A Review of
Worshiping With the Church Fathers.
Paperback: IVP Academic, 2010.
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[ Read an excerpt of this book here… ]
Reviewed by Chris Smith.
Worshiping with the Church Fathers is the third volume of Christopher Hall’s four volume work on the Church in its earliest centuries. This new volume, looks specifically at the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist, the practice of prayer and the spirituality of the desert fathers. His objective is:
To present as clearly as possible the fathers’ understanding of what worship is and what it isn’t. I have tried to allow them to speak for themselves, to present their case and then to encourage readers to make their own decisions as to the validity of the particular patristic viewpoints.
Hall does a fine job both of achieving his stated goal of letting the Church Fathers speak for themselves and of providing enough context through which the reader can understand the writings of the Fathers. The book’s first two chapters explore the roles of baptism and the Eucharist respectively, with a particular emphasis on the sacramental (and material) nature of both practices. Hall explains that the material nature of the sacraments is rooted in the incarnation of Christ:
The incarnation, then, is the bedrock upon which all sacraments are built. The sacramental principle – God wills, indeed, delights in using tangible, earthy means to draw near to his image bearers – is grounded on the Word made flesh (22).
However, the finest parts of the book are the latter two parts on prayer and the faith of the desert fathers, and the book’s finest chapter was its exploration of the “Challenge of Unceasing Prayer.” This question of what it means to pray continually is one that I have wrestled with for most of my life, and indeed I have found in the early Church (along with the monastic tradition) much wisdom about what it means to pray without ceasing. Hall focuses particularly on the early Christian debates about the use of iconography and imagery in prayer. After overviewing these debates (and their relevance to the present) Hall explores the challenges that distractions that posed a threat to the practice of unceasing prayer in the ancient world and today. He concludes this chapter with the striking words of Origen:
“He prays without ceasing who joins prayer to works that are of obligation, and good works to his prayer. For virtuous works, or the carrying out of what is enjoined, form part of prayer. It is only in this way that we can understand the injunction, pray without ceasing, as something that we can carry out; that is to say, if we regard the whole life of the saint as one continuous prayer” (141).
With this understanding of prayer in mind, we should mention one of the disappointments with this volume is that it splits activities of worship from the ethics of the Church. Hall recognizes this problem in the book’s introduction, noting that he had initially intended to explore worship and ethics together, but found that task to be too broad, so he relegated the ethics of the Church Fathers to the fourth and final volume of the series. Needless to say, we will wait in great anticipation for that volume as a complement to this one on worship.
Hall’s final two chapters on the faith of the desert fathers serve as a wonderful introduction to this oft-ignored era of Church history. The first of these chapters focuses on St. Antony, one of the earliest and perhaps the foremost of the fathers. The latter, looks more broadly at the experience and teaching of the desert fathers and mothers (Despite the single-gendered title of the book, I was glad to see the desert mothers were recognized – albeit briefly here). Hall does open some doors for exploration of the meaning of the desert fathers and mothers for the Church today, perhaps leaving it to the reader to find other books that explore these questions in much greater detail (For anyone interested, I would recommend Henri Nouwen’s The Way of The Heart, as a excellent “next step” in exploring the meaning of the desert fathers and mothers for today – and incidentally we are giving away a copy of this book this week).
Overall Hall’s work serves as a superb introduction to the “worship” of the Church Fathers (and Mothers). I suspect that the most fruitful engagement of this book would be in conjunction with the other three volumes of this series, an undertaking that would require a great deal of commitment on the part of the reader, but would undoubtedly yield a rich historical perspective our faith.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com