The Shoulders of Giants in ‘Getting to Know the Church Fathers’

The expression “standing on the shoulders of giants” has seen some use over the centuries, perhaps most famously by Isaac Newton, who said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” The idea is of building off a previous generation, or previous discoveries and experiences. You learn from the “giants” who came before you and paved the way for what you are discovering now.

I got this sense when I finished reading Bryan Litfin’s Getting to Know the Church Fathers, a look at 10 leaders in the church’s critical years of growth during the hey-day of the Roman Empire until Rome fell apart with its union. He recalls Polycarp and Perpetua, faithful martyrs for Christ. He tells of how Justin Martyr plowed the field of apologetics. He looked at the monumental work Origen and Augustine did in clarifying doctrine. These men and women weren’t perfect, but the record we have of them today is important to know (especially among Christians). We need to acknowledge the giants upon whose shoulders we stand on.

The reasons we should learn these names and read their accounts and works are numerous. But to name a few here:

  1. These people can inspire us with their courage and zeal in holding to and defending the faith. To see how they lived and died can be a source of inspiration and encouragement to stoke the fires of our faith.
  2. They made siginificant contributions to the church’s development and Christians especially should be curious to see exactly what they said and how their influence spread. Regardless of whether or not you agree with them 100% (you likely won’t), knowing what they believed will help navigate the waters of the church today.
  3. By learning about their individual lives, we also subsequently learn about the church’s growth. Litfin rightly connects developments in theological thought with what these men and women were thinking about. Much more is connected to these “giants” than you might initially think.

I would encourage you to find a copy of this book and give it a read, especially if you’re a Christian. The lives of these saints will challenge and edify you as you read about their lives. Come to know better the giants whose shoulders you stand on.

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