THE Reference Set for Early Church History: A Review of “Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity”

dmsthumbAngelo Di Beradino (General Editor). Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity, Produced by the Institutum Patristricum Augustinianum. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Academic, 2014. Volume One (A–E) xxxviii + 937 pp; Volume Two (F–O) xxxvi + 1020 pp; Volume Three (P–Z) xxxiv + 994 pp (cloth), $450.00 (set).

As a librarian one of the most frequent questions this reviewer receives is for a recommendation as to how a pastor might configure his library. My working principle over the years has been to emphasize “reference” as the core of a library. To find stock a library with sources of excellent articles on particular subjects that have been through a rigorous academic review (as opposed to Wikipedia or other popular online sources) is key for quick research for the busy pastor.

For many years there has been a significant need for a updated Patristic era reference, especially in English has existed. The 1992 English edition Encyclopedia of the Early Church (Oxford Press) was a straight translation of the Italian Dizinario patristico e di antichitá cristiane (Marietti, 1983–88). The Nuovo dizionario was completed in 2010. This edition represents more than a straight translation as the general editor, Angelo Di Beradino has overseen the addition of many new articles to a total of 3,220. All of the articles were revisited and updated. Di Beradino, for many years the director of the Hewitt Library at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA and is currently Professor of Patrology at the Augustinian Patristic Institute in Rome and has served as an editor for several other works including We Believe in One Catholic and Apostolic Church in the Ancient Christian Doctrine series (IVP 2012).

The three volumes roughly cover the era of AD 90 to 750. Consulting editor, Thomas Oden, states that the volumes cover, “key topics in early Christian studies with special attention to authors, texts and contexts of the first through eighth centuries” (ix). The articles range in length from a single paragraph to several pages. Owing to Di Bernadino’s skill as a librarian and researcher, this set is a model of reference organization and detail. The articles all have useful bibliographic references to introduce the reader to additional material. The only organizational criticism this reviewer would advance is the lack of “see also” notations to assist the researcher.

It is impossible to highlight all of the articles deserving of mention but a sample of notable articles would include Trapé on “Justification” (2:490–92) is an important read noting that the discussion of justification by faith was a dynamic conversation in the early church. Crouzel and Odrobina’s entry on “Celibacy of the Clergy” (1:478–79) is valuable in sorting out the development and geographic progression of this concept. The treatment of “Kingdom of God” (2:504–507) by dal Covolo and “Millennialism” (2:802–803) by Simonetti are excellent contributions. Filoramo’s “Eschatology” (1:837–40) is particularly helpful in detailing how the works of Origen and Augustine precipitated the shift in early church doctrine from literal to spiritualized concepts in eschatology. The lengthy entry on “Baptism” (1:321–26) has a very stimulating discussion on the “iconography” of baptismal scenes. The discussion of the early baptismal controversies, especially in the cases of the Novatians and Donatists, is quite helpful. Interestingly, there is no discussion on the issue of infant baptism or its development in the early church. Hanson’s “Creeds and Confessions of Faith” (1:630–33) is excellent, especially in the discussion of the evolution of “style” of creedal statements.

One of the longest articles in the set is the important discussion of “Preaching” (3:273–93). Federico Fatti details the homily, “used in reference to sermons in which exegetical interest prevailed” (3:274) and sermon, which “was used in reference to sermons on a theme” (ibid). He details the development of both substance and style in preaching and a fascinating discussion of the introduction of presbyters as preachers (3:284–86). Another fascinating discussion is the role that audience and congregation participation in the sermon in this era. Any studdent of preaching will benefit from this article, especially the extensive bibliography that takes four full columns.

The Encyclopedia of Early Christianity is highly recommended as a front line source for information on all aspects of the early church. The cost ($450 list) will be prohibitive to some individuals, but it is a must have for any seminary, training school, or other educational institution. Those specializing in church history will want to have this reference set within arms reach at their desk..