Printer Friendly

Some ecumenical principles for teaching and writing history.


How ecumenical are the teaching and writing of church history in the academy? In particular, how balanced are they from the geographical and chronological perspectives? As this essay will indicate, for the most part it appears that ecumenism has not yet taken hold in the field of church history. Perhaps part of the problem lies in the cultural context of American society, for, although that society is multifaith, it nevertheless favors certain religions and confessions over others, with mainstream Protestantism still clearly holding a privileged place. More broadly, news reports, magazine articles, and even scholarly religious publications commonly speak of the "three major religions" in this country, by which they mean Catholicism, Protestantism, and Judaism, ignoring both Islam as the third major religious faith in this country and Eastern Orthodoxy as the third major Christian communion.

Narrowing the field specifically to Christianity, one is startled by the sometimes glaring omission of Orthodoxy, even when the topic touches on an area that lies at the essence of the Orthodox faith. Several years ago, one of the major weekly news magazines featured a cover story on "The Return to the Sacred." In the article, which discussed traditional expressions of religion and sacramental practices in America, Orthodoxy went unmentioned. Another news magazine with an article on religion in America included a sidebar giving the numbers of faithful for the major Christian denominations in the United States - down to confessions with about 100,000 members - yet omitted completely the 2,000,000-3,000,000 members of the Orthodox churches.

Such examples of bias and omission are not limited to the religion editors of newspapers and news magazines. They are evident in the curricula of most of the nation's theological schools and in many of the books and articles written by theologians and scholars. Teaching and writing about the church's past perhaps brings to light most clearly both how far the Christian community has come in terms of ecumenism and how far it has yet to go. For the most part, this essay paints in broad strokes in discussing this issue. There are many fine scholars across the confessional spectrum whose research and teaching are infused with a holistic and ecumenical understanding of church history. However, the purpose of this essay is to examine the broader picture of ecumenism and church history within the academy and the Christian community.

Ecumenical principles for teaching and writing church history (curriculum and textbooks, respectively) will be explored through the lenses of time and space. These two concepts are the core of Einstein's theory of relativity, which can be adapted for use in the case of church history. In ecumenical theology and church history, of course, the connection between the two elements is not the same as in astrophysics. Yet, there is an analogy. Einstein demonstrated that time and space are relative - that is, that the length of time that a person perceives has passed is directly dependent on how fast that person is traveling relative to another person or thing. Similarly, as this essay will demonstrate, scholars' and theologians' own perceptions regarding time and geography in church history tend to be directly dependent on where they lie along the confessional spectrum. Those biased perceptions, in turn, fundamentally affect the curricula developed and the articles and books written. In other words, they affect what theological schools decide is important enough to teach others.

Ecumenism in Time: Church History Curricula

Let us first treat the question of time. There are several aspects to this important phenomenon. The first, and perhaps the most important, is what time the theologian chooses to recall, what memories he or she chooses to remember. In other words, if a church or confession is ignorant of the church's past because it has lost or repressed important memories, there is no foundation upon which to build an ecumenical or any other kind of future.

Unfortunately, triumphalism and a smug complacence with historical and confessional ignorance seem to be the messages given in many of our theological schools. Although the author in no way claims to have conducted this according to scientific standards, in the fall of 1996 an informal survey was made of the typical church history survey course for the Master of Divinity degree described in the catalogs of about a dozen theological and divinity schools in Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco/Berkeley. The M.Div. program was chosen as a baseline since, after all, such programs train our priests, our ministers, and our lay workers - the people who will staff the front lines. The majority of the schools examined were in the Boston and San Francisco areas and are member institutions of the Boston Theological Institute or the Graduate Theological Union, respectively, so presumably there is already a sensitivity to interchurch issues. Their student bodies vary in number, although most are in the range of 100 to 300 students. Most of the schools are independent theological schools, but a few are connected to major universities. The schools represent a broad spectrum in terms of confessional stance: Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, mainline Protestant, and evangelical; they also include several nonsectarian or multisectarian schools.

