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Pope's Study of Church Fathers Not Just for Catholics

Interview With Theologian David Warner

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia, MARCH 28, 2007 (Zenit) - Benedict XVI's Wednesday-audience series on the Apostolic Fathers can give us hope for unity among Christians, says a Catholic theologian who was once an evangelical Protestant minister.

In this interview with us, David Warner discusses how reading Church Fathers led to his return to the Catholic Church and offers some reflections on the Pope's teachings.

Warner is now a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology in Steubenville, Ohio, and an adjunct professor for the University of Sacramento, California.

Q: How have the early Church Fathers been influential in your own life, first as a Protestant minister and later as a Catholic?

Warner: I left the Catholic Church during my high school years. A far-ranging search led me away from the Church and toward a Christianity of my own invention.

After three years of wandering, I re-embraced Trinitarian theology and had an evangelical conversion to the divinity and lordship of Jesus Christ. This was the beginning of what turned out to be a rediscovery of, and return to, what the Nicene Creed calls the "one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church."

Again and again during my 18-year sojourn through various streams of Protestantism, I kept coming back to study the early centuries of Christianity.

While teaching a survey course in Church history, I became convinced that I was incompletely joined to the one Church directly established by Christ and witnessed to by the Fathers.

Reading the Apostolic Fathers and the second-century apologists forced me to come to grips with the thoroughly "Catholic" elements of early Christianity.

There was no escaping the fact that already in the first generations, Christians believed, for example, in a sacramental theology, a hierarchy led by bishops who were appointed by the first apostles, and the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

As a Catholic, my Christian formation was corrected and enriched by studying for three university degrees in Catholic theology. My favorite studies related to patristics.

Whether I was researching biblical, systematic, moral, historical, or pastoral theology; Catholic education or ecumenism; a common point of integration was to discover what the earliest theologians and pastors taught and practiced.

My doctoral studies centered on the 19th-century English convert, Cardinal Newman, who, like so many recent evangelical ministers including myself, returned to the fullness of the ancient Church largely through the influence of the Fathers.

Q: Why would non-Catholic Christians be any more interested in the Fathers of the first couple of centuries than in later saints and doctors of the Church?

Warner: In the Apostolic Fathers and the earliest bishops and apologists, we have the earliest links in the chain that connects today's Christians with the Twelve.

Quoting a second-century bishop, St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Benedict XVI reminded us that St. Clement, the third bishop of Rome in succession from St. Peter, had the first apostles' "preaching in his ears, and their tradition before his eyes."

Pope Clement had no qualms about asserting his extra-local apostolic authority, teaching and correcting the Church of Corinth, in distant Greece.

Other great bishops whom Benedict XVI explores, like St. Ignatius of Antioch, and St. Polycarp died as martyrs for the truth they knew they had received directly from the original apostles who had taught them.

I remember reasoning while still a Protestant minister, that if Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp and Irenaeus could not get it right after just one or two generations, then what hope did I have for believing that Jesus was who the New Testament claimed he was, or that he had founded a Church that would kick in the gates of hell, and be led by the Spirit of truth until his return?

In the end, I wearied of trying to be my own pope, and returned to the Church of the Fathers.

Q: How do you think non-Catholic Christians and others will view Benedict XVI's catechesis on the Fathers of the early Church?

Warner: It is unlikely that many of them will, in fact, come across these teachings directly. But for those who do, their reactions will be influenced by their preconceived ideas and present convictions.

Those who are of a more sociohistorical revisionist persuasion will tend to categorize Benedict's teachings as being nothing more than a repetition of "history as told by the victors" in the ancient battles for orthodoxy.

For them, a seemingly endless stream of "lost gospels" and "new discoveries" are at least complementary to, if not equal or superior to, sacred Scripture and the orthodox writings of the early bishops and saints.

It is a case study for what Cardinal Ratzinger warned of in his homily just before the papal conclave: "Having a clear faith, based on the Creed of the Church, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism. ... We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as certain."

We have become accustomed, for example, to being bombarded through the media every Christmas and Easter with wild theories regarding Jesus and the varieties of early Christian belief, appealing to so-called suppressed writings.

