Today's entry is my attempt to answer my own question for the Christian Reconciliation Carnival, namely:
How does our understanding of Early Christianity (here defined as the apostolic period to the end of the patristic age c. 750 AD)help or hinder our efforts at Christian Reconciliation?
To some degree, part of my project on this blog has been to try to answer this question and I don't think I've quite solved the problem (surprisingly, since no one else since the Reformation has either), but here are my current thoughts on the issue.
First, I have to concede that the use of the Fathers and of Early Christianity has not been the source of Christian unity for a very long time. One of the running polemical battles in and since the Reformation has been the conflicting vision of what the Early Church was as a way of justifying either the status quo or justifying the reforms suggested by the Reformers. Sometimes Catholics are surprised to hear the degree to which the Protestant Reformers were concerned with the Fathers and the degree to which they quoted them. Luther and Calvin were particularly active in this patristic interest. Certainly, Luther was, at heart, an Augustinian, although he tended to stress rather different aspects of Augustine's program than the Catholics did. Similarly, Calvin was well able to quote the Fathers at length. Catholics, of course, exploited the catholic language of the Fathers and the clear respect for the Roman church which most Fathers displayed.
These polemics, of course, continue. Protestants are accustomed to assume some kind of breaking point in the early Church, when the 'Romish' error really took root and corrupted the pure Church (which looks, unsurprisingly, like the Protestant church). Those breaking points are things like the introduction of philosophy into theology with Origen, the Constantinian revolution and such things. Before this period, Protestants could take the practices and the writings of the period seriously. After that period, all was lost.
Catholics are accustomed to assume that everything said in the patristic era backs them up. That means, all too often, the assumption that the references to the catholic church are, actually, references to the Roman Catholic Church. It also tends to mean an assumption that the respect granted to Rome translated into some kind of ecclesiastical jurisdiction.
Now, if we added the Eastern Orthodoxy, of course, we'd have another polemical vision of the early Church; one that wouldn't be far from the Roman Catholic one, but differing largely in the degree of respect that the church should give to Rome. Yet, we have to recognize that all of these polemics retain both truth and distortions. Indeed, if we are to move to reconciling Christians in a real sense, we need to have a second look at these visions, return to the sources and figure out where we have been right and where we've misconstrued in our hope to score points off each other.
This means that the answer is ressourcement , that French word which signials a return to sources. Of course, this term was first used by Roman Catholic theologians from the middle of the last century to mark a return to the sources of the Roman Catholic faith, most notably, the Fathers. Much of the vigour both in patristic study and in the Roman Catholic faith over the last fifty years has been due to this ressourcement.
What is more there are distinct signs of a Protestant, especially evangelical, ressourcement from the 1990s. The efforts of such Protestant theologians as D.H. Williams, Thomas Oden, Robert Wilken and many others have created what could only be called the rise of a breed of catholic evangelicals; evangelicals who retain all the marks of the evangelical tradition, but who are influenced by the ecclesiology, christology and theology of the Early Church and, directly or indirectly, the Fathers. The efforts of these theologians have led to such projects as The Ancient Commentary on Scripture series and the Evangelical Ressourcement series from Baker Academic.
More encouragingly, these efforts at ressourcement among evangelicals (and Protestants, in general) have gone hand in hand with an ecumenical interest which has sought to bridge the divides between Protestant denominations and the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. One of the products of this interest is the 'Emerging' Church movement which has been catching the interest of younger evangelicals and which has sought to apply a catholic ecclesiology and understanding of the Christian past to an evangelical setting. Now, there are problems with the Emerging Church model, of course, but its use of the Christian past to unite, rather than divide is a positive model for how we might use the Christian past for those interested in Christian Reconciliation.
Ultimately, we can't know how this ressourcement will affect all of the great traditions of Christianity. What is encouraging in this movement is that there has been an equal interest in the Fathers and the Christian past and in making sure that, this time, the past unites us. There is, of course, no question of papering over our differences or pretending that we don't have much to divide us. However, we share a past together and it is in understanding this past that gives us a chance to come together again, accepting our differences, but celebrating our similarities.