This is the second edition of Boniface Ramsey’s Beginning to Read the Fathers, originally published in 1985. Ramsey has rewritten parts of the book—and expanded its bibliography—to reflect the scholarship of the intervening twenty-five years. His entirely new introduction highlights scholars’ increased awareness of the complex relationship between “orthodox” and more “heterodox” movements in early Christianity. And Ramsey’s book presents a range of viewpoints thoughtfully, including those of thinkers later labeled as “heretics” by “the Great Church.”
Ramsey’s book is organized thematically, with sections on such topics as “God,” “Scripture,” and “Prayer.” In each, he provides a brief summary of the relevant historical context, followed by a thoughtful, and readily accessible, overview of the topic, as it was discussed in the early centuries of Christianity. Although most of his focus is earlier, Ramsey draws on theology as late as the 7th and 8th centuries, from Maximus the Confessor and John Damascene.
For each theological topic, there are extensive quotations from primary texts, in most cases from both Eastern and Western theologians. For those who may not have the time to embark on a thorough study of patristics, Ramsey presents seminal passages in a well-organized and balanced fashion and allows his readers to hear the voices of the Fathers, rather than exclusively his own. As he admits, Augustine and Origen play a significant role in his book, which, as he notes, is commensurate with the strong influences they exerted on the theological traditions of the Western and Eastern churches.
Because of the thematic organization of Ramsey’s book, it would be a useful tool for professors of systematic theology courses on Christology, Trinitarian theology, or theological anthropology. His chapter on Christ, for example, outlines patristic discussions of how to make sense of the incarnation, giving a short overview of the theologies and related controversies associated with the Docetists, adoptionists, Arians, Apollinarians, Nestorians, monophysites, and Chalcedonians. He then explores Christ’s solidarity with humanity, the significance of the cross, the transformative nature of the incarnation for creation, and the meaning that patristic theologians drew from the images of the east, the physician, and the teacher.
Throughout the book, Ramsey manages to convey both the rich diversity of discussion in the early church and the prayerful concern shared by patristic theologians, always carefully reading the patristics in the context of their own world. At the same time, students reading the book today may find themselves entering into discussion with the passages quoted from the 4th and 5th centuries, particularly in the section on poverty and wealth.
Ramsey ends his book with a suggested “patristic reading program” and a select bibliography. As he says, both are representative lists, intended as an introduction. The reading program would be very helpful to a student just beginning to read early church theology. Ramsey provides a short description of each work, listed chronologically, and suggests editions for the texts in translation. He even includes an internet address where students can access many of the resources electronically. Although Ramsey’s bibliography points out where readers can find the patristic texts in their original languages, there are almost no references in the original languages in his own book. Ramsey very intentionally presents patristic theology in a way that will be comprehensible to readers with a variety of backgrounds. In allowing the “Fathers” to speak without scholarly interruption, Ramsey has done a service to the theological community.