Learning Theology with the Church Fathers

Authored by Christopher A. Hall

Critiqued by Kathy L. McFarland

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Learning Theology with the Church Fathers. By Christopher A. Hall. Downers Grove, 111.: InterVarsity Press, 2002. 307 pp. $18.00 paper.

A simple, but profound observation of many present-day Christians’ efforts towards personal exegesis of Scripture without theological foundations reveal part of the motivation of Author Christopher A. Hall and his intended audience in Learning Theology with the Church Fathers:  “We are not the first Christians to read Scripture.”[1] The first readers were the early church fathers, great theologians of their time, who wrestled with issues that developed as Christianity was beginning, struggling with finding answers to probing questions concerning the Incarnation of Christ, the Trinity of three Gods in One, the Providence of God, the holy Apostolic Church and the mysteries of God revealed to the faithful.  There is no need to reinvent the wheel according to the presentation by Hall; these early church fathers are working pastors living lives of faith and deciding important theological issues based upon their strong Christian faith and their close knowledge of Christ’s teachings due to their hermeneutical proximity to His disciples.[2]

Author Christopher A. Hall is the associate editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, chancellor of Eastern University and dean of the Templeton Honors College. He could have easily written an authoritative textbook with higher level criticism and deep theological arguments that would be difficult to understand except for the dedicated graduate students; instead, he writes a book that encourages Christians to learn some of the general foundational reasons established first by the Patristic Theologists.  Surely surprising to many armchair Bible interpreters and those uninstructed in deep dish theology is Hall’s assertion that these early patristic theologians dealt with topics that seem contemporaneous and exclusive to 21st century Christians. One example he gives concerns the same premillennial perspectives (without dispensational leanings) occurring today that are the same speculations spoken by Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyons, whose modern premillenialists ideas were once challenged by Augustine.[3]

A contemporary issue that still befuddles many Christians is the concept of Trinity. The author begins his discourse on this subject with the arguments circulated in the modern era by philosophers Immanuel Kant and Thomas Jefferson and gives us quick understanding of the circular reasoning that confuses matters of faith when the LORD God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit are not fully understood.  Hall points to the tremendous scholarship and careful exegesis of Scripture by the early fathers, in particular Gregory of Nazianzus[4] and Augustine[5] that enables them to form solid conclusions concerning the things associated with the Trinity.  While modern man can confuse each other with different interpretations of this complicated issue, the early fathers work through the arguments, and develop the understanding of Trinity through solid scriptural study.

Using a strict methodology, the fundamental building blocks concerning God are arranged by Gregory as he balances seemingly insurmountable ideas to determine God’s universal realm and nature from eyes of human beings which are restricted in their view of Him. Augustine forms philosophical ideas of memory, understanding and will as symbols attuned to the Trinity in a deep typological contemplation. If only Gregory’s scholarship were fully known, and Augustine’s philosophy fully explored, the understanding of God’s Word might be more progressive today as the need to rehash that which is already known is completely eliminated.

That knowledge, however, is not fully provided through Learning Theology with the Church Fathers. Hall whets the appetite for further study; but, his book is not a scholarly reference that can replace the detailed textbooks in educational institutions.  It is a beginning, an introductory book that stirs learners to move to more detailed theological textbooks that provides fuller historical, exegetical, and theological explanations.  It is that lack of full scholarship that most published reviewers of this book mention; but, when one considers it is mostly graduate theological students writing the reviews then their bias might be skewing them. One reviewer speaks of his frustration that Hall fails to address historical context as he indicates that the Trinity and divinity of the Son of God were not a problem for the early church in the third century.[6] However, if Hall were to include the full details of the struggles associated with the Trinity, like a detailed accounting of the Arian controversy, the book would become a textbook and unreadable by the majority of Christians who would benefit most from the introduction to the early church fathers’ works.

Modern Christians are becoming more associated with the “Jesus Movement” teachings every day, as the older generation of diligent church goers begins dying out.  According to Hall, its crippling spiritual aspect was a “drastically shortened exegetical perspective, a theological and historical amnesia that continues to trouble sectors of the evangelical world.”[7] It is the modern Christian who uses the techniques of self-teaching, and personal exegesis that needs the information Learning Theology with the Church Fathers imparts.  They need insight into Irenaeus’ responses to the Gnostics about sin and grace, and exposed to arguments between Augustine and Pelagius that help to show the development of belief concerning matters of will, choice and words to express them based upon solid Scriptural analysis.[8] They need to understand Chrysostom’s views on Providence that tries to answer why suffering exists, [9] and forms a basis of belief that relies upon the proairesis of humanity to form intention, motive and disposition to determine free will and accept God’s control.[10] They need to be introduced to Irenaeus’ strong argument for tradition that might help balance their perspective to the point of personal faith being stirred to corporate participation in their local congregations as they examine Cyprian’s view of the unity of the church.

Hall has written a very good, introductory book that serves evangelical Christians well, and offers them a beginning understanding of the early church fathers.  He plants the roots of the early church fathers deeper and gives Christians a stronger foundational base that can support new learning opportunities in their study of Scriptures. Learning Theology with the Church Fathers, though lacking in full scholarship references, offers the perfect amount of information to form a basis of solid faith for Christians unschooled in the higher levels of theological studies, and a reminder to those with more scholarly inclinations of how important it is to learn theology from the first, wise, studious, and diligent patristic theologians who were closest to the people first taught by Christ.

 

 

Bibliography

 

Hall, Christopher A. Learning Theology with the Church Fathers. Vol. 2. 3 vols. Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers. Downers Grove, IL.: InterVarsity Press, 2002.

Smith, J. Warren. "Learning Theology with the Church Fathers. "Church History 72, no. 3 (2003): 645-647.

 

 



[1] Christopher A. Hall, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers, 3 vols., Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, vol. 2 (Downers Grove, IL.: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 27; ibid.

[2] Ibid., 21.

[3] Ibid., 25.

[4] Ibid., 55-63.

[5] Ibid., 74-81.

[6] J. Warren Smith, "Learning Theology with the Church Fathers," Church History 72, no. 3 (2003).

[7] Hall, 25.

[8] Ibid., 123-156.

[9] Ibid., 159-181.

[10] Ibid., 162.

Last modified: Wednesday, 18 September 2013, 12:13 PM