This volume is the fourth in a new series of Westminster Handbooks to Christian Theology, and the second to appear in 2004 from the industrious pen of John Anthony McGuckin. Fr. McGuckin, an Orthodox priest, was the “editor” of the volume on Origen, and gave leadership to a team of scholars who covered every aspect of the life and work of that towering figure. But he is the sole author of this volume, whose 400+ entries range widely over the vast terrain of the first eight Christian centuries. McGuckin cherishes the hope that his book will offer a “coherent view of [the] history and theology” of the Patristic era, and his hope has been fully realized. One might hanker for the fuller treatment of the various subjects covered in the book, which a group of specialists laboring together on a huge tome might offer. But we already have such works available to us in the encyclopedias of Di Berardino, Quasten, and Ferguson/McHugh/Norris. McGuckin’s target audience are undergraduate and master’s-level students (and, presumably, those who teach them), who need a truly handy handbook, one which is portable and cheap, but which still addresses the “salient issues” of the period and cites the most important primary and secondary sources.
To aid his non-specialist readers, McGuckin has furnished some very useful front matter, including, among other things, a Thematic Guide to Reading the Handbook and a list of A–Z Entries. These, along with a nicely organized system of cross-referencing within the entries themselves, enable one to move around in the book swiftly and surely. In the Thematic Guide, for example, we are steered to all the entries pertaining to each century within the period [thus “Late First Century” references the entries on Docetism, Gnosticism, Apostolic Fathers, Didache, Clement of Rome, and Polycarp], and to all the entries pertaining to its dominant theological ideas [thus “Social Ethics” references the entries on Almsgiving, Marriage, Sexual Ethics, Sin, Slavery, Virtue, War, Will, Wealth, and Widows].
The text is crisply and charmingly written and demonstrates not only the extraordinary breadth of McGuckin’s erudition, but also his infectious enthusiasm for his subject matter. Consider, for example, the closing sentences of the entry on Jacob of Serug, a little-known sixth century Syriac theologian: “Only today are his poems and sermons beginning to be translated. He is a treasure largely still locked in a chest.” Such lines send one scurrying to the books—or in this case, the solitary book—listed immediately thereafter in the entry bibliography. This handbook would thus be an ideal companion for a college or seminary course on Patristics. Certainly it deserves a place on the shelves, not only of patrologists, but of those non-specialist academics and clergy who regularly teach courses in early Christianity. Highly recommended!