The findings are perhaps not surprising but certainly are a cause for concern. Most schools exhibited a distinct lack of regard concerning three-quarters of the church's history - in other words, the period before the Reformation. It is true that almost all the schools required a one-year survey course in church history as part of their core curriculum (although one divinity school required only a one-semester survey course, and the program at one of the major universities did not require even that). However, it is the division of material between the two semesters required in most curricula that is revealing.

All of the nondenominational and Protestant denominational schools ended the first semester of church history somewhere between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This was even true of one Roman Catholic seminary. The one exception was, not surprisingly, the Eastern Orthodox institution. Its first semester ended at the sixth ecumenical council (late seventh century), although in earlier years it had ended with the iconoclastic period (mid-ninth century). In other words, the confessional stance, whether explicit or implicit, of the surveyed schools quite obviously has affected what should be a relatively standard curriculum across confessional lines. Those churches whose own histories begin relatively late in the life of the Christian church as a whole marginalize the importance of the church's history before their own time. On the other hand, the Orthodox Church, with its emphasis on tradition and continuity, weights the curriculum toward the ancient and medieval periods and gives comparatively less time to more modern church history.

In other words, despite enormous superficial differences in approaches and values among these theological schools, their church history curricula share the same fundamental methodological flaw. That is, the historical weighting of the survey course reinforces the emphasis already present in a given confessional tradition. Those churches that emphasize the present and spurn the importance of the past reflect that in a curriculum that gives as much course content to the 500 years of the post-Reformation era as it does to the one-and-a-half millennia preceding it. On the other side of the coin, the Orthodox seminary's course content is weighted toward the early church, although the gap is not as wide (a three-to-two ratio of ancient to modern versus a three-to-one ratio of modern to ancient and medieval). While I have used the church history survey course as a point of reference, the overall course listings of most of these schools reflect a similar imbalance.

Thus, the average theological school's church history curriculum is inherently anti-ecumenical. To believe otherwise is to assume that the events of marginalized time periods are unimportant. This assumption, of course, is precisely the problem - a devaluation of the history and theological development of traditions outside of one's own. Of course, any sectarian divinity or theological school must ensure that its students understand well their own confession's past and beliefs. However, a balance must be achieved between an emphasis on one's own tradition or confession and a broader understanding of Christian history, theology, and practice. Church leaders and educated laity must realize that no denomination exists in a vacuum or is all-encompassing of Christianity. This goal must be achieved not only by the inclusion of a specific course on ecumenics in a school's curriculum (courses that have actually been declining in number recently) but also by the inclusion of other times, places, and perspectives across the spectrum of the curriculum.

Yet, rather than forcing students to confront the issues important to others, the church history curricula at most theological schools actually encourage them to remain self-satisfied in their own narrow tradition. In other words, because one denomination may not consider Christology to be crucial, it gives short shrift to the study of the third through seventh ecumenical councils. Another denomination may not be strongly interested in modern theological and moral questions concerning church-state relations, so it ignores the twentieth-century American church experience.

Of course, in a survey course it is simply impossible to deal-even in: relatively cursory way - with all the important events of church history. Nevertheless, are theological schools conscious of the agendas they promote by what they choose to include and, even more importantly, by what they choose to exclude? Far too frequently, churches and denominational schools unconsciously choose the easy path, the path of least resistance, the path with which the faculty and administration is so familiar. Unfortunately, it is also the path that is already most familiar to students. Thus, students are done a disservice when they are not challenged to broaden their horizons, to become familiar with other ways of thinking, to reevaluate their sense of priorities and values.

