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