of the Early Christians, both of which include sample texts from a wide range of patristic authors. (Anne Fremantle’s A Treasury of Early Christianity used to serve this purpose, but it’s long out of print.)

But this inquirer wanted something meatier than the short, representative excerpts my books had to offer. He asked if I thought Jurgens’ Faith of the Early Fathers: Three-Volume Set might do. Jurgens is indeed a good reference work — a collection of excerpts, usefully indexed by dogmatic subject. But it makes for dull reading by itself. I think it would be a disappointment for members who are obviously motivated to read deeply in individual works — who want to get to know the ancient authors.

After scanning the shelves a little bit last night, it seemed to me that the Penguin Classics presented the best way to do something programmatic. Consider these four titles for starters.

Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers (ed. Andrew Louth)

Eusebius: The History of the Church: From Christ to Constantine (ed. Andrew Louth)

Early Christian Lives

St. Augustine: Confessions (tr. R.S. Pine-Coffin)

These four could keep a group well occupied for at least a year (if not two or three). What’s more, they present an excellent overview of the historical challenges and dogmatic disputes of the first four centuries — and in a fairly painless way, with stories rather than treatises (though all the dogma’s in there).

Once the group got through that list, it could go back in time and work through some more challenging material, again all readily available and quite readable (though just a bit more pricey) in the Classics of Western Spirituality and HarperCollins Spiritual Classics series:

Origen: An Exortation to Martyrdom, Prayer, and Selected Works

Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns

Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Moses

Pseudo-Macarius: The Fifty Spiritual Homilies and the Great Letter

Pseudo Dionysius: The Complete Works

Maximus Confessor: Selected Writings

John Cassian: Conferences

Augustine of Hippo: Selected Writings

That’s the best way I’ve found to be programmatic with readable, affordable, available texts. What do you think?

10 thoughts on “A Patristic Book Club!

  1. St. Vladimir’s puts out very affordable translations of primary texts under their popular patristic series. They could be used.


  2. I second the comment about St. Vladimir’s volumes–very well done and no major strain on the checkbook.

  3. I like St. Vlad’s books, and they are affordable (though delivery can take an inexplicably long time). I think the Penguin selections, though, enable a more basic and programmatic introduction to the Fathers. And, for an introductory course, I think history and biography (stories) work better than dogmatic treatises, which dominate the PP series.

  4. Boniface Ramsey’s Beginning to Read the Fathers has an appendix containing suggestions for a Patristics reading programme that I’ve found quite helpful. He also provides information about available translations.

  5. I love the Ramsey book. Delivered as a series of conferences for monks, it’s by turns lyrical and curmudgeonly.

  6. The St. Vladimir’s books are excellent — a great one to start with is St. Athanasius: On the Incarnation. The St. Vlad’s edition is a reprint of a superb translation from the 1950’s, I believe. The introduction by C.S. Lewis is priceless.

  7. I like Loeb’s 2003 2-volume translation by Bart Ehrman – it has the added bonus of a facing Greek text for those who want to go further. I am also rather fond of F.W.Farrar’s 1889 volumes ‘Lives of the Fathers’, very Victorian, but eminently readable

  8. I also wanted to recommend “Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers” and “Learning Theology with the Church Fathers” by Christopher Hall. Published by Intervarsity Press. Though written by a Protestant, they are excellent introductory works into how the Fathers read scripture and worked out Doctrinal questions.

  9. Mike,

    I love your list. In terms of the Peguin Classics, they have a relatively recent addition to the Early Christian theme……Caroline White, ed. and trans., Lives of Roman Christian Women (2010). It contains many good text such as the Life of Macrina by Gregory of Nyssa and much more.

  10. Oh and I forgot Penguin Classics also has _The Desert Fathers, Sayings of the Early Christian Monks_ translated by the great Benedicta Ward.

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