Everyone is familiar with the expression that "those who do not learn history are condemned to repeat it." This is particularly true for church history. Do students learn both the historical Christology of Arianism and its modern-day reincarnation in the Jehovah's Witnesses? Given the curricula discussed earlier, it is far more likely that they are learning only one or the other. Yet, what is most useful for them is to learn both and, even more, to see the social, intellectual, and theological dynamics between the historical and the modern. In many ways, the arguments of the Cappadocians are as relevant today as they were 1,600 years ago. If students are not exposed to those arguments, they have lost a valuable apologetic tool.

This critique of the timeline bias of theological school curricula reflects a different sense of ecumenism from that shared by most theologians. However, ecumenism in time - though clearly neglected - is an important element to which Orthodox theologians are particularly sensitive. Fr. Ion Bria, a Romanian priest and theologian who for many years was the head of Unit I of the World Council of Churches, has articulated this mindset well. In his book, The Sense of Ecumenical Tradition, he asserted that "[a]s a body which was not divided either by the schism of the eleventh century or the Reformation in the sixteenth, the Orthodox [understand] their vocation as guaranteeing the 'ecumenism in time' which is at the heart of unity."(1)

Bria's "ecumenism in time" is very important and yet entirely lacking in our normal teaching and ecumenical discourse, which is founded on a very narrow understanding of ecumenism based almost exclusively on modern confessional differences. Not only do current differences have historical roots that need to be understood, but the differences between the modern and the historical church are also themselves ecumenical challenges.

This inability to link the present with the past can even be seen in theological terminology. Patristics is, of course, the study of the church Fathers and Mothers, the great theologians and writers of Christianity. For most scholars of Western theology, there is a specific patristic period, more or less equivalent to the age of late antiquity. The definition of Fathers and Mothers for them implies ancient historical persons living in a static, fossilized past that is to be studied and observed. This way of thinking is then passed on through course lectures, books, and articles to successive generations of church leaders and theologians, thereby concretizing the notion that the historical church and the modern church-historical theology and modern systematics - have little or nothing to do with each other.

By contrast, there is no cutoff date to the patristic period for Eastern Christian theologians and those who study the Fathers of the Eastern church. A cursory review of the program from the 1995 Twelfth International Conference on Patristic Studies (the quadrennial Oxford conference) is revealing. Augustine dominated as the topic for the Latin presentations,and almost all the material dealt with the period of late antiquity. Although there were a few papers on Bonaventure, Luther, and Cranmer, they all dealt with these later theologians' use of "patristic" - that is, early - material. In fact, one of the master themes for the afternoon sessions was on "Late Latin Authors," which meant Jerome, Augustine, and Gregory the Great.

By contrast, the Greek side of the aisle dealt regularly with the period of all seven ecumenical councils (that is, through the late eighth century) and included presentations on ninth- through fourteenth-century Fathers such as Theodore of Stoudios, Symeon the New Theologian, and Gregory Palamas. Latin theologians of the same time period are generally presented only in the environment of a medieval studies conference. Theologians of the Christian East, meanwhile, reflect a more dynamic and flexible approach to the past by considering themselves equally at home in the academic settings of both patristics and Byzantine studies.

Interestingly, while many historical theologians have shunned connecting their areas of research to the present, some systematic theologians are rediscovering the past. For example, in a recent issue of Modern Theology, David Yeago brought the neo-Chalcedonian particularist Christology of Maximos into dialogue with the theoretical work of Ian Barbour, Louis Mink, and Michael Root, among others.(2) The modern perspective was relatively marginal in this article, because Yeago's expertise obviously lay more in the historical arena. But, think of the potential if a more interdisciplinary approach were more regularly taken, one that involved historical and systematic theologians working together on relevant topics. Both students and the church in general would become more connected to a shared past. The theologians of fifteen centuries ago would no longer seem dusty relics for philological or literary investigation but vibrant figures who speak dynamically to many of the problems and issues of the church today. That would be true "ecumenism in time."

