Posts Tagged ‘ecumenism’

Herodotus, Hermeneutics, and Vatican II: Should Historians Trust Us Theologians?

Monday, July 9th, 2012

by Christopher Denny

HerodotusTwo decades ago I graduated from a liberal-arts school whose curriculum is based upon reading classic texts from Western Civilization—the so-called Great Books. Students read them in roughly chronological order, from Homer to Heidegger. Having decided that I needed to postpone entry into the real world for a tad longer, after I left college I embarked upon a more ambitious reading project.

Beginning with surviving fragments of ancient Egyptian literature from the Old Kingdom period, I planned to work my way chronologically through influential texts from the succeeding four and one-half millennia of human history, this time branching out beyond the West and also reading texts from China, India, the Middle East, and Japan. The detail with which I drew up the reading list was not matched by a corresponding level of interest in the need to earn enough money upon which I could live, and so after three years I decided to head to graduate school in religious studies, where I could embark upon a profession in which I could combine teaching, writing, and reading. I put aside my reading list, having only reached Herodotus’s History.

In the succeeding years I finished graduate school, earned a doctorate, and assumed a post teaching historical theology at St. John’s University in New York City. My cherished reading list was relegated to a file cabinet, until this past year, when I decided to return to Herodotus, picking up right where I left off twenty years ago—in the middle of the History’s third book.

Herodotus wrote his History during the early years of the Peloponnesian War, around 430—425 BCE, and his subject was the earlier war between the Greek city-states and the Persian Empire. The History was part of a stream of demythologization that swept through Greek literature in the last half of the fifth-century. Along with Aristophanes, Euripides, and Thucydides, Herodotus cast a critical eye upon both Greek religion and the paideia that supported this piety.

His opening account of the Trojan War, which Herodotus saw as the prelude to the latter struggles between the Greek city-states and Persia, omits any reference to the machinations of divinities. Croesus of Lydia loses his empire to King Cyrus after misinterpretations of oracles lead to a series of political mistakes. Herodotus reports religious customs of the Babylonians without evincing any belief in their efficacy, chastises the Egyptians with being “religious to excess,” ridicules selected Greek beliefs regarding Heracles, and emphasizes the novelty of Greek religious beliefs by comparison with more ancient cultures.

Herodotus does not ascribe the events of the Persian Wars to a theomachy on Mount Olympus. This novel emphasis does not stem from religious unbelief, as Herodotus warns that harsh punishments can draw down the gods’ wrath. Rather, Herodotus relegates religious influence to the realm of the inscrutable, pushing his History away from religion and towards . . . history. It is to Herodotus, the so-called “Father of History,” that later centuries owe the distinction between theological and historical interpretations of the world. Readers interested in Herodotus and Greek religion can read Thomas Harrison’s book Divinity and History: The Religion of Herodotus (Oxford UP, 2000).

As a historical theologian, both the institution at which I work and the Catholic community of which I am part expect me to make sense of history by discerning God’s activity therein, but the enterprise is treacherous and often ill-defined. Methodologically church historians despite their monotheism are the offspring of the polytheist Herodotus, while Christian theologians are impatient to construct a “usable” history for their present contexts, lest they and the communities they represent be suspected of antiquarianism, nostalgia, or reactionary sympathies. The same events, the bare facts of the Christian past, are examined through two very different disciplinary lenses, leaving historical theology as an uncomfortable hybrid in the academic menagerie.

These musings about Herodotus came to mind as I was reading a new book by theologian Massimo Faggioli, Vatican II: The Battle for Meaning (Paulist, 2012). Faggioli is a religious historian at the University of St. Thomas in Saint Paul, and his specialization is the hermeneutics of the Second Vatican Council (1962—65).

Those with an interest in intra-Catholic disputes perhaps know about the recent struggles among Catholic historians, theologians, and bishops regarding the proper understanding of Vatican II. Part of the ongoing debate between centralized and decentralized visions of the Catholic Church, these differences of opinion have recently crystallized into two major groupings. One group’s preferred understanding of Vatican II is alternately termed “the hermeneutics of discontinuity” or the “hermeneutics of rupture,” while the opposing group styles itself as promoters of the “hermeneutics of continuity” or the “hermeneutics of reform.” Regardless of the terminology employed, the fundamental difference between the parties is the extent to which the Second Vatican Council should be understood as having departed from the previous practices, intellectual frameworks, and customs of Roman Catholic tradition.

