Last time I posted on R.R. Reno’s essay, “The Return of the Fathers,” it wasn’t available online. It is now, at First Things. It’s filled with good news about the world we live in.
One of the most important new facts about Christian theology in North America is the sudden popularity of the theologians and pastors, monks and bishops, martyrs and missionaries, who first fashioned a Christian culture nearly two thousand years ago. The Church Fathers are returning as agents of renewal, guiding us toward the biblical source of a truly Christian culture.
We see the return of the Fathers in unexpected places. The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, edited by Thomas Oden and published by InterVarsity, has been remarkably successful. Across twenty-eight projected volumes (eighteen or so are now out), the series presents a selection of patristic interpretations, organized around the verses of the Bible. The result is a grand catena, a style of commentary in which the Bible is illuminated by a selection of short passages from such ancient interpreters as Augustine, Origen, Chrysostom, and Basil.
Popular in the centuries following the debates that culminated in the great ecumenical councils and creeds of the fourth and fifth centuries, catenae were used to reinforce and pass on the authoritative interpretations from the age of the Church Fathers. In this way, the imaginations of biblical readers were socialized into the patristic consensus about God, Christ, salvation, the Church, and sacraments. That a twenty-first-century evangelical press has gone forward with a project committed to this mode of retrospective, consensus-building biblical commentary—and that the project has met with striking success—says something important about our time.
The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture is not unique. Robert Louis Wilken’s account of the great patristic intellectual synthesis, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, is widely read. In The Beauty of the Infinite, David Hart argues for the superiority of patristic metaphysics over the latest postmodern fashions. Graduate students at universities such as Notre Dame, who thirty years ago would have written dissertations on Karl Rahner and transcendental philosophy, are now more likely to focus on the speculative system of Origen or the Christian Platonism of the Cappadocians.
If you haven’t read Reno’s book Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible, then get right on it!