An interest in the “church Fathers” emerged in Western Europe among humanists of the Renaissance, many of whom saw in the golden age of patristics their own forebears — cultured scholars imbued with the classics of Western Civilization, concerned with deep religious and philosophical problems. No wonder, then, that the humanists focused their attention on the writings of the “great” Fathers of the church such as Chrysostom, Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, the Cappadocians, and the like, while showing virtually no interest in their comparatively “primitive” and “uncultured” predecessors, such as Ignatius of Antioch, Clement of Rome, Barnabas, and Hermas, who on no reckoning were cultured scholars or brilliant thinkers. When a “most ancient” church Father like Irenaeus was mentioned, it was usually in order to show the unrefined nature of his theology and to censure his aberrant doctrinal views, which failed to reflect the more mature and nuanced statements of later times.

The Reformation provided some impetus for the study of Christian writings immediately after the New Testament period, but even then few scholars evinced an extensive interest in or knowledge of authors of the early second century, for reasons that, in hindsight, may seem obvious: for many Protestant thinkers, the notion of “sola scriptura” precluded the need to appeal to books immediately outside the canon, whereas most Catholic theologians were far more invested in the great theologians, councils, and creeds of later times.

It was not until the seventeenth century that the terms of the discussion shifted dramatically, as all sides began to recognize the importance of the earliest non-canonical authors for establishing the antiquity of their own views, Protestants (of various kinds) and Catholics taking their arguments beyond exegesis of the New Testament texts and the formulations of later church councils into the early years of the Christian movement. This burgeoning interest in the earliest Fathers was intensified by significant manuscript discoveries, which provided a means of revising commonly received notions of Christian antiquity.  Two of particular importance involved the writings of Clement of Rome and Ignatius.

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