Karl Rahner (1904-1984) Wikimedia Commons

Is this a theological dispute or a historical dispute? No less a theologian than Karl Rahner begged off making a clear distinction between history and theology at the beginning of a widely cited address in 1979, later published as “Towards a Fundamental Theological Interpretation of Vatican II.” (PDF) This contest operates at both these levels simultaneously because each faction wants not only to recount past events but also to use the past to establish ecclesial norms for the future. Faggioli himself acknowledges his debt to the late Italian church historian Giuseppe Alberigo, the editor of the five-volume History of Vatican II (Orbis, 1995—2006).

Alberigo’s work established a new standard for the historiography of Vatican II, making use of archival documentation, unpublished correspondence of council participants, and journals to construct a narrative of conciliar activity. The end result was so influential that the name of Alberigo’s home institution is now the eponym for the scholars who use the series as a baseline for further historical research — the Bologna school.

Debates about the Council predate the close of the council itself, but Vatican II: The Battle for Meaning joins other recent publications in promoting a new standard by which to settle theological disputes about the Council. Along with John O’Malley’s What Happened at Vatican II (Harvard UP, 2008), Faggioli’s book aims to ground theological disputes about the meaning of Vatican II by appealing to history. In what Faggioli identifies as one of the “macro-issues of the debate,” he writes,

What is typical of Vatican II is the dimension of the relationship between the Church and the modern world, the assumption of history in its epistemological value for Catholic theology, and the fact that Vatican II is not a paradigm in itself . . . but a ‘paradigmatic example’ of the complex relationship between continuity and discontinuity” (p. 137). Again, “The historicization of Vatican II starting in the late 1980s has clearly introduced a hermeneutical shift in the theology of Vatican II.

Catholic theologians of different persuasions can certainly spill ink about how to balance the letter and the spirit of Vatican II, and debates about continuity and discontinuity have been a feature of Christian theology since the first-century debates over circumcision in Antioch and Jerusalem recounted in the New Testament. But what stake do historians have in this debate? Continuity and discontinuity may be problematic for theologians seeking doctrinal, liturgical, and moral norms, but all historians presume change as a precondition of their disciplinary methodology. One doesn’t have to be a resolute empiricist or positivist to insist that ascertaining theological standards and formulations is more than a function of setting past events in their historical context; this much should be uncontroversial, and yet the turn to history in twentieth century Christian theology unearths quite a few examples of theologians attempting to settle differences with an appeal to history.

Consider the example of ecumenism. In 1963 the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches met in Montreal. In a conference report the Commission published that year, entitled “Scripture, Tradition, and Traditions,” the hope is expressed that somehow history can be a catalyst for overcoming church divisions. The Commission wrote:

During the centuries the different Christian communions have developed their own traditions of historical study and their own particular ways of viewing the past. The rise of the idea of a strictly scientific study of history, with its spirit of accuracy and objectivity, in some ways ameliorated this situation. But the resultant work so frequently failed to take note of the deeper theological issues involved in church history (para. 59).

A “scientific” Christian history tantalizes theologians with the prospect of undoing the damage done by early modern confessionalization, but the authors of the Commission’s report recognize that such history is insufficient. The hope that ressourcement of Christian traditions, especially from the period of the early church, would bring ecclesial unity was also present at Vatican II. Members of the 1963 Commission included Protestant observers at Vatican II, while Catholic periti (theological advisors) at Vatican II were present at the Montreal gathering, even though the Roman Catholic Church was not (and still is not) a member of the World Council of Churches.

Yet despite major advances in historical scholarship in the intervening decades, the ecumenical movement is no stronger than it was during the heady days of the 1960s. Indeed, the global Anglican Communion itself is struggling to remain united, with little indication that historical study will heal divisions rooted in contrasting understandings of the authority of both Scripture and ecclesial traditions as they pertain to church authority and sexual morality.

If the ecumenical frame of reference seems too narrow, historians can listen in on the theological debate regarding salvation history and world history that emerged in Europe after the Second World War. In two influential books — Christus und die Zeit (1947) and Heil als Geschichte: Heilsgeschichtliche Existenz im Neuen Testament (1962) — Lutheran theologian Oscar Cullmann (1902—99) distinguished between the events of history and their significance for God’s plan of salvation. In Cullmann’s formulation the empirical facts of history are visible to all, while proper insight into the specifically religious significance of these facts is only granted to those privileged to receive the Word of God in faith.

