First Steps with the Fathers

The famous dictum of the revered Lancelot Andrewes on the sources of Anglican theology goes like this: “One canon, two testaments, three creeds, four councils, and five centuries and the fathers who wrote therein.” Most modern Anglicans have encountered the first three—the last two we’re a bit sketchy on. Myself included. I’ve never had a course in Patristics and I’ve got not one but two seminary degrees. (Neither of them were Episcopal schools, for the record—but both schools also had Anglican Studies programs. Even those seemed to be light on what I would consider a decent Patristic foundation.) So—in light of this, where do you start if you’re an Anglican and want to start encountering the Fathers?


[An aside—yes, “Fathers” is male. Yes, the “Mothers” were important too—but we have very few writings from them. When we talk about early church practice it may well be best to say Mothers and Fathers but as for the texts that have survived and come down to us through centuries of male copyists—then “Fathers” is accurate despite what we might want to say. And don’t worry—I’ve provided for the Mothers below…]  


Here are my first thoughts towards a more-or-less organized plan of studying the writings from the first five centuries that ground both Christian theology and—potentially—Anglican identity. I’ve found these things helpful as I’ve stumbled around and tried to get a sense of things myself. I’ll warn you, this list reflects things I’m familiar with so is skewed towards the Monastic West. I’d love to see some other suggestions especially from those better read in the area than me…


Start with:

  • John Cassian’s Institutes. This two part work gives first an overview of the lifestyle of Egyptian monastics, then teaches the grammar of the moral life—the eight vices and the virtues that overcome them.


Have on hand:

  • John Cassian’s Conferences
  • Jerome’s Letters

Read these two intermittently sprinkled through the rest of the reading, especially if you feel things getting kind of dry. Cassian’s Conferences should be read again and again and not necessarily in order—read what you need… Jerome’s letters are like spiritual cheese: they’re sharp, pungent, and give some great local flavor. That is, he often talks about the realities and details of life in the early church. Often his correspondents were women so here we get the best view I know of into how women lived and practiced Christianity during this time.(Here are your Mothers…)


Then go to:

  • Augustine’s Enchiridion (Handbook on Faith, Hope, and Love)
  • Cyril of Jerusalem’s Mystagogical Catechesis
  • Ambrose’s On the Mysteries
  • Vincent of Lerins’s Commonitory


Then branch out from there—especially to things like the sermons of Leo, Gregory, and Chrysostom. All of these things can be had for free from New Advent and CCEL.


Why these writings? Well, when you study literature or writings you have two options—read a survey about them, or read the works themselves. I don’t know a good introductory survey so here are the works themselves. Specifically, though, these works were intended by their authors to be introductory. Most of them are catechetical and therefore were addressed to regular Christians—often the newly baptized—not the religious professionals.


So—that’s my list. What are your thoughts?




11 thoughts on “First Steps with the Fathers

  1. D. P.

    Great list! And as for reading an introductory survey or the works themselves, I’m reminded of C. S. Lewis’ introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, where he argued for reading the classics themselves rather than modern books about the classics: “The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator.”

  2. Anastasia

    yah, you know….the mothers. it’d be nice if they were a more significant contingent but…well…they weren’t. Patristics is what it is. Let’s go with it.

    my observation–and this is just an observation–is that these are emphatically not the texts you’d be required to read in an introductory patristics course. Maybe you’d encounter some of them if the course were specifically on monasticism or ascetic theology but in general…no. I’ve only ever read some of what you list because I’m a weirdo and I insisted on doing catechesis and homilies in a directed study and on my own. Didn’t work out as a dissertation project. No one thought it was interesting.

    That’s before I got crazy and jumped ship into “paganism” but that’s a longer story.

    Most patristics courses (and I’ve had a few :)) are organized around specific controversies. Texts I’ve been required to read (some of them multiple times) that have been presented as being of some importance:

    Augustine De Trinitate

    Athanasius On the Incarnation but also Orations against the Arians

    Gregory Nazianzen Theological orations

    Gregory of Nyssa Against Eunomius

    Origen On first principles

    Basil of Caesarea On the Holy Spirit

    Of course, I’ve also had classes on ascetic theology and on christology specifically. In the former, we read some of what you list, in addition to the sayings of the desert fathers and the life of syncletic and Athanasius’s life of anthony. Oh, and the life of daniel the stylite, which I love. In christology, I had to read Cyril of Alexandria, Nestorius (kill yourself now…), Teddy the mop, Jacob of Serug and Philoxenus of Mabbug (ummm who? is probably the right response to those last two and if you’re interested, this is one case I’d suggest the book about them in addition to the texts themselves–Three Monophysite Christologies).

