In Learning Theology with the Church Fathers, Christopher Hall discusses the doctrinal beliefs of the early Christian leaders while Christianity was in its fledgling state of development. Much of what is discussed by Hill in his book is the standard for what the beliefs on the subject will be throughout the church’s history. The topics in Hill’s book are important because the church father’s findings concern these issues establishes the church’s beliefs on these doctrinal topics.
Hill’s approach in his book is to take a subject that was highly contested in the life of the early church and follow one or two of the major leading authorities on the subject from the time period. A benefit to looking at the topic this way shows what the prominent thinking of the day was and if it still relates to Christians today. The first major theme that the book addresses is to describe the attributes of God. Hill looks at the various aspects of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Within discussing the parts of the Holy Trinity, Hill shows the various thinking the early church had concerning the three, what each of their roles are, and discusses how each of the three had equality together without either being subordinate to another.
The second theme addressed by Hill is that of God’s interaction with humans. Hill explains the teachings concerning man’s sin and how the church fathers understood God’s forgiveness toward man. Hill also speaks of man as being instilled with God’s goodness. Man’s natural instinct is not bent on doing what is inherently good, but it is within God’s instilled grace that God’s best for man is placed within himself (Hill, 130). Hill also writes in discussion of God’s providence to man as being loving, transcendent and wise.
The third theme Hill discusses are those things that are directly relatable to Christians in their relations with God. These things consist of the Christian’s relation to the scriptures, the apostolic founded church, and a Christian’s resurrected body and eternal life. Hill also discusses the early church father’s apologetics to the scripture’s authority and how the scriptures were His perfect gift given through His perfect knowledge (Hill, 209). Hill also discusses the differing roles of the church and what the members communal roles are and the differing thoughts on discipline.
One of the most important topics discussed by Hill is that of the characteristics of the Holy Spirit. The discussion that was taking place during the fourth century was what is the Holy Spirit and what role does it play in the character of God? Many believed that the three persons of God were not triumvirate but actually three different Gods making Christianity polytheistic. Basil the Great’s writings on the subject is the focal point of Hill’s discussion. Basil’s writings addressed the variable confusions that surrounded the Holy Spirit.
The topics Hill highlights from Basil is that of the Holy Spirits equality with the Father and the Son. One point that Hill singles out which gives credence to a Holy Trinity is that the argument for differing levels of power in the Holy Trinity is not arguable. Hill contends that people cannot comprehend the relationship between the three because they all three transient time and age, thus making it impossible for man to give rank to one over another (Hill, 105). This is rational argument because if something transcends time and age, does another being transcend time and space more? To have this distinction is not a more or less argument but a yes or no argument in defining a deity’s self to which Hill discusses well.
Another positive from Hill’s book is the explanation of the Holy Spirit and the description of the divine community that is the Holy Trinity. If the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not three different gods, what is the purpose of their being three separate beings? Hill examines this by giving each of the three different roles in the actions of the world. Hill defines the Father as the creator, the Son and the initiator, and the Holy Spirit as the perfecter (Hill, 115).
This understanding of the Holy Trinity shows how the three are not separate but how each are one with different roles in dealing with man. Hill also explains that neither entity usurps the other’s tasks, but remain separated in their roles showing that neither is superior to the other entities. This is a useful distinction because it helps understand the functioning of the Holy Trinity and how it relates to man. When those tasks are known man has a better appreciation for each part of the Holy Trinity and honor can be given to the each part of the deity including the Holy Spirit (Hill, 118).
The theme of man’s relation to God is another well outlined discussion. Hill addresses the subject of man’s sins in a way that explains how it was problematic for the church fathers. Following the writing of Irenaeus, Hill discusses the issue of man’s goodness. The discussion during the time of Irenaeus was whether man was naturally good or was goodness implanted in man by God? Hill’s conclusion eventually is man’s sin nature is prevalent before his conversion and after his conversion God bestows a sense of goodness through His love in man. God’s redemptive spirit is given to man and reflected through the actions of man (Hill, 130).
Hill’s explanation that the church fathers did not think man naturally good is logical because if man is naturally good then their is no purpose for salvation. Yet while it is said human nature is without good, man is still given a choice and sometimes makes the moral decision. A limited amount of time was given to explain how God allows man to make his own choices. Hill says that God gives the choice to man to decide but does not fully expound on why man sometimes goes against his nature to make moral decisions.
In all, Hill does a good job on explaining the church father’s thinking concerning the formation of early church doctrine. His description of their writings helps the reader understand the issues that spurred their theology and the content of their messages. Learning Theology with the Church Fathers gives an good summation of how Christian beliefs came to formation and who the writers were that God used to frame early Christianity’s doctrine.
Hill, Christopher. Learning Theology with the Church Fathers. Downers Grove: IVP Academy, 2002.
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