Cullmann himself was a biblical theologian who participated in ecumenical dialogues from the 1920s onward and was an observer at Vatican II. His proffered relationship between world history and salvation history is a neat solution to many of the pressing issues confronting Christian theology at mid-century. By granting historical scholarship autonomy from theology, Cullmann made room for historical-critical research while safeguarding religious interpretations of Christian history.

Wolfhart Pannenberg (1928-) Wikimedia Commons

Wolfhart Pannenberg and others attacked this cleavage in the 1960s, challenging the claim that salvation history was a sanctum cordoned off from the general progression of world events. In the introduction to Offenbarung als Geschichte (1961) Pannenberg evinced a confidence that historical events needed no supernatural hermeneutics to make them intelligible. He claimed that using historical methodology to examine the events of Christian history should be sufficient in principle to establish a response of religious faith.

Whether they deal with the relationship between Christian churches or between Christians and the world, these debates are in essence boundary disputes in which the fence pickets are often dimly glimpsed. Catholics such as Alberigo, O’Malley, and Faggioli debate opponents of the Bologna school such as Agostino Marchetto, Matthew Levering, and Matthew Lamb over whether the intentions of those who drafted the documents of Vatican II should guide interpretation of the sixteen documents that the Council produced.

O’Malley cultivates a vision of Vatican II that identifies the Council as a language event that is unprecedented in the history of the Catholic Church, while Marchetto (Il Concilio Ecumenico Vaticano II: Controppunto per la sua Storia; Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2005) insists that the texts themselves rather than the surrounding conciliar debates establish the standards for contemporary Catholic theology. Alberigo’s co-editor of the History of Vatican II, Joseph Komonchak, emphasizes the reception of the Council by the members of the Church as an important marker in understanding its activity, while Levering and Lamb (Vatican II: Renewal within Tradition) interpret the conciliar constitutions and decrees with reference to each other and to previous magisterial teaching. The necessary distinction between history and theology in these publications is mostly implied and rarely expounded in sufficient detail.

Continuing a trend of magisterial statements on the meaning of Vatican II dating back to the 1985 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, Benedict XVI himself reentered the fray in a Christmas address to the Roman Curia on December 22, 2005, in which he contrasted a defective “hermeneutics of discontinuity” with his preferred “hermeneutics of reform.” Historically of course discontinuity cannot be denied, but the pope is primarily concerned to assert that the Catholic Church “has actually preserved and deepened her inmost nature and true identity.”

For the former Cardinal Ratzinger, the essence of the Catholic Church transcends temporal fluctuations. Like Cullmann’s sacralized interpretation of salvation history, however, the pope’s ecclesiology is rooted in a theological vision that historical-critical researches will not be permitted to obscure.

Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps we should expect this of a religious leader, even one who is a former academic whose 1957 habilitation was devoted to the theology of history in Saint Bonaventure, but for theologians and historians promoting the historicization of the Second Vatican Council are we not right to insist upon a more systematic differentiation between history and theology? Shouldn’t we expect that the tasks of historical reconstruction on one hand, and doctrinal, ethical, and systematic construction on the other, be properly distinguished?

Fortunately a pair of theologians influenced by Bernard Lonergan (1904—84) have set about to clarify these matters by directly examining what history and historiography are and what they are not. Lonergan was a Canadian Jesuit who was one of the most influential Catholic theologians of the 20th century. His most lasting contribution to Christian thought was the development of a detailed methodology that distinguished between research, interpretation, historical reconstruction, and evaluative judgment. In his 1971 book Method in Theology Lonergan provided a thoughtful delineation of intellectual tasks that contestants in the Vatican II debates should keep in mind. Lonergan wrote:

Embedded in the problem of hermeneutics, then, there are quite different and far profounder problems. . . . In my opinion, they can be met only by the development and application of theological method. Only in that fashion can one distinguish and keep separate problems of hermeneutics and problems in history, dialectic, foundations, doctrines, systematics, and communications. In fact the most striking feature of much contemporary discussion of hermeneutics is that it attempts to treat all these issues as if they were hermeneutical. They are not.

For Lonergan a concern with theological method was a non-negotiable requirement for empirical cultures of the modern age if Christian theology was to successfully negotiate the discontinuities that the modern world imposes upon the churches at an exponentially increasing rate.

