Adequately and Lethally Cropped:
A Review of Christopher A. Hall’s “Learning Theology with the Church Fathers”
Christopher A. Hall’s second installment to his series of books on patristic theology, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers, seeks to give a brief, if not cramped, overview of the different theological traditions and ideas as they are conceptualized by the church fathers. Together with the first book in the series, Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers and the third book, Worshipping with the Church Fathers, Hall geared his works towards giving the Church fathers (the patristic theology) more appreciation from scholars and general practitioners alike of the Christian religious tradition.
However, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (hereon LTCF) focused more on the doctrines, questions and ideas that the early church fathers tackled and pondered upon, thus making it the objective, intellectual and dogmatic part of the said series of books.
“The book Learning Theology with the Church Fathers gave reasonable length of discussion to the different theological ideas of the church fathers, but the author focused only on a number of fathers, thereby subjugating equally important persons and ideas to the periphery.
Cramped and cropped
The book is basically partitioned to tackle the different aspects and pertinent issues of the Christian religion while still making a bearing on the different theological works by the Church fathers. A reading (an excerpt from a text by the featured church father) is provided for every part in which a church father may have substantial contributions to the subject. The scope of the discussion is, however, limited to the concepts certain church fathers put forward, thus narrowing the whole discourse into a more palatable length that focuses on the ideas put forward by a particular church father (Hall, Worchipping With the Church Fathers 2009).
Certain difficulties, of course, can be seen by undertaking this kind of feat that Hall did. First, Hall limited the discussion to certain supposedly significant Church fathers, cropping the whole conceptual landscape into the basics and canonical. This may be deemed as rather flawed, for it leaves of history and whole train of thought that may have been considered by other less mentionable individuals. For instance, he chose only St. Augustine and Gregory of Nazianzus in tackling the issue of Trinity (Hall 1998,). The Trinity, however, is a very interesting subject that Novatian, an Anti-Nicene church father, tackled with equal recognition as those of the two mentioned. Ireneus and Pelagius appeared to have lesser contributions in Hall’s book, giving much of the spotlight to Augutine, Basil and similar fathers.
Lack of a ‘modern’ feel
Although Hall’s book is obviously a retrospective view to the history and ecclesiology of early Christianity, it cannot be easily accepted that these accounts can be taken as stable and updated. Many points of contentions and discrepancies had already arisen in the emergence of the 21st century, making the content of the book rather outdated and outwitted by the witticisms of the times. Hall, however, remained stuck with the issues while opening them to logical, historical and even theological scrutiny, appearing as rather ‘defenseless’ in its own right. It minimized, for instance, the tackling of the subject of ‘The Mystery and Wonder of the Trinity’, limiting the scope of the discussion to mere lectures of religious doctrines. No room was virtually left for discussions, counters and the modern ‘objections’ that has accumulated with the human rationale. Another good example would be the apparent evasion of the Arian controversy and the Nicene Council which remains tainted and stigmatized in the secular studies.
Hence, the whole book appeared as a rather easy prey to humanist and rationalist ramblings, for it failed to situation the whole patristic thought in the present human context.
Addressing the basic questions
I can see the effort and substance that Hall exerted to flush out the whole meat from the patristic discourses. There are stable and understandable frameworks that were employed and there is a smooth logical transition from one point to another. Moreover, Hall’s writing style is also linguistically accessible and entertaining, making the whole book are quite an experience and journey in the thoughts of the early Church Father.
However, most probably because of the complexity of the ideas that certain church fathers (e.g. St. Augutine) have regarding a particular dogma, the readers can become lost in the questioning. The basic questions are obviously not addressed in a necessarily suffice manner. For instance, the issue regarding Jesus Chris is made or begotten by God, or, is this really a matter of intellectualization, was bannered and clarified quite easily (Hall 1998). However, Hall made a bad assumption for taking that the people have a clear idea of God in the very first place. Among these kinds of questions is the ‘necessity’ for a sacrifice to be made in order to achieve salvation or the conditions of a salvation, atonement, and the very nature of Godhood, human hood and the frailty of human efforts to reach God. These kinds of questions are basically needed to give an idea of theology first. Only then will the answering of more complex theological assumptions will become possible and smoother.
Going back to reality
Despite of all of this, I still see Learning Theology with the Church Fathers as a very fine work of theological literature. Because it outlined and narrowed the discussion of patristic theology into the skeletal basics, it becomes compelled to situate ‘theology’ into the human dimension. This is precisely a deviance from the reigning idea of theology these days, in which people associate theology with unimportant letters and dogmas, ceremonies and rituals, sacramental theology and certain strict measures on certain domains of such as in ethics and aesthetics. Hall basically created a book that connects these letters, words and concepts into the human need and experience. Hence, the book is easily applicable to general living.
Moreover, the deep and comprehensive look at the church fathers gave us a chunk of the ideological picture during that time, making the whole patristic thought as not independent of the society. A good knowledge of this ideological picture would have us have quasi-historical account of the society that bred the thought and train of thinking by the early church father, and how these insights can help advance theological studies, making it spread beyond the books and narrow minds that confine it into automatons of religious monotony.
Hall, Christopher A. Learning Theology with The Church Fathers. Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1998.
—. Worchipping With the Church Fathers. Illinios: InterVarsity Press, 2009.
Cite this Review of Christopher A. Hall’s Book
Review of Christopher A. Hall’s Book. (2016, Aug 10). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/review-of-christopher-a-halls-book/