Learning Theology with the Church Fathers

As I am sure many of you know, Learning Theology with the Church FathersIVP has been producing a great series (several series actually) of books that are designed to help academics, pastors, students and lay people come into contact with the early church fathers. One of these series is three volumes of introduction: Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers, and a third volume to be published entitled: Worshipping with the Church Fathers (due out Jan. 2010), all written by Christopher Hall. For this post, I would like to look specifically at the second volume, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (IVP, 2002 – Special thanks to IVP for a review copy!).

In an important admission, particularly for our interests here at Theology Forum, “I acknowledge readily and immediately that the fathers never split theology off from spirituality, as though theology was an academic, mental exercise best practiced in one’s study, while Christian spirituality was more appropriately focused on the heart and centered in a church sanctuary. Any split between mind and heart, theology and spirituality, study and sanctuary would have met with scant toleration from the fathers” (10). For sake of space, Hall has split up the theological loci and the spiritual content of the third volume, but he assures us this is only for the sake of publishing and not of content.

Hall develops his thought by starting with a section helping readers who are new to the church fathers navigate territory that will most certainly seem odd and at times disconcerting. He then moves through doctrinal topics from chapters 2-11, roughly following the Nicene Creed as a broad roadmap to the issues: “Christ the Son, Begotten and Not Made,” “The Mystery and Wonder of the Trinity,” “Christ Divine and Human,” “On the Holy Spirit,” “Sin, Grace and the Human Condition,” “God’s Transcendent Providence,” “God’s Wise and Loving Providence,” “The Sacred Scriptures,” “One Holy, Apostolic Church,” and finally, “The Resurrection of the Body and the Life Everlasting.”

While it would be impossible, and probably in the end unhelpful, to work through each of these chapters and note aspects of the content, there are several points I would like to make. First, Hall does a great job of writing with clarity and making this an accessible volume. This could easily be used in an undergraduate class or lower level seminary classroom where many of the students will have had no background in theology or the issues that helped form our theological grammar. Likewise, Hall is able to turn a corner by addressing modern concerns and issues (such as calling God “Father”) in a way which is sensitive and insightful. Second, and in light of the first, this book has a very broad range of possible uses. Because of the readability of the text, it could easily be used in a church setting as well as an academic one, and would prove fruitful to anyone doing introductory work in theology. He addresses the heresies and debates in each position thereby framing the discussion appropriately.

Lastly, there is one issue I have with this book. I certainly appreciate all that these various “church fathers” series are doing, and am glad that they are continuing to broaden the horizons and offer more narrowly focused volumes such as this one. That being said, I would think that the major purpose of a text like this would be to whet the appetite of the reader and provides a means for them to dive into the fathers themselves. Because of this, I also assumed to find helpful tools and suggestions for doing so, say, Hall’s advice on tackling a study of the Trinity in the church fathers. But you don’t find this, and for that reason, I think this volume is really hindered.

That being said, do any of you have advice for those who might want to dive into the church fathers? Does anyone know someone who has put together something like I’m suggesting?

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