In the past dozen years or so evangelicals have been recovering the early Christian tradition thanks to books like D. H. William’s Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants and Bryan Litfin’s Getting to Know the Church Fathers. In one sense Nonna Verna Harrison’s recent book God’s Many-Splendored Image: Theological Anthropology for Christian Formation (Baker Academic, 2010) contributes to that recovery inasmuch as it is published on an historical evangelical press. Harrison herself, however, is not an evangelical but rather an Eastern Orthodox nun.
The book is interesting and can be useful to the reader. The book attempts to answer the question, what does it mean to be human? It does so by relying largely on early Patristic texts (especially the so-called Cappadocians Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzen) though it occasionally defers to more modern authors (especially in the chapter entitled “Arts and Sciences”). One of the book’s greatest strengths (using early Christian literature) also becomes one of its greatest weaknesses. Most of what Harrison references is available in English translation, including her own translations published with St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Therefore, one must ask, why read a book that oftentimes summarizes the teaching of early Christian authors when one can simply read those authors themselves. Unfortunately Harrison’s text is only mildly constructive and argumentative, relying more on overview. This is not too bad when one considers that many (most?) evangelicals have little exposure to early Christian texts but it is also unfortunate because modern Christians should be encouraged to read these early Christian authors not simply read about them.
Harrison divides her book into nine chapters, covering such topics as human freedom, spiritual perception, human dignity and embodiment. The chapters are mostly straightforward presentations of early Christian teaching but occasionally Harrison concerns herself with more modern concerns, such as the difference between the early Christian view of women and more modern understandings. The chapters frequently cite primary texts in translation and use quotations generously.
In my opinion the best way to read this book would be to read it alongside copies of the primary texts from the early Christian church that Harrison cites, using her chapters as introductions to themes while investing most heavily in the primary texts themselves. Given that I work in the primary-text driven Torrey Honors Institute this suggestion may not come as a surprise to readers of Scriptorium. Still, there is no substitute for reading the original texts. This book is a good pointer toward those texts and serves as a good introduction to some of them.