Ecumenism in Space: Church History Textbooks

As mentioned in the introduction, time is not the only aspect of ecumenism that is frequently neglected. There is also the question of ecumenism in space. The biases and assumptions of some Western scholars and historians have frequently chafed the sensibilities of Eastern church historians. As with the example of patristics for the element of time, even the terminology exposes bias and condescension. Byzantine is the conventional adjective applied to the Roman Empire from the fourth (or sometimes sixth) century to the fifteenth. It derives from the pre-Roman name of Byzantium for the city on the Bosphorus that the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great refounded as the capital of the empire and named after himself, Constantinople. It was always referred to by the people we now call the Byzantines (they called themselves Romans) as the Roman Empire, and even today the Turkish name for the Patriarchate of Constantinople is the "Rum Patriarchate." In the late Byzantine period, when the empire had shrunk to little more than Constantinople and its suburbs, Western Europeans spoke of the "empire [or kingdom] of the Greeks."

But, if neither the so-called "Byzantines" themselves nor their contemporaries ever used that name with reference to them, how did it come about? The historical evidence shows that the word "Byzantium" was used for the East Roman Empire first by Hieronymus Wolf in the sixteenth century and then later by French scholars in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The use and acceptance of this term displays both an explicit purpose and a hidden agenda. The superficial rationale for the epithet "Byzantine" for the East Roman Empire is to distinguish the pagan, Latin-speaking empire based in the city of Rome from the Christian, Greek-speaking empire whose capital city was Constantinople.

This line of reasoning ignores the fact that no one at that time believed that a new empire had been created. What was the date of its creation? Most scholars ascribe the Byzantine Empire's beginning to the year 330, when the Emperor Constantine the Great made Constantinople the new capital. The only problem with this logic is that little else changed besides the move of the capital, and several later emperors used other cities as their home base (for example, Theodosios in Milan). Constantine did legalize Christianity, but that only put it on a par with other licit religions, such as Judaism. He also obviously sponsored and promoted the faith and gave preference to its adherents. However, paganism was not legally abolished until fifty years later under Theodosios II, and, during some of the intervening years, there was the short-lived rule of the pagan Emperor Julian, Constantine's nephew and former classmate of Basil the Great and Gregory of Nazianzus.

As for the Greek element, in an important way the empire was always Greek-speaking. Latin may have been the official and legal language of the Roman Empire, but, even in the time of Christ, Greek was the lingua franca, the language of commerce, trade, and philosophy. This, of course, is why the books of the Second Testament were written in Greek, not Latin. Justinian's reign in the mid-sixth century may be a better transitional point, since his legal Code was written in Latin, his own native language, while the Novellas added to it later were written in Greek. But, even then, Roman law was still the foundation of the empire, and Latin was still required for those pursuing a legal career until the ninth century.

Therefore, if the ostensible reason for the introduction of a new name for the East Roman Empire does not stand up well under scrutiny, what might be the underlying motive? A quick glance at literature and history answers that question. To see the bias begotten by the Western "Enlightenment," one need only note the title of one of the great classics of English literature, Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Popular discourse began equating the fall of the city of Rome in 410 to the Visigoths, and sixty years later to the Vandals, with the fall of the Roman Empire itself. This was encouraged by Gibbon's description of the weakening and decay of the empire, which he believed to be directly related to the spread of Christianity and the corrupt moral character of the Greek-speaking peoples of the East.

The attempt to disinherit the Eastern Empire from its Roman roots did not begin with Gibbon, or even with Wolf. It can be found a millennium earlier with Charlemagne. Although he was careful to use the title "Emperor of the West" when crowned by the pope on Christmas in the year 800, Charlemagne had ambitions beyond Western Europe. In Constantinople, Irene sat on the imperial throne, the first and only woman to do so in her own right. Using a carrot-and-stick approach toward Irene, Charlemagne both engaged her in negotiations for a possible dynastic marriage and claimed that it was impossible for a woman to be Roman emperor. Both approaches sought to marginalize the East Roman Empire and subsume it under a united Roman Empire headed by the Frankish ruler in Aix-la-Chappelle. Like the later so-called "Holy Roman Empire" of the Germanic people in the early modern period, Charlemagne had no real foundation for his claims; thus, he was desperate to undermine the legitimate empire.

