The spectacular blossoming of patristic studies in the past two centuries is arguably due to a double cause. First, the spirit of criticism that characterized the eighteenth century Enlightenment, especially in its German branch, could not bypass the need for assessing the extent to which contemporary Christianity had developed away from its original features. The names of G. E. Lessing (1729-1781) and A. von Har- nack (1851-1930) mark two important moments in the enterprise of critique of dogma. In his attempt to find out the extent to which Christianity rests on solid rational grounds, Lessing turned to the church fathers and found their ideas and positions, especially about the “rule of faith,” totally at odds with those current in recent theology, for which the written letter of the Bible was the exclusive norm.Second, the emergence of historical consciousness, signaled by such names as G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831) and F. C. Bauer
(1792-1860), provided the definitive driving force in the development of patristic studies. It became clear that the historical perspective was now essential to an understanding of the present. The study of ancient sources was seen as offering vital elements in the search for Christian identity in the contemporary situation. In fact, the proximity of the fathers to the origins of the Christian movement gives them a unique worth as regards the interpretation and understanding of Christianity. The current interest in beginnings finds in their writings a privileged voice of authenticity, most helpful in the task of retrieving a concept of Christianity that antedates the strictures of European cultural selfimportance.
The interest in ancient Christian literature has now reached the entire Christian community across confessional borders. For instance, regardless of an interpreter's denominational context, it is no longer possible to do Christian theology today without a close look at the writings of the fathers. These are no longer drawn on as providers of isolated statements likely to buttress one's position; works are studied as integral wholes and in context so that their specific understanding of Christianity is manifested and can serve as a marker in today's theological enterprise.Obviously the interest in beginnings has ecumenical implications. By looking together at ancient witnesses, scholars of all confessional backgrounds take a firm step toward overcoming Christian divisions. The discovery of the lush diversity that characterized the early centuries is conducive to greater tolerance and mutual understanding. For some, it is simply one step further to pass from this form of Christian ecumenism to a wider ecumenism that is willing to recognize and act on what is valid in other religious traditions.