I am, by training, a classicist. I was reminded of that on Friday because I went to a lecture on Homer, back into the particular section of the local ivory tower which currently houses the Classics department. I felt I was back on familiar ground because I had spent some years at this particular department, but felt unfamiliar because of all the things that have changed over the seven years that I've been away. I enjoyed the talk and found some useful tidbits for my own teaching, as well as some grist for this particular blogging mill.
What I've been thinking about in connection to this re-entry into the Classical world was the relationship between my training in this field and my current interest in patristics. I am something of an autodidact when it comes to patristics (and, for that matter, the more general field of theology of which patristics is a part). That is, in my many years in university (15 years all told; 8 of which were post-graduate), I only took one course on a patristic author. That course was something of a Beginners Intensive Augustine taught as a historical topics course, so not exactly taken from a theological standpoint or even a linguistic one. So, I'm not sure that counts.
Of course, my classics training has proven to be incredibly useful in my autodidactic approach to patrology. My understanding of Latin and Greek, my familiarity with the various types of anciliary modes of criticism (textual, form, source etc) and specialized skills (epigraphy, papyrology, etc) and the basic historical/literary background of the classical period has proved invaluable as I've entered the thickets of patristic learning. All of these skills have given me invaluable shortcuts in pursuing my patristic enthusiasm.
Still, being back in a classics environment continues to remind me how different a world classics is. You'd think it wouldn't be. After all, patristics and classics both inhabit the same time and places, so have so much overlap that you'd think patrologists and classicists would be talking all the time. The truth is, however, that the relationship is strained. Classics, by its very nature, focuses on the literature, history, philosophy of the non-Christians and is, thus, uncomfortable with what is going on among the Christians. Many classics scholars would be more than happy to forget the Christians were there or, if they should be so rude as to obtrude into their historical vision, to condemn Christians as narrow-minded, ignorant fanatics who couldn't appreciate the art, beauty and nobility of the classical ethos. It shouldn't strike anyone as odd that many classicists dismiss Christianity and find their comfort in the classical world. Nor should it surprise anyone that Christians sometimes find Classics departments rather uncomfortable and frustrating places in which to be Christians.
Still, this division between patristics and classic is, at once, appropriate and artificial. It is appropriate because, for a long time before Christianity's future triumph, declaring oneself a Christian was to separate with the mass culture of classicism. Refusal to sacrifice effectively removed one from the political sphere. Distrust of paganism removed one from the literary sphere. Thus, in a real sense, Christian literature before Constantine operated with different rules and appealed to very different audiences than more mainstream authors. Mind you, we'd still have to work in the inevitable economic/social status as determines of who read what, but I doubt we'd find many non-Christians reading, say, Tertullian. If we did, it might only to look for ammunition to convince Christians to stop being so obstreperous.
Yet, it is still an artificial division, even before Constantine, because Christian writers were concerned with how Christians related to the culture around them. They were often seeking to explain Christianity to non-Christians in culturally understandable ways or in interpreting the culture to Christians in a theologically understandable way. One couldn't quite separate oneself from the mainline culture then any more than we can do it now. In that sense, patrologists can't do with a good understanding of the classics.
That, of course, is the irony of the patrologist's relationship with classics. At the end of the day, the patrologist needs the classicist rather more than the classicist needs them. The classicist can still ignore the patrologist and the Christians of his era and suffer comparatively little distortion. Yet, the patrologist (and the Christian today) has to engage with the dominant culture, even as it critiques it.