In the end, however, where does all this put the academy in terms of teaching and writing church history today? It would be unreasonable to suppose that scholars could simply cease to refer to the Byzantine Empire (although the term East Roman is also now used). Rather, it is more practical to make sure that students and readers understand the actual history of the Eastern Roman Empire. But this means that theological schools need to make certain that their students actually do read and hear about the entire history of the church in the Roman Empire, both East and West. In other words, theological schools need to ensure that their survey courses cover not only the entire timeline of Christianity but also the entire geography of Christianity - not only the Latin Roman Church and the Protestant churches of Western Europe but also the Byzantine Church and the churches of the East in general.

It would be unimaginable in American theological institutions to teach church history without covering Western Christianity - without looking at the reformed papacy, the great schism of the West, and the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Yet, reviewing again the course offerings of theological schools, one is struck by an almost unthinking arrogance. One of the catalogs was quite blatant. Its course titled "Introduction to the History of Christianity" is described as a "[t]hematic survey of pre-modern Western [italics added] church history." Actually, that school at least acknowledges that its historical survey is not comprehensive. Most of the others are not so forthright, but their course content is substantially the same. The Eastern church is usually dealt with only in the early period, the patristic period, when virtually all the theological shakings and upheavals occurred in the eastern half of the empire. By the time the course reaches the seventh or eighth century, almost none of its content concerns the Eastern churches, with a possible aside for the Crusades or the unsuccessful union attempts. Half of Christian history, in other words, is simply excluded from the average church history curriculum in the U.S.A.

Now, this is not true in all instances, and, fortunately, materials are becoming increasingly available to use in teaching a more comprehensive view of church history. Hubert Jedin took a huge leap in that direction with his ten-volume "History of the Church" series (also known by its German title as the Handbuch), first published in the 1960's. Jedin enlisted the great Byzantine church historian Hans-Georg Beck to contribute sections on the Eastern church in the early volumes. Although volumes after the medieval period assign an increasingly negligible space to Eastern Christian church history, Jedin's series was an important beginning.

An even more significant advance in this direction was made more recently by Gilbert Dagron, co-editor of Eveques, moines et empereurs (610-1054), the fourth volume of a French church history series, "Histoire du christianisme des origines a nos jours." A comparison with the third volume of Jedin's Handbuch, which covers basically the same time period, is revealing. In Jedin, Beck's material on the Byzantine church is less than one-fifth as long as the material on the Western church. Moreover, the Byzantine church is the only Eastern church treated; the Armenian, Georgian, Jacobite, and Nestorian churches are scarcely mentioned, if at all. By contrast, Dagron (a noted Byzantinist) and his associates have devoted well over half the present volume to the various Eastern churches, reflecting the importance of the Christian East during this period of church history. The book is divided into four unequal parts, with Parts One and Two (including almost 600 of the tome's 1000+ pages) encompassing the Eastern churches.

Nor are the non-Byzantine Eastern churches marginalized. Although not as long as Part One on the Byzantine church, Part Two examines the Jacobite, Maronite, Melkite, and Nestorian churches under Islam as well as the Armenian and Georgian churches. Much of this material has been virtually unavailable before to all but specialists in these fields. The accuracy, the depth of coverage, and the well-grounded, critical, and occasionally creative analyses of the historical material are impressive, even in areas that have already been much examined, such as iconoclasm in the Byzantine church or papal reform in the West. Eveques, moines et empereurs is a remarkable volume that is more comprehensive and more useful than any of its forerunners. There is no other general volume on church history that has taken such an evenhanded approach to surveying all of Christianity.

Theological Curricula and Ecumenism

Let us now broaden the topic a bit to the theological curriculum in general, with a nod to programs in religious studies. Ecumenism in time and space has already been discussed with particular reference to patristics and Byzantine church history. It is similarly instructive to examine the question of ecumenical principles in teaching from the faith perspective of Eastern Orthodoxy.

