Living Wisely with the Church Fathers, Christopher A. Hall. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.
Summary: An exploration of what we might learn from the church fathers about lives well lived, touching on everything from martyrdom to entertainment.
We turn to a variety of sources to figure out how to live well, sources ranging from lists on websites, to self-help books, to mentors and “life coaches,” to the scriptures. Christopher Hall, in the concluding volume of a four volume series, explores what the early fathers of the church, speaking out of a very different context than ours, can teach us about living wisely. Summarizing this four-part project and the focus of this final volume, Hall writes:
“What did these ancient Christians–whose thoughts and practices continue to be read, pondered, discussed, debated, and embraced today–think about the Bible, God, worship, and prayer? More importantly for this book, how did the fathers answer a very specific question: How can God’s image bearer learn to live a good life, a life nourished by the values of the kingdom of God, a life of deep and lasting human flourishing, a life filled with love for God and neighbor? If, as Athanasius puts it, transgression has ‘taken hold’ of human beings, and ‘natural corruption’ now characterizes the human condition, how can God’s image bearers be made right again–made right not only in our relationship to God but in relationship to one another and to the entire created order?” (p. 2)
An introduction explores the context of the fathers and the kinds of issues they confront, particularly our moral disposition and passion, concluding with the kinds of questions we might ask ourselves in the course of this study. Hall then addresses seven topics on which the fathers taught and their relevance to us:
- Wealth and Poverty
- War and Military Service
- Sex and the Dynamics of Desire
- Life as Male and Female, and the Goodness and Beauty of Marriage
- Life and Death
What Hall helps us appreciate is the distinctive message of the fathers, who speak the counsels of God from a very different cultural context than our own. For example, martyrdom was an ever present threat, one that could be avoided by an offering to the emperor, an easy ritual. Many refused, and died, even as is occurring in many parts of the world. A life of peace for Christians, assumed in the West, has often not been our lot and raises the question of whether there is any cost to our discipleship and where we might place our ultimate allegiance.
On wealth and poverty, Hall recounts a sermon of Chrysostom on Lazarus and the rich man and the issue of whether we live with discretion with our wealth, using it to bless and thus fulfilling the purpose of wealth in our lives and others. Hall helps us understand the pacifism of the early church, the uneasy change to more of a “just war” perspective post-Constantine, and challenges us to wrestle with the sometimes unequivocal refusal of the church to kill.
The following two chapters focus on sexuality, gender, and marriage. We often consider the ancients terribly repressed. Hall observes that contrary to the body-denying nature of gnosticism, the fathers recognized the realities of sexual desire, both how this might harm, and the goodness of marriage and marital sexuality. He deals honestly with the problems of linking celibacy and the priesthood in the west. He also reminds us of the significant roles of women, including Macrina, who might be numbered the “Fourth Cappadocian.” Hill also points out the uncompromising opposition of the fathers to any form of homosexual intimacy.
One of the briefest, yet most pointed chapters lays out the strongly affirmative life ethic from cradle to grave in a society where abortion was commonly practiced, children abandoned, as well as the sick and dying in times of plague. The church adamantly refused to abort, rescued abandoned children and nursed the sick, at risk to themselves. Finally, in a challenge to our modern entertainment culture, often fascinated with gore, we learn of the refusal of the church to join the celebration of the violent gladiatorial games, recognizing how such things might create “dead zones” in our own lives.
The last chapter is truly a capstone, returning to the fundamental questions of how we live well. We learn of how the fathers diagnosed our problem of disordered loves and the disciplines of askesis that allow the rhythms of grace to reorder our affections in love for God and neighbor.
This work plainly whets our appetites for the fathers, and their counter-cultural message that may re-orient our perspectives and affections. Perhaps this was a part of earlier volumes, but I would have welcomed an appendix or suggested readings at the end of each chapter to go deeper with the fathers. One might track down ideas from the notes but recommendations of good editions and starting points could be helpful.
Hall has done us a great service in helping us to hear the distinctive voices of the fathers — their writings and sermons. Not all the good books have been written in the last ten years! There is a durable heritage of wise thought rooted in scripture directed toward a concern good pastors down the ages have always had–how to help God’s people enjoy God, love their neighbors and live well.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.