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In 1905, Darwell Stone, the Librarian of Pusey House, who was to be editor of the Patristic Greek Lexikon, published his reflections in The Conditions of Church Life in the First Six Centuries (Stone 1905). He discusses baptism, confirmation, and the eucharist, against a background of citation of the texts ("there is evidence in the Canons of Hippolytus and in the writings of Tertullian and Cyprian of the celebration of the Eucharist in connexion with special events and days" (Stone 1905:15). He considers the evidence that the invocation of saints "was widespread, tolerated, and approved by Fathers of acknowledged eminence" from the fourth century at least (Stone 1905:25).

A century later, patristics as a discipline sees itself less and less as having a primary duty to establish orthodoxy. Von Harnack's view eventually won the day, but for some decades theologians of the ressourcement saw the Fathers as a source for renewing the Church, and it was common for Anglican scholars to accept the historical-critical interpretation of Scripture, but to look to the patristic period as the definitive expression of doctrine. The continued application of the historical-critical method to patristic texts also has undermined that confidence, however. Consequently, patristics has come more and more to be the study of all forms of early Christianity (a development reinforced by the facts that it is increasingly studied in secular institutions, often by non-believers, and that common with any academic discipline, the longer it is established the more its range has expanded as scholars search for topics not previously studied).

Another effect of the application of historical-critical methods - not least in establishing texts of marginal writers - has been to show that many people labeled heretics were not as heretical as once thought, even by quite conservative standards. This process began at the beginning of the twentieth century with the reassessment of Nestorius and Apollinarius (by J. F. Bethune-Baker 1908 and C. Raven 1923, respectively); one of the dominant issues since the 19 70s has been a similar debate regarding Arianism (initiated by R. Gregg and D. Groh's Early Arianism: A View of Salvation 1981). Even the gnostics have been re-examined, in particular by feminist scholars such as Elaine Pagels and Rosemary Ruether.

Opinions now seem to differ as to whether the patristic period is especially important because it takes the student back to Christianity's beginnings or whether it is to be placed straightforwardly side by side with other periods as fruitful and instructive in the same way as they are. Those who hold the former view less commonly insist that the earliest Church was the purest church, although they do often have ecumenical reasons for studying a period before the Church was officially divided: the implication is that Christians should begin from beliefs which were once shared by all. Others may not themselves hold the "older is better" view, but seek to recover aspects of that period which are all too often either missed or misunderstood by those who do hold that opinion. Thus feminists like Rosemary Ruether do not claim that the patterns of early Christianity should be definitive - because they were patriarchal - but they nevertheless study women who succeeded in making their voices heard. Others, like Kari Elisabeth Berresen, examine tensions within the Church Fathers' anthropology which complicate the understanding of their view of women. Historical scholarship has made it clear that certain patriarchal theological and structural patterns which grew up in the patristic era remained entrenched precisely because later generations regarded the Fathers' writings as peculiarly authoritative.

Those who deny the era of the Fathers any special authority are not claiming that it cannot inform theological reflection in any way - rather, that patristic thought is to be set beside that from later ages. Systematic theologians show no signs of ceasing to use patristic material as a source; some scholars, such as Maurice Wiles and Rowan Williams have spent much of their careers moving between patristics and theology. Frances Young has asked whether the dissatisfaction with purely historical analysis, and interest in modern literary theory which has challenged biblical scholars, will lead patristic scholars toward a reading of their sources which is more theological (Young 1997:433-4). Consequently, although some patristic scholars have suggested that the future of the discipline will mean "less theology, more history" (Clark 1986:3), and although there will always be ample space for a more strictly historical approach, it seems likely that in fact more history will simply mean more theology.


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