Christopher A. Hall. Living Wisely with the Church Fathers. IVP Academic, 2017. See here to purchase the book.
Christopher A. Hall has a doctorate from Drew University, directs the Renovare Institute of Christian Spiritual Formation, and is associate editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. He has written other books on patristics, including Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers, and Worshiping with the Church Fathers.
This book is Living Wisely with the Church Fathers, and it pertains to patristic ethical teachings. In this review, I will identify something in each chapter that stood out to me. My comments will not be comprehensive, but hopefully they will give you a taste of what the book is like.
“Introduction: Living Wisely with the Church Fathers”
Hall compares Aristotle’s view on ethical development to that of the church fathers. Aristotle stressed mentorship and developing moral habits but lacked a concept of divine grace in helping a person become ethical. The church fathers, however, believed in divine grace. At the same time, as this part of the book and the last chapter demonstrate, they also maintained that ethical development and advancement entailed a virtually athletic commitment to spiritual disciplines.
“‘They Looked like Flaming Angels’: Martyrdom”
Hall asks his Christian readers what they would do if they were pressured to sacrifice to the emperor. He offers some taste as to what life was like back then: for a number of people, eating that sacrificial meat was the best meal they had. Hall also focuses on Origen’s comments on martyrdom: on why there are Christians who apostasize, and the attitudes Christians can assume to face martyrdom bravely.
“‘A Solid Drop of Gold’: Wealth and Poverty”
Hall describes John Chrysostom’s vivid, almost empathetic homily about the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-25).
“‘The Misery of These Evils’: War and Military Service”
Hall argues that, overall, Christianity opposed Christian participation in warfare, until the time of Constantine.
“‘The Closest of Relationships’: Sex and the Dynamics of Desire”
Hall discusses apatheia (cleansing from destructive passions) and Christian celibacy. He appeals to Seinfeld as an example of characters with negative apathy, but he mistakenly calls George’s fiance “Linda” when her name was “Susan.” Hall also made a poignant remark when he said that certain challenging biblical exhortations and commands “should not die the death of a thousand qualifications” (page 130).
“‘One Hope, One Desire, One Way of Life’: Life as Male and Female, and the Goodness and Beauty of Marriage”
Hall talks about the patriarchal attitudes of church fathers but also exceptions to the rule, such as Paula, who studied with Jerome. Hall also describes John Chrysostom’s shift in attitude towards marriage: he went from being cranky and negative about it, to extolling it as a beautiful institution.
“‘From the Cradle to the Grave’: Life and Death”
This was the best chapter, in my opinion, in that it was informative and balanced in discussing patristic stances towards abortion. Hall describes the practice of abortion in the Greco-Roman world and Christian opposition to it. He acknowledges, however, that there was some difference of opinion among Christians about it: some, such as Augustine, regarded abortion of an unformed fetus as wrong, but not as murder, whereas other Christians disagreed. Hall also shares how Christians tried to save babies abandoned by Roman families, and Hall states that Hermas (of the Shepherd of Hermas) was one such baby.
“‘Let the Races Begin’: Entertainment”
This chapter was about the negative patristic stances towards the theater (which had nudity) and the coliseum (which had violence). Jerome also felt a bit guilty about reading Cicero rather than Scripture and deeming Scripture to be stylistically inferior. Hall thoughtfully discusses the positives and negatives of entertainment today, suggesting questions that Christians can ask in deciding how to engage it.
“‘Learning to Live a Good Life with God’: The Well-Ordered Heart”
I enjoyed the stories about people, specifically academics, who struggled with Christianity, yet found in a church father something that challenged and resonated with them.
This is a rich book. Hall describes what living in the times of the fathers was like, as he compares and contrasts patristic teaching with that of the fathers’ Greco-Roman environment. He goes into depth on specific patristic teachings. The book also presents compelling passages from church fathers, passages that advocate a certain spiritual attitude. Hall does not seem to advocate slavish imitation of the church fathers, but he presents their views as they are, while offering suggestions about how these views can instruct Christians today.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.