Robert Doran is a Jesuit at Marquette University, the author of Theology and the Dialectics of History (University of Toronto Press, 1990) and also the editor of Lonergan’s collected works. As a student of Lonergan, Doran built upon his teacher’s theories in a 1999 article in Theological Studies (“System and History: The Challenge to Catholic Systematic Theology”) to argue for a more explicit distinction between critical descriptive history and a systematic explanatory history.

The former genre would address the question, “What happened at Vatican II?” while the latter answers the question, “Why is Vatican II significant?” Critical history is one discipline; philosophies and theologies of history are another. Archival researches, cross-cultural comparisons of contemporary events, and interviews to compile oral history collections are all necessary endeavors for critical history.

If one wants to compose a Christian theology of an historical event, however, whether that event is Vatican II or any other event, none of these activities are sufficient by themselves. Ressourcement is not sufficient for theologians; direct appeals to a normative source shaping continuities and discontinuities within historical developments are unacceptable in critical histories. This is true whether the normative source is the God of Israel, a Hegelian Geist, or the work of the Holy Spirit in the churches during the 1960s. Doran understands the contemporary theological task as one of mediating history while respecting its autonomy.

The second theologian using Lonergan’s thought to bring clarity to the issue of Vatican II interpretations is Neil Ormerod, a theologian at the Australian Catholic University who also holds a Ph.D. in mathematics. Ormerod retrieves the work of John Henry Newman to remind theologians that there are more productive ways of describing historical changes than to use the tautological categories of continuity and discontinuity.

In An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine Newman, Omerod sets forth criteria to adjudicate between authentic growth in theological understandings of Christian tradition and distortions of the same. Ormerod’s 2010 article in Theological Studies (“Vatican II—Continuity or Discontinuity? Toward an Ontology of Meaning”) brings Newman’s work to bear on the Vatican II debates:

In terms, then, of the changes initiated in the aftermath of Vatican II, what would Newman contribute? He would alert us to the many types of change that can occur. Change is not one-dimensional. . . . At the very least this question takes us beyond the simplistic metaphor of continuity/discontinuity. (p. 619—20)

Ormerod believes that Lonergan’s account of change improves upon that of Newman, to whom Lonergan acknowledged a debt in his writings, by enabling theologians to understand that their proper domain in historical research is not change in itself but the meaning of changes in church history for individuals and Christian communities.

Church historians may understandably bristle at this proposed division of labor, as though my praise for Doran and Ormerod is designed to suggest that historians sit down at the back of the bus while theologians, hoping to restore their discipline to its former glory as the “queen of the sciences,” shape the narratives that historians compile into something significant for Christian religion. Such is not my intention. First, many historians also wear theological hats while many theologians don historical garb. The popular discipline of historical theology attests to this.

Second, critical histories need not mean secularist histories impervious to religious interpretation. The narratives that church historians create are not simply indifferent catalogs from which all theological interpretations that can be drawn are equally adequate explanations. In his 1986 presidential address to the American Catholic Historical Association (“No More Than ‘Footprints in Time’? Church History and Catholic Christianity”), James Hennesey noted, “The historian’s role is to aid in the discernment of the authentic tradition, not to make the ultimate judgment. . . . The history of the Church, rightly studied and rightly understood, has a vital theological and ecclesial role” (The Catholic Historical Review 73/2, p. 194).

The insistence upon disciplinary boundaries that I am promoting is designed to protect church historians from theological encroachments rather than to shackle historical scholarship. The problems with recent debates over the hermeneutics of Vatican II and its implementation is that scholars from various positions on the spectrum of Catholic opinion are inserting specifically theological claims into historical reconstructions, and these claims are too often unacknowledged as such. When George Weigel titles his account of the papal election of Benedict XVI God’s Choice, even Weigel’s ideological opposites can acknowledge that he has made his theological convictions surrounding the events in 2005 explicit.

Would that others writing about Vatican II and its aftermath were as straightforward in expressing their own religious viewpoints. To make the claim God speaks through the Bible, through bishops, or through cardinals is easily identified as a theological claim and as an act of religious faith. But to claim that the cultural event of modernity provides the framework that should guide the application of Vatican II is also a theological claim. To claim that the documents of Vatican II should only be understood in accord with the intentions of those who promulgated them rather than the wider Church is yet another theological assertion.

