Wise Guys, Eh: a book review.

My introduction to patristics came through the Desert Fathers. I picked up a book (I can’t remember if I read Helen Wadell’s or Benedicta Ward’s collection first) and discovered there compelling voices from another age. They were ethereal and strange, sometimes legalistic, but always thoughtful. They offered a compelling vision of the spiritual life. Since then I’ve read more widely the church fathers, exploring the saints of both the Christian East and West. Because their time was so different from our own, and not so different, I think they have a tremendous capacity to speak prophetically into our age.

5188Christopher Hall is an excellent guide to the thought world of the fathers. He is the associate editor of IVP’s Ancient Commentary on Scripture and his newest book is the fourth and final volume of his Church Father’s series (previously published, Reading the Bible with the Church Fathers, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers, and Worshipping with the Church Fathers).  While these other books examine the exegesis, doctrine and devotional life of the Fathers, Living Wisely with the Church Fathers digs into what the Fathers have to teach us about the good life  and ‘living with a well-ordered heart.’ It examines the moral teaching of the early church and their perspective of culture. This volume explores topics like:

  • Persecution and Martyrdom
  • Wealth and Poverty
  • War and Military Service
  • Sex and relationships
  • Marriage
  • Abortion
  • Entertainment

But Hall is not just interested in telling you what the fathers thought about these things.  He’s inviting us to engage in conversation with the church fathers and see what wisdom they have to offer us.  There are clear differences between their age and our own, but their outsider perspective gives them insights worth paying attention to.

For example, the global church today faces martyrdom and violence daily. In my comfy Western context, I am persecuted only when my barista tells me happy holidays and there is no Christmas tree on our holiday cup. After describing the Church Father’s experience of martyrdom and examining Origen’s theology of martyrdom, Hall points out how much of the world would benefit from the church fathers’ insights:

The church fathers’ own experience of martyrdom—I think of Polycarp, Ignatius of Antioch, Cyprian and many others—will encourage and inspire those Christians in our modern setting suffering at the hands of groups such as ISIS and Boko Haram. The thousands of Christians who daily experience threats, violence, and death at the hands of persecutors have learned, in Susan Berman’s words, “that something matters more than life,” and a study of the church fathers’ thoughts on martyrdom can further and deepen this awareness. (54).

While Western Christians do not experience the threat of martyrdom, the church fathers call us, similarly, to have a prophetic stance in our allegiance to Christ:

If we recall that the central issue for the ancient martyr was not suffering but allegiance, things may clarify for the modern, Western Christian. Ancient martyrs suffered and died because they refused to bow the knee to the Roman demand to worship the emperor as a God. Early Christians realized—like many martyrs of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries—that their primary allegiance and loyalty must be to Christ, not to the demands of competing political and religious ideologies.

In the United States the issue of allegiance—of ultimate allegiance—always faces the Christian, though it is often not recognized. Our difficulty in facing this problem clearly and honestly is surely related to the cultural pressure to remain loyal to American values—political, economic, and social—even when those values contradict or conflict with the values of Christ’s kingdom (56).

Similarly, the fathers’ attitudes towards wealth and violence, call us to a countercultural prophetic stance. Generosity to the poor, and moderation, proportion and discretion with wealth, stand in stark contrast to our commercial and materialistic age (88-90).  In America, veterans are valued because of their sacrifice and service to our country, but the early church opposed military service because of its inherent violence and Christ’s command to love our enemies. With Constantine and the writings of Augustine, views on the legitimacy of the military service shifted, especially as Christians became the dominant power in society (126-127). So here too, the fathers provide a perspective that is radically different from our own and gets us to re-examine some of our thinking on these matters.

Yet, sometimes the dialogue goes both ways. Hall did little to convince me that everything the fathers said and taught on human sexuality was good (chapter 4). They were all complementarians, majorly misogynistic (by today’s standards), and just uncomfortable with sex in general. Some of their presuppositions and prejudices, I am really quite happy to leave in the past. But they lived in an era, like our own,  that was full of both sexual license and brokenness. That they held up the paths of fidelity in celibacy and marriage as a way to train the passions and navigate toward a well-ordered, embodied life remains instructive for us.

Hall closes chapter 5, with a brief overview of the fathers’ views on same-sex relationships. “I do not know of a single church father who expresses approval of sexually active homosexual relationships. From very early documentation such as the Didache, to later writers such as Clement of Alexandria and Lactantius, opposition to same-sex relationships is uniform” (172).  Hall brings their prohibition of homosexual practice into conversation with our contemporary understanding of sexual orientation. He cites Wesley Hill who self-identifies as gay but is committed to a lifestyle of celibate singleness as a way which honors God’s design for human flourishing (174). Hall’s brief look at same-sex relationships won’t be satisfying for every reader, but with Hill as his example, he does demonstrate that it is possible to follow the fathers’ example in this area with integrity.

