Review: Living Wisely with the Church Fathers

Living Wisely with the Church Fathers

Living Wisely with the Church FathersChristopher 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:

  • Martyrdom
  • 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
  • Entertainment

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.

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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.

 

 

Voices

Titian_-_Wisdom_-_WGA22907

Wisdom by Titian [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Voices.

So many voices.

All wanting my attention…

–the professional solicitor raising money for an entity I might have vaguely heard of.

–the advertiser suggesting their product can offer me security, contentment, sexual satisfaction, health.

–the pundit trying to gain more views and following by provocation, pulling on the strings of emotion so that I will keep clicking.

–the media personality trying to keep my attention by arousing my sense of outrage over everything from product defects to people who pose a threat.

–the politicians who play upon both my frustrations and aspirations to garner my vote, even though in the end, they may do little to address either, only deepening my disillusionment.

So many voices.

I wonder if they drown out the voice I most need to hear. This is a voice that doesn’t join the clamor nor tries to drown it out, but to capture the attention of those who realize that life isn’t found in the clamor. It is a voice that asks questions, probing us to explore the meaning of a life well-lived and what it means to live such a life in our broadband, two hundred channel, smartphone media world. It’s a voice that bids me to a life beyond being safe, prosperous, or hip; to ask the questions of what it means to seek not only our own flourishing but those of the neighbor, whether the one on my street, or the one with whom I share my planet’s food, water, and atmosphere. It’s a voice bidding me to a life of goodness, truth, and beauty, to work with skill and excellence and yet modesty, realizing it’s all but a small part of a larger plan. It’s the voice that pierces that clamor to help me understand the time in which I live.

I call it the voice of wisdom.

Where can we go to find wisdom in the midst of the clamor? I wonder if this is actually the wrong question. I wonder if perhaps the prior question is do I hunger and thirst for something more than the clamoring voices are offering? Do I value wisdom more than a flush bank account and all the baubles of affluence by which we are lured? Do I tremble when I realize the capacity I have for both great good and great folly, and that somehow I am accountable, whether to God, myself, or simply the rest of humanity, what the writer of Proverbs might have called, “the fear of the Lord?”

Alan Jacobs has written recently of the demise of the Christian intellectual, the long history of whom stretches from Augustine and Aquinas to C.S. Lewis and Reinhold Niebuhr. Now I will be the first to admit that not all intellectuals are wise, as I warned my son in his youth that you can be very smart and not very wise. But I wonder in the distraction of the clamor if we have lost sight of the value of the wise voices who may help us interpret the times and how we might live well in them. I equally wonder if such voices have retreated from the public square because they have been shouted down as anachronisms from a benighted past.

Perhaps the beginning is to listen for the voices of wisdom among us…

–it could be an elder in a senior facility, who has seen a good deal of life, and while failing of body retains the wisdom of years.

–perhaps it is found in the lives of those who have suffered, who know the loss of what others count precious, and the qualities of character and the intangibles of goodness that remain.

–there are the religious teachers among us–not the big flashy media personalities–but those who combine prayer and reflection on sacred scripture with caring for people in all the exigencies of life.

–and there are the voices inscribed, whether the writers of sacred scripture, or those who have thought deeply on the human condition.

Proverbs 8:1-3 speaks of “Lady Wisdom” in these words:

Does not wisdom call?
    Does not understanding raise her voice?
On the heights beside the way,
    at the crossroads she takes her stand;
beside the gates in front of the town,
    at the entrance of the portals she cries aloud (ESV)

The matter is not the lack of wisdom for Lady Wisdom may be found wherever we look. The question is will we hear her voice in the clamor of so many.

Voices.

[Acknowledgement: my thanks for the inspiration for this post go to Pastor Rich and a conversation with a real life Sophia.]

Review: Called to Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity

Called to Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity
Called to Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity by Gordon T. Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book might change your thinking about “sainthood”. Sometimes, we conceive saints as these unworldly, serious, ascetic, and somewhat odd creatures. Gordon Smith would propose instead that being a saint is something to which all of us are called and what this means is growth into Christian maturity–a kind of perfection of holiness that isn’t perfectionism but rather a kind of completeness or wholeness of life.

This is especially important for many evangelicals, who may excel at seeing people come to faith but have little idea of how to direct them into becoming holy (or sanctified, a word drawn from the same root as saint–in other words, saintified). Most often, since we do the crisis experience of conversion so well, we simply propose additional crisis experiences. Smith proposes a different route.

Smith begins with what he sees as the essence of the Christian life, which is union with Christ. To be in Christ is to be united with Christ through his Spirit, which is a profoundly humbling thing that promotes our dependence upon Christ, our focus on the person and work of Christ, and our Spirit-enabled obedience of faith. In a later appendix, Smith applies this to the scholarly life, which is a life grounded in prayerful dependence upon Christ and illumined by Christ.

