The Fathers of the Church: A Comprehensive Introduction

By Hubertus R. Drobner
Peabody, Mass. : Hendrickson (2007). 632 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Will Varner
19.1 (Spring 2008) : 114-115

This volume is the eagerly anticipated English translation of the author’s well-known German volume, Lehrbuch der Patrologie, published in 1994. Perhaps the title of the English should have been a straightforward translation of its German title: “A Textbook of Patrology.” The English subtitle creates difficulty for this reviewer. “A Comprehensive Introduction” is something of an oxymoron and does not represent what the book intends to communicate. After a review of what the volume delivers, a decision of whether or not the subtitle is an adequate description of the book will be possible.

Hubertus Drobner, Professor of Church History at the University of Paderborn, Germany, surveys post-canonical literature from the late first century through the seventh century. Though his treatment progresses in a generally chronological manner, he organizes the men and their messages by grouping them according to the themes which they share. Thus, under “Theological Controversies of the Fourth Century,” he discusses Nestorius, Cyril of Alexandria, Theodoret, and Leo the Great. He also tends to group Greek Fathers with Latin Fathers.

One of the great strengths of the English translation is the addition of a twenty-four page “Supplementary Bibliography” prepared by William Harmless, S.J., a professor at Creighton University. The bibliography consists of mostly English works on Patristics published since 1994, including a few from before that date that were not included in Drobner’s German edition. In this reviewer’s opinion, the extensive bibliographies found throughout the volume provide the greatest value. They direct to the published original language texts of the Fathers’ works, published biographies of them, and monographs and articles about their role and significance. In this regard it is a veritable goldmine for the researcher who wants to go beyond what Drobner himself tells about each of the Fathers whom he treats. It is in just that area—the actual description of the Fathers and their writings—that the English subtitle is misleading and the volume a bit disappointing. How can a work that includes only one or two pages (apart from the bibliography) about the lives and works of the majority of individuals included be in any sense “comprehensive”? It could be called an “introduction,” but it is in no way a “comprehensive introduction.” For Augustine, Drobner assigns sixty pages, while Jerome merits twelve pages, and Origen has eight pages of treatment. But is one page for First Clement and two pages for the seven letters of Ignatius sufficient? For this reviewer and other writers who have invested so much interest in the Didache, how can one be satisfied with two short paragraphs about this important little work that has spawned huge discussion since its discovery in 1873?

Furthermore, Drobner’s treatment has some omissions that are hard to comprehend. Two glaring examples will suffice. Where is any discussion of the life and works of the great Didymus of Alexandria, more commonly known as “Didymus the Blind”? Now that the Greek commentaries of Didymus on various OT books, discovered at Thoura, Egypt in 1943, are fully published, this relegation by Drobner to four scattered references is quite perplexing. Though Drobner’s two pages on the Shepherd of Hermas are compact and helpful, it is disappointing that he makes no mention of the new chapter numbering system for Hermas suggested by Molly Whittaker. This is especially problematic because her system is being adopted by many scholars as an improvement over the complex system used for many years.

The impression should not be that this reviewer questions Drobner’s scholarship or his familiarity with his subject. His enormously detailed bibliographies, supplemented by Harmless, indicate that he is fully informed about this vast and complex area of study. His volume will become THE source to be consulted for “further reading” about the Fathers. But if the reader is looking for an introduction to the thought of the Fathers that may justify that word “comprehensive,” he can be better served by the classic five-volume set by Johannes Quasten, titled simply Patrology. And if he wants an up-to-date treatment, he should consider the recent two-volume work by Moreschini and Norelli, Early Christian Greek and Latin Literature. The recent publication by evangelical Bryan Litfin, Getting to Know the Church Fathers, is helpful although he includes only ten of these great worthies, even omitting the giant Jerome in the process.

Perhaps the problem with this book can simply be traced to the publisher’s assigning of such a misleading sub-title that raises expectations too high.