Learning Theology with the Church Fathers, by Christopher A. Hall, Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2002, 308 pp, paperback, ISBN: 978-0830826865
A pastor once said to me, “If you want information about God, books written in the last five years are great. But, if you want intimacy with God read books written at least 500 years ago.” He was drawing my attention to the fact that the authors of the first 1500 years of the Christian era wrote with a markedly different focus and depth than their more contemporary counterparts. For some, however, picking up a copy of Augustine’s Confessions or Chrysostom’s On Providence is a daunting task. Perhaps a modern book that interacts heavily with these classic texts is what is needed.
Christopher A. Hall is provost of Eastern University and dean of its Templeton Honors College, as well as associate editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. In the second of a multi-volume series, the author provides a primer on patristic writing that is accessible and powerful, extraordinarily deep and full of meaning yet very readable. In his second book on patristic topics, Hall presents ten theological subjects drawn from the Nicene Creed and interacts with the writings of a particular father on each subject. These writings are presented in large enough sections that one can appreciate the depth of the original writing, and are elucidated by Hall to bring their meaning home in ways that are clear and relevant.
The preface to the book affirms that “theology is at best broken speech about the transcendent, mysterious God”, and asserts in the words of Anthony Ugolnik that “mystery is what many contemporary minds hunger for; it is what they seek far afield, in the in the non-Christian realms . . . we [in the West] have mystery a plenty, yet our discourse avoids it.” He commits to overcoming the fears that many may have when reading the church fathers, promising that it can be as enjoyable as sampling a fine wine, with an invitation to enjoy the theological “flavors, textures, and nourishment that may well last a lifetime.”
In chapter one, Hall introduces the concept of a church father and then anticipates several poignant questions such as “why should we spend the time and effort to learn theology with the church fathers?”, “what was the role of heresy in the father’s writings and creation of church doctrine?”, and “Is theology really necessary?” (10) Interspersed with personal testimony, these questions are answered well and in a fashion designed to draw one into subject matter. In answering the first of these questions, Hall convincingly proposes that studying the church fathers ha the benefit of combating the “theological and ethical faddism and foolishness that marks too much of the modern Christian world”, revealing “melodies and harmonies in the biblical narrative that modern Christians fail to discern”, and rebuking “the tendency of us all to think that we are the only people who genuinely comprehend the truth and practice it faithfully.” (12-13)
The remaining ten chapters are divided topically with each focusing on one to three fathers’ writings to support the doctrine addressed. They are as follows: 2) Christ the Son, Begotten not Made, 3) The Mystery and Wonder of the Trinity, 4) Christ Diving and Human, 5) On the Holy Spirit, 6) Sin, Grace, and the Human Condition, 7) God’s Transcendent Providence, 8) God’s Wise and Loving Providence, 9) The Sacred Scriptures, 10) One Holy, Apostolic Church, and 11) The Resurrection of the Body and Life Everlasting. In these chapters are presented the arguments of Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, Cyril of Alexandria, Basil the Great, Irenaeus, Augustine, John Chrysostom, Cyprian, Polycarp, Justin Martyr and Athenagoras.
Though each of the chapters is a theme unto itself, replete with theological reflection and refutations of heretical alternatives, the over-arching theme of the book is the mystery of God, ineffable, inscrutable, and impossible to fully explain or comprehend. In fact, many of the fathers state implicitly or explicitly that there are many questions that ought not to be asked. For example, in chapter eight, he says that knowledge not only clams our fears, but serves to “curb our inquisitiveness” squelching the tendency to “indiscreetly inquire into things, nor be unduly concerned.” (192) Hall reminds us throughout that the fathers were acutely aware that not all inquiry into the things of God was fruitful or appropriate. In fact, Athanasius said that this was one of the key errors of the Arians – asking questions in the wrong way, or asking questions that shouldn’t be asked at all. (41)
Another seminal theme striking is found in chapter five, where we are encouraged to engage in theological contemplation. Recognizing the tendency of many believers to shy away from the minutiae of theological language, Hall quotes Basil to remind us that “we cannot become like God unless we have knowledge of Him, and without lessons there will be no knowledge. Instructions begin with the proper use of speech, and syllables and words are the elements of speech.” (104) This point, which appears to have been pervasive in the fathers’ writings, is a recurring reminder to be careful when employing theological language, as many misunderstandings and heresies have come out of the sloppy use of verbiage.
The themes mentioned above are woven together masterfully throughout the text, issuing an implicit challenge to be aware of the significance of the use of language when describing the things of God. They also remind us that human words and metaphor fall far short when describing the ineffable divine reality, but they are all we have. This serves as a challenge to recognize both the boundaries and the necessity of solid theological contemplation.
Hall’s book is a very engaging read, and would benefit pastors, seminarians, and any Christian interested in theological thought. It’s classic sources, timeless message, and contemporary relevance is a superb blend and delivers the theological feast it promises.
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