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


Dogma & Greg: a ★★★★★ book review

I was interested in reading Brian Matz’s Gregory of Nazianzus because Nazianzus is the Cappadocian father whose works I am least familiar with (though I don’t want to feign expertise on the other two). In seminary I had the opportunity to read Basil, and read  a number of Gregory of Nyssa’s. The only Gregory of Nazianzus I read was his five Theological Orations  which I read for pleasure on my own time. They were interesting—witty, theologically erudite, and well crafted. However, I am no scholar and felt like the best way for me to get a handle on Nazianzus is to find a wise guide.


Brian Matz (PhD, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven and Saint Louis University) is the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet Endowed Chair in Catholic Thought at Fontbonne University in St. Louis, Missouri associate professor of the history of Christianity. He wrote a dissertation on Gregory of Nazianzus at Saint Louis University (of which this text is partially adapted).  In this book, Matz provides a biographical sketch of Gregory (chapter one) before examining the importance of purification as a central theological motif for this Cappadocian (chapter two). Chapters three through six explore the theme of purification in four of Gregory’s orations (Oration 2, 45, 40, and 14). As part of Baker Academic’s Foundations of Theological Exegesis and Christian Spirituality (Hans Boersma and Matthew Levering, series eds.), this book has a particular eye for Nazianzus’s use of Scripture.

Matz argues convincingly that purification is the key to understanding. Chapter two of this volume,  provides a broad overview of Gregory’s preaching of purification (or spiritual healing). Matz illustrates Gregory’s terminology and his understanding of the practice and process of purification (i.e. self discipline, ascetical practices, cleansing the senses, acts of mercy, contrition, fasting, celebrating holy festivals, desire to know God, the purifying fire of difficult circumstance, baptism, the Eucharist and piety). He then describes the benefits of the purification of the soul: knowledge and contemplation of God, divinization, becoming a recipient of heaven, undermining evildoers and the devil, escape from the torments of judgement, esteem in the community, etc. Finally, Matz examines the role that pastors, the Spirit, and Christ play in leading a soul through the purification process in Gregory’s thought.

Matz’s discussion of the four orations illustrates how Gregory works out this theme pastorally (oration 2), in contemplation (oration 45), in his understanding of baptism (oration 40), and in care for the poor and vulnerable (oration 14). Most these orations are available to the general reader free online (or for a nominal fee on Kindle as part of Phillip Schaff’s Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers collection). Oration 14 can be found as part of Gregory of Nazianzus’ Select Orations (Catholic University of America Press, 2004). Not having access to the latter volume, I read the other orations in Schaff (in my case, through my Bible software program).

I really enjoyed this book and thought Matz did a wonderful job of walking the reader through Gregory’s exegesis. Nazianzus was less fanciful than Nyssa in terms of allegory, but made great use of the Canon (particularly found of the Psalms and Matthew, but drawing on a good swath of the biblical material). Like his Cappadocian counterparts, Nazianzus is Christological and Christocentric in his interpretation.

I give this book five stars and recommend it for anyone interested in a short, attainable introduction to Gregory. ★★★★★

Note: I received a Net Galley copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

The Faith of Our Fathers: a book review.

There has been a  resurgence in evangelicals reading of patristic sources. The work of Thomas Oden, Ronald Heine, Peter Liethart, Hans Boersma and D.H Williams and others have called for a ressourcement which makes use of the Great Tradition. The value of patristic exegesis is a hot topic in the academy, but few works have given the words of the early church for popular consumption. James Stuart Bell and Patrick J.Kelly has just done that with theirt new devotional.

I have noted before the difficulty in reviewing devotionals. Reviewing a devotional after only having it for a couple of weeks, means that at best my thoughts on it are provisional. To know the true value of it, I would need to use the book daily for a time. Awakening Faith is a year long devotional and I haven’t had time to give a full assessment of its value. However I am fairly impressed by it. This is a daily devotional which culls together readings from patristic sources. Readings from sixty-nine different Church Fathers, from the first to the eighth century, challenge Christians to live out their faith in a compelling manner. There are theologically rich reflections and prophetic calls to holy living from everyone from Ambrose and Augustine to Zeno of Verona.

Awakening Faith is beautifully bound with a ribbon book mark. There are 366 readings from the church fathers, with  a scriptural reference at the head of each entry. This book looks good and the contents are pure gold.  I absolutely love it. However the book is limited in a couple of respects.

First, I wish that it reflected the church calender more. The daily reading format sets it apart from IVP’s Ancient Christian Devotionals (edited by Thomas Oden). Those volumes follow the liturgical cycle and draw together different patristic commentaries on the readings for each  Sunday. By contrast Awakening Faith is a daily devotional without an evident seasonal dimension. It is possible to start this devotional on day one reading each day until you finish the book (there are no dates are given for the readings). There are  specific readings for Easter and Christmas (and other holy days) but these are scattered throughout the book. This makes me wonder what the internal organization of the readings is. It is not straight forward. It tends to bounce back and forth from various topics.

