Book Review: Learning Theology With The Church Fathers

Christian theology was largely developed out of necessity in response to heresy. Accordingly, it makes sense to study it in light of the major debates and contexts in which it was formulated. Learning Theology with the Church Fathers by Christopher Hall takes just that approach by combing patristics and theology. While the book is not an exhaustive treatment of either subject, it is a sampling from the formation of the principle divisions in systematic theology.  It is one leg of an introductory series of three; the other two are Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers and Worshipping with the Church Fathers. Hall is a member of the Episcopal Church (Anglican) and is chancellor of Eastern University in Pennsylvania.[1] His theological leanings seem to lean slightly toward the liberal and some of his ideas might spark controversy in conservative Baptist circles. This presentation will first give a broad overview and summary of the book, and then it will offer several key points of analysis. The first point of analysis is the importance of language, which naturally leads to an analysis of some problematic terms. Finally, God’s providence will be discussed in terms of an eschatological theodicy. The paper will attempt to show that the book is a valuable survey of patristic thought and the language and terminology which formed the major doctrines of classical Christianity.

Brief Summary

First, Hall lists four key criteria as to how the term Church father is defined: Antiquity (A.D. 96- 750), holiness of life, orthodoxy, and ecclesiastical approval.[2] The value of a study like this is supported by his discussion of the concept of hermeneutical proximity. The early Fathers were closer to the time of the New Testament’s composition, hence their worldview and language was closer to that of its authors. It follows that this proximity in thought gives them some advantage in exegesis. As modern students know, considerable effort in exegesis is devoted to Bible backgrounds or understanding the authors’ context. Whereas we must reconstruct context through historical investigation, the Fathers were still within recent memory of that context to a large degree. Some modern scholars would do well to consider that.

The book takes a topical approach as it moves through major doctrinal areas. It is important to note that foundational to all Patristic theology is the Nicene Creed and a substantial portion of all subsequent debate reflects back to it. Accordingly, the second chapter’s focus is Christology seen through the Arian controversy and subsequent debate between Athanasius and Arius. A principle term in this debate was “Father.” Hall chooses to focus on the deity of Christ yet he takes an unexpected side excursion which will be addressed in the critical interaction section. He then turns to the trinity which highlights the question of theological language in its discussion of homoousios and its alternates. Gregory of Nazianus’ theological orations and Augustine’s writings serve as an excursion through the early Trinitarian issues. Nazianus’ crucial hermeneutical principle was that all language implying the son was begotten or made refers to his incarnation not his ontology.[3] Augustine’s formulation is perhaps the most coherent in theology and is well placed in this chapter. The book moves back to Christology and then to Pneumatology.

Cyril of Alexandria serves as the guide through a discussion of Christ’s dual natures. Framed against his debate with Nestorius the pertinent issues are revealed. Hall gives fair treatment to both sides of the debate and it seems that Nestorius was a victim of his own personality as much as his ideas. Basil’s work, On the Holy Spirit, is the vehicle for the discussion of the Holy Spirit. It highlights issues of grammar and language as well as delineating the boundaries of human reason. The book progresses to soteriology and God’s providence.

Chapter six on sin, grace and the human condition is discussed first through the thought of Irenaeus and then in terms of the debate between Augustine and Pelagius two centuries later. Irenaeus’ thought seems strangely close to that of Pelagius yet Hall explains why this is an oversimplification. Chapter seven begins an examination of God’s providence through the lens of John Chrysostom’s On Providence. The term proairesis is discussed as human freedom of choice or intention. Chrysostom is a giant of a figure in Christian intellectualism. His formulation of the Christian philosopher still seems relevant in a modern context. The book addresses bibliology, ecclesiology and eschatology in the final three chapters.

While biblical interpretation and language issues are crucial to the discussion of every issue and father in the book, chapter nine on the scriptures focuses on the thought of a single father, Irenaeus. Crucial questions addressing the claims of Gnostics, apostolic revelation, hermeneutics and the coherence of Old and New Testaments are addressed. The chapter on ecclesiology ponders issues of church membership, authority, sacraments and heresy. Hall examines these issues through the thought of three different fathers: Irenaeus, Cyprian and Augustine. The final chapter identified here as eschatological focuses on the concept of resurrection. The connection between Jesus resurrection and the hope of the believer is framed through the thought of the apostolic fathers, apologists, the work of Athenagoras and finally Augustine. In the end, Hall concludes that although today we only see as through “a glass darkly” through the theology of the church fathers we get a glimpse of God’s glory.

