Through much of Christian history, the study of “the Fathers” meant the study of all our theological ancestors — no matter how remote or recent. In the thirteenth century, St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, often cited the ancients — both the Greek and Latin Fathers — and indeed he committed some of their works to memory. But he also counted as “Fathers” the great teachers of the generation immediately before him.
With the fifteenth-century Protestant Reformation, however, scholars and churchmen in the West began to narrow the scope of their study of the Fathers. It was a necessary consequence of the nature of the Reformation. Martin Luther and John Calvin claimed that their movements were not novelties, but retrievals of the most ancient faith — the faith of the New Testament. Both men often cited texts of the Fathers to buttress their arguments. But Luther especially was ambivalent about the Fathers. He charged that they “often erred,” and he acknowledged that some of his own doctrines could not be reconciled with a consensus of the Fathers. For the first time in history, a theologian was arguing that Scripture opposed the collective witness of all his ancestors in the faith.
Yet the Fathers themselves claimed only to be passing on the interpretation of Scripture that they had received from the apostles. So the argument was really about biblical interpretation, and the Fathers provided a valuable witness, a perspective that was closer to the time and culture of Jesus Christ than any speculation of the late Middle Ages. At first, both Protestants and Catholics hoped to marshal the Fathers as evidence for their theological positions. Erasmus — Luther’s sometime foil and sometime friend — published translations of Ambrose, Augustine, Basil, John Chrysostom, and Jerome.
Before long, the study of the ancient Fathers became a thriving academic specialty, called “patrology” or “patristics,” from that same Greek word used in the New Testament, pateres.
In the nineteenth century, the English-speaking world enjoyed an abundant harvest from the field of patristics. There arose in the Church of England another retrieval movement, this time including the Fathers in its purview. They called themselves the Tractarians, after the controversial religious tracts they published. They would eventually become known as the Oxford Movement, for the university where many of them taught, and their influence extended far.
At mid-century, some of the movement’s leaders converted to Catholicism, most notably John Henry Newman. Newman’s last work as an Anglican, An Essay on the Development of Catholic Doctrine, really details how the Fathers led him to the fullness of Catholic faith: “of all existing systems,” he concluded, “the present communion of Rome is the nearest approximation in fact to the Church of the Fathers … Did St. Athanasius or St. Ambrose come suddenly to life, it cannot be doubted what communion he would take to be his own.”
Reading the Fathers has led many other patristic scholars and Protestant clergymen to the same conclusion — and to the same communion. In Newman’s lifetime, there were many, including Thomas W. Allies and Henry Wilberforce. In the twentieth century, there were many more, including Louis Bouyer and, very recently, the dean of America’s Church historians, Robert Louis Wilken.
In the last fifty years, there has been a great flowering of patristic scholarship in the United States. It began, really, when some of the great European scholars fled here from Nazi and communist persecution. From their academic work came a wealth of publications. There are currently three extensive series of translations of the Church Fathers available in English. Two arose simultaneously at mid-twentieth century and continue to publish volumes every year: the Ancient Christian Writers series (currently published by Paulist Press) and the Fathers of the Church (published by Catholic University of America). Two Protestant series from the nineteenth century — the Ante-Nicene Fathers, and the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers — are available in a reprint edition from Hendrickson, an evangelical publisher. A smaller set, the Popular Patristics series, is published by the Orthodox St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.
Two Protestant publishers have recently launched series that focus exclusively on the Fathers’ biblical interpretation. The first out of the gate was the Ancient Christian Commentary, edited by Methodist scholar Thomas Oden and published by InterVarsity Press. The second, called The Church’s Bible, is published by Eerdmans and edited by Robert Louis Wilken.
The literature about the Fathers is simply too vast to mention. And there’s no shortage of good books aimed at ordinary Catholics who are put off by scholarly tomes.
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Over the past twenty years, hundreds of Protestant clergy, in the United States alone, have experienced the “catholicizing” influence of the Fathers and entered full communion with the Catholic Church. High-profile converts include Scott Hahn, Marcus Grodi and Alex Jones, among others. Grodi’s apostolate, the Coming Home Network, has made patristics the bedrock of its apologetic efforts. And his own catch-phrase, “Deep in History,” is straight out of Newman.
Sooner or later, every thinking Christian discovers the duty to study the Fathers. It presents itself as a matter of religious literacy, if not a debt of family honor. They fought the first culture wars; we should at least learn from them. Many of them died to preserve and preach our faith; we should at least remember them with gratitude.
Non-Catholics turn to them increasingly for insight into Scripture — but then it’s hard to ignore the Fathers’ biblical reflections on the Mass, the papacy, veneration of the saints, and other Catholic distinctives. They are indeed — as the Catechism put it — “always timely witnesses” to Catholic tradition, and their witness is invaluable today.