If I had my time again, I would probably have spent it studying patristic or medieval theologians. The reason? Reformed theology, at least as developed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, drank deep at the wells of the early fathers and the greats of the Middle Ages; and, ironically, to understand Reformation theology one really needs first to have a good grasp of that which came earlier and which frequently stood in continuity with later Protestant developments. From understanding Christ to living the Christian life, thoughtful Protestantism never cut itself off from the wider Christian tradition. Sadly, more recent Evangelicalism has, by accident or design, frequently isolated itself from such historic sources through a sincerely intended but naively executed commitment to the notion of scriptural sufficiency. This has borne unfortunate fruit. Over recent decades, the movement of many evangelicals to Rome or to Eastern Orthodoxy has been, in part at least, a reaction to such impoverishment of the Christian tradition within evangelical ranks. As people look for historical roots, Evangelicalism seems inadequate to meet the challenge, and such moves, though misguided, are at least understandable.
The problem, of course, is how to encourage such interest and knowledge among evangelical people. Even with the easy availability of translations of the fathers, few are going to have the time or the motivation to wade through massive tomes which frequently deal with a world of issues that have long since passed from the scene. There are important lessons of Christology and the Christian life to be gleaned from Irenaeus and Tertullian, but these are frequently hidden in a forest of ideas, polemics, and personalities which will kill the interest of most lay readers within a few pages.
This pastoral issue is one that Thomas Oden has been wrestling with for many years. Even before his move to Evangelicalism, his desire to make the greats of the Christian tradition accessible to others was evident, as in his excellent little collection, The Parables of Kierkegaard. Since then, Oden's evangelical ecumenism has borne great fruit especially in the area of patristics, most notably in his pioneering editorship of the Ancient Christian Commentary series. These volumes have done much to bring the great tradition of patristic exegesis to a wider audience; but, realistically, even these books will be overwhelming to most churchgoers.
That is why this little devotional volume is such a gem. Structured as a weekly devotional that covers a whole calendar year, the book offers helpful quotations from selected fathers, contemporary reflections upon these, and patristic prayers which drive home each chosen topic in the context of personal piety. In other words, this book offers an access point to the patristic tradition which is manageable, practical, and doxological, and which should help to inform the evangelical practice of godliness in a way that is historically and theologically enriching. Oden is not so much arguing for the relevance and usefulness of patristic theology as demonstrating the same. In our pragmatic age, this might well prove to be the most compelling way to persuade Christians of the value of early church theology. Indeed, I did not simply read the book for review, I have been using it for devotions as well and have found it to be helpful, uplifting, and challenging. I intend to recommend it to my early church class next year as an example of how patristic writers can inform contemporary practice.
Of course, the limits of the book are the limits of patristic theology. Classic Protestant distinctives, such as a robust emphasis on justification by grace through faith, and on assurance, are missing; in other words, the book needs to be supplemented with other devotional reading. Further, the move from giving actual dates to using the liturgical calendar for the readings is a little frustrating to a hackneyed Puritan like myself who, beyond knowing the date of Christmas and the approximate location of Easter, wears ignorance of the liturgical calendar as a badge of honor. Yet it should also be noted that the book can be started at any point in the year and still prove helpful.
The church owes Thomas Oden a great debt for his tireless efforts to remind Evangelicalism of the riches of the wider Christian tradition; and this book will hopefully prove his most accessible and popular venture yet in that regard. Buy it; use it; give it away; bring it to the attention of your pastor. And give thanks that you do not have to go to Rome or Athens to connect with patristic riches, as this attractively produced book so ably demonstrates.