Founding the Fathers, by Elizabeth A. Clark
Elizabeth Clark is known for her pioneering studies of late antiquity. Her Reading Renunciation places the practice of reading at the center of early Christian asceticism and asks how monks read their own agenda into and out of a text—the Bible—that seems to offer only limited support for asceticism. A volume she edited, Women in the Early Church, brings together texts by Augustine, John Chrysostom and others. ("The most fitting word with which to describe the Church Fathers' attitude toward women," writes Clark in her introduction, "is ambivalence.") Her Ascetic Piety and Women's Faith looks at the place of women in the church in the fourth and fifth centuries. Now Clark has turned her attention to the academic history of early church history. In Founding the Fathers, a deeply researched and illuminating monograph, she examines the development of early church history as a field of research and teaching in the 19th-century United States.
Clark focuses on six professors who taught at four institutions of theological education (Princeton Theological Seminary, Harvard Divinity School, Yale Divinity School and Union Theological Seminary). These six scholars, she shows, contributed significantly to the creation of an English-language historiography of the early church: two of them, for example, published editions of the Didache in 1884 and 1885. Perhaps more important, working without the resources that many history professors today take for granted (large libraries, ready access to primary sources), Clark's professors shaped the historical imaginations of countless students, most of them future pastors.
The professors' study of and teaching about the church fathers was not a disinterested enterprise. All of the schools Clark considers are Protestant, and their faculty enlisted the church fathers "as allies or opponents in contemporary denominational battles over religious belief and practice and in the culture wars of the day." Sometimes the professors called on early church precedent as imprimatur for 19th-century practices. In other cases, they argued that the early church had deviated from a biblical norm that 19th-century Protestant churches resurrected. In both modes of argumentation, the scholars asked history to underwrite present-day concerns.