Behind the Book: Bryan Litfin on Getting to Know the Church Fathers

Today Bryan M. Litfin shares why he wrote Getting to Know the Church Fathers.

When someone asks me what I do for a living, and I say I’m a professor whose academic expertise is the early church fathers, I often receive a blank stare. Christians today rarely have any idea of who the early church fathers might be. If this is true in your case, I believe you are missing something valuable. To illustrate what I mean, let me tell you a story about a boy I call Billy.

Getting to Know the Church Fathers

Little Billy loved his grandmother very much. His childhood years were filled with visits to her house after school or on Sunday afternoons. If while playing in the yard Billy happened to fall and scrape a knee, Grandma was there with some old-fashioned concoction to tend his wound (though in truth her comforting words accomplished far more as a remedy). Billy simply loved going to his grandma’s house. She always lavished care and concern on him, giving her undivided attention to whatever he might be interested in at the moment.

But when he became a teenager, Billy’s visits to Grandma’s house became less frequent. He had a driver’s license now, and his schedule was filled with sports and activities. Eventually his visits to Grandma’s house were only at Christmas, if at all. Soon the young adult named Bill had a demanding career, a family, and a life of his own.

And so it was that Grandma’s death came as something of a shock to Bill. The responsibility fell to him to dispose of her possessions and sell her house. Bill began to reflect in new ways about his grandmother and his family line. “Who was this woman?” he wondered. “Where did she come from? What people and values shaped her world?” It dawned on Bill that while she had shown great interest in every minor preoccupation of his life, he had never really known her as a person. Bill began to regret that in a profound way.

One day he was cleaning out his grandmother’s attic. His eyes fell on a large object in the corner: a cedar hope chest of the kind that, back in the old days, women received when they were married. Bill opened it with hushed expectation, like a pirate discovering long-lost treasure in the stories Grandma used to tell.

The chest was indeed filled with treasure but not the kind made of silver and gold. Bill first picked up an old baseball glove, which smelled richly of leather and oil. It had his long-deceased grandfather’s name handwritten on it. Next he examined a necklace with a finely crafted ivory locket hanging from the chain. Inside were two small pictures of Grandma and Grandpa. On the back the locket was engraved with the words, “Until I return.” But Grandpa had not returned from the war. A photo album of black-and-white pictures, now yellowed with age, told the full story of their lives—all the joys and sorrows, the light moments and memorable occasions, of lives lived in the real world.

At the bottom of the hope chest was a leather-bound family Bible inscribed with Grandma’s name. As Bill flipped the delicate pages, he discovered marginal notes and scraps of paper brimming with his grandmother’s prayers, wise observations, and private spiritual longings. Moisture gathered in Bill’s eyes as he remembered how she had offered him some of these same Christian observations—but only rarely, for Bill had typically been disinterested in such matters and quick to run off to the next game or activity. As he sat on his knees in front of the old hope chest, Bill berated himself, asking, “Why didn’t I take the time to explore this legacy when I had a chance?”

It is all too easy to let the past be crowded out by the urgencies of the present and the opportunities of the future. This is certainly true when it comes to the ancient church. We know there were famous Christians who lived “back then,” but we can’t quite put a finger on who they were or what they did. Something about the Romans and the lions and all that, right?

Yet despite our indifference to their world, we are inextricably bound to the church fathers. They are our spiritual ancestors, for better or worse. It is easy to go through life like Bill: vaguely aware of the past, yet too busy with present responsibilities to think about something as intangible as heritage. Yet, like Bill, we are missing real treasures if we do not explore our spiritual origins.

I wrote Getting to Know the Church Fathers to introduce modern people to the ancient Christians. If you lift the lid of the hope chest and take a peek inside, you won’t be disappointed by what you find inside.

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Bryan M. Litfin (PhD, University of Virginia) is associate professor of theology at Moody Bible Institute.

For more information on Getting to Know the Church Fathers, click here.