Early Church Studies

Listening to the past?

[Updated with inline images] How much is the present church listening to the early church?

More than we might guess, depending on what theological  echo-chamber we are in.

One way of attempting to answer this question is by asking how often our books refer to the people in the early church. Google Ngram has the answer. Below is a search for the names of various early Christian authors, graphed by year and percentage of references in books – you can click on the image to go to the original chart.


In the 1840’s we see a sharp spike. This correlates with the release of the English ten-volume “Ante-Nicene Fathers” set (still in publication and available for about $10 a book, and well worth it even though you can find them online for free in places like NewAdvent.org, Tertullian.Org, and searchable databases at Bible.ca).

Not surprisingly, the western church and Roman Catholic favorites top the chart. If you look back at the beginning of the chart, Origen was mentioned more than them in the late 18th century, but now is a distant fourth place. The three Roman Catholic powerhouses are certainly the more popular (although Augustine’s dip in the 1970’s is intriguing), so let’s remove them and focus in on the Eastern, pre-Nicene fathers, and less quoted fathers. (Note that we’ve also zoomed in the year-span on this one).


I have to say I’m surprised that Origen is so comparatively popular!

The thing that stands out to me most is that while people are starting to engage more with the early church fathers in the last forty years, we still aren’t quite engaging with them at the levels of 100 years ago. When we listen to mostly the current trendy preachers or popular mega-church pastors (from Rob Bell to Mark Driscoll, Rachel Held Evans to John Piper), and disregard the voices of ancient wisdom, we foolishly miss out on the depth of Christian thought that has stood the test of time.

That being said, this is an encouraging chart:


Here’s one last chart for your consideration:



Categories: Early Church Studies

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