- The Fathers of the Church in Christian Theologyby Michel Fédou
"This book . . . has no parallels that I know of in contemporary Catholic theological scholarship," says Brian Daley in his Foreword (xv). That is true for historical scholarship too. There is no parallel historical work providing an overview of the twentieth-century patristic revival, its impact in theology beyond the boundaries of patristics, why this impact mattered, and, again to quote Daley, "why a clear understanding of early Christianity is always of crucial importance for the Church's present freedom to act" (xiv)—and, I would add, to think.
The implications of the book extend beyond Catholicism, since it takes up the relevance and, indeed, exigence of patristic theology for contemporary reflection on such fundamental Christian doctrines as the Trinity, anthropology, the Church, and revelation, as well as for biblical exegesis and for ecumenism and interreligious dialogue. Along the way, challenges to the continuing relevance of patristic theology coming from contextual theologies, antimetaphysical and deconstructionist worldviews, historico-critical exegetes, and more, are all considered. It is true, then, that the book has no real parallels. For this reason alone it repays the reader willing to accept the invitation to think along with the author about issues that take many of us outside our disciplinary comfort zones. [End Page 150]
Michel Fédou limits himself to the question, "what is the relationship between patristics and theology"(3). The first chapter, "The Genesis and History of 'Patristics,'" answers by distinguishing "patristics" (as "a part of Christian theology") from "patrology" (as the "history of early Christian literature"). The (modern) words "patristics" and "patrology" serve to focus our attention on the word "Fathers," a distinction that the Tradition, beginning in antiquity, has considered essential. Even the secular discipline of "patrology" (and its descendants) implicitly relies upon the distinction as an indication of the significance of "early Christian studies." Fédou features the phrase "Fathers of the Church," not least in his title, specifying four characteristics of a "Father": orthodoxy of doctrine, holiness of life, approval of the Church, and antiquity (14, 156), all of which are qualified as actually applied. Interestingly, neither sex nor ordination is on the list.
A "Father" is someone that Tradition accords a privileged, authoritative status. Thus it is inconsistent with Tradition to dismiss the Fathers as irrelevant for contemporary Catholic theology or to relativize them as one set of sources among many (negating their status as "Fathers" in any but a trivial chronological sense). Fédou proposes that "the metaphor of 'paternity' . . . be understood in all its profundity," invoking Malachi 3:24 (cf. Luke 1:17) where, before the "day of the LORD," Elijah will come to "turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers" (165). "And," Fédou continues, "just as the Old Testament expressed an exigency of reconciliation between fathers and sons, similarly one can understand analogically, in Christian history itself, an exigency of communion between the generation of the Fathers and the following generations" (166). "Communion" does not mean contemporary theologies will not be "original and new." But it is necessary that they be "in their very innovation, in communion with the witness of faith," the "heritage from the Fathers." It is "at the point where contemporary theology accepts this heritage" that there comes about an "engendering" moment that "allows new generations in their turn to engender an understanding of the faith according to newness of places and times" (ibid.). Fédou immediately adds that "this engendering is the work of the Spirit" acting not independent of history but in and through it:
The engendering of the faith is not immediate, it itself happens through a relationship of paternity and filiation in the very history of Christianity, and the relationship of the Fathers of the Church precisely...