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Religion Library: Christianity

Historical Perspectives

Written by: David Buschart

A second variable in the study of Christianity consists in theological and ecclesiastical commitments, or the "location" from which Christianity is viewed and analyzed. Simply put, this is a matter of perspective. The theological commitments (or lack thereof) and the ecclesiastical or Church-related commitments (or lack thereof) of a scholar will, to some degree, influence the way that Christianity is interpreted. This is clearly observable in the history of the study of the history of Christianity. Adapting and expanding terminology used by the Methodist scholar Albert Outler, at least four approaches to the study of the history of Christianity can be identified.

In what can be called the "classical consciousness," Christianity and the Church are seen in essentially monolithic terms. The diversity of Christianity is not adequately recognized, and the task of history is largely to tell the story of the "one true Church" as perceived by the person or group telling or writing the history. This approach often emphasized the affirmation of "orthodoxy" and the denigration of "heresy."

Beginning in the Renaissance an "historical consciousness" started to emerge. This "historical" approach was greatly intensified during the Enlightenment and again in the 19th century. This approach affirmed, at least in principle, the need for "objectivity" and a "scientific" approach to Christianity and its past. Despite these commitments, however, the history which was produced, like that of the classical consciousness, often seemed to narrowly reflect the specific agenda of the persons writing it.

By the end of the 19th century a new consciousness, an "ecumenical consciousness," began to manifest itself. Here there is a greater awareness and acknowledgement of the long-standing ecclesiastical and theological diversities of Christianity, while at the same time a desire also to acknowledge the unity that is shared among the many traditions of Christianity.

More recently, the study of Christianity has been marked by a global consciousness, with at least three dimensions. In recent decades there has been increased study of and appreciation for voices within Christianity that too often have not been heard—the voices of women, persons of color, and the poor. In addition to this and more recently, there has been increased study of and appreciation for Christianity in the "two-thirds" of the world beyond the Euro-American arena. And, with this has also come increased attention to the relationships between Christianity and world religions. Thus, the study of Christianity is currently marked by a dramatic expansion of perspectives and scope.


Study Questions:
1.     Describe the relationship between Christian beliefs and Christian practices. Why are the two in tension?
2.     How does the position of the historian or scholar affect the interpretation of Christianity?
3.     What is meant by classical, historical, and ecumenical consciousness?
4.     How is the study of contemporary Christianity influenced by those outside of it?

 

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