The Orthodox churches, with approximately 300,000,000 communicants across the globe, comprise the second largest Christian communion in the world. Yet, Eastern Christianity is required study in virtually none of the religious studies programs or departments of theology in our American colleges, universities, and theological and divinity schools. Although one would expect systematic theology courses to compare and contrast the important theological concepts of the major Christian confessions, most programs in this country manifest their Western bias by, at best, marginalizing Orthodoxy by reducing it to a separate, elective course; at worst, Eastern Christianity is trivialized as anachronistic and irrelevant or is simply ignored in a school's curriculum. There are a number of institutions that are more enlightened than the majority. Yet, even in these schools, if courses are offered in Orthodox theology, Greek and Syriac patristics, Eastern church history, and related fields, they are generally taught by adjunct faculty or by permanent faculty whose expertise lies in some area of Western Christianity. Only rarely does a department of religious studies or theology in this country allocate a specific position for Eastern church studies. Eastern Christianity thus falls into an academic abyss between Western Christianity and Middle Eastern and Far Eastern religions, all of which are staples of the average religious studies curriculum. These latter religions are studied because, although they are small in numbers in North America and Western Europe, their international importance is recognized. Applying the same logic, then, why does Orthodoxy not hold a similar place in the curriculum when its adherents in Russia alone are almost equal in number to those of the Catholic and mainline Protestant churches together in the U.S.A.?

Does this omission have any significance beyond the rarefied atmosphere of academe? Of course, for it has a trickle-down effect on religious education at all levels. If those persons with advanced degrees in religious studies and theology know nothing about Eastern Christianity, how are they to impart an understanding of it to others? Obviously, they do not. As a result, Orthodox in the Western world are subject on a daily basis to a variety of expressions of the average Western Christian's lack of knowledge of Eastern Christianity. Perhaps one of the most common and, therefore, most appalling is complete ignorance. A deplorable number of people have never heard of Orthodoxy, and, of those who have, most cannot make the connection among the various Orthodox churches - Greek, Russian, Serbian, etc.

At the same time, those who have learned something of Orthodoxy have normally learned it in a way biased by their own religious educational background. Thus, Protestant Christians often respond that the Orthodox Church is "like the Catholic Church" with a patriarch instead of the pope. Catholic Christians, in their turn, will often answer that the Orthodox Church "broke off from the Catholic Church," thereby making Roman ecclesiology normative and Eastern Christianity the sole cause of the schism between the churches. Others, particularly some fundamentalists, look at Orthodoxy with suspicion because of worship practices such as the veneration of icons, which smacks of idolatry to many.

Even ecumenists, whom one would assume to be better informed, often display an appalling ignorance. At the organizing meeting of the Ecclesiology Consultation for the W.C.C.'s Commission on Faith and Order in Dublin in 1994, a small group was working on the question of primacy and ecclesial unity. One of the participants noted that, in the Roman Catholic Church, all local and regional churches must be in communion with the see of Rome. The Orthodox member of the group was dismayed when one of the other participants said, "In the Orthodox Church, I guess that would be the Patriarch of Constantinople." The Orthodox theologian had to explain to the group that ecclesial unity for the Orthodox churches is more like a web than a pyramid and that, if one church breaks communion with Constantinople, the other churches are obliged neither to follow suit nor to break their own communion with that church. Certainly, ignorance of theology and history is not limited to Westerners' ignorance of the East; many Orthodox, particularly in traditionally Orthodox lands, are equally ignorant of Western Christianity. Nevertheless, if ecumenists display little true ecumenical knowledge, how are they to impart ecumenism to others?