    That’s not all, just off the top of my head.

    Okay, all of that said, I think the fact that your list differs from what’s typical in patristic is indicative of a problem in patristics: the tendency to focus on theological controversies that have been deemed important to doctrinal development and the establishment of the theological/philosophical categories of Christan thought after the fact RATHER THAN texts that reflect or were important in terms of the practices of the early Christian communities. I’m not saying the polemics weren’t important at the time. Doubtless they were. But at the same time, they weren’t the whole stuff of Christian literary or theological output.

    Our vision is slightly skewed. Ergo, we read Gregory of Nyssa, who was almost never read in antiquity, and ignore John Chrysostom, who was regarded as one of the most important orators and theologians of the era in his own time.

    So…that’s to say…I actually think it’s a good list. :)

    ps You’ve read perpetua, right? Most recent work suggests she actually did write her portion of that text. she’s a mother, I guess.

  3. JP

    Instead of the Enchiridion, I’d suggest dipping into some of Augustine’s sermons, such as the ten Homilies on the First Letter of John or the Explanations of the Psalms. They’re generally fairly short, and you get a real sense of a pastor engaging with the practical issues and concerns of the people under his care.

  4. LutherPunk

    I would also insert Augustine On Christian Doctrine, which is a great summary, and is relatively short. Perhaps Evagrius, Chapters on Prayer. Also, I think for people coming into the church, Justin Martyr is a good first read, if for no other reason than to demonstrate the faith of the early church in a simple way.

    I confess to being a little puzzled by Jerome’s Letters as a first introduction. They are interesting and would be a good text to be taught, but as context is everything, I think a person reading them would really need a nicely annotated edition.

    One of my favorite books has been The Teachings of the Church Fathers, edited by John Willis, a Jesuit. It has excerpts from the fathers arranged topically.

  5. Annie

    My thoughts? How much a adore and appreciate you!

    And, no, I never like digested history. I like it straight. Jerome is one I have encountered. My son chose him as my patron saint.

    As much as I’ve been to New Advent, I hadn’t discovered that!

  6. Derek the Ænglican

    Lots of great thoughts… Yes, Anastasia, this is more like an ascetical theology syllabus than doctrinal disputes. And you’re right–I think that is the wrong way to go about it. In that senario the Fathers ar important only in so far as they apply to modern theology. But I like them in their own right.

    LP & JP, both good suggestions. I a fan of all of those (was reading ExpPss in the DMV yesterday…). I’d still rank the Enchiridion ahead of them, though, because it fits in better with the others: it’s Augustine’s own introduction to the heart of Christian practice. And imho a much better option than his writing on catechesis, the first part of which is way too long and boring…

    In pulling out Jerome I’m thinking of the colorful vignettes of Christian life he offers. He breathes life and fire into the early Christian world in a way that few others do.

  7. Jane Ellen

    I did not have a course in seminary specifically labeled “Patristics;” but we read various of the above in early Church History, and a couple of Theology courses, and also had a bit of exposure in Preaching.

    I would heartily agree with adding Augustine’s De Doctrina (great stuff!), and spending time with Justin Martyr. I’d also suggest that reading the Cappodocians (Basil and the Gregs) gets you partial credit for a mother, via their acknowledged debt to their sister Macrina’s teaching and influence.

  8. LutherPunk

    Anastasia – you are not the only one. I have met a few other folks who think he could be safely skipped over.

  9. Derek the Ænglican

    That’s partly where my monastic bias comes in. I think the philosophers sometimes get too…philosophical. Not that that isn’t needed at points but that it often gets quite divorced from Christian practice.

    I suppose it could be framed this way–I see the monastic strands of the Fathers as being heavily influenced by Stoic moral philosophy whereas a (Middle/Neo)Platonism seems to ground some of the others. I’m more in tune with the Stoic strands partly because I see that encoded into the message as we receiving it from the writings of the NT. Paul, Jude, especially Second Peter have what I consider Stoic signatures.

    I haven’t read much Justin Martyr and don’t remember it terribly well but I would expect a more Platonic version of the faith from him as a converted philosopher. Is that accurate?

  10. Anastasia

    that’s more or less it, as I recall. As apologists go, I really prefer Athenagoras of Athens but that’s because I kind of have a fixation with Athens (no, really?) and because while he’s philosophical, he’s also trying to fit christianity into the cultic realities of the late ancient world, not just place it among the philosophical schools. He’s also addressing marcus aurelius, so the neoplatonic tack is not his best bet.

    I agree with what you have to say. It’s another problem with patristics that knowledge of neoplatonism is considered sufficient to understanding the rest of late ancient religion and thought.

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