Thursday, March 29, 2007

Pope's Study of Church Fathers Not Just for Catholics

~from Zenit's interview with Catholic theologian David Warner

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.

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