In addition, this process of ecumenical learning and understanding must go beyond the superficial to the fundamental and profound. As indicated by the experience at the ecclesiology consultation, theologians and scholars are unaware that they frequently extrapolate from a shared institutional or sacramental practice to a falsely assumed shared theology behind that practice. Thus, many Christians (unfortunately, including some Orthodox) believe that, because the Orthodox baptize infants as do Roman Catholics, Orthodoxy must also share the belief (now brought into question by the Roman Catholic Church itself) that unbaptized infants who die cannot go to heaven. In fact, Orthodoxy has no such belief. Infants are baptized because the Orthodox Church believes that all persons, regardless of age or intellectual development, should be allowed to share in the full sacramental and spiritual life of the church, which is the body of Christ.

Conversely, sometimes a shared underlying theological perspective is masked by divergent practices. For instance, although the Salvation Army has no sacraments - not even baptism - the rationale underlying that practice, which emphasizes the sacramentality of all things and disdains a "magical" approach to worship, is actually very close to the sacramental theology of Orthodoxy. In other words, the Salvation Army does not have sacraments for basically the same reasons that the Orthodox do have them.

The point is that it is impossible to recognize these fundamental convergences and divergences unless theologians truly understand the history and theology of the churches with whom they engage in ecumenical dialogue. But, understanding presupposes knowledge. Therefore, in order to understand other confessions, one must first have the opportunity to learn about them. To recapitulate the earlier discussion, this means that all confessions and churches must take seriously the responsibility of learning all of church history, in both time and space. Partial histories learned either from ignorance or from a deliberate agenda will not do. Protestants cannot in essence begin their study of the church at the Reformation after devoting only a few months to the fifteen centuries preceding it; Catholics cannot concentrate on mainly the Latin church in the early and medieval periods; Eastern Christians cannot ignore the historical and theological developments of the Western church.

This means that offering a few electives in areas outside the culture or tradition of a given institution's confession is not enough. Academia in North America must be committed to a holistic, integrated approach to church history, to making the thorough study of the history and theology of all of Christianity an important element in the core curriculum of graduate and even undergraduate programs. The effect of the current curriculum of most schools in the U.S.A. and Canada has been to marginalize the churches of the East, either by ignoring their history and theology almost completely or by categorizing them as reactionary, anachronistic, and - most patronizing of all - "quaint." In turn, Eastern Christians often dismiss Western churches out of hand as heretical.

In all cases, whether or not a church recognizes another confession as "fully church," such attitudes and biases keep everyone from acknowledging other confessions as serious Christian communions that deserve respect and from whom much could be learned. For example, the experiences of the Western churches in Western society can provide both models and cautionary tales for Eastern churches that have rooted themselves more recently in this culture. Likewise, Western Christianity could learn much from the Eastern Christian theological approach, which was never troubled by many of the dichotomies that rent the Western church: faith versus works, clergy versus laity, local versus universal.

What does a change in curriculum mean for the actual classroom? In terms of written resources, this - unfortunately - still frequently means the necessity of using separate books for the same time period, for example, Joseph Lynch for the medieval Latin West and Jane Hussey for the medieval (Byzantine) East. Dagron's volume, mentioned above, is probably the most comprehensive text for much of the medieval period, but it is unsuitable as a textbook because of both its size and its language. Nevertheless, there is a good amount of other material available that is fairly balanced in content and approach, including Jedin's and that of John Meyendorff(3) and Aristeides Papadakis.(4)

A bigger problem than textbooks is probably that of who can effectively teach a survey course covering so much territory and time. Naturally, no one can become expert in all times and places of church history, although one may acquire a very basic competence. Furthermore, why should theological schools expect one person to handle such a mass of material? A more integrated approach is needed, and, just as more interdisciplinary collaboration in research and writing can produce more balanced and substantive material, the practice of team-teaching can be equally fruitful in the classroom (a paradigmatic program exists as Louisville Theological Seminary).

