Sunday, August 14, 2011

Global Christian History

Here are my thoughts on what I might like see taught in a church history course...

1. Pastor, Church, and World
2. Cultural Contexts of Ministry
3. Bible as Scripture
4. Introduction to Theology
5. Missional Church
6. Congregational Leadership
7. Christian Worship
8. Christian Proclamation

So, Global Christian History:

Our seminary curriculum tries to separate American church history from global church history.  American church history is treated as part of the cultural context of American ministers in the Cultural Contexts class. This allows the Global course to spend more time on the way Christianity has existed in the two-thirds world. It also would eventually allow versions of these courses taught elsewhere in the world to fit those contexts without assuming that American Christianity is ground zero.

I'm rather proud of this feature of the curriculum.  First, if these components were taught right, it could help them see the extent to which some of the elements of their thinking are not Christianity but culture.  For example, I grew up with no sense at all of how my thinking on things like sanctification, standards, and going forward to the altar were shaped by nineteenth century holiness revivalism. I never even heard the name Phoebe Palmer until I was teaching at IWU... and here the form of "name it claim it" sanctification I struggled so much with as a teen was strongly linked with this 19th century woman.

But this post is supposed to be about global Christian history.  Certainly I would like a person to know the key events and people of church history.  Even more so, I would like students to see how so many of the ideas and practices they think simply come from the Bible were hammered out in church history as Christians wrestled with issues in dialog with Scripture.  I would like students to realize that the Trinity and the dual nature of Christ was won in the midst of massive struggle and debate.  I would like them to realize that the doctrine of creation out of nothing may have been won in debate with Gnostics in the second century.

So what would be my agenda for this class if I taught it?  Here are a few:

  • Constantine was not the boogie man and he only made Christianity legal--he didn't make it the official religion of the Roman Empire.  Christianity never thrived during the years of persecution.  Persecution actually almost wiped it out.  It was between persecutions that Christianity thrived.  Constantine may not be in the kingdom, but he did a good thing when he made Christianity legal and tried to get Christians to come to some consensus on issues like the Trinity.  Good grief, American cultural evangelicalism is more Constantinian than Constantine was.
  • Some key elements of what Protestants think is "just the Bible" are Augustine (original sin, total depravity, etc)
  • I would like students to come out of this course without the knee jerk anti-catholic bias so many have.What was God doing for a thousand years of Christianity?  Off somewhere playing golf?  There will be an awful lot of catholics in the kingdom, and Luther wouldn't have withdrawn from the Roman Catholic Church of today.
  • Luther was an overreaction.  Luther didn't enact sola scriptura but "sola the first five centuries of the church."  Luther's sola fide missed the fact that Paul talks about being judged for what we have done at the time of final justification.  
  • Calvin was playing out traditions just like anyone else.  His predestination was an extension of Augustine extending Paul.  The end result eliminates the "Arminian" elements of Paul.  The doctrine of penal substitution is an extension of Anselm extending the New Testament.
  • The fragmentation of Protestantism, as well as liberal Christianity, were simply playing out the founding principles of the Reformation.  When everyone thinks they just get their ideas from the Bible, then the polyvalence of language will facilitate tens of thousands of churches who all think they are just getting their ideas from the Bible alone.
  • Liberal Christianity was a natural offshoot of not allowing the words of the Bible to be read in more than literal ways.  If I must only stick with the "literal" meaning, then eventually the books fall apart as separate historical documents that are difficult to connect to each other.  The quest for historical meaning comes to undermine theological unity.
  • Although this course is primarily about world trends, I would hope students would locate themselves in relation to the world.  Some of the things that pre-occupy our minds might baffle world Christians with similar values to us but who can see the cultural elements of our thinking.


JohnM said...

Now that sounds like it would be an excellent course provided it wouldn't be merely an exercise in iconoclasm. I'm open to that, but I always want a second (or fourth) opinion. So, I think, should seminary students. Of course maybe what you're describing IS the second opinion they need to hear :)

Robert said...

Don't blame Augustine too much; he was a product of his time, and he didn't invent those ideas, he just developed them. There's a lot in the Reformers - their nominalism, for instance - which comes from later developments. You're right about the Reformers over-reacting, though. They threw a lot of babies out with the bathwater, and we need to rescue them, and develop something healthy.

Ken Schenck said...

As you probably can tell, I'm less concerned about the past as with our lack of awareness of ourselves and the pop history that goes around. How many untrue rumors are in the water (e.g., that the Council of Nicaea voted on the contents of the New Testament). Most of what I have in mind here is an alternative to what they have heard from Frank Viola or Alan Hirsch and their pastors before them...

Luke said...

This all sounds great Ken, a course I would particularly love to take, but it's still all very "Western" and not very "Global." "Global" Christian history shouldn't just focus on events that happened in the West (e.g. Augustine, Anselm, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, etc.), it should extend to the Eastern fathers as well. Jenkins' "The Lost History of Christianity" might be a good text for such a class because it demonstrates the spread of Christianity beyond Europe & North America. When I read "Global Church History," that's what I think. What you have laid out here is the same old thing all seminaries teach with a different bent & interpretation of the data. It doesn't seem anymore "global" than what I heard at a conservative evangelical school. I'm not attempting to burst your bubble; I'm only trying to tell you how I interpret what you've posted. Do you see where I'm coming from?

Ken Schenck said...

They read The Christian World by Martin Marty that is a little more in that direction. My comments assumed they would learn the global piece, and I have Jenkins book on my shelf as one of the possible textbooks. Perhaps I will press for it to be part of the course as well, whose online version opens in January. Forgive me if my personal preoccupations focus on the European part.

FrGregACCA said...

Good place to start: J. Pelikan's 5 Volume "The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine".

Please, please, please focus also on the Christian East, both Byzantine and other.

FrGregACCA said...

Also, regarding the Reformers: they not only threw things out that should have been retained, things that went back to the very beginning, but they also kept things that should have been thrown out, predestination and Anselmian soteriology perhaps the worst among them.

Anonymous said...

FrGregACCA said... I certainly enjoyed J. Pelikan's 5 Volume "The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine" also. Good books.

Anonymous said...

So what books do you think are good for global church history?