Thursday, March 11, 2010

Patristics at Wheaton

Wheaton is going to start a center for the study of Patristics. In the words of George Kalantzis, "We are striving to create a center where discussions between Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox can happen. A place where we can come together and say, ‘What is this that we call our common faith, and how do we each contribute to a better understanding of that,’"

Can I get an amen, brother!

It appears that this program is tapping into a felt, yet unmet need, too. Kalantzis already has over 20 applicants to the brand new program, and he hasn't even begun to advertise it.

George goes on, "Our goal is to understand our common tradition, explore it, live with it, be with it, instead of just going back and plundering it - finding the eight quotes to justify whatever I want to do." or as he says in another interview, “Most Christians look at the early Church and find quotes that support their position and move forward from there. But that is not study. That is pillaging,” Kalantzis said. “We need to delve into it and truly live with [the Church Fathers] and understand them, where their conflicts were and what their thought patterns were. How else are we going to understand our faith if we don’t understand those who delivered it to us?”

Preach, it. This has got to be my pet peeve in discussions over Patristics with folks. Cherry picking somebody's words to make them say what they never intended is far too common, whether one is looking at Scripture or the earliest interpreters of the Word of God written.

It is this one statement in the Christianity Today article that I don't get.
"The Tradition belongs to Protestants as well, he reminds us. Without the story of the early church, the Protestant Reformation would make no sense. The Reformers appealed to the pattern of the early church. We cannot be true Protestants without knowing that history."

I get the first and third sentences. However, I don't see the 2nd and 4th as clearly. In my experience, most people who take the early church seriously end up converting to Eastern Orthodoxy or Catholicism. Perhaps one could study Patristics as an Episcopalian or Lutheran, but it is tough for me to imagine large numbers Evangelical Protestant taking this as seriously as a Presbyterian takes the writings of Calvin, et. al. and not having large numbers of conversions to Orthodoxy or Catholicism. In my experience, I've met numerous people who reach the early church fathers and decided that they were heretics (similar to George Barna/Frank Viola in Pagan Christianity) or cherry picked verses to support their ideas (all traditions, but more prevalent among evangelicals in my experience) or aligned their viewpoints more with the Catholic/Orthodox traditions (e.g., Robert Wilken, who gave the inaugural lecture at the opening of the center and is a Catholic convert). I've yet to read anybody who really took the study of the early church fathers seriously and remained an evangelical Protestant. That doesn't mean such people don't exist. I've just not familiar with anybody that fits that description. There is such a discord between the writings of Ignatius or __________ and evangelical theology/practice on subjects like the authority of bishops, I don't see this new center as being something that would encourage status quo theological thinking for most evangelical students.

Another interesting point, is that Wheaton doesn't allow Catholic or Orthodox professors on staff (at least, I think that's why Prof. Hochschild was fired). Given that the experts in this field often hail from non-evangelical backgrounds, it will be interesting to see what kind of faculty they pull in. My guess is that there will be close collaboration with faculty of other universities, without actually hiring them (e.g., the Prof. Wilken inaugural lecture).


purple_kangaroo said...


MamasBoy said...

What will be most interesting is to check back in 10-20 years and see what the state of the program is and what religious makeup of the graduates is.

So far the Wheaton alumnus most widely recognized as an expert on early Church history is the agnostic Bart Ehrman, not a very comforting situation. Perhaps this new program will reverse the trend, noted by Newman in the mid 1800's, but still applicable today, "It is melancholy to say it, but the chief, perhaps the only English writer who has any claim to be considered an ecclesiastical historian, is the unbeliever Gibbon. To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant." I for one am very curious to see where this program ends up a generation or two from today.