The ‘motley crew’ who built up the Church

The Faith of the Early Church
By Nicholas Gregoris, New Hope, £15

Do the Fathers of the Church really know best? That is the question Nicholas Gregoris asks at the outset of this passionate book. His answer is a resounding yes. The thinkers of the early Church were, for Gregoris, an impressive bunch and he is pleased that their ideas have been faithfully transmitted through the ages.

The chapters in this volume began life as a series of short journal articles and, while the quality varies, the best are very interesting. Among much else, Gregoris provides pithy, if somewhat roseate, accounts of the first seven ecumenical Church councils; analyses the emergence of key doctrines and practices (from Petrine primacy to atonement for sin); and provides a detailed account of how the Bible turned out as it did.

The studies of early heresies are not always entirely reliable, but Gregoris is on firmer ground in his discussions of a handsome selection of the era’s theological luminaries. He is particularly good on figures who, for all their brilliance, caused their share of controversy both in life and posterity. He has a good line in understatement. Tertullian, we are told, sometimes became “a bit too radical” and offered “profound, albeit debatable, theological insights”. Origen had a “tendency to go to extremes”.

The book does not offer much in the way of new insights or original research, although the final chapter on Marian devotion and doctrine during the Patristic period rises well above the level of a predictable survey. Gregoris aimed at a worthwhile introduction to the early Church and the result might be particularly useful for students. The footnotes are extensive, there is ample citation from primary sources and the author works hard to place events in a broader cultural context. The sketches of the cities in which early Christianity evolved are particularly helpful.

Gregoris refers to the Church Fathers as a “motley crew” but his admiration for their enduring contribution is boundless.