Impressions of “Introduction to Patristics: Learning from the Church Fathers,” by David Meconi

Sometimes you get exactly what you ask for.

In my impressions of When the Church was Young by Marcellino d’Ambrosio, I said how much I enjoyed the work, but wish I could read a more academic companion to it. Introduction to Patristics by David Meconi is that companion. And When the Church was Young is the superior book.

There are no substantial disagreements between the texts. Both begin with the apostolic fathers like Justin Martyr and Polycarp. Both end before John of Damascus. Both reference the Shepherd and the Protoeveangelium The fundamental difference is that the Church was Young attempts to presents a narrative church history and emphasizes memorable personal anecdotes or events in the lives of the Fathers, and how their lives intersected. Patristics is organized in a rough chronological order but primarily around major academic themes. But except for the slightly deeper discussion of heterodoxy, the Church was Young provides more memorable information than Patristics.

While Patristics (unlike the Church was Young) is more about what now-heterodox ideas were believed by some Church Fathers, that benefit does not overcome the other burdens in the text. For instance, take Origin (AD 184 – AD 253), a teacher of the saints who himself was never canonized.  Both books addressed major moments of his life, including the arrest of his father, his rivalry with his bishop, and his arrest and torture by the Romans.  And from Patristics (but not from the Church Was Young) I learned that Origen believed that even demons could come to repentance and salvation. But the Church was Young provides more context around the catechatical school in Alexandria, the continuity of Origen with other Fathers before and after, a  more vivid description of the man in general.

The situation is even worse with another heterodox church father, Tertullian (AD 155 – AD 240). Both books credit Tertullian with coining the term Trinity (in Latin “Trinitas”) to refer to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Both conclude with Tertullian all but leaving the Catholic Church. The Church was Young establishes Tertullian’s belief in rigor and confessed impatience. It concludes with Tertullian joining the Montanists, “a rigorist sect.” This is implied to be a pattern in North Africa, and the implications for the Islamic conquest are left to the reader. Patristics does not establish Tertullian’s personality or reasons for leaving, aside from to joining a “gnostic” sect.

Yet neither of these are, perhaps, fully true! Certainly Tertullian seems like a kill joy — Wikipedia’s description of “public amusements, the veiling of virgins, the conduct of women, and the like” certainly matches The Church was Young‘s description of him. But Wikipedia’s description of Montanism implied something more:

Montanism held similar views about the basic tenets of Christian doctrine to those of the wider Christian Church, but it was labeled a heresy for its belief in new prophetic revelations. The prophetic movement called for a reliance on the spontaneity of the Holy Spirit and a more conservative personal ethic.

Neither book nor Wikipedia make the comparison, but the focus on the Holy Spirit’s new age of revelation recalls the Blessed Joachim of Fiore, a personal favorite of Jordan Peterson:

There are three states of the world, corresponding to the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity. In the first age the Father ruled, representing power and inspiring fear, to which the Old Testament dispensation corresponds; then the wisdom hidden through the ages was revealed in the Son, and we have the Catholic Church of the New Testament; a third period will come, the Kingdom of the Holy Spirit, a new dispensation of universal love, which will proceed from the Gospel of Christ, but transcend the letter of it, and in which there will be no need for disciplinary institutions.
Joachim of Fiore,” Catholic Encyclopedia

There are a lot of lose ends, and neither work is a complete overview. But from When the Church was Young I can at least ask the question. Patristics, despite being more dry, provides less depth

Reading Introduction to Patristics probably helped me re-encode information I already learned in When the Church was Young. It was not very long, and along with The Orthodox Christian Church helped orient me to better understand this stage of the Church’s history.

I read Introduction to Patristics in the Audible edition.