Learning Theology with the Church Fathers: A Review

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There are many books written about what the church fathers said and did. The Church Fathers, especially the Patristics, had a connection with the very beginnings of Christianity. This connection gives them a different direction in their writing than someone who writes in the 10e century. Christopher Hall does an excellent job of breaking down the theology of the church fathers into terms that a novice can follow.

Christopher Hall is provost of Eastern University and dean of its Templeton Honors College. He is the author of numerous books including Read Scripture with the Church Fathers, Learn Theology with the Church Fathers, and Pray with the Church Fathers. He is also the editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary. Learn theology with the Fathers of the Church will be the subject of this review. In this book, Dr. Hall examines the theological issues facing the early church, their implications, and why they are relevant today.

Church fathers and theology

In the preface, Dr Hall explains that the fathers “continually remind us that theology is at best a broken discourse on the transcendent and mysterious God who draws near to us in the incarnation of the Son and the presence of the Spirit” .[1].” In the opening chapter, Dr. Hall describes to us what a church father is and the theological places that surrounded the thought of the Church Fathers; namely, the question of authority, the Trinity, the incarnation, the work of Christ, the question of humanity, the question of the church and the question of the future[2].” Each subsequent chapter has a theme and question that is addressed, along with great quotes from church fathers. The chapters are: 2) Christ the Son, begotten and uncreated, 3) The Mystery and Wonder of the Trinity, 4) The Diving and Human Christ, 5) On the Holy Spirit, 6) Sin, grace and the human condition, 7) the transcendent providence of God, 8) the wise and loving providence of God, 9) the holy scriptures, 10) one holy and apostolic church, and 11) the resurrection of the body and eternal life[3].

Church Fathers and Jesus

In Chapter Two, Dr. Hall dwells at length on the Arian controversy. It describes the idea that Arius thought Jesus was a created being, and Athanasius’ counter-argument which held that Jesus was coexistent and uncreated. In chapter three, the Trinity is discussed. Dr. Hall describes Gregory of Nazianzus and his perspective of describing the Trinity. Dr. Hall describes: “At that moment, Gregory, you and I are tempted to scream. Our linguistic and spatial categories fail to adequately describe God, which turns out to be exactly what Gregory is talking about.[4].” Dr. Hall shows how difficult it is to formulate the doctrine of the Trinity, but to prove this point he points to a sermon Augustine gave that points to the manifestation of the Trinity.

The reviewer could write a lot more about the content of the book, but will focus on these two areas. As for the Arian controversy, Dr. Hall does a masterful job of explaining what was going on at the time. The question was whether the Son was a created being or not. In other words, was it begotten or created. In Arius’ mind, if the Son was begotten, then there must have been a time when he was not begotten. Arius says that Jesus is divine in some way, but cannot have the same nature as the Father. Regarding this Hall writes: “Frankly, Arius seems to want his cake and eat it too. On the one hand, he wants to affirm that the Son is in some way divine. On the other hand, if Arius wants to preserve the simplicity and indivisibility of God, he must affirm that the Son has a beginning[5].” For this, the church fathers use biblical and philosophical terms at the Council of Nicea to propose the Nicene Creed. Athanasius was theologically central to this council to prove Arius’ errors.

On the Trinity

As stated earlier, the Trinity is discussed in chapter three. Hall points out that the intricacies of the Trinity have been debated since the fourth century, through enlightenment and, in some cases, even today. Hall points out that in some Christian circles, a discussion of the Trinity is too esoteric, and some try not to discuss it.[6]. The church fathers also had problems describing the Trinity, and at times it seemed like an impossible but very important task. Although it was difficult, the Fathers developed the Trinitarian doctrine because it was based on Scripture. The defense of the Trinity paved the way for the use of unbiblical terms. Hall further explains: “A Trinitarian model, grounded in biblical exegesis but free to employ new terms not found in the Bible – among them homoousios – to explain and elucidate the implications of the biblical data concerning the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit[7].”

France, St Michel, Church, Cathedral

As masterful as the work is in explaining the theology of the fathers, the reviewer has some critiques of the work. The first relates to the Arian controversy and the divinity of Christ. The divinity of Christ and his relationship to the Father had been evoked a century earlier by the modalists. The Modalist view was that “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were successive modes of activity and revelation of the one God.[8].” Dr. Hall, though thorough, did not address this controversy and it would have been a good background story for Arius. What is the eternal future of those who follow Arius? Although implied, it is not implied.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the teaching of the Church Fathers is important for the Church today. They are not men who were dead Christians centuries ago. They paved the way and addressed many issues that we could not understand today. It is heartbreaking to the critic that many Christians today do not care about their theology, and some have never even heard of it. They helped develop the doctrines we proclaim today. Shouldn’t we make an effort to understand them better? Learn theology with the Fathers of the Church is a great resource for pastors, teachers, and the average Christian who wants a better understanding of church history and theology. It is an excellent book and Dr Hall is commended for his work. This is a very important book and should be on the bookshelf of every serious Bible student, pastor, and teacher.

Bibliography

Ferguson, Everett. Church History: From Christ to the Pre-Reformation. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2013.

Hall, Christophe A… Learn theology with the Fathers of the Church. Downers Grove, Ill.: Ivp Academic, 2002.

[1] Christopher A. Hall, Learn theology with the Fathers of the Church (Downers Grove, Ill.: Ivp Academic, 2002), 10.

[2] Christopher A. Hall, Learn theology with the Fathers of the Church (Downers Grove, Ill.: Ivp Academic, 2002), 18.

[3] Same, Table of Contents.

[4] Same, 59.

[5] Christopher A. Hall, Learn theology with the Fathers of the Church (Downers Grove, Ill.: Ivp Academic, 2002), 36.

[6] Same, 54.

[7] Christopher A. Hall, Learn theology with the Fathers of the Church (Downers Grove, Ill.: Ivp Academic, 2002), 55.

[8] Everett Ferguson, Church History: From Christ to the Pre-Reformation2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), 143.


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