Living Wisely with the Church Fathers - A Review

Often, when reading Church History, I get the impression that things are pretty much the same as they ever were. This idea was brought to a head recently, when I read Christopher Hall’s book, Living Wisely with the Church Fathers. Hall is an expert in Patristics. This is the fourth in a series of volumes that synthesize the thought of Church Fathers on particular aspects of Christian thought. The present volume is a book about ethics. Although technology has changed, the topics of concern for the early church often have close analogies to the topics of our day.

In this volume, Hall summarizes, compares, and contrasts the teachings of various early Christian authors on martyrdom, wealth and poverty, war, sex and lust, marriage, entertainment, and the development of character. There is little doubt that Hall has chosen his topics wisely, which saves us the work of weeding through contextually dependent passages, but it is also clear that the wisdom of the ancient has a great deal of benefit for contemporary readers.

In C. S. Lewis’ preface to On the Incarnation by Athanasius, he commends his readers to read old books to help break through the blind spots of our time. On the Incarnation is an excellent book for that introduction because it is a timeless work that both helps undermine the arguments about doctrinal innovation (at least with respect to core doctrines like the incarnation), but also because that particular volume is lucid and, in a good translation, exceedingly easy to read. There are, however, some Patristics works that are not as clear, no matter what the translation says. Also, as Phillip Schaff’s monumental set of the collected works of the early church shows, the volume of writings is more than most of us mere mortals can manage in one lifetime. Hall’s synthesis helps break through that feeling of being overwhelmed.

At the same time, Lewis also warns of reading books about ancient authors. On the surface, it seems like he is warning us against book like Living Wisely with the Church Fathers, but on further consideration that is not clear. First, Lewis did not argue against reading new books, but merely against not reading old books. Given that wrote a few new books himself and a masterful book about old books (his contribution to the Oxford History of English Literature), that cannot have been his intent. Rather, he is arguing against reading new books about old books as the only point of contact with those earlier works. It is clear from Hall’s interaction with the Church Fathers that his desire is for his readers to go beyond his own works and to return to the sources. At the same time, he is offering helpful pointers to lead readers through the sometimes-tangled forest of antiquity.

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 In this volume, Hall serves as an advocate for the blessings of reading our theological predecessors. He does not gloss over the inconsistencies between authors and eras, but highlights the difference, showing, in part, how they arrived at opposite conclusions. By doing so Hall defeats the often triumphalistic proof-texting that goes one when someone finds an early author who agrees with them. One would think that tendency would have been defeated by Peter Lombard’s Sentences, but pacifists, abortion advocates, economic socialists, and their opponents still find pleasure in vindication when someone ancient says (or appears to say) exactly what their side is thinking. That becomes harder when one encounters opposing perspectives from eras adjacent or contemporary to those of the ancient author--clearly, there was more debate than many of allow. Hall points toward the consensus that arises at times and the need to read the full context to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of the earlier reasoning when disagreement exists.

What is clear, however, is that the most enduring writings from Church History pull people outside themselves and cause them to look for the common good. The value in reading Church Fathers is not to find the killer proof-text, but to figure out how someone with vastly different cultural blind spots arrived at the conclusion they did and how that can inform our own thinking. This book is helpful because it leads us to do just that.

Living Wisely with the Church Fathers
By Christopher A. Hall

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.