The Fathers Refounded

Protestant Liberalism, Roman Catholic Modernism, and the Teaching of Ancient Christianity in Early Twentieth-Century America

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Elizabeth A. Clark
Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , January
     448 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


While scholars of religion often blame methodological foibles on earlier generations, we tend to spend little time reading them. Elizabeth Clark’s The Fathers offers scholars of ancient Christianity a thorough resource to do just that. Through the lives of Arthur C. McGiffert at Union Theological Seminary, George LaPiana at Harvard Divinity School, and Shirley Jackson Case at Chicago Divinity School, Clark’s book is sparkling intellectual historical work and a spur to further reflection on contemporary approaches to teaching and researching ancient Christianity.

After a deft summary of European Modernism and Liberalism, with emphasis on the Italian context (chapter 1), Clark turns first to the life and career of McGiffert (part 1). Clark paints his life in superlative detail, using archives of McGiffert that include correspondence with Philip Schaff and even the class notes of his own son. In Clark’s vivid reconstruction, we encounter a scholar who studied in Germany with Adolf von Harnack, crossed swords with the leaders of his own Presbyterian Church, and evolved into an incisive social critic against the backdrop of the First World War. Clark’s careful scholarship highlights how McGiffert unsettled the theological assumptions of his contemporaries, even arguing that the Eucharist is “magical” thinking, and that Augustine’s theology of grace was naïve and worked “chemically” (138-40). Citing the distortions of earlier historians and Christians, McGiffert aimed to “reshape Christianity into a message of ‘opportunity’ and ‘service’,” and to dampen dangerous nostalgia for the apostolic age (140).

Clark then retells the colorful life of George LaPiana (part 2), a scholar who sought to escape the limitations of ecclesiastical orders, on the one hand, and to intervene against the increasingly close collaboration between the fascist Italian state and the Roman Church on the other. Before he came to America, LaPiana studied in Geneva, although he had to lie to his superiors in order to study Byzantine literature and history of religions. Clark connects the dots to present LaPiana as a fierce advocate of doctrinal evolution in the service of political flexibility, namely LaPiana’s resistance to the anti-Modernism of the Vatican and connections to anti-fascist intellectuals like Ernesto Buonaiuti; LaPiana’s concern for Italian immigrants in America; and LaPiana’s emphasis on social and economic historical approaches to early Christianity. The church, as Clark summarizes LaPiana’s position, “must always remain flexible and be willing to compromise” (239).

Finally, Clark draws our attention to the life and work of Shirley Jackson Case and his contributions to the University of Chicago Divinity School (part 3). Drawing on Case’s writings and evidence from his graduate seminars, Clark’s account pays close attention to the institutional development of the University of Chicago. She focuses on Case as the synthesizer, organizer, and teacher. These tendencies led Case to emphasize the socio-historical method; eschewing a focus on doctrine, he turned instead to the social “environment” of early Christianity. Thus, Case laid the groundwork for the methods that would become the hallmark of the “Chicago School,” namely, an emphasis on social-scientific terminology.

The Fathers Refounded works well because of Clark’s ability to combine her expertise in ancient Christianity with her archival research. The book is erudite, lively, and very human, demonstrating convincingly how the teaching of ancient Christianity also articulated the political commitments and aspirations of McGiffert, LaPiana, and Case.

Consequently, Clark’s volume invites engagement and reflection on both pedagogy and historiography. Three points in particular struck me while reading. First, the book sometimes assumes familiarity with both ancient Christianity and the history of modern Christian theology. Occasionally terms appear without detailed explanation; the most significant, perhaps, is “Neo-Orthodoxy.” Second, it is a gift to indwell someone’s work so thoroughly as to understand not only their arguments but also to appreciate the stakes involved in their projects. Through her research into the lives and thought of McGiffert, LaPiana and Case, Clark equips herself with all the tools for critique of the contemporary study of Christianity. Nevertheless, Clark refrains from shuttling between the scholars in the book and the present day, perhaps out of deference to the ongoing work she and her generation of scholars have made in advancing Patristics beyond the study of simply authors and their theologies. Finally, by her focus on liberalism and modernism, Clark necessarily pays less attention to other forces at work during this period, such as debates about how to understand the ancient dynamic between Christianity and Judaism.  Further research, enlivened by Clark’s work, could put the reaction of Christian scholars to liberalism and modernism into contact with these other, equally contentious, matters in Euro-American Church History and its cognate disciplines.

The Fathers Refounded is a remarkable investigation into the roots of the study of early Christianity in the United States. In it, Clark connects scholarship often cited only in literature reviews, if at all, to the vivid lives of three startlingly interesting individuals. Through her emphasis on their lives and lectures, Clark reminds us that scholarship on ancient religion tangled with both theological community and present political reality from the beginning. Attitudes towards questions of autocracy, democracy, and authority shape even scholarship framed by the rhetoric of objectivity and science. Perhaps such rhetoric surfaces most noisily precisely when the political is most present. Life and lecture go together. As this reminder, The Fathers Refounded is more than just a sharp dissection of the study of ancient Christianity in the early 20th century. It is also a timely diagnosis of the continued challenges and opportunities facing the field.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew Chalmers is Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion at Washington and Lee University.

Date of Review: 
March 17, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Elizabeth A. Clark is John Carlisle Kilgo Professor Emerita of Religion at Duke University.


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