Smith then talks about four expressions of holiness that might surprise you. The first of these is wisdom, the practical understanding and knowledge of how to live well in the fear of the Lord. This can be expressed as having the mind of Christ, of seeing all of life through the lenses of creation, fall, and Christ’s redemptive work. Wisdom that understands the cross understands suffering in light of the cross.

The second expression of holiness is vocational holiness. By this, Smith means a life of good work that flows out of a sense of being called both into union with Christ, and into the world. Vocational holiness understands our agency in the world as fallen but redeemed image-bearers of God. It involves self-understanding of our temperament, skills, gifts and situation and lives in hopeful realism throughout the seasons of one’s life.

The third expression of holiness is social holiness expressed in our love for others in the communities to which we are called. This will find expression in radical hospitality where we welcome each other as we have been welcomed in Christ, forbearance, forgiveness and reconciliation, and in generous service to others. All of these are formed in the worship, teaching, and witness of our churches.

Finally, and surprisingly, Smith speaks of joyful holiness–the ordering of our emotional lives around our hope in Christ. He sees these particularly worked out in the practices of worship, friendship, and sabbath. This last is especially radical because in sabbath, we trust that while we must rest God doesn’t and his work is prior to and over ours.

The book concludes with two extended appendices, one addressed to applying these truths to the life of the church, and the other to the life of the academy, particularly, but not exclusively the Christian university and seminary.

I came away from this book with a different rubric for thinking about Christian maturity that is neither obsessed with sin nor activity, but rather in the kind of person we become in union with Christ–wise, called, loving, and joyful. That is a kind of “sainthood” that seems quite attractive, and one to which all, and not simply some “spiritual elite”, might aspire.

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Review: Hear, My Son: Teaching & Learning in Proverbs 1-9

Hear, My Son: Teaching & Learning in Proverbs 1-9
Hear, My Son: Teaching & Learning in Proverbs 1-9 by Daniel J. Estes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Proverbs 1 to 9 is an extended address on the value of wisdom from a father or elder teacher to a son or student that introduces the wisdom sayings of the remainder of Proverbs. Daniel J. Estes has taken a novel approach to this literature and written a monograph exploring the philosophy and practice of teaching and learning reflected in this instruction given in these chapters. It is part of the New Studies in Biblical Theology series of monographs.

That may sound like dry, stodgy stuff but what Estes does is outline in a very straightforward fashion what we might learn from these texts about teaching and learning. The book is not an exposition of Proverbs 1 to 9 but rather a study of this discourse through the lens of what it teaches about education.

Here is the outline of the book. After an introduction describing and giving a rationale for this study, Estes looks first at the worldview underlying Proverbs as one seeing the universe as God’s creation, one with a moral order and rationality that reflect the character of God, and thus implying a proper reverence for God by humans and other creatures. He then turns to values for education, of which the top one is wisdom which is understanding how to live well and in accord with God’s order in the world, teachability, righteousness and life. Then follows a consideration of education’s goals: commitment on the part of the learner, growth in character, competence in living, protection from folly and its consequences, prosperity and the knowledge of God.

The next sections turn to the nuts and bolts of education. Proverbs 1-9 describes a threefold curriculum of learning through observation of the world, through instruction in traditional wisdom passed along, and through revealed truth from God. He then turns to the educational process evident in this discourse which includes an address (“hear, my son”), description of the wise and foolish, various forms of commands, incentives, and an invitation to embrace the teaching. This then leads to a consideration of the role of teacher and learner in this process. Because the teacher alternates between expert authority and the role of facilitating wisdom’s embrace, he sees the teacher as functioning as a knowledgeable guide in the learning process. Conversely the learner must receive, respond to, value and assimilate wisdom. Estes then concludes the book by summarizing these chapters and outlining avenues for further exploration as well as by offering few comments on contemporary education.

What I most appreciate about this book is that it articulates an approach to education that integrates faith and rigorous study of the world rather than bracketing these off into separate ventures. In fact, the earliest scientists studied the world as well as theology to understand God’s order. Similarly, tradition, history, literature, and philosophy need not be opposed to either theology or science but all function together as a comprehensive curriculum to teach the fear of God, the order of creation, the cultivation of moral character, competence and common sense in the conduct of life. Competence and character, reason and faith walk together.

In sum, this book is a concise work that gives fresh insight into an aspect of Proverbs–teaching and learning–that has relevance for anyone engaged in the educational enterprise and particularly those who want to think Christianly about how education is done.

