ecclesiastical history

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ecclesiastical history. Traditional teaching of ecclesiastical history, in 19th-cent. seminaries and training colleges, was determined by the need to establish the historical roots of institutions. It began with the patristic foundations, dealt with the great heresies, councils, the papacy, the early reform movement, the great schism of the 16th cent., the Counter-Reformation, and 19th-cent. revival. The contents of the package were determined on confessional lines. In a catholic context the emphasis would be on the destruction of heresies and on the papacy and great councils; in protestant colleges, on the justification of reform and separation.

As a distinctive university discipline, ecclesiastical history developed alongside secular history and the recovery of patristic studies in the 19th cent. Owen Chadwick has described ecclesiastical history as the seed of general history, since historical consciousness first arose within the heritage of Christendom. Ecclesiastical history could be, and was, used by all sides for propaganda and was largely viewed in terms of division, reaction, and rationalization of ecclesiastical separatism. Christianity, being by its very nature historical, meant that some account of that history had to be given, but also had to be imbued with religious meaning.

In the 20th cent. a new context and role arose for ecclesiastical history. This role has been enhanced by the rise of serious and scholarly demand for a different kind of denominational history, the social history revolution which has taken church history out of the pulpit and into the pew, and the upsurge of local and family history, which has enabled a more subtle and intimate approach to religious questions. All these, accompanied by the decline in classical languages, have tended to move the focus of interest into the modern and early modern period, towards congregations, social and political interaction, and minority or sectarian interests.

Ecclesiastical history, or the history of Christianity, as it is often tellingly described, is now seen as a significant component in professional historical scholarship, filling a niche alongside other historical disciplines, illuminating our understanding of human society and culture. So much of human experience has been engaged with religion that any history which ignores it is impoverished. Religion, Christianity, and the churches have played a major role in shaping values, institutions, culture, and customs and are therefore worth serious investigation.

However, the religious historian faces a particular difficulty in dealing with religious choices and chances and with the religious impulses of people motivated by a relationship with God. How does the historian account for that relationship and its government of people's lives? The transcendent element, which cannot be ignored, inevitably complicates the ecclesiastical historian's task.

Judith Champ