Philosophy of Education:
History of Christianity
At Azusa Pacific I have taught a course formally entitled "Church History." At Westmont I have taught "theological history," and would likely teach courses in "History of World Christianity." The labels are related but not interchangeable. The first two disciplines are overtly theological, the last overtly phenomenological. In the context of a modern Christian liberal arts education, teaching one unavoidably involves introducing the others.A course in Christian history seems straightforward: Move through the centuries cataloging the various important events that have been formative for Christianity down the centuries. However, such a course runs the risk of subtly teaching a particular eschatology: historicism. No healthy ecclesiology understands the Church as no more than the phenomena of Christian corporate life. It would be irresponsible to tell a story of Christ's people that violates their own core convictions.
Yet the ecclesiological convictions of Christians vary. Not to teach historicism is inevitably to teach some other -ism. Church history is an ecclesiological vision. Were I teaching in a denominational school, this might yet be a straightforward task: Tell the story through the frame of our ecclesiology. However, this community agrees to disagree ecclesiologically. Furthermore, it is increasingly obvious to Christians of many ecclesiologies that the divisions that separate us and bar us from each other's tables of peace are theologically intolerable. None of us has been able fully and formally to appreciate the saving work we see in each other's communities. (Here Lesslie Newbigin's The Household of God has guided me.)
Somehow courses in both Church history and history of Christianity must teach students to respect the discipline of phenomenological history, while also respecting the theological claim of one holy catholic apostolic Church, while respecting the essentially contested forms of that claim that have accumulated over the centuries, while respecting the unhappiness and promised eschatological resolution of that contest!
Out of respect for the public character of Christian historiography I assign texts from both non-Christian and Christian sources. (In fact I tend to prefer non-Christian ones.) Out of respect for its intrinsically theological character I stress the worship practices of Christian communities as serious, even normative historiographical projects. For instance, Christian practices such as the liturgical year honor both the Christocentricity of history, and the propriety of remembering saints. The liturgical week narrates the Church's unfolding history in terms of Israel created in God's eternal plan and restored in the resurrection of Jesus. A Sunday worship practice like penitential confession brings Christian failure into faithful remembrance. The creeds are skeletal summaries of sacred history. Preaching honors the biblical framework of all true Christian historical reflection; Scripture is written "for our sake" (1 Cor. 9:8-12) as a canonical chronicle of the past, present, and future. Sacraments and ordinances include worshipers across space and time in the historical community buried, raised, and gathered in the Lord s presence and absence.
Christians gather to tell the story that gathers them. Our most solemn storytelling follows our paradigmatic historical methods, in both their catholic unity and their sometimes schismatic diversity. My teaching aspires to this standard, which creates and sustains Christian community.
This standard does not shrink back from acknowledging massive Christian failures to be faithful. These include surrender of Jewish heritage, betrayal under persecution, capitulation to political convenience, preference for military and cultural conquest over patient evangelism, theological distortion, apathy, tolerance of corruption, complacency with division, persecution of brothers and sisters and neighbors and strangers, uncritical loyalty to tradition, and accommodation to unchristian cultures. I try to teach Christian history with the same candor that Israel and the Church demonstrated in writing and preserving the Old and New Testament.
Yet merely to teach about failure is not to teach truly Christian history, for God has not abandoned his people. At my school negativism would be especially dangerous, for students who are already prone to anti-institutional spiritualism and individualism would readily seize on the many depressing chapters of Christian history as excuses to despise organic Christian community. In fact, at a deeper level they are looking for an alternative to the cynicism that pervades youth culture, and Church history points over and over to one: authentic Christian faith. Here paying attention to Christian worship is particularly helpful, for liturgy centers the Church's historical attention humbly on Christ alone as our conqueror and gatherer. This keeps confession of the Church's failures from deteriorating into hopelessness, and celebrations of its victories from deteriorating into triumphalism. Ever since Augustine Christians have insisted that God gets all the credit for the Church, and that there is a lot of credit to go around.
In my Church history syllabi I frame the enterprise of Church history in terms of reunion:
One day a letter arrives for you. It's from another state, sent by someone you don't know, who has your aunt's maiden name. Inside is an invitation. A family reunion is happening. This is not just a run-of-the-mill holiday get-together with cousins and grandparents. It is going out to all kinds of people: to second and third cousins, to families of in-laws, to estranged relatives whom no one has seen in years, to branches long cut off by divorce. There is of course an obligatory reception and dinner. After dinner, storytellers will refresh everyone's memories of the few famous relatives whose names everyone still boasts about, of the obscurities who fill in the generational gaps, of the pioneers who moved the story into new locations and new eras, and of course of the ancestors who came to America and started it all. The next morning features a time for everyone to bring each other up-to-date on their activities. Can you e-mail a paragraph on yourself and bring photos and relics to show around?
The allure of the event is irresistible (especially because other family members strong-arm you into going), but you are still nervous about being lost in the crowd, a stranger in your own tribe. Furthermore, you are not so sure that all these people really are your family. What do you really have in common with these people? What connection is there between you and your aunt's great-great-great-grandparents? You know them only as a few enigmatic faces on a photo in your grandparents' musty hallway. Aren't your immediate family, your own blood relatives, your best friends, your "homies" aren't these people your real family?
What is family, anyway? Is it lineage? Is it a sprawling network of marital and parental and adoptive links that stretches across countries and centuries? Is it a life shared and experienced together?
These are the questions to ask and answer in our semester together studying the history of Christianity. Consider this your invitation to meet a family a family whose margins bleed into others, a family which may be yours or may simply be someone else's. ...
You are about to discover the Christian tradition to a depth you cannot now imagine and maybe discover yourself as well, for you will meet those who made you who you are, whose good works and shocking sins live on in your own generation. You are about to spend a decent chunk of your brief life confronting twenty centuries of God the Holy Spirit at work in our wonderful, horrible world, manifesting and pointing to the reign of God the Son, who died and rose for you to enjoy eternal fellowship as beloved children of your creator, God the Father.
As a professor I am this little reunion's master of ceremonies. I struggle to pick the most appropriate highlights and tell anecdotes that best represent twenty centuries. I try to be honest and polite at the same time. I challenge young attendees to catch the fire returning to their elders' eyes as they tell their stories, and provoke them to do their own investigating and reporting. My goal is not just to throw a fun party, but to strengthen the bond that brings Christians together in the first place, because the bond is not just an invitation list or a feeling or a family name, but blood. In fact, it is the blood of God's own (Acts 20:28).