Summer Reading Recommendations on Christ and the Trinity Through the Eyes of the Early Church Fathers

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Gospel-centered parents and youth ministers know that Church History and Historical Theology (among other theological disciplines) would help strengthen and encourage teenagers’ faith in the historic gospel of Jesus Christ – if only we could figure out how to keep them from falling asleep at the mention of the word history! I suspect we might just have to accept that some young people (and some older people) will never take an interest in Church History of Historical Theology. However, this reading list provides a magical wardrobe entry into the mysteries of our triune God through the lens of the Early Church Fathers. The books recommended here will best serve older students (high school juniors and older) who have watched Lutheran Satire’s St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies, and now want to rightly understand, proclaim, and worship our triune God.

Life in the Trinity: An Introduction to Theology with the Help of the Church Fathers by Donald Fairbairn

If we want to better understand how to think about the Triune nature of God and the union of God and man in Jesus Christ, what better place to start than with the Early Church Fathers who gave us the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds, as well as the Chalcedonian Formula. But these ancient Fathers, their councils, and their way of thinking can be difficult to grasp. Dr. Fairbairn provides a guided tour, from an Evangelical and ecumenical perspective, that should spark an interest and ability to better grasp the wisdom of the Early Church Father’s.

On the Incarnation by Saint Athanasius with an Introduction by C.S. Lewis

After Dr. Fairbairn has whetted students’ appetite for and understanding of the Early Church Fathers, Athanasius’ work provides an excellent next step.[1] Athanasius challenges us to consider deeply how and why our Almighty God somehow wondrously became a man. His famous answer to “why” might shock readers: “He was incarnate that we might be made god (107 or section 54).”[2] He meant that no matter how hard we tried, we could never make ourselves perfectly righteous and holy. Therefore, since we couldn’t get “up” to God, he came “down” to us in order to forgive us, make us holy, and bring us into the life of the Trinity.

Let me try to assure you from personal experience that older high school students, especially those who are theologically minded, can handle this work with delight. A few years ago I read some of Athanasius’ more famous quotes from On the Incarnation with a group of high school students and had a very enjoyable discussion. Last fall, a theological reading group I participate in invited a thoughtful high school senior to join us for our discussion on this book. He understood and conversed about the theology of the book more clearly than several of the other members with master’s degrees in theology. Never underestimate teenagers!

On the Unity of Christ by Saint Cyril of Alexandria[3]

After Athanasius expands students’ understanding of why and how Christ’s became man, it’s a good time for Cyril of Alexandria to strengthen their ability to grasp the mystery of how Jesus could be fully man and fully God perfectly united. Let’s not allow our students to get stuck for the rest of their lives only being able to repeat the axiom, “Christ is 100% man and 100% God.” Instead, we can help them dive deep into the mystery of the unity of Christ! Cyril wants us to ponder why, “We must understand Our Lord Jesus Christ in one person. As the Word he is born divinely before all ages and times, but in these last times of this age the same one was born of a woman according to the flesh (133).”

The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity by Robert Louis Wilken

Now let’s take a break from the ancient writers, or at least their writing style that feels so foreign to us and to our students. Wilken’s book adds fuel to the fire for a deeper understanding of Christ and our Triune God. The First Thousand Years, provides a fuller context for Athanasius, Cyril, and other early important thinkers on the Trinity and Christ. Students will find especially important details around the Trinitarian and Christological controversies in Chapter 9, The Council of Nicaea and chapter 20, The Great Controversy over Christ.

Many of the great writings by the Early Church Fathers came about because of early controversial heresies (wrong beliefs) about Christ and the Trinity. Wilken insightfully notes, “It is tempting to romanticize the early Church and imagine a golden age of peace and harmony. In truth there was never a time, even in the first decades, that Christians had no differences (Kindle loc 785).” The same heresies that the Early Church Fathers contended with continue to pop up like whack-a-moles to this today. If teenagers better understand the history and responses to those ancient heresies, they will be equipped with good mallets for mole mashing!

Confessions of Saint Augustine

Despite the brilliance and profundity of Augustine’s writing, students might find his Confessions, which is often assigned reading in public schools, easier to read than all the other books on this list.[4] Many high school and college students have found a kindred spirit, friend, and spiritual father in Augustine. His complaints about school, confessions of sin, and thoughts about the deep things of God (Trinity and Incarnation) might make students feel as if he knew their very souls. Encourage them to soak in his friendship and wisdom: “For Thou has made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.”

Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

Lewis loved to read the Early Church Fathers, and older writers in general. No doubt, the wisdom he derived from them played a part in his ability to write so many wonderful books beloved by children, youth, and adults. Mere Christianity evidences Lewis’ familiarity with the writings of the Early Church Fathers on the Trinity and Christ—and I’m glad we could sneak it into this list. Apart from the Bible, this is the book that most impacted my faith as an eighteen-year-old. It has done the same for countless other high-school-aged men and women who have become hungry for the deeper things of God.[5]

The preface of Mere Christianity continues to move me to this day, and I like to read it with graduating seniors. In it, Lewis addresses the modern predicament of faithful Christians, who with the Early Church Fathers, rightly affirm the truths about our Triune God and Christ our Savior, yet find themselves in different rooms [denominations] of the house of Christian faith. Lewis’ thoughts on how to handle this disheartening reality speak to my heart, and the hearts of many other ecumenically minded brothers and sisters in Christ: “When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the whole house.”

If you have students who are ready for this kind of reading, share this list with them and then follow up throughout the summer to discuss what they’re taking away from these works. Remember to use any conversations you have around these books to point back to the Gospel of Christ crucified for our sins. It was this good news that moved all the writers on this list to offer up their gifts to help us better know and love our God.

Solis personis trinitatis gloria!

 

[1] In my opinion, it’s unacceptable to read any edition of On the Incarnation that doesn’t include C.S. Lewis’ preface—you must not skip it! Lewis famously offers this sound advice: “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.”

[2] The Early Church Fathers often frighten away contemporary readers because of their ancient, foreign to us, way of wording truths that all faithful Christians confess. This is another reason why I recommend reading Dr. Fairbairn’s work first. He orients and prepares the reader for the challenges they will face when they go to the primary sources.

[3] The SVS Popular Patristics series does an excellent job of providing helpful modern English translations. However, the writing styles of the Early Church Fathers, and of all those who proceeded us by more than a hundred years will always be challenging to us today. Presumably, those a hundred years after us will find our writings a bit tasking to tackle as well.

[4] Books ten through thirteen are not so easy to understand. If these chapters are too difficult, set them aside for some other time. Reading them is not as essential as reading books one through nine.

[5] Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the SBC, often speaks about how deeply Mere Christianityimpacted him as during a time of deep depression as a fifteen-year-old! See his article 7 Books That Changed My Life.

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