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Religion Library: Christianity

Historical Perspectives

Written by: David Buschart

As with other religious traditions, there is diversity with respect to the ways in which the study of Christianity is approached. Much of this diversity can be observed by considering the way in which two variables in particular have shaped, and continue to shape, the study of Christianity: differing understandings of the natural and the supernatural, and differing theological and ecclesiastical commitments or "locations."

Before turning to these two variables, however, two general observations should be made. First, these differences of understanding and "location" are not simply differences with respect to the study of Christianity, but in some cases represent differences of belief with regard to the substance of Christianity itself. For good or ill, acknowledged or not, scholars' beliefs about Christianity do, to some degree, shape their approach to the study of Christianity.

Albert Outler's approaches to the study of the history of Christianity
Classical ConsciousnessChristianity and the church are seen as one and the same
Historical Consciousnessthe need for objectivity and a scientific approach is acknowledged, but too narrowly applied
Ecumenical Consciousnessecclesiastical and theological diversity is acknowledged
Global Consciousnessperspectives of women, the poor, and those outside of Europe and the Americas are considered

Second, the study of the history of Christianity is often marked by a distinction between beliefs (what Christians believe, teach, and confess) and phenomena (what Christians do and the "culture" or sub-culture they create). Study of the former is usually referred to as historical theology or the history of Christian thought or the history of Christian doctrine. The latter is often referred to as Church history, and includes attention to people, events, and institutions. These two—beliefs and phenomena—are distinct, yet obviously closely inter-related. (Some scholars would suggest that they are so closely related that a distinction cannot be made and should not be attempted.) Consequently, in recent years the historical context of ideas and beliefs has been taken more seriously in historical theology, and the significance of belief has been taken more seriously by some Church historians.

With these two general observations made, we turn to the two variables identified in the opening paragraph above. One variable is differing understandings of the relationship between the natural and the supernatural. Historians of Christianity have long debated such questions as whether or not they should attempt to discern how God has worked directly and supernaturally in the history of Christianity. Scholars, including both "secular" and "religious" scholars, hold varying views regarding God's providence, that is, God's sovereign oversight of and involvement in history.


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