Rated 5 out of 5 by RoyT Kept My Interest Throughout
This is my third course with Professor Cary and it ranks up with the other two, if not a notch above. Though I have a few quibbles about this 2008 course, they are indeed minor. Professor Cary is a great presenter and his thirty-six lectures are well organized on “major developments in Christian theology…the tradition of critical reasoning about how to teach the faith of Christ” (Course Guidebook, Page 1). Though this course likely is most often sought out by believers, non-believers with an interest in religious matters and/or Western history and civilization will find Professor Cary a fine academic lecturer.
The operative word in the course title is ‘History’, so, though Professor Cary does delve into theological matters, it is not so deep that one gets lost or bored. He guides us through developments over time on such matters as grace, salvation, atonement, holiness, and baptism, subjects that have engendered lively discussion and dispute over the centuries. Included are helpful discussions of historical context and key individuals and their contributions, as well as interesting relationships, such as that modernity is a product of the Protestant Reformation which produced “…an environment more suitable for low churches than high churches, favoring theologies of the Spirit and experience over theologies of the word and sacrament (Page 91)” that continues with us today.
What I especially like about this course is how one can get not only a sense of unfolding over time, from the earliest Christians to the present, but also a better understanding of the distinctions maintained within Christianity, for example the focus of Eastern Orthodox, various Protestant persuasions, and Roman Catholicism. Professor Cary’s final lectures on Roman Catholic theology, Vatican II, and ecumenical prospects were especially well done in a course that necessarily devoted much more time to the often tangled web of Protestant theological developments.
The course guide is quite good. Though the lecture summaries are sometimes shorter than I would like, they are always followed by good lists of suggested readings and excellent questions to consider. The timeline, glossary, and biographical notes are helpful, as is the exceptional annotated bibliography.
March 2, 2016
Rated 1 out of 5 by GreatBigBore More of a sermon than a history of theology
I was really turned off by Lecture 4, on the Synoptic Gospels. Cary preaches a sermon about Jesus, rather than talking about what Christians actually believed. Which Christians actually believed that all three of the Synoptics were asking Cary's breathy question, "Who do YOU say Jesus is?" This is Cary's theology, perhaps even the theology of his peers, but it's not the theology of the early Christians.
I tried to go on to Lecture 5, to give him a chance, but I gave up at about 13:45 into that lecture. According to Cary:
"In Genesis, God says, 'Let there be light.' He speaks his word, and there's light. This is before there is any air around, so it's not a spoken word echoing in the air."
NO ONE in antiquity had ANY understanding of sound traveling through the air, or of sound not being able to travel in an airless environment. John's Gospel could not possibly be making a claim about the physics of God's spoken word.
This course, at least up to Lecture #5, is a sermon propounding Cary's theology. It is not a history of theology. I'm going to request a refund. The course is badly titled.
February 16, 2016
Rated 5 out of 5 by BGZRedux "Who am I to Judge?"
Caveats first: I am not religious, and know very little about Christian theology. Thus, unlike a number of other reviewers, I cannot compare Prof. Cary's discussion with my own understanding.
Also: Prof. Cary makes it clear that he is deeply religious (he is a Lutheran), and that he is teaching the course from that perspective. This course is primarily an explication, not an assessment, of religious doctrine.
Given all that, I highly recommend the course for any interested in the subject. Prof. Cary presents a remarkably rich, complex, broad and deep picture of the changing strands of Christian teachings through time. He concentrates on the expected major topics (the trinity, the incarnation, the afterlife, sources of Christian teachings, the relative importance of faith, works, and grace, the development and doctrines of the various denominations of Christian belief, and many others) as well as a myriad of somewhat less crucial concerns, as understood by the great theologians throughout history, and as parsed by many commentators upon them. While I am impressed by (most) Great Courses professors, Prof. Cary's fluency with thousands of years of history and commentary is remarkable.
I found Prof. Cary's lecture style to be straightforward and clear, with a well-modulated voice, and he is always deeply engaged with his subject. He does repeat himself fairly often, in somewhat different words, but for me this helped get across his often abstract points. The only possible negative here is that his enthusiasm not infrequently achieves the level of a sermon. I just decided not to let this bother me.