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Lady Wisdom’s Unheeded Call

I’ve been reading a bit lately about a subject I don’t hear much about these days–wisdom. My hunch is that we don’t like this idea of wisdom because it seems to suggest that there are ideas of how to live well that are already “out there”–that might have a certain “fixed” quality about them that aren’t subject to our own “make it up as we go” kind of life. It seems to me these days that our preferred method of gaining wisdom, if we care about this at all, is learning from our mistakes. And I have a hunch that many of us do learn this way (I have) and yet it seems that this way is fraught with lots of pain for not only ourselves, but that it leads to inflicting pain on those around us. And sometimes, we don’t live to profit from the lessons–we are merely an object lesson for others. Is there a better way?

Hear my son

One of the books I’ve been reading recently is Hear, My Son by Daniel J. Estes, which looks at the first nine chapters of the book of Proverbs. One of the interesting truths that it has reminded me of is the notion that there is a certain wisdom and order that has been woven into the fabric of creation.

“By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place; by his knowledge the watery depths were divided,and the clouds let drop the dew.” (Proverbs 3:19-20, NIV)

Wisdom tells us that despite how “empowering” it was for Thelma and Louise to drive over a cliff into the Grand Canyon, that this all would end very badly.

Thelma and Louise

It is often times not nearly as dramatic. The laziness that fails to clean out a gutter leads to overflows that damage walls and structures. Water has to go somewhere! The neglect of sleep and the abuse of my body lead to illness and other physical problems. Pulling nutrients out of the earth without replacing them depletes soils and makes good land useless until replenished.

A teacher observed to me once that we not so much break God’s laws as break ourselves against them. And as I think about it, I’m struck that such “wisdom” may be the Creator’s gracious means to save us a good deal of pain in life, rather than a mean-spirited attempt to take all the fun out of life.

I think where this is really hard for me is my own self-will. I want to live life in the words of Frank Sinatra, “my way”. Even though Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 8 makes a compelling case, it is often my own self-willed notion that I know better that closes my ear to her voice, even though her pleas come with promises of blessing:

“Blessed are those who listen to me, watching daily at my doors, waiting at my doorway. For those who find me find life and receive favor from the Lord.” (Proverbs 8:34:35, NIV).

The last word in this quote is the hardest for me, even though I believe in God and have followed Christ for many years. While I don’t mind someone watching over and helping me when I’m sick, or needy, or in trouble, the truth is most of the time, I don’t want God’s help or even to admit that my life is being lived before someone who can be called “Lord.” Yet Proverbs suggests that this is the most profound wisdom of all, foundational to everything else:

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,
    but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Proverbs 1:7, NIV)

Some fears are healthy. Proverbs says that the recognition that my life is lived for God is actually a healthy fear. I think how that works for me is that it leads me to cry for God’s help to live wisely before him in all the nooks, crannies, and crevices of my life. Everything matters, and God would spare us unneeded pain–there is plenty of pain without that which we bring on ourselves. If there is a choice between living well and making life hard–do I really want the latter? Better to listen for the voice of Lady Wisdom…

Review: Jesus The Sage: The Pilgrimage Of Wisdom

Jesus The Sage: The Pilgrimage Of Wisdom
Jesus The Sage: The Pilgrimage Of Wisdom by Ben Witherington III
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:2-3, NIV).

A number of years ago, C. S. Lewis framed the Liar, Lunatic, Lord argument that asserted that Jesus could not possibly have been merely a good teacher–either he lied about his own identity which would make him not good, he was deluded about his own identity (also not good) or he was truthful in his claim to be the Lord of all. An unintended consequence of that argument is that we may deprecate Jesus standing as a teacher in our efforts to assert his Lordship.

In Jesus the Sage Ben Witherington III brings Jesus as Teacher and Jesus as Lord together in his exploration of Wisdom writings and how these influenced Jesus himself, and how they influenced the view of Christ, or Christology of the earliest Christians and the New Testament writers.

The first part of this book traces the trajectory from Solomon and the earliest Wisdom literature up through Ecclesiastes and extra-canonical books like The Wisdom of Solomon and Ben Sira. In this we see a development from Wisdom as Lady Sophia, with God at the Creation, to Wisdom as the Spirit of God. Witherington also argues in this section that these Jewish wisdom sources, and not Greek Cynics influenced Jesus and the early church. He draws the parallels between wisdom sayings in these works and the teaching of Jesus, particularly his use of parable and aphorism.

