It has been many years — far too many years — since the English-reading world has had a comprehensive, single-volume, academic textbook on the study of the Church Fathers. At last, it’s here, in Hubertus Drobner’s The Fathers of the Church.
Drobner is professor of Church history and patrology at the University of Paderborn, Germany. His text first appeared in German in 1994 and has since become a standard work. Drobner concentrates on the major figures of Christian antiquity, the saints and the arch-heretics, and he sifts as only a true encyclopedist can. Thus, the book will be useful not only as an introductory text, but also as a reference work — a handy source of names, dates, and places.
The Fathers of the Church is organized chronologically, in four sections: Apostolic and Postapostolic Literature; Literature of the Period of Persecution (Mid-Second to Early Fourth Centuries); Literature of the Ascending Imperial Church (Early Fourth Century to ca. 430); Literature of the Transition from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages (ca. 430 to the Mid-Eighth Century). Each of the sections is further divided according to controversies, genres, events, or historical currents. Within these divisions, Drobner profiles each of the major Fathers. A fifth section provides an overview of Literature of the Christian East, which surveys the Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic, Armenian, Georgian, Arabic, and Paleoslavic traditions — outside the dominant cultures of ancient Christianity.
There are excellent accounts of historical events such as the accession of Constantine, the Council of Nicaea, and substantial treatments of the development of the major Christian schools. Drobner examines the heresies in detail, and always as heresies rather than “alternative Christianities.” Drobner’s doctrinal frankness — his hermeneutic of faith — is refreshing and sets his work apart from the usual run of politically correct studies of early Church history.
The heart and soul of the book, though, are the profiles of the Fathers. Each begins with a biographical sketch before proceeding to overviews of the individual’s works, sometimes organized by genre, sometimes by theological themes. Each section is followed by ample bibliography, which is further supplemented at the end of the book.
History buffs and academics have long awaited this volume. The book arrived almost two years after its originally scheduled press date. It is clear that the extra time was well spent, as the Hendrickson edition is more than a translation. Some material has been updated in light of more recent scholarship. And the bibliographies have been adapted (by William Harmless, S.J.) to emphasize studies and texts available in English.
Drobner’s Fathers of the Church will, in some ways, take the place of Johannes Quasten’s multivolume Patrology, which is now many decades old. Drobner’s great virtue, however, is his only great shortcoming. To squeeze all of Christian antiquity into one volume — and call it an introduction — requires an heroic effort of compression. Inevitably, some saints get squeezed out; and history buffs and academics alike will take issue with some of Drobner’s de-selections (Prudentius?! Paulinus of Nola?!). But that’s part of the fun of reading a book like this.
So, despite the word “comprehensive” in the subtitle, students of patrology should still keep their Quastens close at hand for the small detail.
But thank God that Drobner’s well bound in hardcover, because it’s going to be well-used!