Transforming lives on four continents

Theological ideals and the contingencies of history: Reflections on a term of teaching Church history

Posted by Daniel and Regiane Clark at 17:20 on 17th December 2016

This term I taught Church History on the Master’s course. As all my students had studied church history on their degree level course rather than another chronological journey through church history I decided to structure the course in two parts. In the first part we looked into detail at areas which are often covered superficially or not at all in Latin American church history courses, such as monasticism, eastern Orthodoxy and the medieval church. In the second part we focused on certain key contemporary themes and explored them from a historical perspective, such as slavery, the role of women, social action and colonialism/culture. Methodologically we divided each session into two parts, a lecture led by myself and a student-led seminar on a topic related to the lecture. Some key points that emerge:

  1. Many of my students struggled with what one might call the tensions between theological ideals and the contingencies of history. That is, there is often a discrepancy between what from a theological perspective we might have wanted to have happened, and what actually did.
  2. The period between Constantine and the reformation is a particular challenge. Most students struggle to accept that anything positive could exist within the context of the institutional Roman Catholic church. What should the response be to persons such as Augustine, Aquinas and Francis of Assisi?
  3. One of the reasons for having a seminar format is that many of my students are quite high profile denominational leaders. Therefore, potentially, they may be involved in leading debates on controversial subjects. As those who have worked in Latin American contexts, (or other high-context/honour shame societies) can testify it is quite easy to move quickly from a superficial consensus to heated arguments without any intermediate phase of cordial disagreement. Hence, it was pleasing to see the quality of the debates to increase throughout the term.

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