Wednesday, March 06, 2013

A better way to teach fourth century church history

Just me firing off some thoughts:

1. I would start off with laying the ground for what was 'common' in the period to all parties. What is the shared legacy that exists, say, around 300-320?
2. Tease out the origins of that legacy, and how the Arian crisis emerged; don't neglect the politics of the Alexandrian scene.
3. Talk about Nicaea as the confluence of 3 things: a new world order that has to reckon with Constantine, a church that needs to deal with Arius and his theology, and a theological solution that left no-one happy
4. If you get 1 and 2 clear, then the next part of the syllabus should really deal with the trajectory of the major non-Nicene party under the two Eusebii. What is the common set of theological principles that shape this group?
5. It's then worth playing out the story of Marcellus, to see the other extreme, and the constant opponent of the non-Nicenes.
6. Only then would I take up Athanasius. Talk about both his theological inheritance, and his theological solutions and brilliance. Discuss his exiles, and how time in Rome aligns him with the West in a unique way. Also talk about how the connection with Marcellus both helps and hinders, and the politics of calling opponents 'Arian'.
7. Now you're ready to take the story forward through the decades, deal with a few councils, the moves and countermoves.
8. I think you can break down this part of the story into a chronological division, where Athanasius leaves off and the controversies move into a second stage. Again I would work on the streams and developments among non-Nicenes. Particularly the emergence of homoian/homoiousian/heteroousian theologies is worth giving flesh to.
9. Don't neglect Hilary. While the debates are mostly an Eastern ballgame, these are still Empire-wide affairs, and Hilary is a key bridge-figure, he makes Eastern theology intelligible in the West, and whether he keeps/brings it back/lays a foundation for later, he is certainly pro-Nicene.
10. Now you can talk about the Cappadocians. Again, trace the emergence of their thought. How the 3 hypostaseis/1 ousia 'solution' is an emerging grammar that helps dissolve some of the sameness/diversity tensions, while thoroughly refuting the extremist heteroousian position.
11. Politics. Just as Constantine is a key figure in resolving the Arian crisis with the council of Nicaea, Theodosius is key to resolving the ongoing debate with the council of Constantinople. But it is not 'all politics', it is the very real world interplay of theology and 4th century politics. Certainly emperors were not really dictating to the church what to believe (except, perhaps in Theodosius' edict pre-dating the council).
12. Solution vs. resolution: I would wrap up by talking about how Constantinople resolves the issues, and does represent a victory of one side, but that itself is not 'solution', it wasn't an answer that existed from the start, it was the end-point of a theological process. And, to be fair, it sets the stage for another 70 years of controversy over the two natures of Christ.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

To my shame, I can't remember who Marcellus was.

Anyhoo, thanks for this Seumas. I like the whole idea. 2 comments. First, your suggested outline seems to have taken many more words than your previous post ;-) So we might need to spend more time to 'do it right' - and many students might still get it wrong. If you're a teacher, you need to be upfront with your students about how much work is required for them to wrap their heads around the long and complicated process they're about to explore, and what you expect they will get out of the exploration.

Second, I think we generally read our church history the same way we read the history of science: 'in the third century B.C. a Greek man proved that the Earth was round, and was pleased to find that his calculation of the Earth's diameter matched up with the correct figure'. What I mean is, we take as given that they were trying to get to the 'right' answer, and so we approach from our end, not theirs. We don't see the clouds and fogs they're passing through. Consequently, while we get some history, we don't get a very clear idea of their scientific method, and we don't realise the contribution of some of the old giants. Now, when we make the jump to church history, it's good to expect that theological science will develop and improve - as Constantinople represents an improvement over Nicaea. But by coming from our end all the time - why didn't any of these Emperors just read Calvin? - we rob ourselves of learning how theology was done, and how it ought to be done now upon reflection. We neglect their scientific method, and that's a bigger problem for theology, because our method should not have changed quite as much as the natural sciences have in the last 1600 years. (Also, we develop but we also forget - i think my understanding of astrophysics is better than Eratosthenes', but my grasp of Trinitarian theology could use a lot more of even the spare Gregory.)

Point 2 sort of wraps back into point 1 - what's your expectation? Are your students going to replicate some of the old debates and experiments and arguments, so that they own the results, or are they just going to take them on authority so they can use the results to smack down flat-earth JWs and Mormons?

Alan Wood, Port Macquarie