A version of this article originally appeared in the November 29, 2009 issue of Our Sunday Visitor
“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,’” George Kalantzis, director of the new Wheaton Center for Early Christian Studies, told Our Sunday Visitor.
Patristics is the study of the earliest Christian teachers, also called the Church Fathers. Depending on the list, the Church honors about 100 Church Fathers who have the following characteristics: orthodox doctrine, holiness of life, Church approval and antiquity.
“What is missing in American Protestantism is an understanding of the richness of the early Church,” Kalantzis said. “One looks at reformers such as Calvin, Luther and Wesley and one sees the dependence on the early Church. The Reformation itself is a call to come back to the Church. It is a call to the Church to come back to the tradition of the Church.”
“Wheaton has always been at the forefront of that evangelical call to be faithful to the Bible and the faith of the Church,” Kalantzis said. “And now we have an opportunity to have a programmatic relationship with that.”
It is not unusual for Catholic colleges to have patristics programs. The Catholic University of America and the University of Notre Dame are known for theirs, for example. But a Protestant college?
“For Protestant schools, we are the first to have a center. There are a number of Protestant schools that have a person who teaches patristics, but no one else has a center and resources as we do,” Kalantzis said.
The center, which officially opened this fall, already has a small number of graduate and undergraduate students. According to the center’s website, the center’s mission is to foster “systematic study in the fields of patristics and early Christian literature by engaging in sustained teaching, research and publication related to the early Church.”
“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?”
Undergraduate students at Wheaton will be offered a two-year certificate program in early Christian studies. They will have core courses in the history of Christianity, reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, and doctrine (Christology or Trinitarian theology). Students will have a number of electives that can mix with other disciplines such as art or music.
A graduate research fellowship will be available for master’s students as well as an early Christian studies emphasis for masters and doctoral programs. The center will offer lectures and conferences on patristics and early Christian studies given by scholars from all three backgrounds.
“We are cultivating a culture of going deeply into the primary sources by reading the Fathers and Mothers of the Church in their own language,” Kalantzis said. “Wheaton already has strong Greek and Latin programs. Hope-fully in a few years we will be in a position to add more.”
A wish granted
Wheaton would have been just another school with one person teaching patristics if it weren’t for the generosity of Frank and Julie Papatheofanis, who are funding the center. The Papatheofanises are Orthodox Christians and medical doctors, and Julie Papatheofanis is a Wheaton graduate.
The Papatheofanises had been considering ways to bring Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox together for some time. “We felt that if you look at the three traditions … there are common origins in the first 500 years of Christendom. Although we all recognize it, we haven’t had a chance to emphasize it in a way that allows the Catholic and Orthodox traditions to engage with the Protestant tradition,” Frank Papatheofanis said.
When the couple approached the administration at Wheaton about opening the center, it came as a complete surprise.
“It was a surprise, but a surprise that was hoped for,” Kalantzis said. “I came to Wheaton with the idea of strengthening the patristics program. Wheaton has a long tradition of engaging with other denominations and with the early Church.”
That tradition is what appealed to the Papatheofanises. “We viewed Wheaton as a very strong school academically that also plays a prominent role in the evangelical community and higher education,” Papatheofanis said.
“What Frank and Julie did was make a statement that the great tradition is not owned by a denomination, but is the heritage of the Church universal,” Kalantzis said.
Many Catholics have taken a renewed interest in patristics through Pope Benedict XVI’s weekly talks on the Church Fathers. But the idea of evangelicals studying patristics is an altogether new trend.
“Over the last 10 or 12 years almost all of my graduate students that came to do a doctorate in patristics have been evangelicals. That is a profound shift from when I started out, when it was just Catholics, Lutherans and Episcopalians,” said Robert Louis Wilken, professor emeritus of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia.
Wilken is a convert to Catholicism and the author of “The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God” (Yale University Press, $19), a book Kalantzis assigns to all his classes. Last month, Wilken gave the center’s inaugural lecture, titled “Going Deeper into the Bible: The Church Fathers as Interpreters.”
“Evangelical scholars and thinkers of the last generation have begun to connect with the larger Christian intellec-tual tradition,” Wilken said. “They realize that the Bible is not all there is, and that Calvin and Luther are not all there is. In that sense, the evangelicals are building the continuity and intellectual depth to their own tradition.”
Consistency with mission
“We were clear that this was not an effort to proselytize students to Catholicism or Orthodoxy,” Papatheofanis said. “It was an effort to round out the education of Wheaton students with these faith traditions that they haven’t been exposed to,” he said.
Kalantzis acknowledged that young people sometimes find new homes in different traditions but he doesn’t seem threatened. “For me as a patristics scholar and an evangelical, the beauty of studying the early Church is that our denominationalisms do not apply to them,” he said. “We all have common formulations of faith — the creeds. The things that divide us are much later than these early traditions of the Church.”
“We didn’t want to threaten their mission in any way. We wanted to make it clear that this had to make sense for them as an institution. On their part, they didn’t think this would undermine their institution, it would enhance it,” Papatheofanis said.
Wilken doesn’t see a threat to Wheaton’s mission either. “It doesn’t mean that they are all going to say, ‘we all should become Catholic.’ It means that there is going to be an evangelical community in this country that is much more attuned to the larger Catholic/Christian tradition, and that will enrich their life and enrich the lives of Catholics,” Wilken said.
It could actually be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
“The Catholic Church has a role in society that the evangelicals are not able to have,” Wilken said. “But the evangelicals have a kind of fervor and commitment in their own lives that is often missing from Catholicism. They can complement one another.”
Mark Sullivan writes from Pennsylvania.
Who are the Church Fathers? (sidebar)
The Fathers of the Church, also called the Apostolic Fathers, are some of the earliest Christian intellects to have influenced the understanding of the Christian faith. Having lived in the years immediately following the apostles, they also were the ones closest to the teachings of the apostles. The Church Fathers’ writings, sermons and examples of pious lives played a significant role in defending and spreading the faith in those early years of the Church, and as a result, are studied today for their seminal insights.
Pope St. Clement I (d. 97), the third successor of St. Peter, is the first of the Apostolic Fathers. Others include: Papias, Hermas, Polycarp of Smyrna and Ignatius of Antioch. Gregory the Great (d. 604) is considered the last of the Western Fathers and in the East, John Damascene (d. 749).