The second part of the book looks at the movement from Jesus to the early church and how these wisdom traditions influenced Q and James, the earliest hymns of the church, the writing of Paul, and the Gospels of Matthew and John. The basic trajectory is to see Jesus as not only incarnate God but as incarnate Wisdom, the one “greater than Solomon” (Matthew 12:42). One of the great services Witherington does is to show not only the linkage of the wisdom traditions to the early hymns of the church such as Philippians 2:5-11 (which very likely preceded Paul’s writing by some time) but to show that these indicate that the church’s view of Christ, or Christology, was a high one from the beginning–not a late development. I also found his treatment of both Matthew and John as Wisdom books illuminating because, while they do not depend on each other, they both portray Jesus as the wise teacher or logos, they emphasize discourse, and discipleship, among other parallels.

This is but a cursory survey of a rigorously scholarly work that makes an important contribution in reconciling the ideas of Jesus as Lord and Teacher, the one who is Wisdom in human flesh, not the builder of the temple as was wise Solomon, both “God with us”, the living temple. Years ago, Dallas Willard challenged a number of us with the Colossians verse at the beginning of this review and the implications of this truth for every academic discipline in the university. Do we truly believe Jesus knows physics, or law, or business, or history? Do we believe that his wisdom can illuminate our understanding as we wrestle with the deepest questions the academy can pose? What Witherington has done is lay out the biblical (and extra-canonical) case for answering these questions with a resounding “Yes!”

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You Lost Me, The Conversation: Reconnections

It has been a great learning experience for me to engage in this dialogue with my son about David Kinnaman’s You Lost Me–both online and offline. This will likely be our last set of posts on the book, but who knows, we may find something else like this in the future! I will also be posting a review of the whole book in the next few days which will include links to all our posts.

You Lost Me

In the third part of Kinnaman’s book dealing with “Reconnections” Kinnaman summarizes his recommendations to the church in these words:

     Now that we have met the nomads, prodigals, and exiles and explored their perceptions of the church and Christianity, allow me to share three things I have learned from studying the next generation: (1) the church needs to reconsider how we make disciples; (2) we need to rediscover Christian calling and vocation; and (3) we need to reprioritize wisdom over information as we seek to know God.

Reading this again, I breathe a huge sigh of relief. Ben and I were talking last night and I shared that I hoped Kinnaman wasn’t just going to give us six easy counters to the disconnects he observed. I said my own sense was that the church needs to go back to our gospel, back to our roots, rather than a new set of slick techniques. That would only confirm this generation in its opinion of the church as inauthentic.

I’m especially encouraged that the kinds of relationships Kinnaman envisions are intergenerational relationships. For too long, the church has age segregated itself (as well as in other ways). In my own life I experienced the power of this in a relationship with a disc jockey who served as a leader in our local Jesus Movement in the early 70s. Much of this took place in the front seat of his VW Beetle on the way to rallies. The combination of wisdom and affirmation was critical.  Equally I find myself enriched as I work with younger colleagues and graduate students whose doubts, questions and insights challenge me to dig deeper. I constantly learn from my son, who questions my frameworks and teaches me everything from computers, blogging and contemporary sci-fi to remembering how much “in process” I was in my twenties–and still am.

What so engaged me as a young Christian was a faith that spoke to life Monday through Saturday. So I resonate with the focus on vocation and calling. I honestly wonder why many of us then settled for a privatized faith lived only in our personal devotional lives and church gatherings but not out in the world. Perhaps it was because we focused on big scale evangelistic endeavors and political crusades and church growth schemes, but failed to talk in pulpits and small groups, and informal relationships about living out our call in the circumstances each of us lived in every day, with the people we met each day and the real needs both in our own communities and in communities we had connections with in other parts of the world. Whatever it is, I hope this generation can do better at living out called lives in the places we live and work.

Kinnaman talks about prioritizing wisdom over information. We definitely are information rich! As I write this blog, the WordPress site suggests all sorts of content (including some of my own blogs!) that connect to what I’m writing.  I’d like to think my son and others could look to my generation for wisdom and yet our track record suggests otherwise. We created so much of the information technology being used today but did it make us wiser? I think of the kind of information the “Masters of the Universe” on Wall Street had in 2008 and yet it failed to protect them from hubris and the imprudent and arrogant decisions that brought us into what many are calling the Great Recession.

As I think of wisdom I think of the foundational statement in Proverbs that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” When I was younger, I was put off by that phrase “fear of the Lord”. As I’ve gotten a bit older, I’ve begun to think that some fears are healthy and to realize that all of my life is lived coram deo–that is, before God. That makes you think twice about certain actions! The flip side of that realization is that a life well-lived is one that seeks the pleasure of God, that values this above all else. There is also a wonderful freedom when we so believe and live that we know we have nothing to fear of God, and because of this need not fear anything or anyone else.

Kinnaman is right. Terrabytes of information can never give us that kind of life. Information cannot answer the question of how to live well. There just might yet be a place for the church, not in losing people, but in helping them find their way to that kind of life. What do you think, Ben?