Summary: A history and guide to early church theologians, pastors and writers.
I am sorry if you are not interested in Christian History, I think I am going to be reading a lot of it this year. The resurgence of awareness of the early Church Fathers, not only in the more traditional liturgical church settings but in the Evangelical world has given rise to a number of good books about early Church history and the actual writings of those early Christians.
After reading John Michael Talbot’s mostly memoir-ish look at the early Church fathers I decided that I wanted a more history oriented book, but still introduction level. I have read fairly in depth about the early Church Fathers on the trinity, but not on much else. (Although I have read several other than Christian history survey books that cover the era.)
When the Church Was Young fits the bill well. D’Ambrosia is Catholic and writing this in part to encourage Catholics, but this is not an exclusively Catholic view of the early church. After all, at this point it was just the Church, the major splits were yet to come, although there were certainly lots of little splits. There were a few places where I think that D’Ambrosia made too much of a leap from ancient to current Catholic and I think he started referring to all Christians as Catholic earlier than the history warrants, but with those caveats, D’Ambrosia does a good job of giving context and history to the various Church Fathers and enough of a sense of their writing to feel like you are getting more than just survey history.
I have decided that it is going to take me a number of repeated reading to really get my history and understanding of the era down. This is probably my fourth quick survey of the era and each time I get more, but the historical names and theological terms and philosophical concepts do not roll right off the tongue, especially when there are a number of similarly named Fathers.
D’Ambrosia is not giving any controversial readings here. This is standard history that is supportive of Catholic doctrine. I think he, and Catholics in general, are mostly right especially on the importance of the eucharist, the trinity, and early church authority. But there are other areas where I am just not sure. Especially about the Eucharist, there was new insights and information. Much of the early church had a semblance of the Eucharist every day, if not in a full church gathering, then the members would take home portions and have them daily as a household. The full doctrine of Transubstantiation had not been developed by 600 when this book ends, but there was a sense of the ‘real presence of Christ’ that would be acceptable to most Christians today that was present in this era. As I have said on a few other occasions, I do think the lack of participation in the Eucharist is a weakness of the mega-church world that I attend. I understand why it is not done, but I still disagree with it.
D’Ambrosia ends with a helpful postscript about the fact that these Early Church Fathers are fallen humans, just as we are. Several of them wrote doctrine that was later defined as heresy, but I agree with him that it is important to understand where we are coming from. If you have read a fair bit of theology, then much of the rough concepts will be familiar as well as a number of famous quotes that have entered general culture, like the famous ‘When in Rome’.
Because I am still a Protestant, I am going to have to think more about how to think about the progression of theology. Much of what is here is the root of our current faith, including early church worship and the creeds, but some is fairly foreign and it is clear that we have moved away from what the early church thought on a number of issues. Still this is an introduction that is worth reading if you are interested in the subject.