Original Research - Special Collection: Christina Landman Festschrift

On teaching Christian history in the postmodern world

Philippe Denis
HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies | Vol 75, No 1 | a5210 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/hts.v75i1.5210 | © 2019 Philippe Denis | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 01 August 2018 | Published: 02 May 2019

About the author(s)

Philippe Denis, School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa


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Abstract

Is there truth in history? Historians are commonly expected to produce ‘facts’ and to be ‘objective’. If they teach the history of Christianity, their audience sees in them the depositors of the ‘truth’ on the history of church. Showing the contradictions of the church’s discourse in the past and highlighting the essentially transient nature of church doctrine are perceived as a threat. Yet, our knowledge of the Christian past is provisional and limited. It depends on the quality of the historical sources at our disposal. Consciously or not, it is always the result of a process of knowledge construction. The aim of this article is to explore the triple challenge – pedagogical, pastoral and intellectual – that researchers in history of Christianity face in the exercise of their profession. Historians trained in the tradition of historical criticism consider that an historical narrative can claim a certain degree of approximation of the truth if the documents on which it is based pass the test of authenticity, reliability and validity. Without necessarily denying that truth exists somehow and somewhere, postmodern historians – and this also applies to Christian history – insist that any form of historical knowledge is constructed and that all approaches to truth are situated in terms of period, geographical location, social environment, class, gender, age and race. The study of history of Christianity brings discomfort. But in the end, one gains from confronting the critical challenges of the discipline. Faith will come out stronger if it faces the reality of the human condition.

Keywords

History; Christianity; Truth; Postmodernity; Challenges

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