Introduction to the History of Christian Theology and Dogma [MEDS 6047]

Course Status: 
CEU code: 
MEDS 6047
CEU credits: 
ECTS credits: 
Academic year: 
Start and end dates: 
12 Jan 2015 - 30 Mar 2015
Co-hosting Unit(s) [if applicable]: 
Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies (CEMS)
Co-hosting Unit(s) [if applicable]: 
Center for Religious Studies
Non-degree Specialization: 
ACRS—Advanced Certificate in Religious Studies
István Perczel
Learning Outcomes: 
The course will provide the basic erudition for handling the doctrinal developments of the period. Hopefully students will acquire a solid overview on this history. Particularly, the course will give an insight into the inseparable processes of doctrinal debates and political strife, a phenomenon that is inevitable in theocratic states where theology is immediately translated into politics and where political strife is expressed in theological debates. However, the most important outcome will be a comprehension of the basic concepts and tenets in Trinitarian doctrine, Christology and the related ontological and epistemological questions. Students will also be taught to try and use an empathetic approach, that is, instead of looking at religious phenomena from a definite point of view (confessional or anti-confessional) considered as authoritative, to become able to acquire an internal view of diverse, often antagonistic, convictions.
Assessment : 
The main criterion of assessment will be the students' active participation in the classes, their serious preparation for the readings and their oral presentations at the tutorials (60%). During the term two small tests will be written to check the proper understanding of historical events and of basic concepts (10%). Response papers about the classes will be expected, to which the instructor will reply in writing (30%).

From a very early stage of its history, Christianity evolved as a “dogmatic” religion accepting some views as orthodox while excluding others as heterodox. Questions of orthodoxy and heterodoxy were decided at local councils where bishops belonging to a certain administrative unit of the secular power convened to decide about such issues. Beginning with the conversion of Emperor Constantine I to Christianity (312 AD) the Roman Empire evolved toward becoming a Christian theocracy. The pre-Constantinian conciliar structure was adopted and developed into an imperial institution. Beginning with the first council of Nicaea (325 AD) dogmatic issues, decided at the so-called ecumenical councils as the highest decision-making fora, were accompanied by intense debates in which politics inextricably intermingled with biblical exegesis and doctrinal speculation, as well as with philosophical and spiritual arguments. The language and the ideas developed during the period under consideration have fundamentally shaped the mentality not only of the Christian societies and populations of Europe, Asia and Africa but also that of our modern world. Fundamental concepts of our world-view, such as a linear concept of time versus a model of cyclical returns, personhood versus a more analytical anthropology, creation versus emanation as the origin of the world etc. have developed during this period. Also, as a result of these doctrinal debates, the originally unified Christian Church became split into several confessions. This course will give a basic introduction to these developments, examining the political and the theological/philosophical developments beginning with the second century and ending with the sixth, when the Eastern Churches split from the imperial Church. It is important to realize that the course is not there to “tell the truth” about this complex history but to impart skills and tools for dealing with it independently.


As the course consists of lectures and seminars, every lecture will give an overview of the given subject, while students will discuss the assigned readings in the tutorials. The starting point for the methodological approach is the recognition of the fact that there is no universal metalanguage for religious history, that is, that any discourse dealing with these phenomena is inevitably tainted by the innermost convictions of the speaker, be they religious or other. It will be argued that this a priori denial of a false objectivity of the discourse is the conditio sine qua non for preserving ourselves from blind ideological and, as such, non-scholarly approaches. Consequently, much emphasis will be laid on the critical examination of modern historiographic literature. So, when reading secondary literature, it will be expected that students realise the points of view, the inner convictions, the biases and the stakes involved. This will result in an aporetic approach which – as many years' experience shows – may be perplexing at the first sight but pays off in the long run. At every seminar one or two students will present relevant articles and chapters and the whole group will discuss them.


Every unit of the course consists of a lecture and a seminar. At the seminar selected texts relevant to the topic treated at the lecture will be discussed.

Week 1-2. What is the history of dogma? The paradox of the impossibility of a metalanguage for religious history. On the question how the doctrinal debates themselves have shaped the discipline of doctrinal history. The effects of the translatio imperii et studii around 800 AD; of the rise of the Protestant movement and of the Enlightenment; German classical philosophy and the birth of Dogmengeschichte; the Papal condemnation of Modernism in 1907/1910 and the subsequent rediscovery of the “Fathers”; Orthodox doctrinal historians in Russia and in the emigration; modern Ecumenism and anti-Ecumenism and their impact on doctrinal history.

Week 3-4: Doctrinal developments and schisms; a list of the presently existing pre-Protestant Churches; ecumenical councils; an introduction to the main doctrinal concepts.

Week 5-6. 1st to 3rd centuries: The formation of the New Testament canon; the Apologetes: discussions on the temporal creation versus eternity of the world; early Trinitarian and Christological theories in function of the creation of the world. An alliance between theology and philosophy: The Alexandrian School and Origen.

