Understandings of the Church

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Everett Ferguson
Ad Fontes: Early Christian Sources
  • Minneapolis, MN : 
    Fortress Press
    , September
     192 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Understandings of the Church, edited by Everett Ferguson, is a recent addition to the Ad Fontes series. It provides a helpful introduction to the literary imagery used by early Christian textual sources to describe the nature of the church.

The text is divided into twenty-seven chapters. The introduction lays out Ferguson’s interpretation of the sources, namely that early Christian materials emphasize the communal and corporate nature of the church in contrast to a modern, individualistic emphasis. The introduction also prepares the reader to encounter the range of imagery in the selections that follow, such as “building,” “mother,” “temple,” “boat,” and others. By highlighting this imagery, Ferguson concludes that the earliest Christian perspectives on the church were derived from scriptural language and related to important Christian theological doctrines.

The primary value of Understandings of the Church, however, is found in the twenty-six short chapters (ranging from two to twenty-four pages) which follow the introduction. Each chapter contains a brief introduction, followed by a series of selections from primary sources that speak to the nature of the church as envisioned by early Christian thinkers. The book’s source material includes selections that range from 1 Clement (early second century) to the corpus of Augustine’s writings (early fifth century). All of the selections chosen by the editor come from the perspective of orthodoxy.

While this introductory sourcebook is helpful, I couldn’t help but notice key absences in areas with which I am familiar. For example, the church is described in terms of an army with soldiers enlisted under rulers in 1 Clement (1 Clem. 37.1-3), but this metaphor is not included in the book. Further, heterodox opinions, though minor and limited, are also absent (such as Ptolemy’s Commentary on the Gospel of John Prologue wherein the church is disclosed by Jesus as a synonym for human beings). Of course, it must be noted that no brief introductory source book could include every reference to the church in the three hundred years that Ferguson’s text covers, so these oversights are not surprising, nor do they detract from the book’s value.

Ferguson provides for the reader a short and immensely readable compendium of original sources that serves as a helpful introduction to early Christian ideas. I have already found this text useful in my own research as I seek to gain a footing in the vast literature of early Christian ideas. Understandings of the Church provides a quick view of the prominent texts and thereby helps the reader determine where to pursue further research.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Patrick Stefan is a doctoral candidate in New Testament and Christian Origins at the University of Denver and Illiff School of Theology.

Date of Review: 
September 24, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Everett Ferguson is Professor of Church History Emeritus at Abilene Christian University. Past president of the North American Patristics Society, Ferguson has been coeditor or editor of the Journal of Early Christian Studies, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (2003), Recent Studies in Early Christianity (1999), and Encyclopedia of Early Christianity (1990). He is author of The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today (1997).


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