Typically, these were written by pseudonymous authors claiming to be one of the apostles or their companions. Many of these manuscripts promoted Gnostic teachings that were already being warned against by the New Testament authors in the first century.

They were rejected by the early bishops as being unfaithful to the teachings of Christ, as passed down through the apostles and their successors.

One encouraging sign is the growing interest among some Protestant scholars and pastors who are fascinated with the project of rediscovering and adapting the unique worldview, theology and spirituality of the Fathers.

Seeking to become more "Catholic" without necessarily becoming "Roman," many evangelical theologians and publishers are producing serious studies on the biblical theology of the Fathers.

This is a promising path of potential convergence that could serve Benedict XVI's own ecumenical commitments. I think these brothers and sisters in Christ might find food for thought and an expansion of their religious imagination by the Pope's patristic reflections.

Q: Do you have any thoughts on why Benedict XVI would choose to teach on these early Christian Fathers just now?

Warner: The present Wednesday-audience series on the Fathers began on March 7, 2007. It is a continuation of the Pope's catechesis on the mystery of the Church that began a year ago in March 2006, with weekly meditations on each of the Twelve Apostles.

By October, he was ready to draw our attention to St. Paul and his collaborators: apostolic men like Timothy and Titus -- early bishops, and lay leaders in the Church like the married couple, Aquila and Priscilla.

Benedict XVI is trying to follow Our Lord's command to Peter to "feed my sheep." The food he has chosen to provide us during this series is the tremendous heritage of holy men and women who lived and died as witnesses to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and his Church during the first centuries of the Christian era.

From their witness, we can better understand the mystery of the Church as the "presence of Christ among men."

For Catholics, salvation history is the drama of God's unfolding plan for his people. This story can be read in the pages of sacred Scripture and Church history. Benedict XVI's reflections are designed to cause us to reconsider the essential nature and mission of the Church in the context of salvation history.

Q: What common ground can Christians find in the Fathers, and how might this help ecumenical efforts?

Warner: The Fathers can inform and challenge Christians of every description. Protestants can rediscover their forgotten roots. This in turn often results in an increased appreciation for Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and other episcopal and liturgical traditions.

In other cases, openness to the Fathers becomes a steppingstone toward embracing what we believe to be the fullness of Christian faith and practice found within the Catholic Church.

Catholics can and should rediscover some of the patristic priorities that modern evangelicals are noted for, including: living in and for Christ; reverencing and studying the Bible as the unique, authoritative written word of God; and becoming better informed and enthusiastic witnesses to Jesus Christ, the one and only savior of the world.

We can reaffirm our Catholic tradition of promoting all of the gifts of the Spirit -- including the charismatic and hierarchical gifts -- toward the end of Christian maturity and unity. All of these distinctive traits are clearly taught and modeled in the Fathers.

We can relearn how to "breathe with both lungs," a phrase Pope John Paul II often used to refer to drawing from both the Western and Eastern Christian traditions of theology and spirituality.

Many of the earliest Fathers were in fact "Eastern"; they lived in the Near East or Northeast Africa, and wrote in Greek and other non-Latin tongues. Our Eastern Orthodox brothers have the highest regard for the same figures the Pope is holding up for our example and instruction.

Benedict XVI gives us hope for Christian unity by directing us to Ignatius of Antioch who was "truly a doctor of unity." He taught the unity of the Trinity, the unity of the Incarnate Logos, and the unity of the Church in the bonds of love.

Ignatius' prescription for authentic spirituality and ecumenism was "a progressive synthesis between configuration to Christ -- union with him, life in him -- and dedication to his Church -- union with the bishop, generous service to the community and the world."

The Second Vatican Council taught that authentic ecumenism begins with individual, interior repentance and renewal. This can lead to a broader institutional humility and renewal, and docility toward the lessons of history.

Through the Fathers' writings, all Christians may learn from these privileged witnesses to the sacred deposit of faith entrusted by Our Lord to the first apostles. The first- and second-century Fathers and apologists serve as windows into the mystery of the Church as "one, holy, catholic and apostolic."

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