Week 7-8. 312-400: The Constantinian turn; The Arian controversy and the council of Nicaea (325); Eusebius of Caesarea as the ideologist of the Christian Roman Empire; Arius and Athanasius of Alexandia. The epistemological crisis of late Arianism and Appolinarism; the Eunomian controversy; the Cappadocian Fathers and the first council of Constantinople (381); Marius Victorinus and Neoplatonism; Augustine's Epistula de videndo deo and the imperceptible germs of the East-West divide; imperial legislation against heretics; the first “Origenist” strife and Evagrius of Pontus.

Week 9-10. 385-451: The greatest riddle of Christian doctrinal history: Augustine and his new theology; the Pelagian controversy in the West and the Nestorian controversy in the East; the first council of Ephesus (431); what constitutes the unity of Christ?: the doctrinal and political stakes of the strife; the philosophical intricacies of the concepts of hypostasis and nature; the union formula of 433.  The path to Chalcedon.

Week 11-12. 451-553: Cyril of Alexandria and his importance; the strife for Cyril's mantle; dyophysite strategies of survival; Pope Leo the Great and the new role of the Papacy; the council of Chalcedon (451) and its aftermath; one hypostasis in two natures: a philosophical impossibility?; a new art of writing as a hiding place: the Pseudo-Dionysian Corpus; the Persian Church goes its own way; The defence of Chalcedon in East and West; Severus of Antioch, Julian of Halicarnassus and the rise of miaphysitism; the empire wavers between Chalcedonism and anti-Chalcedonism; the Chalcedonian turn under Justin I and Justinian I; “Origenists” or “Theosophers”?: the second “Origenist” strife. “Neo-Chalcedonism” - what does it stand for and who invented it? a “middle way”: the second council of Constantinople (553). 

General Bibliography

A. von Harnack, 

Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte I-III /Sammlung theologischer Lehrbücher/ (Freiburg: Mohr)

I.   Die Entstehung des kirchlichen Dogmas, 1886

II.  Die Entwickelung des kirchlichen Dogmas, 1887

III. Die Entwickelung des kirchlichen Dogmas, 1890 (MTA Library)

 Many later editions, among which the English:

History of Dogma 1-7, tr. by N. Buchanan /Theological Translation Library/ (London: Williams and Norgate, 1895-1899)

Grundriß der Dogmengeschichte I-II (Freiburg: Mohr)

I.      Die Entstehung des Dogmas und seine Entwickelung im Rahmen der morgenlandischen Kirche, 1889

II.   Die Entwickelung des Dogmas im Rahmen der abendländischen Kirche, 1891

English translation:

Outlines of the History of Dogma, tr. E. Knox Mitchell (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1893)

Recent judgement on Harnack’s approach:

E. P. Meijering, Theologische Urteile über die Dogmengeschichte (Ritschls Einfluss auf von Harnack) (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1978)

Die Hellenisierung des Christentums im Urteil Adolf von Harnacks /Verhandelingen der Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen. Afd. Letterkunde. N. R. 128/ (Amsterdam-Oxford-New York: North Holland Publishing Co., 1985)

G.   L. Prestige, God in Patristic Thought (London: SPCK, 1985, c1952) – CEU-ELTE Med. Lib.

J.      Daniélou, Histoire des dogmes avant Nicée I-III. Tournai-Paris (ELTE)

I.      Théologie du Judéo-Christianisme, 1958 (English translation: London 1964)

II.   Message évangélique et culture hellénistique, aux IIe et IIIe siècles, 1961

III. Les origines du christianisme latin 

J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (San Francisco: Harper, first edition 1960, fourth revised edition 1978) – CEU-ELTE Med. Lib.

J. Pelikan, The Christian Tradition. A History of the Development of Doctrine I-IV (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) – CEU-ELTE Med. Lib.

I. The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600)., 1992, c1971.

II. The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700), 1993, c1974.

III. The Growth of medieval theology (600-1300), c1978.

IV. Reformation of Church and Dogma (1300-1700), 1983, c1984.

John Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought (Washington-Cleveland: Corpus Books, 1975) – CEU-ELTE Med. Lib.

John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes (New York: Fordham University Press, 19833, 19741) – CEU-ELTE Med. Lib.

Johannes Quasten, Patrology I-IV (Utrecht-Antwerp/Westminster, Maryland: Spectrum/Newman, 1990-1992, 19501, 19531, 19601,?) – CEU-ELTE Med. Lib.

I. The Beginnings of Patristic Literature

II. The Ante-Nicene Literature after Irenaeus

III. The Golden Age of Greek Patristic Literature from the Council of Nicaea to the Council of Chalcedon

IV. The Golden Age of Greek Patristic Literature from the Council of Nicaea to the Council of Chalcedon

Supplementary volume:

Angelo di Bernardino, Patrologia Vol. V. Dal Concilio di Calcedonia (451) a Giovanni Damasceno (+750). I Padri orientali (Genova: Marietti, 2000) – available from I.P.

Aloys Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition I. From the Apostolic Age to Chalcedon, tr. J. S. Bowden (New York: Mowbray, 1965) – available from I.P.