This 38-volume library of the works of the Early Church Fathers in the first few centuries of the Church is an invaluable resource for the serious student of Theology, and the Scriptures also, since many of the writings of the early Church Fathers are Biblical commentaries. Although this collection was compiled in the late 1800’s by Protestant scholars, it is still a primary English source for many of these works for scholars of all denominations.
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You can spend a lifetime studying these works, and it will much better for your soul than television. This vast library is broken down into three sections:
The Ante-Nicene Fathers ranges from the Apostolic Fathers to various third and fourth century sources including the liturgies and ancient Syriac documents.
Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series I: eight volumes of the writings of St. Augustine, the greatest and most influential of the early Fathers, as well as six volumes of the treatises and homilies of St. Chrysostom.
The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series II: fourteen volumes of the works of the Greek Fathers from Eusebius to John of Damascus and the Latin Fathers from Hilary to Gregory the Great. The Ante-Nicene Fathers represent the first primary sources of Christian history following the canon of the New Testament, and include writings from the Apostolic Fathers as well as various third and fourth century sources.
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These works include brief introductions and notes indicating variances in readings, references to scripture or literature, clarifications of obscure passages. They also note corruptions or distortions of patristic testimony (i.e., the Decretals). The basic aim of the translations has been to strive for literary exactness, placing the English reader as nearly as possible on an equal footing with those who are able to read the original.
The COMPREHENSIVE INDEX for all three series is found in Volume 10 of the Anti-Nicene Fathers series. This includes a subject index, an index of works sorted by the name of the Church Father, and an index of Biblical references cross referenced to their quotations in the writings of the Church Fathers. There is also a bibliography, which is less valuable since there has been much scholarship in the past hundred years.
QUALITY AND COMPLETENESS OF TRANSLATIONS
For the most part, the quality of the translations is acceptable. There were many translators involved, some translators were better than others. The writing style sometimes is convoluted, in many of my blogs I play with the wording to clarify it and make it more readable. On occasion you will encounter an archaic usage (i.e., speak leasing was synonymous with lying). Sometimes when the wording changes are minor I will keep the passage in quotes, sometimes when the editing or rewording is too extreme part or all of the passage is not in quotes.
The primary source of the Greek and Latin writings is the Patrologia Graeca and Patrologia Latina, collections of the Greek and Latin Church Father in their original language compiled by JP Migne from 1841-1866. When you see a footnote in the Catholic Catechism referring to PG, PL, or PLS, this is the collection they are referred to, the majority of these works cited will be included in Church Fathers library. Only a portion of the original Greek and Latin writings have been translated for inclusion in the Church Father series. Most of the commonly cited patristic works are included, except that the works of St Cyril and the Cappadocian Fathers, St Basil, St Gregory of Nyssa, and St Nazianzus are underrepresented.
For the better-known works of St Augustine and other important Church Fathers other more modern inexpensive translations are available, in particular the Confessions, the City of God, and the Trinity. An Orthodox scholar named Robert Charles Hill has released fresh translations of the works of John Chrysostom, including the Psalms which are not included in this library.
HOW TO READ THE ANCIENT CHURCH FATHERS
There were no editors in the ancient world. Very few ancient works were closely edited, the exceptions are the Homeric epic poems, the Platonic dialogues, and the St Augustine’s Confessions. Many of the writings, including most of St Augustine’s writings, were dictated to a scribe. This varies from author to author, we get the impression that Origen may have edited his works more than was typical. Most biblical commentaries, including those by St Augustine and St John Chrysostom, are transcriptions of actual sermons that the author may or may not reviewed.
These ancient writings are very uneven in quality. Sometimes the introductions to the works will include the manuscript history for the work. Usually the original copy of the work is lost in the sands of history, all we have are copies of copies of copies, with all the errors inherent when the copyists are careless: words or sometimes whole lines can be dropped, a word can be unwittingly substituted for similar sounding word, or a scribe can try to correct what he thinks is a copying error and corrupts the text more.
So, when a passage is unclear, maybe the passage was unclear when it was transcribed, or maybe corruptions crept into the text as it was copied over the centuries, or maybe a precise translation is impossible because the original meanings of the words are lost or the languages are just too different.
When reading the Church Fathers, it is helpful to know a little bit of the background of the history or the work, hopefully this blog will serve as such an introduction. One good example is the early Christian work by Irenaeus, Against Heresies. If you read this work without knowing the background of the work it reads like a rambling mess, but he decided many of the important theological questions of the early Church, including the exact role of the Old Testament in the Christian Church. When we get to this work we will use the collection of sayings compiled by Balthasar, he also commented on the ground-breaking thinking of Irenaeus.