Another limitation of this devotional is the lack of references. Each reading reflects on a passage and tells you the author. It does not tell from which of their works the reading was taken from or their context. Sometimes this is obvious. For example, Athanasius’ readings on the life of Anthony, came from the Life of Anthony. Prolific authors like Augustine, Basil the Great, or guys named Gregory are harder to track down. I would have appreciated a reference to the actual work at the end of each  reading. That way I could delve deeper into particular topics or authors.  This may just be my academic bent. I happen to love footnotes in everything I read and am miffed when I don’t see them. I do like that the indexes of this volume give me a bird’s eye view of each author and the scriptural content.

The selection of readings themselves are quite good. Here is a random selection of topics covered:

  • Basil the Great on the value of the Psalms (reading 10)
  • Tertullian on Prayer (reading 88)
  • Augustine on Martyrdom (reading 90)
  • John Chrysostom on standing firm on the rock of Christ (reading 121)
  • Ambrose on freedom in Christ through grace (reading 204)

. . .and much more. Bell and Kelly did a great job of selecting devotions for this collection (I just wish I knew where they were all from!). This is a great compendium of Christian thought. I happily recommend this book as either a daily devotional (as it is intended) or a bathroom reader (as I have been using it). There are beautiful passages here which are worth copying into your journal and I plan to use this book for years to come. I give it four stars: ★★★★☆

Thank you to Zondervan and Cross Focused Reviews for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

A little more Orthodox than normal (A Prayer book review?)

Prayer Book of the Early ChristiansWhen the author of Ecclesiastes penned, “On the writing of books there is no end” he had no idea what the future of publication held for prayer-books. Books on prayer abound and every year you can expect to see new books promising some new spiritual insight which will make you a better pray-er. Despite this (and seminary) I am still a neophyte at prayer and struggle, like everyone, to have regular prayer times and establish a rhythm of prayer.

What is refreshing about Prayer Book of the Early Christians is that has no new spiritual insights of any kind and it makes no promises that ‘reading it’ will make you a better pray-er. Rather, this book draws on the wisdom of the early church and the Orthodox tradition. This is not a book to be ‘read’ though I have done that for the purposes of this review. Rather this is a book to be prayed.

John A McGuckin is an Orthodox priest and patristic scholar. He has gathered up the pieces of this prayer-book from the richness of the Christian tradition, particularly the Christian east. After a brief introduction offering advice about prayer and the use of this book, the book unfolds in three parts. Part I presents prayers for the Ritual Offices of the day (i.e. Vespers, Compline, Matins, the first and third hours of the day). Part II contains rituals and prayer services for various occasions (traveling, the blessing of a house, prayer for the sick, grace before meals, personal repentance, etc.) Part III collects various prayers and hymns from the Ancient saints.

What I really like how this book unfolds the beauty and prayerfulness of the Orthodox tradition. If the church in the East has a gift for the whole church it is how the life of prayer penetrates their entire theological reflection. These prayers and rituals are rich and beautiful reflections on the triune God.

Of course some of what is here is foreign to me as an Evangelical christian. My understanding of the Christian faith has been more profoundly shaped by the Roman Road (not the ‘road to Rome’) than by the Great Tradition, so the practice of candles, incense, praying with icons are all things that are new to me (these are not strictly required to pray any of these prayers but suggested by McGuckin as part of one’s ‘prayer kit’) Also the ritual offices include prayers offered to Mary the mother of God. I am willing to admit that Evangelicals do not pay Mary due homage, but these are prayers I can’t in good conscience pray. I mention these things not as a criticism, but to say that while I appreciate and am enthusiastic about this prayerbook, McGuckin’s theological tradition is different from my own and not every prayer speaks meaningfully to me in my context.

My one criticism of this book is that I feel that a book called ‘Prayer Book of the Early Christians’ should have more prayers gathered in it than it in fact does. But the choice to restrict the amount of prayers may have been intentional because what we are left with is a short, hardcover volume which contributes to its personal usefulness and portability.

This book may be used profitably by individuals and churches who are interested in dipping deeper into the Christian tradition and the life of prayer (Paraclete has special prices for multiple copies. As I have indicated, reading a Prayer Book is the wrong way to assess it. This book has prayers to pray and commends a lifestyle of prayer to entered into. I, myself, am using this book over the season of Lent, planning to pray ‘the hours’ and likely will blog about my experience with this in the coming weeks. My initial assessment of the book is positive and think that this book can enrich your (and my) devotional life.

Thank you to Paraclete press for providing me a copy for the purpose of this review. Please stay tuned for further thoughts on how these prayers are leading me into an encounter with the Triune God!

