Christopher Hall is associate professor of biblical and theological studies at Eastern College, Pennsylvania, and associate editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. In this book, he provides an introduction to studying the writings of the men we know as the “Church Fathers”. He is particularly focused on their methods of exegesis and scriptural interpretation. As such, the book is probably designed for use in a historical theology class, but I found it a useful introduction to the lay reader.
Following a few introductory chapters, Hall gives brief biographies of four fathers from the East (Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil the Great, and John Chrysostom) and four from the West (Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and Gregory the Great), with a few snippets of the writings of each. Following that, he has a few chapters on the interpretive differences that are represented by the Alexandrian and Antiochene schools (allegory vs. a more limited typography). Finally, he offers some practical suggestions for entering the world of the Fathers.
This is a book that gets stronger as it goes. The biographical chapters left me feeling a bit unsatisfied, as I wanted to hear some more direct quotes from the Fathers themselves, and I started getting their biographical details mixed up. Things got much better with the chapters on allegorical vs. “literal” interpretation. (I have put “literal” in quotes, because it is still a good deal more allegorical than many rationalist modern readers may be comfortable with.) The closing chapters, with practical advice on approaching the Fathers, were by far the most helpful. Here are a few quotes from the last chapter:
People bred by their culture to expect a text to address and immediately answer problems, questions or issues that by their intrinsic nature demand a slower, borader and deeper response will often find themselves frustrated by patristic writers. The quest for immediate spiritual or intellectual gratification is rarely successful; short-term solutions to long-term problems ultimately break down. The fathers are insistent that spiritual, theological and biblical insight does not appear overnight. Instead, they adamantly insist that the Bible opens itself to those who have immersed themselves in its riches and pondered it deeply within the context of prayer, worship and communal reflection.
Unlike most modern people, including too many Christians, the fathers are in no rush. You will not find them providing ten easy steps for spiritual fulfillment, nor evincing great sympathy for those who might find their writings difficult to grasp for the first time. The problems and realities Scripture addresses and elucidates — sin, evil, death, life, incarnation, redemption, creation, recreation — demand the attention of a mind and heart that has learned to be patient, to listen, to be silent, to study “with the mind in the heart.”
And, on the idea of picking one Father to study in depth as a starting point:
As I immersed myself in the life and work of Chrysostom in preparing my doctoral dissertation, I realized that my teachers had been right. But it was only through coming to know Chrysostom himself, through reading biographies of him, through reading his sermons and treatises, through seeing his responses to the deep suffering and trials he encountered through much of his life, that the world of the fathers opened up to me. I realized Chrysostom was calling me to listen to both his words and his life. In him I saw the integrity too often missing in my own Christian experience. His words and life dramatically fit together.
My encounter with Chrysostom led to a deeper exposure to other fathers. As the days and months passed, a world that had once appeared foreboding, alien and intimidating began to feel more like home. But the first step in this process, what I see as the formation of new and lasting friendships, was the choice to study one father in some detail.
I haven’t read enough to compare this book to others on the same subject, but I can certainly say that it has been helpful for me. I’m thinking I might start with Clement of Alexandria, if I decide to follow the above advice.