Christianity scholarship and research

Alister McGrath

Scholarship and Research

Christianity remains the world’s largest religion. Although traditionally regarded as having its heartlands in the west, its numerical centre of gravity has shifted during the late twentieth century to the developing world, with an increasingly significant presence in Africa and Asia, particularly China.

There is a very substantial body of literature dealing with virtually every aspect of Christian life and thought. The sheer size of this body of literature makes it virtually impossible to summarise and assess. In what follows, we shall consider some of the major themes that have emerged as being of particular importance in recent discussions, and are therefore likely to be significant in an educational context.

The origins and development of Christianity

The origins and development of Christianity

traditions-small.pngMuch attention is being paid to the origins of Christian ideas within Judaism, and how the early Christian church emerged as a distinct movement. This research generally focuses on historical questions relating to the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the nature of first-century Palestinian Judaism, and the origins of the documents now contained within the New Testament. One topic that has attracted particular attention since the 1980s is the idea that Paul of Tarsus is to be seen as the real founder of Christianity, transforming the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth into a divine figure. This agenda can be seen as lying behind Philip Pullman’s recent novel The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. There is also interest in a series of works not included in the New Testament (such as the “Gospel of Thomas” or the “Gospel of Judas”), and their implications for the history of early Christianity. This interest has been given a new injection of energy through recent fictional works, such as Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.

The historical, social, and intellectual development of Christianity is given much attention in the scholarly literature. The development of Christian ideas has long been recognised as important (see the representative collections of texts assembled in McGrath, The Christian Theology Reader). Other questions are also receiving attention. How did a religion which originated in the Middle East come to have such influence in the west? How has it shaped – and been shaped by – the culture of medieval Europe? How has it contributed to the emergence of democracy, and a culture of rights? What has its impact been upon the status of women? On the rise of the natural sciences? On art, architecture and literature?

The formation and significance of the New Testament Canon

The formation and significance of the New Testament Canon

traditions-small.pngUnlike Islam, which has a single-authored sacred text, Christianity accepts a collection of multi-authored texts as illustrating and constituting its beliefs and values. These texts include historical documents (such as the gospels, reporting the works and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth) and letters (setting out Christian ideas, and encouraging certain patterns of behaviour) Although these documents are all thought to date from the “Apostolic Age”, the process by which they came to be accepted as authoritative by Christian communities was not complete until the fourth century. The term “canon” (from the Greek word for “rule” or “benchmark”) was used to refer to these authorized texts.

There is a fundamental disagreement between Catholics and Protestants over the significance of this process of formation of the canon. To simplify a complex discussion, Catholics tend to see the process as the church exercising its God-given authority over these texts, whereas Protestants argue that the church discerned and placed itself under the God-given authority of the texts themselves. A slightly different disagreement also emerged over the canon of the Old Testament. Although Christianity inherited the “law, prophets, and writings” from Judaism, a dispute arose at the time of the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. Protestant writers argued that only Old Testament works originally written in Hebrew could be regarded as canonical. The term “apocrypha” was used to refer to other texts (such as Tobit or Maccabees), which were originally written in Greek, and generally date from later in the history of Judaism.

The foundations of Christian belief

The foundations of Christian belief

traditions-small.pngThe rise of the “New Atheism” has generated new interest in the historical and rational evidence for Christian beliefs, particularly those concerning the identity of Jesus of Nazareth and the nature of God. There has been a resurgence of interest in traditional philosophical debates about the existence of God, particularly the “Five Ways” of Thomas Aquinas, as interpreted by leading Christian exponents such as Richard Swinburne and their critics. The growing significance of the field of “science and religion” is reflected in the debates over whether new scientific understandings of the origins of the universe are supportive of the Christian doctrine of creation. The recent 2009 Darwin celebrations, marking the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, has focussed attention on the relation of biological evolution and the Christian understanding of creation. The concept of “faith” itself has also received close attention. Does this designate “blind faith”, or “warranted belief”?

Christianity and the natural sciences

Christianity and the natural sciences

traditions-small.pngThe great “scientific revolution” took place primarily within the Christian context of western Europe. Scholarship has focussed on the question of whether this is simply a historical accident, or whether something deeper is implicated. There is a consensus that the Christian view of an ordered creation, governed by “laws of nature”, may have been an important stimulus to the development of a scientific culture. The rise of the scientific worldview posed challenges to established Christian positions. For example, many medieval theologians held that the Bible taught that the sun rotated around the earth; this view was challenged by the rise of Copernicanism. More recently, Darwinism calls into question some traditional Christian interpretations of the Bible concerning human origins. This latter debate have proved to be much longer-lived and contentious, and remains particularly significant in North America. “Creationist” readings of the Old Testament, holding that God created the world in six days about 6000 years ago continue to have considerable popular traction, with growing influence in western Europe.

