Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers (Hall)

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Puritanboard Clerk
by Christopher A. Hall (IVP).

The book turned out much better than I expected it to be. The author avoided anachronisms and the scope of the text, while very limited, skillfully outlined the Church Fathers' (more on that elusive term later) handling of Scripture.

Christopher Hall argues that Evangelicals should make the Church Fathers routine conversation partners in our interpretation of Scripture. Not to make them the last word, since much of their exegesis is rather forced, but because a regular *re*reading of the Church Fathers provides an important epistemological service: it forces us to examine our own presuppositions and culture as we come to the text.

What is a Church Father? Admittedly, any definition of this term is somewhat arbitrary. Hall summarizes the definition along the lines of someone who has received traditional teaching (Hall 50; cf Irenaeus) and faithfully preserved conciliar conclusions. A Church father must have antiquity, holiness of life (although this can be stretched when it comes to things like temper and gentleness) and orthodox doctrine. Granted, a number of questions are begged at this point, but we must move on.

Hall then survey eight fathers: four Eastern (Athanasius, Nazianzus, Basil, and Chrysostom) and four Western (Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory the Great) and points the reader to certain works. Much of this section is a summary of what you would find in textbooks on the Nicene and post-Nicene period. I won't go into it here.

He then contrasts the allegorizing of Alexandria with the more literal approach of Antioch.

Of course, the fathers aren't infallible. Further, we should be wary of stretching the Patrum Consensus beyond what it can hold.

What can we take from the Church Fathers? Unlike modern academic tendencies, they did not divorce the reading of Scripture and the doing of theology from liturgy (happily, with the coming demise of the German-based post-graduate system in America, we might be approaching a period when this is possible).

Even more, the Fathers had mnemonic powers that Americans can only dream of. This allowed them to be remarkably sensitive to motifs in Scripture that a concordance might miss. While Hall doesn't cover this, to be a bishop in the ancient church one must have memorized the entire Psalter. (And later, to be a Cossack warrior in Russia one must also have memorized the Psalter. When you get captured by Muslimists chanting the Psalter would help you endure torture).

And to be honest, if you want to memorize large chunks of Scripture, you probably need to chant it. Not recite it nor re-read it, but chant it. That's likely why John Chrysostom had the entire Bible memorized.

As a whole the book is outstanding. Some repetition and for those who have read widely on the Nicene debates, parts of the book can be skipped. On the other hand, this is probably the best introduction to the Church Fathers.
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