I found Hall’s articulation of the church fathers’ views on abortion fascinating (chapter 6). Hall describes the fathers as universally opposed to the idea of abortion on demand, and abortion as birth control (they also didn’t really like birth control).  The fetus was not seen by them as part of the woman’s body, but as a neighbor and developing image-bearer of God (189). Some, like Augustine, would allow for therapeutic abortions (though clearly, these are never ideal) (188, 189).  Hall writes:

From the perspective of the fathers, the status of the developing fetus as God’s image bearer was the overriding consideration in their ethical analysis of abortion and its consequences. They believed the fetus is a human being. Indeed, the developing baby is a dependent neighbor who is to be nurtured and cared for from the moment of conception by the entire Christian community. If the fetus is our neighbor, and if the heart of God’s law is love for God and neighbor, the canon law’s strictness and severity concerning abortion makes sense. To take innocent life—whether in war or in failing to protect neighbors who lack the ability to care for themselves, whether in the womb or outside it—is treated with appropriate seriousness by the ancient church.

So while the church fathers were clearly pro-life, their prohibition on militarism and violence meant that they were committed to a consistent pro-life ethic, from the womb to the tomb.

In chapter 7, Hall looks at the church fathers’ reaction against entertainment, particularly entertainment that was violent and sexually exploitative. Hall acknowledges their critique but also notes that good art can portray the beauty of relationships and sexual love or the sadness and horror of violence and brokenness. So Hall agrees with the fathers that we shouldn’t feed our appetite for sin with mind-numbing entertainment, but he isn’t as dismissive, as they sometimes were, of the Arts.

There is no substitute for reading the church fathers for themselves. Hall’s book isn’t a bathroom reader designed to give you a little trivia of a bygone era. Hall wants to send you back to Chrysostom, Augustine, Origin, Jerome,  Irenaeus, and Basil. This is designed, like the other books in the series, to show us the valuable contribution the church fathers have made to the life of the church, and invite us to sit down with them and talk.

Of course, the limits of a book like this is the thought of the fathers is simplified and generalized.  Hall covers a lot of ground in 236 pages, so he summarizes a few main thinkers on a topic and gives an overview of their context, but he does not have the space to delve too deep into their thought or works. The spirituality of the Desert Fathers is what first stoked my interest in patristics, but they are not much represented here (though certainly, they had quite a bit to say on sexuality, the passions and the pursuit of the good life).  So this is a good book, and suggestive, but it is an introductory one, appropriate for lay readers and students. I give this four stars. – ★★★★

Notice of material connection:  I received a copy of this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review

 

Advertisements

Published by

matichuk

I am a pastor, husband, father, instigator, pray-er, hoper, writer, trouble-maker, peacemaker, and friend. Who are you?

9 thoughts on “Wise Guys, Eh: a book review.”

  1. I wanted to offer a few thoughts here, not to be contrary of combative, but rather because I think this is an interesting discussion. And let me say that I appreciate calm and thoughtful discussion on this issue. It is too rare! (Also, thank you for the book review. I have the first two of Hall’s books and will be adding the last two as well.)

    Brian, you wrote: “I am not asking this to be contrary, but simply as a matter of record: did they grapple with the practical issues of pregnancy and birth from a woman’s perspective? If they didn’t, why do we reference them?”

    That last question is very interesting. I’m curious about the premise undergirding it. Is the premise that views are rendered insignificant and potentially illegitimate if they were formulated within a particular framework in which factors that we realize are significant today were not taken into consideration?

    Meaning, that question would seem to undercut the legitimacy of a great many ideas that we consider valid even though they existed in similarly limited cultural contexts.

    Let me give an example. How is your question, “If they didn’t [grapple with the practical issues of pregnancy and birth from a woman’s perspective]…why do we reference them?” conceptually different from this question: “If Thomas Jefferson did not grapple with the practical issues of freedom from the perspective of slaves then why do we reference his views on freedom?” Brian, would you grant the analogy? Just curious.

    All of that being said, I think we must be very careful with saying that BECAUSE (a) the fathers were largely misogynistic therefore (b) the fathers’ views on abortion gave no consideration at all to women, their experiences, what they thought of abortion, etc. Meaning, granting the pervasive misogyny of the time does not necessarily mean granting that every church father was utterly and completely misogynistic and completely indifferent to the plight or thoughts or feelings of women. The notion that none of these men considered or gave ear to the thoughts and feelings of the women in the Christian communities they oversaw on the issue of pregnancy says more than we can say with any certainty.

    Even so, I think you have to go one more step and say this: The truthfulness or falsity of the fathers’ views on abortion does not actually hinge on whether or not they gave consideration to the experiences of women. (We would all agree that the issue should not be discussed without consideration of women, of course, and, to the extent that the fathers did not do so they were mistaken. That such an approach is lamentable and misogynistic does not render their conclusion false per se.) There are LOTS of tensions in human experience and history rarely breaks down into such neat categories.

