Book Review of Christopher Hall’s Learning Theology with the Church Fathers

This is the second book in a trilogy by Hall. The first and third are respectively titled Reading Scripture With the Church Fathers and Praying With the Church Fathers. He says most such books seek to give a sampling of what many early church fathers believed concerning a particular doctrine, giving very little time to any one father. Hall’s intention is to present various doctrines and to illuminate each from the point of view of one or two church fathers.

Toward the end of the preface he indicates he will attempt to let the fathers do most of the talking. Hall does not, however, and that is just fine because he is full of wonderful insight. He does indeed let the fathers do much talking by sharing quotes from their books, tracts, official church documents, and private letters. One gets the impression that if they had not already said what they did, Hall would be the first to say it.

In the next 11 chapters, Hall hops effortlessly from one rock of doctrine to the next. And on each rock he focuses on one or two fathers who discussed the issue. These were the men who responded to the inevitable onslaught of heretical thought and paved the way for Christian orthodoxy.

We hear from the likes of Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Cyril of Alexandria, Basil the Great, Augustine, Chrysostom, Iraneus, Cyprian, Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Theophilus of Antioch, Athenagoras, various Gnostic writers, and the heretics Arius, Nestorius, and Pelagius.

At first glance, the arrangement of the beginning chapter subjects seems a tad askew. Why does he talk about Jesus, then discuss the trinity, then talk about Jesus again (chapters 2, 3, and 4)? But the point is that Jesus, God the Son is God the Father.

Hall interacts so well with his many sources that it sometimes seems he alone is speaking. That is not a negative criticism. That is very commendable. In addition, he presents the ideas of secondary sources extremely well in supporting or refuting the primary sources. Although they are not highlighted, additional primary sources with which Hall interacts are Gregory of Nyssa and the Nicene Creed.

The biggest fault is found in the final chapter on resurrection. Up to that time Hall wisely left the central discussion to one or two writers. His intention for providing so many writers in the last chapter is apparent: 1) To provide sort of a grand finale for the climactic doctrine in the book. 2) To show the various so-so views concerning resurrection before providing the best view—Augustine’s view. This idea is admirable and it actually might have been the best decision. However, in the early chapters it was nice to allow particular church fathers to spread their wings.

In the end, Hall is successful in showing that theology and spirituality are unified. He also succeeds in making the work of the church fathers more accessible and at the same time clarifying orthodox doctrine.

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