Despite my high rating, I was left with a number of significant questions and concerns about the material:
- Almost no time is given to the Christian view of what exactly constitutes a good life. How is a good Christian to live? My admittedly limited religious knowledge indicates that how to live was the major concern of Jesus; the turn to an emphasis on what to believe was effected later, by others, and especially by Paul.
- There is little consideration given to the question of how the many original thinkers viewed the origin or basis of their original thoughts. Did they believe that their doctrines were discovered or invented? That they represented truth, or simply one possible interpretation? If truth, did they believe they were directly inspired by God? And if so, what did they believe about those who disagreed with them? On the other hand, if they were simply offering an interpretation, did this not mean that there is a choice of acceptable beliefs? What do the many Protestant denominations believe, for example, that God thinks of the other denominations?
- There is also little consideration given to the relative importance of the various doctrines, and especially to the question of whether the theologians were sometimes focusing on trivial or meaningless points. As one who is not part of this tradition, I mean this with sincere respect. But it did strike me that the sardonic comment that theology considers questions such as "how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" was at times a valid concern.
- Prof. Cary explicitly denies the relevance of the study of the historical Jesus to Christian teaching. To me, this seems incredible. On what is Christianity based, if not on the historical Jesus? The fact that we have very limited information on this does not, it seems to me, diminish its relevance.
- Having taken Prof. Bart Ehrman's course on "Lost Christianities", I feel that Prof. Cary gives very short shrift to the many competing and conflicting streams of early Christian belief. He comes across, at least to me, as assuming that the truth of what became orthodox belief was always clear to the mainstream.
- Towards the end of the course, and especially in the final lecture, Prof. Cary allows himself to express some limited personal criticisms of current doctrines which he does not accept, from a religious rather than a scholarly perspective. This, clearly, does not belong here.
Interestingly, I note that my 2009 review of Prof. Cary's course on Augustine was extremely negative. Maybe I'm maturing. In any case, I do recommend this course, with the reservations noted. I also very strongly recommend all of Prof. Ehrman's courses, which are uniformly superb, and which present closely related material from a very different point of view.
October 2, 2015
Rated 3 out of 5 by Minnie03 Not always 'history'
I have listened to this series of lectures 3 or 4 times, most recently in June 2015. Although there is excellent content, it isn't always easy to extract it from the verbiage and editorializing. It was tough for me to 'rank order' my reaction--my ratings really fall in between what I have posted (3+ for Content, rather than 4, for example).
From my point of view, this course isn't so much 'history' as an exegesis of the development of one theological tradition from the mid 3rd century CE forward to the mid 20th century. Granted this tradition dominated theology for a millennium. And, in fairness, Prof Cary does include Reformation theology and its importance, but he keeps 'circling back' to the former emphasis, and spends a considerable amount of time reflecting later theological developments into it. There was also too much discussion of how the various Vatican Councils modified Catholic teaching and practice--a summary would have been fine.
With respect to the organization of the content: I found it quite confusing, and at times, annoying. It would have been better for him to take one strand of the content and follow it through, rather than jumping back and forth so much. The descriptions of the various Protestant 'holiness/Pentecostal' traditions were interesting, but in my view not really 'theology' as such. After all, did/do these faith traditions significantly change basic Protestant theology, or do they represent modifications to Protestant practice?
Instead of devoting so much lecture time, I would have preferred a summary at the end of the main body of the course. I also question the need for Prof Cary to discuss ecumenism or his desire for a closer contact between Catholics and Protestants. It didn't add to the content in my view.
With respect to his discussion on Liberal Theology/Modernity: Which 'liberal theology' and 'modernity' was he referring to? It seemed to me that he got stranded in the 18th century for the most part with this element of the course. Again, he 'mixed and matched' the content in a way that was difficult to follow. I also didn't really hear anything about the Progressive Protestant tradition of the mid-50s to the present day. This is more than 'practice' by the way: it involves new interpretations of scripture as well as implications for practice.
Given that this is a 36 lecture course, it would have been really helpful to have had a matrix included in the Course Handbook, that clearly delineated the various theological traditions/developments being discussed, with their key elements, approximate dates, and main proponents/detractors.
I have other courses by this professor, and in the main, my reactions are similar.
June 26, 2015