Issues in Christian Ethics

Issues in Christian Ethics

traditions-small.pngThe practical outcomes of faith remain important, with scholarly interest focussing on three questions of particular importance. First, to what extent, and in what way, is ethics dependent upon belief in God? This question has been given a new impetus in recent years by the “New Atheism”, which has argued for the autonomy of ethics from religious belief. Second, what is the best method of conceptualizing Christian ethics? Is it primarily to be considered a set of rules, grounded in divine commands? Or is it about the shaping of character, as in virtue ethics? In recent years, there has been a growing realisation of the distinctive character of Christian ethics, which potentially brings it into conflict with alternative approaches, particularly pragmatic approaches based on the notion of a social consensus. Second, how does Christian ethics respond to new situations, not discussed in classic accounts of Christian ethics? For example, how does it respond to new technological developments, such as genetic modification? Or to the increased acceptance of homosexuality in western culture, expressed in legal notions such as “civic partnerships”?

Christianity in Non-Western Contexts

Christianity in Non-Western Contexts

traditions-small.pngThe substantial expansion of Christianity outside the west in the twentieth century has generated considerable research interest. In the past, Christian expansion has been linked with colonialism; these new developments, however, point to a new paradigm of development, in which Christianity develops local forms, adapted to regional cultural environments. Particular interest focussed on Pentecostalism and other forms of charismatic Christianity, which have gained substantial followings in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. How do these relate to traditional Protestant and Catholic forms of Christianity? And why have they been so successful, especially in establishing themselves as the preferred religion of the urban poor? As urbanisation proceeds apace throughout the developing world, there is intense scholarly interest in the future development of these new forms of the Christian faith. Scholarly interest also extends to the question of how the growth of these new forms of Christianity, and the specific forms that they take, relate to phenomenon of globalization, and their implications for assessing theories of globalization.

Suggested Reading

Suggested Reading

General Reading
  • Hill, Jonathan. The New Lion Handbook: History of Christianity. Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2009.
  • MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. London: Viking, 2010.
  • McGrath, Alister E. Christianity: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 2006.
  • McGrath, Alister E. The Christian Theology Reader. 3rd ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 2007.
  • McGrath, Alister E. Christian Theology: An Introduction. 4th ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 2006.
  • Woodhead, Linda. Christianity: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
The origins and development of Christianity
  • Brown, Raymond E. An Introduction to the New Testament. New York: Doubleday, 1997.
  • Cameron, Euan. The European Reformation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • Hultgren, Arland J. The Rise of Normative Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994.
  • Wright, N. T. Christian Origins and the Question of God. London: SPCK, 1992.
The formation and significance of the New Testament Canon
  • Ackroyd, Peter R., and Christopher F. Evans, eds., The Cambridge History of the Bible, 3 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963-1970.
  • Helmer, Christine, and Christof Landmesser, eds., One Scripture or Many? Canon from Biblical, Theological, and Philosophical Perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Metzger, Bruce M. T_he Canon of the New Testament : Its Origin, Development, and Significance_. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.
The foundations of Christian belief
  • Johnson, Luke Timothy._ The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters_. New York: Doubleday, 2004.
  • Ratzinger, Joseph. Introduction to Christianity. San Francisco: Ignatius Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2007.
  • Swinburne, Richard. The Existence of God. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004.
  • Williams, Rowan. Tokens of Trust : An Introduction to Christian Belief. Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2007.
Christianity and the natural sciences
  • Brooke, John Hedley. Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
  • McGrath, Alister E. Science and Religion: A New Introduction. 2nd edn. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.
  • Numbers, Ronald L., ed. Galileo Goes to Jail : And Other Myths About Science and Religion. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.
Issues in Christian Ethics
  • Gill, Robin, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Christian Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  • Grenz, Stanley J. The Moral Quest: Foundations of Christian Ethics. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000.
  • Hoose, Bernard, ed., Christian Ethics: An Introduction. London: Continuum, 1998.
  • Wright, N. T. Virtue Reborn. London: SPCK, 2010.
Christianity in Non-Western Contexts
  • Cox, Harvey. Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-First Century. London: Cassell, 1996.
  • Jenkins, Philip. The Next Christendom: The Rise of Global Christianity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Jenkins, Philip. The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.