Critical interaction

An idea the book accentuated particularly well was that often the great debates were centered on the use of language and how theological terms are defined. Hall uses a quote by P.C. Hanson which is especially helpful as an apologetic for theology, “The theologians of the Christian Church were slowly driven to a realization that the deepest questions which face Christianity cannot be answered in purely biblical language, because the questions are about the meaning of biblical language itself.”[4] The issue of language and terminology is fundamental to theology and has collateral impact on future doctrines. For instance, the issue of Christ’s natures centers on a term describing Mary, theotokos, meaning “God bearer.” While the issue was overtly the divinity of Christ, it seems odd in that it puts the focus on Mary rather than Christ. Perhaps this sort of language contributes to later errors in Roman Catholic theology such as Immaculate Conception or the Assumption of Mary? Regardless, the way theologians use language is of the utmost importance.

Hall frames the discussion of the Arian controversy in the terms “Father” and “Son” which takes an unexpected turn toward why the term “Father” is problematic for modern abuse victims. One can readily understand that the title is problematic for people in ways that are not immediately obvious from an academic perspective. Of serious concern is that this issue is particularly pertinent to modern feminist theologies and with those who advocate acceptance of active homosexuals into the church. Hall seems somewhat sympathetic albeit from a pastoral perspective. He discusses the negative connotations the word “Father” can carry for abuse victims. Hall concludes, “I also think Athanasius would emphasize that words such as Father and Son are models that the Scripture uses to describe relationships that are in reality indescribable or ineffable.”[5] Does this mean modern translators are free to dispense with them? Of course, these issues are often thornier than we first realize. Still yet, the biblical terms should be retained just as used in inspired inerrant scripture. Radical feminists and homosexual advocates adopt a stance based on this sort of issue that is against the inspiration and authority of scripture and that is irreconcilably inconsistent with the historic Christian faith.[6] God’s three persons are ubiquitously represented as male in scripture. Hall makes a valid point in that one should be sensitive yet there is indeed a place to hold theological ground as well. Even so, it is important to recognize how context clarifies language.

Context frames the discussion of how, at first reading, Irenaeus’ concept of human choice seems surprisingly like that of Pelagius. However, Hall argues that it only seems that way because of our retrospective view. While this is a valid point, it still seems that Irenaeus’ view gives too much credit to man’s ability. Even so, Irenaeus is not in debate with Pelagius rather Gnostics who deny any goodness in creation and believe that man is utterly incapable to responding to God. In contrast, Pelagius was on the polar opposite of the spectrum and Hall argues the debate with Augustine must be understood in a different context. It also seems fair to credit Pelagius with Hall for viewing the inherent goodness of creation by God as the vehicle in which man was free to choose the good. Thus, it seems to be commonly held over simplification to accuse Pelagius of teaching that man could do this solely of his own accord because he indeed credited the initial good to God. Even so, Pelagius thinks the original sin only affected the human race in the way of a bad example whereas Augustine sees it as an inherited sin nature.  The Apostle Paul’s argument in Romans 5:18ff is decidedly in favor of Augustine. One’s thinking should be so molded by scripture rather than sentiment.

In the discussion of Chrysostom‘s concept of the Christian philosopher, it is argued that one whose thinking has been molded by the Gospel will reserve judgment on outward appearances of divine injustice. This argument has some force because all too often the “problem of evil” is presented as a defeater for God’s providence. Yet, as in the life of Joseph, what is meant for evil can ultimately be used by God for good (Gen 50:20). Still yet, it seems misguided to assume that one can always derive a “greater good” by moral calculus. It requires faith and patience. Hall frames Chrysostom‘s  thinking as, “They [Christians] will understand that the events of this life in themselves are indifferent matters and take on the character of good or evil according to our response to them.”[7] This seems wise as one cannot dictate one’s circumstances but can choose how to respond to them. In his discussion of God’s love, Hall makes an apt analogy between Chrysostom’s thought and that of C.S. Lewis who argues that people define love incorrectly in terms of happiness. A common canard of the skeptic is “Because we see so much suffering, God either does not exist or he does not love.”  Yet, the skeptic’s argument is short sighted and selfish. Chrysostom reminds us that not only has God taken on suffering himself in the incarnation but that we are all still in process. God’s love must be viewed in terms of the end goal not the moment. Ultimately, God’s providence is incomprehensible and human reason is drastically over estimated by most. In fact, it is argued that the problem of suffering and providence is derived by a misuse of reason. Hall offers, “We must also remember that God often acts providentially in light of long term goals, goals often not discernible or apparent in the context of this life alone.”[8] In pursuit of a theodicy, the greater good is more than often eschatological.

