Thursday, June 09, 2011

Review of "The Fathers Know Best" by Jimmy Akin

"Catholic Answers" recently published a book attributed to Jimmy Akin entitled "The Fathers Know Best." It purports to be "Your essential guide to the teachings of the Early Church." The book does not provide any meaningful contribution to the study of patristics and little to the Roman-Reformed dialog.

Content in General
Part one of the book (pp. 15-93) contains an introduction to the book itself, some discussion of "the World of the Fathers," and some brief discussion of the authors, councils, and works cited in part two, as well as an identification of heresies.

Part two of the book (pp. 97-418) is the obvious focus of the book. It provides a series of topics, with a brief introduction (sometimes as short as a single paragraph, sometimes as much as about two pages) and then a collection of quotations allegedly on the topic.

Quality of the Content
The book has no significant interaction with viewpoints opposed to Rome's. There is virtually no interaction with respect to non-Roman understandings of the Fathers and there is little interaction with theological disagreements with Rome. The most significant interactions with non-Roman positions are found in the sections on reincarnation and the Anti-Christ, but even they are not particularly in depth.

There is almost no analysis of the fathers' writings. In general, the quotations from the fathers are simply presented without any individual explanation. There is an occasional footnote, but there is no detailed explanation provided as to why particular quotations should be understood to support the Roman position.

The selections from the early writings that are selected for the purpose of promoting the idea that the fathers and Rome taught the same thing. The result is not a representative picture of the fathers' writings. Odd patterns emerge when one reviews the quotations cited: St. Sechnall of Ireland gets quoted four times, but Gregory the Great gets cited only once.

Originality of the Content
Apparently there were no original translations provided in this work. The book acknowledges that part two is mostly a rehash of a column from This Rock magazine. Moreover, the content of that magazine has already been amalgamated on-line. Based on a cursory review, it appears that the on-line version may have slightly more quotations. In some cases, however, the translation selected for the book differs. In some cases, the exact end-points of the quotation differs, even if the translation is the same. The introductions to the material are expanded, and - of course - part one of the book is apparently new material.

Scholarly Character of the Content
In part one of the book, aside from an initial burst of citations to Scripture, citations in general are rare. The content of part one may or may not be accurate, but you only have Akin's word for it, in general.

In part two of the book, Scripture is sometimes cited and the Catechism of the Catholic Church is also sometimes cited. Occasionally a papal work, such as an encyclical, or similar source of Catholic dogma is cited and at least once or twice an encyclopedia, such as the New Catholic Encyclopedia is cited. Aside from those citations, citations to scholarly works are relatively rare.

Almost all of the citations (leaving aside Scripture and magisterial sources) are to J.N.D. Kelly. Kelly's Early Christian Doctrines, is cited on pp. 160, 175, 183 (2x), 256, p. 292-3 (3x), and 299, sometimes at considerable length. As with the quotations from the fathers, the quotations are selected based on what Akin believes is helpful, with the inconvenient comments from Kelly omitted.

Second to Kelley is Luther, whose Large Catechism is cited on p. 267 and whose Smalcaid Articles are cited on p. 412 (alongside the Westminster Standards in that instance). The few other cited authors are one-offs. Shirley MacLaine is cited on p. 399 and Geddes MacGregor is cited on that page as well. Ramsay MacMullen is cited on p. 359, and Timothy "Kallistos" Ware is cited at p. 138.

In all or almost all of these cases, the citation is provided with a quotation rather than simply being a citation to support an assertion allegedly grounded in the author cited. In fairness to Akin, I should point out that he provides citations to every one of his "More than 900 quotations" (I did not verify this claim) from ancient writings.

Merit of the Quotations
Whether the quotations support the point for which they are used is something of a mixed bag. Previously, we discussed an example of a misused quotation in this book. Perhaps in other posts, we will discuss other issues with other quotations.

It should also be pointed out that a lot of the quotations are not from fathers at all. Some of the quotations are from folks like "Pseudo-Ignatius," "Pseudo-Melito," and "Pseudo-John" as well as to anonymous works.

It's not surprising that I don't recommend this book. Although a significant amount of effort was doubtless put into improving the introductions and providing part one of the book, the effort didn't yield something particularly worthwhile. Instead, by and large the book is simply a collection of quotations that Akin seems to think are helpful to Rome's view of history.

Akin's approach is neither scholarly nor apologetic. He does not interact in a significant way with the Reformed objections to Rome's historical claims, and his collection of quotations is not accompanied by any serious in-depth examination of what the quotations say.

If one is looking for some new and interesting contribution to the field of patristics or Roman-Reformed dialog, one will be very disappointed by Akin's work. On the other hand, if what you want is a propagandizing quote book, you cannot shell out the money for the much better done Jurgens' set, and you don't wish to use the web site indicated above, then perhaps this book is for you.

Here's one quotation from Gregory the Great that you won't get in "The Fathers Know Best":

Gregory the Great commenting on Job 15:10:
But that those things which they [i.e., heretics] maintain they recommend to the weak minds of their fellow-creatures as on the ground of antiquity, they testify that they have ancient fathers, and the very Doctors of the Church themselves they declare are the masters of their school; and whilst they look down upon present preachers, they pride themselves with unfounded presumption on the tutorage of the ancient fathers, so that they avouch that the things they themselves assert the old fathers held as well, in order that what they are not able to build up in truth and right, they may strengthen as by the authority of those. See Library of the Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church, Gregory the Great, Morals on the Book of Job, vol. II, Parts III and IV, Book XII, Chapter 28, §33 (Oxford: Parker, 1845), p. 66.

Latin text: Sed ut ea quae asserunt commendare stultis mentibus hominum quasi de antiquitate possint, antiquos patres se habere testantur, atque ipsos doctores Ecclesiae suae professionis magistros dicunt. Cumque praesentes praedicatores despiciunt de antiquorum Patrum magisterio falsa praesumptione gloriantur, ut ea quae ipsi dicunt, etiam antiquos patres tenuisse fateantur, quatenus hoc quod rectitudine astruere non valent quasi ex illorum auctoritate confirment. Moralium Libri, Sive Expositio In Librum B. Job, Liber XII, Caput XXVIII, §33, PL 75:1002A-B.

P.S. Quote books have their place. However, quote books should provide something better than what is out there.

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