Worshiping with the Church Fathers

Christopher A. Hall. Worshiping with the Church Fathers. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009. 280 pages.

Christopher A. Hall. Worshiping with the Church Fathers. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009. 280 pages.

Jerome, Augustine, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, John Chrysostom, Athanasius, Origen, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Ambrose—names that we have probably heard, but maybe are not entirely clear on who they were and why they are relevant. Such is the concern that rings through Christopher Hall’s three volume series of on the Church Fathers: 1.) Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, 2.) Learning Theology with the Church Fathers, 3.) Worshiping with the Church Fathers (here reviewed). The fourth and final volume titled Living Ethically with the Church Fathers is yet to come.

Hall’s objective is simple, he invites readers “into an active, lively engagement with the church fathers and in this particular volume, with their understanding of worship” (13). In this regard, he focuses on three areas of patristic thought: the Sacraments, Prayer, and Discipline.

Recognizing that many Protestants are unfamiliar with sacramental theology, Hall provides a theological primer. Writing as an evangelical who appreciates liturgy, Hall is aware that not everyone shares in this appreciation. He therefore speaks with an appropriate blend of sensitivity and candor, encouraging readers to listen carefully and graciously before drawing definitive conclusions.  Along this line, he also shares from his own experience, helping readers to understand some of the particular challenges and opportunities of worshipping with the church fathers today.

In explaining the logic of sacramental worship, Hall presents the concept of “incarnation” as “the bedrock upon which all the sacraments are built,” a principle so fundamental that it is “grounded in the Word made flesh” (22). Chapter one applies this concept to one’s entrance into the worshiping community. A host of church fathers are cited to elucidate how the embodiment of Jesus finds expression in this initiatory rite which we call the sacrament of baptism. In this vein, particular issues are addressed, such as the role of the Holy Spirit, regeneration, and infant baptism.

The subject of chapter two is the Eucharist. Hall begins with a quote from Leonard Vander Zee, a Christian Reformed Church pastor who has written on the subject. Vander Zee’s thesis, in Hall’s words, is “that evangelical confusion over Holy Communion is related to a gnostic, dualistic tendency in evangelical thinking and practice, bewilderment related to an imbalanced, warped Christology” (51). From this statement Hall explains the dangerous and heretical threat of Gnosticism as it existed in the early church and which continues to exert influence today. Over and against this threat, Hall evinces a wide range of patristic voices.

Many evangelicals will concede that there is probably a little too much of Plato’s dualism mingled into the typical evangelical worldview, such that it may even impinge upon our appreciation of the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist (or “ordinances,” if you like). But Hall’s absolute, categorical charge raises some questions.

First, one wonders how evangelicals are guilty of this, but not Catholics and Orthodox. The ascetic life, for instance, with its aversion to certain earthly pleasures such as sex or its practice of self-inflicted corporeal punishment, appears to also have a few dualistic skeletons in the closet. Secondly, why is rejection of sacramental realism necessarily guilty of disparaging God’s creation? Isn’t it possible for a Christian to love God’s creation, but happen to disagree with sacramental theology?

The above question especially rises to the surface when you consider the less than compelling exegesis of certain church fathers on this topic. Here, for instance, is one example which Hall cites by Cyril of Jerusalem, “If Christ changed water into wine at Cana, why should we consider it ‘incredible that he should change wine into blood” (73). I and every evangelical I know will grant without hesitation that God is able to turn wine into blood; but is this what Scripture in fact teaches? It seems to me entirely possible for someone to say “no,” without being guilty of Gnosticism.

Despite these questions, Hall’s treatment of the topic is very helpful. In addition to explaining general patristic thoughts on the issue, he clarifies the meaning and significance of historical events such as Augustine’s confrontation with the Donatists. The chapter closes with a personal reflection to help readers appreciate the topic’s relevance.

Section two on prayer constitutes the heart of the book (chapters three through six) and by itself is well worth the book’s price. It covers a number of important themes and questions that appear in patristic discussions of the topic, all of which are remarkably applicable for today. They include: the nature of prayer, the problem of self deception, the foundation and elements of prayer, the problem of distractions in prayer, common roadblocks, the problem of unanswered prayers, the incorporation of Scripture and prayer.

The third and final section on spiritual discipline consists of chapters seven (The Transforming Call to the Desert) and eight (A Space to Draw Close to God). As in the previous section, Hall’s burden, in addition to making the father’s thoughts and practices more familiar, is to equip Christians in the present with truth from the past. Unlike some interpreters who either romanticize or dismiss monastic life, Hall provides an evaluation that is simultaneously honest and constructive.

Worshiping with the Church Fathers deserves a place on your bookshelf for no other reason than the way it reveals the grand and spacious horizons of Christ’s kingdom. But it offers more that. By mapping out the patristic terrain it provides a colorful landscape in which we are invited to celebrate the wonder of God.

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