In my seminary courses in church history, students often ask, “What are the best resources for studying the early church?” Many want to get started reading and researching the church fathers, but don’t know where to begin.
So below I’ve gathered a few general resources that I’ve found helpful.
I’ve tried to pick some of the more accessible volumes, while at the same time choosing those that are relatively comprehensive and cover the various historical, cultural, theological, and hermeneutical backgrounds of the early church.
Drobner is a great starting point for any study of the early church. It’s the handiest and most affordable introduction to the church fathers (what is also called a Patrology) in English. He gives a brief biographical introduction and survey of the texts and theology of every major patristic figure from the second century to the early Middle Ages. There are extensive bibliographies that help orient the student to the major texts, translations, and literature of each father of the church.
Though dated, this book remains a helpful and accessible starting place for the theology of the early church. Kelly sketches the development of Christian doctrines from the first century to the fifth. The book is organized, more or less, chronologically but still focuses on patristic theology, with chapters on the doctrine of Scripture, Trinitarianism, Christology, Anthropology, Soteriology, Ecclesiology, and Eschatology.
Ferguson is a great resource for any cultural or historical issue. He surveys the political, religious, and philosophical views of the Greco-Roman context that shaped the culture of the ancient world. The book focuses on the New Testament, but the same prevailing cultural factors continue to shape the patristic writers. Another recent publication and nice supplement to Ferguson is Early Christianity in Contexts: An Exploration across Cultures and Continents, edited by William Tabbernee. Tabbernee gives more attention to the important geographical and archeological backgrounds spanning the ancient world.
This two-volume handbook is a masterful survey of the use and interpretation of the Scriptures in the patristic period. The volumes can feel a bit cumbersome, as many reviewers have observed, but those who take the time to understand the structure and purpose will be justly rewarded. The cost, however, is prohibitive. So hopefully a student will have access to a local academic library willing to invest in a copy. For those who don’t, another more affordable alternative is the first two volumes of Henning G. Reventlow‘s History of Biblical Interpretation. While he discusses more than just the early church fathers, Reventlow details the major interpretive figures, hermeneutical assumptions, and exegetical methods of the early church.
There is no doubt that a thousand other volumes could be added to this list, but these texts are a good starting place. They will help introduce any student to the world of early Christianity and guide them on their initial journey into studying the early Church.