The wider horizon to which I have just pointed characterizes much of the recent work in the study of Christianity in Late Antiquity. Increasingly this work is carried out in the context of European and world history, whose past traditions it wishes to recover. It is a fact that Western religious thought is rooted in both Semitic and Indo-European cultures. The Hebrew Bible and cognate writings on the one hand, and the New Testament along with Greco-Roman traditions (incorporating
important elements coming from Persia/Iran and perhaps India) on the other, are the two offshoots of the Semitic and Indo-European streams that merge in the writings of the fathers. After the fifth century, the heritage of the “barbarians” (Celts, Germans, Franks, etc.) is added and is also reflected or refracted in the selfsame writings. Contemporary study of early Christian literature is thus conscious of being in touch with quasi-universal movements of thought and practices; it is conducted in the awareness that ancient Mediterranean culture included innumerable riches still to be identified.
A second trend characterizes recent work in patristics: that work is performed in the broader context of the history of religions. For a long time the investigation of the Patristic Period was conducted exclusively in connection with the study of Christian origins and Judaism. For Jews and Christians the early fourth century marked the definitive split between the two religious traditions; the march toward that split was documented in patristic literature, valued for that precise reason. Today the religious context is expanded. Patristic literature is seen to incorporate or reflect more elements coming from indigenous Near Eastern and Mediterranean origins that have to be taken into consideration; these are likely to yield a better understanding of Europe's birthplace in the culture of the late Roman Empire.
This wider context for the study of patristic literature is aided by a third trend, one that might claim the place of honor in the eyes of an outside observer: Current work is characterized by a direct, resolute, and extensive dealing with sources. New discoveries and editions of sources have made this situation possible. It is with primary sources that the patristic scholar is working, not with second-hand presentations or anthologies. To be sure, work with sources characterized much of the serious scholarship of the past, but the current expansion of sources and instruments makes their use still more desirable and has rendered research a still more exacting activity. Present-day scholarship demands expertise in history, philology, and philosophy, and it increasingly appeals to social-scientific aids. Whenever this quality of research is sought, a high level of production can be expected.
Finally, present-day patrologists are generally not inclined to pursue apologetic interests. Increasingly their work is carried out within secular institutions. Their contributions are judged by the value of their scholarship, not by its usefulness to interest groups or clerical ghettos.
This is a major shift when one considers how scholars in previous centuries were inclined to put their research at the service of confessional, sectarian, or other vested interests. Patristics has hooked up with general literature and reentered the public domain.
The field of patristic studies presents all the features of a lively building site. Since the Second World War it has been the object of an accelerated interest similar to the previous interest in things medieval, and paralleled only by biblical studies.