Union Theological Seminary, Claremont Ave. & 122nd St., New York City, in 1910 (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

“Controlling the narrative” has been a political watchword for a while now, as we are seeing again in the age of the permanent election. It’s been a watchword for writing and understanding church history for a lot longer than that, going all the way back to Eusebius of Caesarea (d. 339), early Christian biblical scholar, apologist, panegyrist and biographer of Constantine, and author of the first book to bear the title Ecclesiastical History. In that work, Eusebius created a triumphalist narrative of the victory of an original and unchanging orthodox Christianity passed on through the bishops as the successors of the apostles. It dominated Christian historical self-understanding for almost a millennium and a half, though the Western Christian version had to expand the narrative to make room for the papacy. The dictum that the winners write history was never truer than for Eusebius and his book.

Modern historiography has dismantled that narrative for compelling reasons. Postmodern suspicion of any and all grand narratives has discouraged the rise of a successor. No scholar of the last two generations has done more to ensure that Eusebius’s chair remains vacant than Elizabeth Clark, Professor Emerita of the John Carlisle Kilgo Professorship of Religion at Duke University. Her books, articles, teaching, and professional leadership have deepened and diversified our understanding of what we mean by “early Christianity” and how we should study it.

With the publication of The Fathers Refounded, she has now completed an impressive two-part reconstruction of how the scholarly study of post-biblical early Christianity first took root in the United States. The first part of this reconstruction, Founding the Fathers: Early Church History and Protestant Professors in Nineteenth-Century America, appeared in 2011. These books are not fly-over intellectual history but trench-work of a gratifyingly old-fashioned archival kind. Clark must have exulted to find such ample documentary material after a career studying late antique Christianity, whose extant literature is discouragingly limited and whose hermeneutical opacity she has done so much to render transparent, as in her 2004 book History, Theory, Text: Historians and the Linguistic Turn.


McGiffert drank German theological liberalism pure and at the source.

Founding the Fathers focused on four Protestant seminaries: Harvard Divinity School, Yale Divinity School, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan, across Broadway from Columbia University. This sequel narrows the list to three—Union, Harvard, and the upstart University of Chicago Divinity School—and to just three scholars at those institutions: Union’s Arthur Cushman McGiffert Sr. (1861–1933), Harvard’s George La Piana (1879–1971), and the University of Chicago’s Shirley Jackson Case (1872–1947). They are not of the same generation nor of the same nationality nor even of the same Protestant faith: Case was Canadian, and La Piana stands out as both an Italian national and a cradle Catholic, born near Palermo in Sicily.

Clark’s purpose is to recover the fitful process by which the study of early Christianity was gradually freed from its confessional and apologetic origins in Protestant seminaries, as a consequence of the adoption of the methods of critical-historical scholarship as they were understood in the generation that came of age before World War I. For her, this is essentially a story of emancipation from intellectual controls that continue to influence “obscurantist and reactionary currents in American religious life.” But The Fathers Refounded doesn’t make heroes of its subjects. Clark records their mistakes and limitations, such as their underestimation of the enduring Jewish influence on early Christianity, with a wry detachment that effortlessly wins the reader’s confidence.

The book’s structure is straightforward. Its first chapter sets the intellectual context of early twentieth-century religious liberalism. Notable here is a primer on Catholic Modernism, in which for the first time Clark brings Roman Catholicism’s unhappy engagement with modern thought into her narrative. This is followed by what amount to three separate monographs, each composed of three chapters: a first chapter on life and writings, a second on “assumptions, influences, and approaches,” and a third on how a given professor went about the actual teaching of early Christianity. For each of these, Clark has done extensive archival work, as the endnotes demonstrate. The whole constitutes a richly instructive exercise in historiographical retrieval and reflection.