  2. Reblogged this on everdeepening and commented:
    The attitude to the fetus is idealistic. Did the early fathers recognize that there are mothers and fathers that are incapable of providing such nurturance, and that in fact the pressure of adding a child to a household might guarantee suffering and death to both mother and child? I am not asking this to be contrary, but simply as a matter of record: did they grapple with the practical issues of pregnancy and birth from a woman’s perspective?

    If they didn’t, why do we reference them?

    A contrasting practice is the Roman prenuptial rite. This created a physical experience comparable to child birth, which in its traumas can break either body or mind. If the woman could not endure the ritual, she was encouraged to withdraw from her engagement.

    This same type of critical analysis can be extended to others among the selected issues.

  3. The attitude to the fetus is idealistic. Did the early fathers recognize that there are mothers and fathers that are incapable of providing such nurturance, and that in fact the pressure of adding a child to a household might guarantee suffering and death to both mother and child? I am not asking this to be contrary, but simply as a matter of record: did they grapple with the practical issues of pregnancy and birth from a woman’s perspective?

    If they didn’t, why do we reference them?

    A contrasting practice is the Roman prenuptial rite. This created a physical experience comparable to child birth, which in its traumas can break either body or mind. If the woman could not endure the ritual, she was encouraged to withdraw from her engagement.

    This same type of critical analysis can be extended to others among the selected issues.

    1. If you are asking, were they unaware of the reasons women then sought (or were compelled to) abort fetuses, no. That they saw a gospel imperative of loving the neighbor and welcoming a child, did not mean that they were unconcerned about the dynamics of care for children. And as I noted, Augustine and others made allowances for therapeutic abortions. They were idealists, but they also exhorted the church towards practical care for the vulnerable.

      Abortion was used in Ancient Rome as a way to cover up illicit sex or to eliminate an illegitimate heir. Rich Romans had more access to abortion than the poor, but it was practiced by both rich and poor people. The early church took a stand against this practice, as well as the widespread practice of leaving babies (usually unwanted girls) to die of exposure. Those were days when the church didn’t just pontificate about issues and guilt trip teen moms but offered real world, practical care (e.g. adoption, rescuing discarded babies, etc).

      1. Let me offer this: I have been in dialog with women that negotiated with the unborn child that it would be better to wait until they were established in a relationship with a loving father. There was no trauma to the unborn spirit, which actually was eager to live a life blessed by love.

        This is what I meant by “from the perspective of a woman.” What is the spiritual experience of pregnancy? What is it like to carry to term a spirit forced upon one in violence, more demonic than angelic in its nature?

        And there were other considerations in that era: against the spiritual burdens was placed the likelihood of death from the procedure itself. On the other side stood the benefits to humanity as a whole of teaching people to love at all, which in a mother is now known to receive powerful reinforcement from an infant, leading to the formation of neural circuitry that does not exist in those that do not participate in loving relationships.

        All of this comes from being concerned with the mother’s experience, rather than seeing it as the experience of the child. Of course, as you remark in your review, the early church fathers were rather misogynistic, and so unlikely to pursue that aspect.

      2. I noted that yes, they would be misogynistic by today’s standards. The fathers bought into Greek notions of male superiority, and their understanding of biblical headship was hierarchical.

        Do I think the fathers as whole, were mindful of the feminine experience? No of course not. But your comment about if they didn’t do that, why do we reference them seems needlessly dismissive. Others eras will not have the same insights as another (or the same blind spots) We can’t hold all people at all times up to our standards. And my point, which speaks to your point about maternal attachment, was the fathers, and the early church with them, were quite a bit better than we are about providing a network of support for vulnerable people. This is the witness of the early church, and a robust practice of hospitality is something that is worth recovering.

      3. I would take your last point even further: the Church fathers, in describing the ideal, lit the way for the New Age. Every child should be loved, and will be loved. No act of conception will be a random side-effect of bestial urges – every child will be conceived intentionally as an act of love.

        But Jesus came to meet us where we are, and suffered death as a result. Love presents us with choices. It does so because to make mistakes is part of learning.

        Ideally, we learn from the mistakes made by others. I don’t think that protesting in front of the abortion clinic to frighten women is a sound strategy for achieving that end. I would prefer that those concerned sit down with them after the procedure to help them evaluate their spiritual condition. Although most conceptions end in miscarriages (making God the foremost abortionist), there are side-effects of the procedure, particularly if it is undertaken as an act of fear. Bringing those to light should help women become more determined in their resolve to resist their carnality.

        Women that attain that strength bring astonishing gifts into the world. Without their exercise, the attainment of the kingdom is not possible.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s