In contemporary American society we are admonished to avoid expressing religious beliefs in polite conversation, and blurring the difference between historiography and faith is one way for Catholics in a polarized Church to camouflage their differences with one another in the interest of avoiding further rifts. Whether this scholarly politesse is helpful to the life of the Roman Catholic Church is a theological question for another time.

What should church historians learn from these theological disputes? For that I conclude by returning to Herodotus. Herodotus wrote at a time when traditional Athenian piety was solely tested by shifting social patterns resulting from urbanization on the Attic peninsula.

The early years of the Peloponnesian War were fueled by the enthusiasm of Cleon’s democratic party in Athens, but Athens’ early successes did not last. War dragged on and the oligarchic and democratic factions grew further apart. Playwrights such as Aristophanes lampooned divinities on the comic stage, laying the groundwork in the next generation for the more direct demythologization of Greek religion led by Socrates, Plato, and their associates. The historical parallels with the last decade of American society need no belaboring.

In the midst of these upheavals Herodotus adhered to a middle path. His History separated itself from the traditional myths that served as a foundation for Attic religion, but Herodotus did not deconstruct religion in the manner of philosophers such as Xenophanes and Plato. Though he is undoubtedly uncritical by modern standards — and evinces no consistent grasp of the ideals of multiple attestation, relative chronology, and other requirements of modern historical research — Herodotus’s value for those perusing the boundaries of theology and history is in what he refrains from doing.

At the start of a war that would eventually destroy both Athens’ economy and its independence, Herodotus looked back to an earlier war in which the combatants called upon their respective divinities and refused to take competing religious accounts of the world at face value or to choose among them. In this he should be a model for contemporary scholars regardless of his methodological shortcomings.

Church historians, when we Christian theologians come calling with supernatural explanations that presume to account for the course of human events, stick to your principles. Insist upon empirical scholarship and consistent standards of evidence. When evidence is lacking, show more humility and consistency than we often do in disguising piety as history. Learn from Herodotus, the father of history.

Martyrs and Protestant-Catholic Relations

Saturday, March 10th, 2012

by Adrian Weimer


Edmund Campion

A colleague and I were recently discussing a Vatican program to collect the stories of contemporary Christian martyrs. The Christian church has collected martyr stories for millennia – what is new about the Vatican’s effort is its deliberate ecumenism. In a program initiated by John Paul II for the 2000 Jubilee, Catholics are deliberately reaching across confessional lines, honoring Protestant and Orthodox martyrs alongside Catholic ones. The desire to commemorate those who have died for the faith, both as a devotional resource and as a kind of competition for religious legitimacy, is an important strand in the history of Protestant-Catholic relations, so it is worth thinking about the Vatican’s effort in longer context.


“Who is holier, Edmund Campion or Hugh Latimer?” was a politically charged and devotionally heated question in the English-speaking world of the sixteenth century.


Edmund Campion, a Jesuit hanged during the reign of the Protestant Queen Elizabeth, and Hugh Latimer, an Anglican burned during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary, were the heroes of the age. As an early modern English man or woman, you would not have honored both.


Martyrdom of Bishop Ridley and Father Latimer. John Foxe, Actes and Monuments.

Thousands of pages of print were devoted to defining a “true” or a “false” martyr.
Even Roger Williams entered into the debate. Arguing with puritans about freedom of conscience, Williams told the story of an English Catholic who received his death sentence in Protestant England with the words, “If I had ten thousand millions of lives, I would spend them all for the Faith of Rome, &c.”  Williams acknowledged with grudging admiration the Catholic martyr’s zeal, though in the end declared him false (because Catholic and so unorthodox). Nonetheless, according to Williams, such Catholics should not burn because the magistrate had no right to judge cases of conscience. The idea that martyrs were “false” because of the Augustinian formula, “not the punishment but the cause” makes a true martyr tied the definition of martyrdom inextricably to theological orthodoxy. So even missionaries killed by indigenous tribes, or those killed by a common enemy, if not of your own orthodoxy, were unlikely to be recognized. This intransigence on both sides toward recognizing the other’s martyrs as “true” persisted well into the nineteenth, and even the twentieth century.


Is the Catholic commemoration of Protestant and Orthodox martyrs an important ecumenical moment? If so, there has been surprisingly little response. The most vocal commentary on the Vatican’s effort has come from conservative Catholics who see this kind of ecumenism as a betrayal of Catholic identity.