The Holy Spirit in the Orthodox Tradition: A book review of the Giver of Life

This is the third book in Paraclete Press‘s Holy Spirit series which I have reviewed. I now feel like I can say a little bit about the series and what I have appreciated about it (you can read previous reviews here or here). If you are really only interested in the orthodox tradition, skip the next few paragraphs and my review there.

First of all, each of the authors in the series embody their particular tradition. Rachel Timoner wrote Breath of Life to present a Jewish understanding of the spirit of God and she continually references the rabbinic tradition and Jewish history to explicate her points. In presenting Protestant views of the Holy Spirit, Edmund Rubarczyk describes individual thinkers, how they challenged prevailing views (protested) and their impact on our understanding of the Spirit. I didn’t see how each of their approaches embodied the traditions they were describing and representing until I read Fr. John Oliver’s description of the Holy Spirit in the Orthodox tradition. A prayer from the orthodox liturgy frames the entire structure of the book and Father Oliver’s reflections. Not only do each of these authors describe the Spirit through the lens of their tradition, but the unique spirituality of each tradition informs their approach.

Secondly, I applaud the ecumenism of each author. They write from their own spiritual tradition, and do not sacrifice their own identity. It is in offering the insights of their own traditions that each author has contributed to a deeper understanding of the Spirit for us all. Too often ecumenical dialogues and discussion of God devolve into what we can all minimally affirm and doesn’t value the unique contributions. It is so refreshing to read a series on the Holy Spirit where each author is true to their theological convictions but presents them in a winsome and engaging way, offering them to the wider church (or in the case of Timoner, beyond her own religious faith). When unique visions are offered, they are given here without polemics.

Third, all of these books are thoughtfully engaging but accessible to the general reader. This is sometimes a hard balance, but each of the author manages to convey something of substance without getting mired in academic discussions and over complicating the matter. Nor do they retreat to shallow waters. I commend the whole series to you, on to the review:

The Giver of Life: The Holy Spirit in the Orthodox Tradition

Father John Oliver is priest of St. Elizabeth Orthodox Christian Church in Murfreesboro, TN and is a graduate and (former?) faculty at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary as instructor of Old and New Testament and American Religious History. My first exposure to him was through the Hearts and Minds podcast. John Oliver Here he explores what the Orthodox church’s understanding of Spirit, exemplified by quotations and stories from the Christian East. But more than that, this book is an exercise in prayer. Maximus the Confessor (580-662 C.E.) somewhere said, “Theology is prayer and prayer is theology-Theology without prayer is demonic.” Thus it is fitting that reflection on the Spirit in the Orthodox tradition is given within the context of prayer. Each chapter begins with this epigram:

O heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of truth, Who art everywhere present and fillest all things; Treasury of good things and Giver of life; come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every impurity,and save our souls, O Gracious Lord.

This ancient prayer to the Holy Spirit, often uttered for Morning and Evening prayer, frames the reflections in this book with each chapter reflecting on a phrase from the prayer. Here is the table of contents which shows how Oliver breaks the prayer up:

1. O Heavenly King
2. The Comforter
3. The Spirit of Truth
4. Who Art Everywhere Present and Fillest All Things
5. Treasury of Good Things
6. Giver of Life
7. Come Abide in Us
8. Cleanse Us From Every Impurity and Save Our Souls
9 O Gracious Lord

By probing this prayer, Oliver is able to both probe Orthodox reflection on the Spirit and the grandeur of all the Spirit is and does. In these pages the Spirit emerges as creator and king, God’s comforting presence, the Spirit of Truth who exists in unity with the Father and Son, as both transcendent and immanent, as giver of gifts and God’s abiding gift, the one who brings life, as the one who cleanses our sins and brings us to perfection in God, the gracious God who leads us from our depths to new heights. Along the way, Oliver quotes some of the great saints of the eastern church, quotations and stories and shares how the sacraments nourish life in the Spirit for the faithful.

There is a lot to chew on. I personally love patristics and was pleased to read many quotations from the early church (Cappadocians and desert Christians are well represented). I am not Orthodox, at least with a capital ‘O,’ but loved the prayerful framework and the Spirt in which Oliver offered this to the wider church. There is little I would disagree with in the book, even if my own emphasis would be somewhat different. Oliver stays clear of theologically contentious matters (i.e. he discusses the Nicene Creed but doesn’t pick a fight with the West for changing it) but gives us something that is both true to his theological tradition and instructive for us all. Thus far, this is my favorite book in the series!

Next week I will review the final book (to date) in Paraclete’s Holy Spirit series: Amos Yong’s Who is the Holy Spirit? I am very excited about this because Amos Yong is one of the most well respected Pentecostal scholars and I am sure that his exploration of the Spirit will widen our vision for who the Spirit is and all he does for us!

[Thank you to Paraclete press for providing me with a review copy of Giver of Life and the other books in this series in exchange for my review. I was not instructed to write a positive review but an honest one, which I have done here.]