Interview With Theologian David Warner
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia, 28 MARCH 2007 (ZENIT)
Wednesday-audience series on the Apostolic Fathers can give us hope for
unity among Christians, says a Catholic theologian who was once an
evangelical Protestant minister.
In this interview with ZENIT, David Warner discusses how reading Church
Fathers led to his return to the Catholic Church and offers some
reflections on the Pope's teachings.
Warner is now a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical
Theology in Steubenville, Ohio, and an adjunct professor for the
University of Sacramento, California.
Q: How have the early Church Fathers been influential in your own life,
first as a Protestant minister and later as a Catholic?
Warner: I left the Catholic Church during my high school years. A
far-ranging search led me away from the Church and toward a Christianity
of my own invention.
After three years of wandering, I re-embraced Trinitarian theology and
had an evangelical conversion to the divinity and lordship of Jesus
Christ. This was the beginning of what turned out to be a rediscovery
of, and return to, what the Nicene Creed calls the "one, holy, catholic
and apostolic Church."
Again and again during my 18-year sojourn through various streams of
Protestantism, I kept coming back to study the early centuries of
While teaching a survey course in Church history, I became convinced
that I was incompletely joined to the one Church directly established by
Christ and witnessed to by the Fathers.
Reading the Apostolic Fathers and the second-century apologists forced
me to come to grips with the thoroughly "Catholic" elements of early
There was no escaping the fact that already in the first generations,
Christians believed, for example, in a sacramental theology, a hierarchy
led by bishops who were appointed by the first apostles, and the real
presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
As a Catholic, my Christian formation was corrected and enriched by
studying for three university degrees in Catholic theology. My favorite
studies related to patristics.
Whether I was researching biblical, systematic, moral, historical, or
pastoral theology; Catholic education or ecumenism; a common point of
integration was to discover what the earliest theologians and pastors
taught and practiced.
My doctoral studies centered on the 19th-century English convert,
Cardinal Newman, who, like so many recent evangelical ministers
including myself, returned to the fullness of the ancient Church largely
through the influence of the Fathers.
Q: Why would non-Catholic Christians be any more interested in the
Fathers of the first couple of centuries than in later saints and
doctors of the Church?
Warner: In the Apostolic Fathers and the earliest bishops and
apologists, we have the earliest links in the chain that connects
today's Christians with the Twelve.
Quoting a second-century bishop, St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Benedict XVI
reminded us that St. Clement, the third bishop of Rome in succession
from St. Peter, had the first apostles' "preaching in his ears, and
their tradition before his eyes."
Pope Clement had no qualms about asserting his extra-local apostolic
authority, teaching and correcting the Church of Corinth, in distant
Other great bishops whom Benedict XVI explores, like St. Ignatius of
Antioch, and St. Polycarp died as martyrs for the truth they knew they
had received directly from the original apostles who had taught them.
I remember reasoning while still a Protestant minister, that if Clement,
Ignatius, Polycarp and Irenaeus could not get it right after just one or
two generations, then what hope did I have for believing that Jesus was
who the New Testament claimed he was, or that he had founded a Church
that would kick in the gates of hell, and be led by the Spirit of truth
until his return?
In the end, I wearied of trying to be my own pope, and returned to the
Church of the Fathers.
Q: How do you think non-Catholic Christians and others will view
Benedict XVI's catechesis on the Fathers of the early Church?
Warner: It is unlikely that many of them will, in fact, come across
these teachings directly. But for those who do, their reactions will be
influenced by their preconceived ideas and present convictions.
Those who are of a more sociohistorical revisionist persuasion will tend
to categorize Benedict's teachings as being nothing more than a
repetition of "history as told by the victors" in the ancient battles
For them, a seemingly endless stream of "lost gospels" and "new
discoveries" are at least complementary to, if not equal or superior to,
sacred Scripture and the orthodox writings of the early bishops and
It is a case study for what Cardinal Ratzinger warned of in his homily
just before the papal conclave: "Having a clear faith, based on the
Creed of the Church, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism. … We
are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize
anything as certain."