Though Protestant leaders did attend the Commemoration for New Martyrs held at the Colosseum in 2000, many Protestants are either not aware of the effort, or do not think it goes far enough. In Lübeck, Germany, last year, Lutherans were upset that of four clergy beheaded for resistance to the Nazi regime, Rome only beatified the three who were Catholic. The fourth, a Lutheran, was honored as a martyr but not beatified.


Several aspects of the Vatican effort deserve exploration. What was the process of collecting the stories? Which non-Catholic communities were approached (and not approached) and were they involved in the decision on whether their stories would be included on the New Martyr lists? Even so, given the long history of judgments on “false” martyrs, and animosity that continues to this day (as I write, anti-Catholic hackers just took down the Vatican website) this turn to martyrdom as ecumenism bears reflection alongside other more prominent (and more virulent) discourses of martyrdom.


Some Thoughts of a Medievalist Who Studies the Reformation in a Halfway House to Secularism

Friday, December 30th, 2011

by Christopher Ocker

I thought I would take the liberty of this medium to share thoughts not drawn from my research in late medieval and early modern Christianity but provoked by the American intellectual historian David Hollinger.  They are, in the end, somewhat personal.

In his presidential address to the Organization of American Historians last March, Hollinger calls attention to the role of Ecumenical Protestantism in recent American culture.  True, Hollinger concedes, the Ecumenism that dominated the Protestant Establishment at mid-century, with its advocacy of cultural diversity, racial justice, and modernized belief, contributed mightily to the decline of the Protestant mainline.

The Ecumenists were lulled by their own success.  Membership rose and peaked in the old Protestant churches in the early 1960’s, and the Ecumenists exploited an extraordinarily privileged access to government and media.  They also underestimated the impact of the laity’s growing dissatisfaction with them, as the clergy turned increasingly leftward.  Meanwhile, their intellectual progeny took themselves and the enterprise of social reform out of churches and into secular organizations.  In the 1980’s and 1990’s, evangelicals handily took the Ecumenists’ place as the public face of Protestantism in the United States.

According to Hollinger, the Ecumenists got what they wished for, and then some.  For one, Ecumenical Protestantism became “a commodius halfway house to what for lack of a better term we can call post-Protestant secularism.”  Yet, too, the Ecumenists’ discourse of cultural diversity and tolerance and their criticism of religious orthodoxy now govern public attitudes in “the most ostensibly religious society in the industrialized North Atlantic West,” even among self-identifying evangelicals, perhaps indicating, he suggests, a kind of secularization by stealth.  Sure, the success of mid-century programs has contributed to trans-generational attrition in the ecumenical churches, their numbers famously declining since the 1970’s.  But these same endeavors have also left a deep imprint on American cultural life.

I teach medieval and early modern Christianity as cultural history in one of those Protestant Establishment seminaries.  This one was begun under the leadership of a clergyman 140 years ago in a prominent church on San Francisco’s Union  Square, and it is one of a dozen or so of the oldest surviving educational institutions in the American west.  In his day, the founder was a visible and controversial public voice in the city.

A slave-owning southern clergyman before he came to the Presbyterian Church on the square, he thought the separation of church and state precluded government interference in the secular institution of slavery in the South and precluded public school prayer in the West.  He is referred to cautiously and with caveats around here.  His mid-century biographer was my predecessor by some generations removed, a historian of Protestant missions in California and the Pacific Northwest and a frequent contributor to the Pacific Historical Review.  The biographer emphasized the bit about school prayer.  We have all but forgotten the founder’s place in public life.  The loss of his memory is emblematic of the decline of the Protestant Establishment of which Hollinger and others speak.

Around here, we tend to presuppose the academic parochialism of places like ours before the mid-twentieth century, while we are blind to the threat of parochialism now.  We get it exactly backwards.  In the 1920’s and 1930’s, when our faculty mostly avoided the stormy, definitive doctrinal and missionary policy debates racking the Protestant Establishment in those years, future Presbyterian ministers at this seminary could choose courses in Akkadian to complement standard offerings in the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek of the bible. Now we send those students to the University of California.

Across the Bay at our nearest rival, the Congregationalist Pacific School of Religion, a professor who had trained in another seminary, the Moravian one in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, directed a significant archeological dig at Tell en-Nasbeh, northwest of Jerusalem.   Such were the Protestant seminaries scattered across North America in the early twentieth century.

