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