We have become accustomed, for example, to being bombarded through the
media every Christmas and Easter with wild theories regarding Jesus and
the varieties of early Christian belief, appealing to so-called
Typically, these were written by pseudonymous authors claiming to be one
of the apostles or their companions. Many of these manuscripts promoted
Gnostic teachings that were already being warned against by the New
Testament authors in the first century.
They were rejected by the early bishops as being unfaithful to the
teachings of Christ, as passed down through the apostles and their
One encouraging sign is the growing interest among some Protestant
scholars and pastors who are fascinated with the project of
rediscovering and adapting the unique worldview, theology and
spirituality of the Fathers.
Seeking to become more "Catholic" without necessarily becoming "Roman,"
many evangelical theologians and publishers are producing serious
studies on the biblical theology of the Fathers.
This is a promising path of potential convergence that could serve
Benedict XVI's own ecumenical commitments. I think these brothers and
sisters in Christ might find food for thought and an expansion of their
religious imagination by the Pope's patristic reflections.
Q: Do you have any thoughts on why Benedict XVI would choose to teach on
these early Christian Fathers just now?
Warner: The present Wednesday-audience series on the Fathers began on
March 7, 2007. It is a continuation of the Pope's catechesis on the
mystery of the Church that began a year ago in March 2006, with weekly
meditations on each of the Twelve Apostles.
By October, he was ready to draw our attention to St. Paul and his
collaborators: apostolic men like Timothy and Titus
early bishops, and lay leaders in the Church like the married couple,
Aquila and Priscilla.
Benedict XVI is trying to follow Our Lord's command to Peter to "feed my
sheep." The food he has chosen to provide us during this series is the
tremendous heritage of holy men and women who lived and died as
witnesses to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and his Church during the first
centuries of the Christian era.
From their witness, we can better understand the mystery of the Church
as the "presence of Christ among men."
For Catholics, salvation history is the drama of God's unfolding plan
for his people. This story can be read in the pages of sacred Scripture
and Church history. Benedict XVI's reflections are designed to cause us
to reconsider the essential nature and mission of the Church in the
context of salvation history.
Q: What common ground can Christians find in the Fathers, and how might
this help ecumenical efforts?
Warner: The Fathers can inform and challenge Christians of every
description. Protestants can rediscover their forgotten roots. This in
turn often results in an increased appreciation for Catholic, Eastern
Orthodox, and other episcopal and liturgical traditions.
In other cases, openness to the Fathers becomes a steppingstone toward
embracing what we believe to be the fullness of Christian faith and
practice found within the Catholic Church.
Catholics can and should rediscover some of the patristic priorities
that modern evangelicals are noted for, including: living in and for
Christ; reverencing and studying the Bible as the unique, authoritative
written word of God; and becoming better informed and enthusiastic
witnesses to Jesus Christ, the one and only savior of the world.
We can reaffirm our Catholic tradition of promoting all of the gifts of
— including the charismatic and hierarchical gifts
toward the end of Christian maturity and unity. All of these distinctive
traits are clearly taught and modeled in the Fathers.
We can relearn how to "breathe with both lungs," a phrase Pope John Paul
II often used to refer to drawing from both the Western and Eastern
Christian traditions of theology and spirituality.
Many of the earliest Fathers were in fact "Eastern"; they lived in the
Near East or Northeast Africa, and wrote in Greek and other non-Latin
tongues. Our Eastern Orthodox brothers have the highest regard for the
same figures the Pope is holding up for our example and instruction.
Benedict XVI gives us hope for Christian unity by directing us to
Ignatius of Antioch who was "truly a doctor of unity." He taught the
unity of the Trinity, the unity of the Incarnate Logos, and the unity of
the Church in the bonds of love.
Ignatius' prescription for authentic spirituality and ecumenism was "a
progressive synthesis between configuration to Christ
union with him, life in him
and dedication to his Church
union with the bishop, generous service to the community and the world."
The Second Vatican Council taught that authentic ecumenism begins with
individual, interior repentance and renewal. This can lead to a broader
institutional humility and renewal, and docility toward the lessons of
Through the Fathers' writings, all Christians may learn from these
privileged witnesses to the sacred deposit of faith entrusted by Our
Lord to the first apostles. The first- and second-century Fathers and
apologists serve as windows into the mystery of the Church as "one,
holy, catholic and apostolic." ZE07032829