McGiffert, at Union Theological Seminary, gets the most extensive treatment: partly because there is much more usable documentation on him and his teaching, but also because he was the pioneer in bringing German historical standards to American scholarship on early Christianity. (Another merit of Clark’s book is her excursion into the German theological and historical scene that had such an impact on American Protestantism.) She had already introduced McGiffert in Founding the Fathers as the brilliant protégé of Union’s Philip Schaff, the true godfather of church history in America. Schaff, himself a German immigrant, helped support the young McGiffert during three years in Germany (1885–1888), where he worked extensively with Adolf von Harnack at Berlin and Marburg. Besides getting his doctoral degree at Marburg, McGiffert also embarked, at Schaff’s urging, on a new translation and commentary of Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History, the book that made his career. Eventually McGiffert succeeded Schaff at Union and spent the rest of his career there, enjoying a nearly unbroken chain of triumphs as a beloved scholar, teacher, and administrator, if you except his turn-of-the-century tiff with Presbyterian church authorities over heresy charges occasioned by his 1897 book A History of Christianity in the Apostolic Age.

McGiffert drank German theological liberalism pure and at the source, as a student of Harnack and devotee of the theological legacy of Albrecht Ritschl (1822–1889), both of whom thought that early Christianity had erred in allying itself with Greek philosophy. Ritschl believed historical study could restore to us Jesus’ actual message in a form moderns could find meaningful. Once ensconced again in New York, McGiffert cultivated the company of American pragmatists, above all John Dewey, his contemporary at Columbia. German idealism and American pragmatism: a double-barreled anti-metaphysical shotgun blast that left traditional Christian dogmatics in tatters. This troubled McGiffert not at all, since he thought that modern Christianity had to jettison outdated packaging that obscured what truly mattered: the social and practical implications of the Christian message. McGiffert’s charm and genuine learning earned him exceptional respect, though Clark rightly points out how resistant he was to the great shift that was already occurring in European scholarship’s rediscovery of the importance of apocalyptic eschatology in the gospels and primitive Christianity.

George (born Giorgio) La Piana wins his place in The Fathers Refounded not just for his role in fostering the historical study of early Christianity at Harvard, but even more for his standing as a Catholic Modernist—a Catholic analogue to liberal Protestants. La Piana was one of numerous educated priests of his generation who were forced into silence, evasion, or resignation by the Vatican’s suppression of Modernism. Ordained a priest in Palermo in 1900 and eventually given a teaching position in church history, he chafed under the challenge of using historical methods in an intellectual climate dominated by the neo-scholastic revival. The anti-Modernist condemnations of 1907 made his position increasingly difficult—so, it seems, did the constraints imposed by celibacy. In 1913 he resigned rather than take the anti-Modernist oath and followed four siblings to America. He was saved after two years of floundering in Milwaukee by a fortuitous appointment to a teaching fellowship at Harvard Divinity School in 1915. He was the first Catholic hired there. By 1926 he had parlayed his important publications on Rome in the first centuries into a full professorship and eventually a joint appointment in the history department, where he taught Italian history. His portfolio in the Divinity School also included Byzantine history, testimony to his exceptional range. He retired in 1947 and lived another twenty-four years, dying in 1971 after an ambiguous deathbed reconciliation with the Catholic Church under circumstances that Clark calls “rather disturbing.”

Clark’s task wasn’t made easier by the chaotic condition in which La Piana left his papers. He didn’t do much research on early Christianity after his early publications, devoting himself instead to passionate opposition to Mussolini’s Fascist dictatorship and to the Vatican’s cooperation with it beginning with the 1929 Lateran Accords. His primary scholarly project after 1929 consisted of years of research into the history of papal concordats, which never produced an actual book. Clark shows how La Piana never lapsed from an approach to church history that was resolutely historical and anti-theological. Despite his hostility to hierarchical abuses of power, however, he showed in his writings and lectures a sympathetic understanding of the inevitable compromises and adaptations made by enterprising churchmen to keep the Christian movement from disintegration. Clark identifies the concept of “the associated life” as the leitmotif of La Piana’s thought, which he saw as fundamental to Christianity and which he owed to another Italian Modernist, Ernesto Buonaiuti. La Piana regarded Christianity’s successful organization under the monarchical episcopacy as the chief explanation for its survival and eventual victory.

Shirley Jackson Case seems the least interesting of the three scholars Clark profiles. Is that because so much of what he advocated has become standard practice? The scholar whom we meet in Clark’s book doesn’t have the same personal or intellectual flair as McGiffert and La Piana, though his career trajectory is the one most familiar to professional scholars today. Or did Clark just have less to work with? She notes that there is less available archival material to document Case’s teaching at Chicago, where he did not seem able or willing to go much beyond the first three centuries. (Did that become a Chicago tradition? His later successor Robert M. Grant, my dissertation director, was trained in Christian origins at Harvard and rarely ventured beyond Constantine.) And Case’s primary scholarship lagged as he got pulled into administration and editorial work, producing survey studies for a wider readership. His major impact seems to have been as an energetic and influential leader in the professionalization of both New Testament studies and church history in general. In his historical work, Case insisted on an empirically grounded social history attentive to the environmental forces to which Christianity responded. His writings abound with references to the importance for the historian of “function,” “efficacy,” “vital experiences,” and the like, rather than to theology and the history of ideas. This puts him more in line with later historiographical developments, even if he overstated what we could know about “the actual personal experiences” of Christianity’s devotees. His denial of a supra-historical Christian “essence” going back to Jesus is also closer to present-day assumptions.


I remain grateful for the extraordinary resources both institutions offered a young Catholic scholar who wanted to be a church historian. But I’m less sure today about why they exist.

A deeply serious and original book, The Fathers Refounded will be welcomed by other scholars of Christianity in late antiquity because of its genealogy of their specialization in the United States. (The origins of the study of early Christianity, whether it be characterized as “Patristics,” “Ancient Church History,” “Christianity in Late Antiquity,” or what have you, are notably divided by nation, religious confession, and ancillary disciplinary field.)

But why should it interest a wider readership? Its intense focus on key transitional figures sheds valuable light on how mainstream American Christianity became intellectually respectable and modern. The era of Christian liberalism framed in The Fathers Refounded soon went into temporary eclipse during the three decades of war and depression that began with World War I. But the issues liberalism addressed did not go away and returned with postwar peace and prosperity (an instructive parallel story could be told about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s complicated dance with religious liberalism). This applies to Catholicism every bit as much as to Protestantism. The Modernist crisis repressed problems without solving them. Ditto for the little ice age of Pius XII’s last decade, which only deferred the constructive efforts of the nouvelle théologie without providing an alternative. For that we had to wait for Vatican II.

One of those problems was the integration of historical consciousness into Catholic thinking—the reconciliation of claims to unchanging dogmatic truth with the facts of historical change, a challenge Bernard Lonergan tried to meet with his work on theological method. Commonweal readers may be more familiar with the books of the late John Noonan, who wrote so brilliantly on changes in teaching on usury, contraception, religious freedom, and slavery. I just learned that Noonan’s M.A. thesis at Catholic University had been on Alfred Loisy, Rome’s enemy number one among the original Modernists. Lonergan was essentially a philosopher and Noonan a jurist. But both sought for the coherence and intelligibility beneath change and development. (So did Loisy, at least initially: he rebutted Harnack’s primitivism by arguing that maturity was necessary to judge meaning in development.)

Lonergan and Noonan’s concern for continuity across time separates them, it seems, from the rather ruthless stress of Clark’s subjects on the gap that separated ancient past from modern present, so important was it to them to bring Christianity into harmony with the dominant values of their own time. That meant telling a story about Christian origins and development that met expectations and standards of “scientific” history, standards that they regarded as self-evident. Case may have favored social history, La Piana institutional history, and McGiffert the history of ideas. But they all embraced the same methodological canons of historicism (interpretation in historical context), naturalism (rejection of supernatural causation), and relativism (bracketing providentialist assumptions about Christian distinctiveness and superiority), though the last of those rather inconsistently. They were certainly right to do so. Postmodern thinkers like Foucault, Michel de Certeau, and others may have added further astringencies to chasten what we think we know about the past, but they did not repeal the critical standards established by their modernist predecessors.

Still, the triumph of criticism has not come cost-free, and the Catholic historian is obliged to consider the cost with a cold eye. The further the epistemological distance that historical method puts between us and the past, the more remote and alien the past may come to seem. The Frankfurt School and the sociology of knowledge have taught us how powerfully “knowledge and interest” are linked. The pursuit of a domain of knowledge depends on a social interest that justifies and subsidizes it. Take away the interest and the rationale for supporting it starts to erode. We see this happening now with the commodification of the contemporary university, which is putting tremendous pressure on the social prestige of the humanities and, a fortiori, of theology, which ultimately depends on communities of faith to justify its existence. The decline of organized religious traditions then undercuts the social relevance of studying the historical and textual origins of those traditions.

McGiffert, La Piana, and Case were largely immune to such pressures because they taught at liberal Protestant institutions that shared the cultural hegemony of the great universities with which they were affiliated. They also shared the same establishment donor classes, an identity most vividly demonstrated in Chicago’s case, where the largesse of a single person, John D. Rockefeller, created both university and divinity school at one stroke, barely two decades before Case’s appointment in 1908. But their cultural dominance was fated to weaken with the decline of the Protestant establishment that created them. Venerable Harvard Divinity School, founded in 1816 as a Unitarian seminary and the first school built outside the historic Yard of Harvard College, suffered a near-death experience in the 1950s when the super technocrat James Bryant Conant was president of Harvard—but it was spared the chopping block because his successor, Nathan Marsh Pusey (note the WASP names), was personally soft on religion.

Harvard and Chicago survived by diversifying their offerings, first by becoming ecumenical, then by presenting themselves as experts in “religion” tout court. Union’s loose association with Columbia is qualitatively different from Harvard’s and Chicago’s relationships with their host institutions. It has retained more of its seminary mandate, and so its Christian heritage is more overt, though in exceedingly liberal form.

I spent much of the 1970s as a graduate student at Harvard and Chicago. At Harvard I took courses with church historian George Huntston Williams, who was La Piana’s successor and confidant in his long retirement. At Chicago, several of my classes were in a seminar room dedicated to Case’s memory. Both schools had strong faculty and programs in the history of Christianity—I think it was still called church history at Harvard. But it was clear even then that thinking of “the church,” however one understood it, as the subject of a continuous, two-thousand-year history was academically unsustainable. Since then the fracturing has continued apace at the disciplinary, curricular, and faculty level.

I remain grateful for the extraordinary resources both institutions offered a young Catholic scholar who wanted to be a church historian. But I’m less sure today about why they exist. Clark’s new book does not answer that question—not that she intended to. For her, the ongoing exploration of the religions of late antiquity, now ramifying to embrace the rise of Islam and the whole integrated world stretching from Britain to central Asia and from the Baltic to the Nile Valley and the Arabian peninsula, seems inherently worth doing. Similarly, her chosen subjects in The Fathers Refounded appear to have been more concerned with securing the academic freedom they needed for their work than with justifying the value of the work itself.

La Piana felt the sting of censure and rejection in a poignant way that neither McGiffert nor Case did. He left his native country in both a literal and a spiritual sense. Perhaps in retaliation for the way he had been treated by Rome, he served as proofreader and counselor to anti-Catholic controversialist Paul Blanshard when he wrote American Freedom and Catholic Power (1949), a professional service Clark does not mention. I regret my church’s panicked expulsion of La Piana and others. His love of democracy and hatred of tyranny win my respect. And he was not immune to the appeal of mysticism, though that was more characteristic of his friend Buonaiuti. McGiffert’s prospective vision of a social Christianity seems cold comfort for surrendering resurrection and Eucharist. Did Case even have a prospective vision? In any event, The Fathers Refounded can make the reader more aware of the legitimate necessity of historical method, but also of its risks and consequences.

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

Elizabeth A. Clark
University of Pennsylvania Press, $79.95, 448 pp.

Michael Hollerich teaches theology at the University of St. Thomas.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the January 2020 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.