There is no doctrine more central to the Gospel and yet more scoffed at by liberal theologians than the bodily resurrection. While liberals will allow for a spiritualized version they seldom side with Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 where he unequivocally argues for a literal bodily resurrection of Jesus and for believers upon his Parousia (1 Cor 15:12 ff).  Hall quotes Clement of Rome, Ignatius and Polycarp who all held to a physical resurrection. Yet, we learn that the objections of modern liberals are nothing new. The classical Greco-Roman mindset favored a spiritual resurrection as well. In sharp relief, Polycarp did not mince words labeling those who deny physical resurrection as “the first born of Satan.”[9] Justin makes an astonishingly prescient argument from the concept of human seed that it is possible to form the whole person.[10] Of course, modern science has shown that DNA in fact holds a complete record for each person’s body and it now seems quite reasonable to think that God has that record at his disposal. Athenagoras even addresses the issue of a person whom has been entirely consumed by a shark by appealing to God’s inexhaustible knowledge and power. He presents an amazingly cogent argument that seems quite feasible given today’s knowledge of biology. Theophilus of Antioch concurs that given the trustworthiness of God, we can rest assured the he will reconstitute body and soul at the resurrection. Augustine agrees arguing that, “All parts of the body are already latent in the seed, although a number of them are still lacking even at birth, the teeth, for instance, and other such details.”[11] Long before the discovery of DNA, the fathers saw the potential in God’s design.

The fathers are also in wide agreement on the ethical necessity of the resurrection. For ultimate justice, there must be a judgment and for it to meaningful all parties must be accounted for at the trial.  As the contemporary philosopher William Lane Craig has argued, life is indeed absurd without God. He writes, “With no hope of immortality, man’s life leads only to the grave. His life is but a spark in the infinite blackness, a spark that appears, flickers, and dies forever.”[12] Athenagoras continues the train of thought, “It is necessary that such a man [made up of body and soul] should be held accountable for all his deeds and receive reward and punishment because of them.”[13] Similarly, Augustine points to Daniel 12:1-2 and argues that the veracity of either blessing or damnation necessitates a resurrected state.[14] Indeed, divine justice in terms of the classical Christian faith is contingent upon bodily resurrection. The apostle Paul left no doubts, “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Co 15:14).  As Craig concludes and the church fathers agreed, life is absurd without God.

Conclusion

This paper offered a summary and analysis of Christopher A. Hall’s Learning Theology with the Church Fathers. After offering a brief summary, the paper sought to illustrate the value of the book by showing how the author framed the formation of the principle doctrines of the church in light of patristic debates and their use of language. The relationship between these points was shown. Criticism was offered in that the author’s theological leanings seem somewhat sympathetic toward theological liberalism. However, overall his treatment was even handed and in line with traditional evangelicalism. The book succeeds in what it set out to do. It is not represented as an exhaustive treatment of theology or patristic thought, rather an introductory survey. In the end, it seems that these points support the idea that the book a valuable addition to the students’ library.

 


[1] “Dr. Chris Hall Installed as First Chancellor,” Eastern University http://www.eastern.edu/news/releases/2008/chris_hall_chancellor_090308.html (accessed 6/16/2011).

[2] Christopher A. Hall, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers, Kindle Edition (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2002),  Kindle Location 142.

[3] Ibid, Kindle Location 740.

[4] Ibid, Kindle Locations 589-590.

[5] Ibid, Kindle Locations 502-503.

[6]  N. Hoggard-Creegan “Feminist Theology,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology: Second Edition ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 447.

[7] Hall, Learning Theology, Kindle Locations 2113-2114.

[8] Ibid, Kindle Locations 2254-2255.

[9] Polycarp, The Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians, 7.

[10] Hall, Learning Theology, Kindle Locations 3216-3217.

[11] Augustine, City of God, 22.14.

[12]  William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith : Christian Truth and Apologetics, Rev. ed. (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1994), 57.

[13] Hall, Learning Theology, Kindle Locations 3279-3280.

[14] Ibid, Kindle Location 3299.

 

About Cris Putnam
Logos Apologia is the ministry of Cris D. Putnam. The mission of Logos Apologia is to show that logic, science, history and faith are complementary, not contradictory and to bring that life-changing truth to everybody who wants to know.

Comments

  1. Jamie says:

    I would be very careful in evaluating the doctrines of the church fathers. They were anti-semetic in their thinking and threw out many of the promises of God to His people Israel because of their rejection of Jesus as Messiah. Through their theology have come many persecutions of the Jewish people and the idea of “Replacement Theology”. They did not understand as we now do that God is not done with His people the Jews and will only return when they nationally receive Him as Messiah and declare, “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord” which they will do at Petra (Bozrah) at the end of the Great Tribulation (Matt. 23:39).That is why the enemy continues his persecution and desired destruction of the nation Israel and the Jewish people. May He come soon!

  2. Chris:

    A fine review of Hall’s work, but you might be interested to know that it is being submitted as the work of other students. I have one this term who has copied this review verbatim and turned it in as his own. I will leave it up to you as to whether you should take it down or not.

    Dr. Tomlin
    Assistant Professor of Church History
    Faculty Instructional Mentor

    • Cris Putnam says:

      Dr. Tomlin,

      I feel no need to take it down. It should not be a temptation for an honest student. It doesn’t seem like I am in anyway responsible for their dishonesty. There are book reviews of most any book available on the internet somewhere. Perhaps this is the Lord’s way of weeding them out?

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