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Pope's Study of Church Fathers Not Just for Catholics

3/29/2007 - 6:10 AM PST

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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 ...

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