The rise of the Ecumenists in the 1950’s, in spite of their insistent self-distancing from the doctrinal orthodoxies of the past, seemed to reap a harvest planted by their ancestors.  Their rise brought an ambitious president to the San Francisco Theological Seminary.  As a young college professor in the Midwest, Ted Gill led study tours of college students to meet activist missionaries in Latin America.  Once he arrived in the Bay Area, he expanded the faculty.  He appointed, among several other mavericks, the seminary’s first medievalist, an intellectual historian imported from Europe named Martin Anton Schmidt.  He appointed the historian of Puritanism Leonard Trinterud, the historian of Protestant theology John Dillenberger, and Noel Freedman,  a scholar of Hebrew bible,  who went on to become one of the most prominent bible scholars of his generation.

Gill’s impatient correspondence with disillusioned donors makes for an interesting read.  The donors were goaded by news of his endorsement of the civil rights movement, and by a newly appointed theologian’s court testimony against local obscenity laws, and by things said by bible professors visiting churches to preach – denying the Exodus, the resurrection of the dead, and other less axiomatic biblical miracles.

Gill also invested time, personnel, and property into the creation of the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, a quintessentially ecumenical project if ever there was one.  Dillenberger was transferred to the GTU.  Neither the medieval intellectual historian nor the prominent bible scholar stayed long, moving on, respectively, to the universities of Basel and Michigan.  The ambitious young president himself left to become professor and then provost of John Jay College in New York.  US withdrawal from Vietnam took away the draft deferments that incentivized applications for admission.  Soon after, the decline in enrollment, mercifully gradual here, began.

The mid-century expansion ultimately proved unsustainable, although I hasten to add that at both the GTU and SFTS we like to think that we’ve continued to thrive, and our pride in our graduates is fulsome.  That I should teach a decidedly medieval Reformation on this Protestant faculty in a well-integrated ecumenical consortium is a privilege I owe to the expanded intellectual, social, and cultural space created by Ecumenical Protestants.

Those who teach history in a theology faculty associated with the old Protestant churches know their own versions of this story.  It’s hard not to yearn for the halcyon days at mid-century when the Ecumenists could all rest confidently in a public, liberal-Protestant prestige, and yet it’s hard not to marvel at the Ecumenists, if for no other reason than because fewer and fewer of us, or our students, were born and raised in their ancestral faith with its peculiar assumptions and prejudices.

I won’t go into the details of those assumptions and prejudices.  I prefer to consider the reminders of an earlier prestige.  Here, our stately buildings, a popular local wedding venue, are rare, if late, examples of Richardsonian Romanesque on the west coast and a gorgeous testimony to the Protestant Establishment’s past, which included a handful of the region’s generous captains of industry.  Today, passersby admire the buildings wondering if we are monks (none are) and nuns (one is), train priests, or reject evolution (none do).

Meanwhile, theological education among Ecumenical Protestants seems to have regressed into vigorous nail-biting.  This is hidden by an awkward optimism, that when we become the kind of dynamic, adaptable organizations that evangelical schools and churches are presumed to be (and to be fair, some really are), the numbers of our students will rise, followed by a bounty of job openings for our enterprising graduates.

Here, in the Ecumenical Protestant seminary, it occurs to the teacher of history that the study of ancient, medieval, or early modern religion has little to contribute to the perfection of Godly Play or the role of Power Point and social media in “a new model for ministry” patterned after the evangelical seminary’s, or the seminary satellite’s, model down the road.  Spirituality, on-line education, and youth ministry, some say, are the most important things a seminary can teach today, and by teach they seem to mean train.  To embrace that ambition would make a travesty of what theological education born in the Protestant Establishment had aspired to be.  At the same time, like our Establishment forebears, we tend to ignore the center of serious theological inquiry that our best evangelical rival, Fuller Seminary, has become.

Needless to say, the august Society sponsoring this blog is, in its own way, both a product of the old Protestant Establishment and, in its current, vibrant form, a by-product of the transitions discussed by David Hollinger and others.  Both facts, the society’s origins and its current form, are reflected in the journal’s indicative title/subtitle, Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture – “Christianity” and “Culture” coaxing the reader away from the delimiting “church.”  A member of the ASCH teaching in a seminary is not inclined to surrender all real education in the history of religion and culture to the divinity schools and departments of universities, as though real scholarship should not belong in a seminary, a presupposition occasionally voiced, sometimes obliquely and sometimes directly, by friends outside of seminaries and, more alarmingly, by others within.  No, I’m not willing to admit the failure of Ecumenical Protestantism.