If a theological school has more than one person in the areas of church history or historical theology, why should the students not have the benefit of the individual expertise of those faculty? A team-taught course is much more difficult than a single-instructor course, because it involves coordination of content, time allocation, emphases, and course requirements among the instructors involved, with one person serving as supervising instructor. However, the benefits for the students can be enormous. For example, they may follow an interest that would not otherwise have developed if the material that interested them had been taught by someone with no expertise in that particular area. Of course, an underlying assumption to this scenario is an institution's having a faculty with expertise across a broad range of historical periods and geographical areas. If sectarian - and, even worse, nonsectarian - schools do not conduct searches for and hire faculty whose areas lie outside traditional (or sometimes trendy) interests, there is no possibility of making a fundamental change in curriculum and pedagogical practice a reality.


Ecumenists face a twofold challenge. On the one hand, they need to understand the differences that may underlie shared practices among churches - in other words, they must make themselves aware of each church's uniqueness and whence it springs. On the other hand, that same methodology of deeper inquiry can be used to recognize in other churches parallels in underlying beliefs or philosophy that may not be immediately apparent because they are manifested through different practices and traditions.

This level of fundamental reflection and analysis is predicated on a knowledge and awareness of times and places outside the historical tradition of one's own denomination or confession. Even then, knowledge alone is not enough. Equally important is a true understanding of and sympathy for Christianity in different historical, geographical, cultural, and theological contexts. Gibbon certainly was aware of and knowledgeable about Eastern Christianity, but his personal biases distorted his perception to the point of making some of his analyses unscholarly and quite simply untrue. Ecumenists must approach the study and teaching of church history with a sense of the full theological meaning of catholicity, which crosses both time and space. Only then may one hope to achieve a greater level of ecclesial unity, that the churches may become in truth the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.(5)

1 Ion Bria, The Sense of Ecumenical Tradition (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1991), p. 24.

2 David S. Yeago, "Jesus of Nazareth and Cosmic Redemption: The Relevance of St. Maximus the Confessor," Modern Theology 12 (April, 1996): 163-193.

3 John Meyendorff, Imperial Unity and Christian Divisions: The Church, 450-680 A.D., Church History 2 (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1989).

4 Aristeides Papadakis with John Meyendorff, The Christian East and the Rise of the Papacy: The Church, 1071-1453 A.D., The Church in History 4 (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1994).

5 A valuable pedagogical resource is Timothy J. Wengert and Charles W. Brockwell, Jr., eds., Telling the Churches' Stories: Ecumenical Perspectives on Writing Christian History (Grand Rapids, MI, and Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1995). While it is devoted to writing Christian history from an ecumenical perspective, the principles it enunciates can be applied to teaching church history, as well.

Valerie A. Karras (Greek Orthodox) became assistant professor of patristics in the Dept. of Theological Studies at St. Louis University in 1998, and she has been an adjunct lecturer in the Classics and Religious Studies Depts. at Washington University, St. Louis, in 1993 and 1998. A Ph.D. candidate in church history at Catholic University in Washington, DC, she holds a Th.D. (1991) in patristics from the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki. She has an M.T.S. from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology and a B.A. from Washington University. She taught at Hellenic College and Holy Cross, 1993-96, then was assistant director for institutional planning and special projects for both schools in 1996-97. She has presented papers to several academic and professional conferences and has published articles and translations in books and scholarly journals. A member of the editorial board of St. Nina Quarterly (international Orthodox women's journal), she is a chanter, with a diploma in Byzantine music from Greece's Ministry of Culture. She has participated in several World Council of Churches events and is presently on the boards of directors of the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research and the North American Academy of Ecumenists, as well as the steering committee of the American Academy of Religion's Eastern Orthodox Studies Group.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Journal of Ecumenical Studies
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Special Section on the North American Academy of Ecumenists
Author:Karras, Valerie A.
Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
Date:Jun 22, 1998
Previous Article:The structure of the Lutheran World Federation as a model for ecumenical relationships.
Next Article:Tensions in North American protestantism: an evangelical perspective.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters