Winter 2012

The Birth of Sources Chrétiennes and the Return to the Fathers

Paolo Prosperi

“[T]he central conviction of the circle of Fourvière was the attempt to find in the Fathers the key for a unified vision of the whole of reality entirely grounded in the mystery and person of Jesus Christ.”

The early 1940s in France were not only the “dark years” of the Nazi occupation; they were also the years when what may have been the most important patristic movement of twentieth-century Catholicism came into being. They were years of “luminous darkness,” to use an image dear to those who were exploring the riches hidden in the mystical doctrine of St. Gregory of Nyssa and Pseudo-Dionysius during that time. In effect, the dark years of the occupation truly coincided, in France, with the golden years of the return to the Fathers. The quantity and quality of the publications of those years is striking, considering the material and environmental conditions surrounding such vitality.1

How can such a phenomenon be explained? If one considers that the first volume of Sources Chrétiennes, Gregory of Nyssa’s La Vie de Moïse, was published in 1942, the question arises: why would such an endeavor, which had every reason to be considered absurd, ever be attempted? From where did the enthusiasm and feverish activity of those years arise? In a book that carefully reconstructs the history of the birth of Sources Chrétiennes, Étienne Fouilloux has clearly brought to light the particular historical conjuncture that made such a blossoming possible.2


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1. It should be enough to cite a few examples: 1938 saw the publication of Henri de Lubac’s Catholicisme, a work that was not specifically patristic, but was imbued with citations and profoundly inspired by the Fathers of the Church, especially the Greek Fathers. Immediately after this came the publication of the doctrinal thesis of Henri Irénée Marrou, Saint Augustin et la fin de la culture antique, and the anthology by Hans Urs von Balthasar—at the time a disciple of the school of de Lubac—on Origen. In 1941, Balthasar published his monograph on Maximus the Confessor, Kosmische Liturgie, and in 1942, his Présence et pensée; essai sur la philosophie religieuse de Grégoire de Nysse. Also in 1942, the collection Sources Chrétiennes was finally launched after long planning, with the publication of Gregory of Nyssa’s La Vie de Moïse, with an introduction by Jean Daniélou, who together with de Lubac was the creator and first director of the collection. From this moment on, the publications of Sources Chrétiennes would not be interrupted down to the present day (the collection has reached nearly five hundred volumes, and has gradually attained, after the shift that took place under the direction of Claude Mondésert, a higher and higher level of scholarship, to such an extent that it is now an obligatory point of reference for the study of the Fathers). In 1944, two monographs were published: Platonisme et théologie mystique, essai sur la doctrine spirituelle de Saint Grégoire de Nysse by Daniélou, and Clément d’Alexandrie, Introduction à l’ètude de sa pensée religieuse à partir de l’écriture by Mondésert. In 1948, Daniélou’s Origène was published, while de Lubac waited until 1950 to publish his historic study on Origen’s approach to the exegesis of Scripture: Histoire et Esprit. L’intelligence des Écritures d’après Origène.

2. Étienne Fouilloux, La collection “Sources chrétiennes,” Éditer les Pères de l’Église au XXe siècle (Paris: Cerf, 1995).