Hollinger points out that the presumption of failure typical among Ecumenical Protestants, and I would add, the confusion, depression, and muddled aspirations that accompany it, make sense from only one perspective.  He says,

To recognize the historic function of ecumenical Protestantism as a halfway house, if not actually a slippery slope to secularism, is in no way invidious unless one approaches history as a Christian survivalist.  Religious affiliations, like other solidarities, are contingent entities, generated, sustained, transformed, diminished, and destroyed by the changing circumstances of history.  Those circumstances still render ecumenical Protestantism a vibrant and vital home for many persons.  A genuinely historicist approach to the history of religion will not teleologically imply that those committed to that faith today are headed for history’s dustbin.  On the contrary, historicism demands that we address every human phenomenon in its local and global contexts, and be as respectful as we can of the honest decisions people make in those settings and refrain from thinking we know the future.

It’s worth pondering this observation in all its dimensions.  There is, for example, the business about secularism.  What’s wrong with it, in the pluralistic form once advocated by Wilfred Cantwell Smith, the young Martin Marty, Henry van Deusen, and their admirers of yore?  I, in my interfaith family, with my Catholic dean and my Jesuit, Franciscan, Dominican, Jewish, Muslim, Swedenborgian, Buddhist, evangelical, Unitarian, Ecumenical Protestant, unidentified, religiously indifferent, and atheist colleagues and students across the Bay, find this saeculum a good and productive place to call home.  A particular religious or cultural identity does not have to dominate a society to be morally relevant or spiritually alive, quite the contrary, a point the old guard Ecumenists argued on principle but might have found difficult to feel in their Anglo-Protestant, Euro-American bones.

Ecumenism was not only a Protestant affair, and the pluralism encouraged by the Ecumenists was not unique to them but widely shared among the political left.  This fact was reflected in Fundamentalist accusations of selling-out the church, familiar to those of us who passed near or through evangelicalism in the 1970’s.  The rejection of a Christianity leaning affectionately on its diverse cultural pasts and presents in a world of religions, beliefs, and unbelief survives in an evangelical rhetoric against “cultural Christianity.”  But, tellingly, cultural Christianity is now also recognized by evangelicals to be a threat within evangelicalism and not just outside it.

That pluralism has subsumed Protestant-Catholic, Jewish-Christian, or Christian-Muslim differences under the umbrella of cultural diversity is hardly a bad thing.  Nor is it a damaging thing.  A historian should never regret contributing to a comparative, deeply human and humane dialectic of identification and differentiation, the I-am-you-not-you dialectic created by interaction across boundaries.

A great danger in seminaries is that a recidivism around a particular religious identity, encouraged by what Hollinger calls Christian survivalism, could destroy any interest in a genuinely historicist approach to history.  Anxiety to survive threatens to collapse the teaching of church history or the history of Christianity, whichever side of the journal’s title you prefer, into a self-affirming exercise, an exercise in a particular version of Christian identity or theological or spiritual tradition, a history taught by people with little training in, or sympathy for, a genuine historicism, a history that studies the past only to appropriate bits, pieces, and distortions for the present.

I don’t mean to begrudge anyone the history of his or her particular brand of the world’s “traditioned communities,” a phrase coined by Lewis Seymour Mudge, a theologian and a fondly remembered colleague, a dedicated Ecumenist, and a scion of the Protestant Establishment whose father, as stated clerk of the Presbyterian General Assembly, was mentioned regularly in the pages of Henry Robinson Luce’s Time Magazine.  The plural of Mudge’s phrase is essential.  The pluralistic, historicizing alternative to self-affirmation is, in fact, wonderful.  There is no better reason to study the history of Christianity anywhere, in a seminary or out, than to be seduced, charmed, provoked, shamed, offended, and engaged by the magnificent imaginaries that color the history of religion, a culturally promiscuous science.


Christopher Ocker is Professor of Church History at the San Francisco Theological Seminary, Coordinator of the seminary’s Muilenburg-Koenig History of Religion Seminar, a Member of the Core Doctoral Faculty of the Graduate Theological Union, affiliated with the Joint Program in Jewish Studies of the GTU and the University of California at Berkeley, and affiliated with Berkeley’s History Department.