History of Christian Theology

Course No. 6450
Professor Phillip Cary, Ph.D.
Eastern University
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Course No. 6450
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Course Overview

Some 2,000 years ago, a man walked the earth who had a greater impact than any other person in history. Lowly born, he rose to prominence as he spread his vision of the redemption of the world. He attracted the attention of faithful disciples and suspicious local authorities. Eventually, he was tried, convicted, and executed.

Today, his story is known the world over. And yet, more than two millennia later, great thinkers and everyday people still struggle to answer a single question: Who is Jesus?

  • Was he a wise sage who culled powerful teachings from centuries of Jewish tradition to create a new world vision of peace and love?
  • Or was he indeed God himself, the embodiment of divinity on earth, sent to bring salvation and redemption from sin?
  • Did his promise of salvation apply to all humankind or was it limited to only a few followers? And how could one participate in that promise?

Since the earliest days of the faith, questions like these have been at the heart of Christianity. Over the centuries, they have led to fierce debate and produced deep divisions among the faithful. These questions have driven profound acts of faith and worship and incited war and persecution. They have contributed to the building of nations and the shaping of lives and have deeply influenced some of the greatest thinkers of Western philosophy. To ponder questions like these is to understand the very shape of the Western world and to comprehend the remarkable power Christian faith has in the life of believers.

Now, in The History of Christian Theology, you have an opportunity to explore these profound questions and the many responses believers, scholars, and theologians have developed over more than 2,000 years. Through this 36-lecture course, award-winning Professor Phillip Cary of Eastern University reveals the enduring power of the Christian tradition—as both an intellectual discipline and a spiritual path.

Through this course, you will gain thought-provoking insights into a set of teachings that changed the world and discover how, by learning about the diverse beliefs and practices within the wider Christian community, you can enrich your own experience of this great faith.

More Than 2,000 Years of Christian Thought

You trace this epic story as it unfolds through the various teachings and divisions in the Christian faith. The History of Christian Theology begins at the very dawn of Christianity, as you examine some of the earliest examples of scripture recorded by the first communities of the faithful. You see how, over the centuries, these teachings developed into the orthodox teachings of the mainstream church as well as the divergent doctrines taught by splinter groups branded as "heretics."

You explore the causes and outcomes of the split between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church during the Middle Ages and examine the explosion of the many Protestant groups that resulted from the Reformation in the 16th century.

Finally, the course takes you into the modern era, with a survey of the evolution of Christian thought in today's society—the ongoing story of how faith persists in an increasingly secularized world.

In each lecture, Professor Cary illuminates the conceptual structure of Christian theology as it is shaped by particular thinkers and movements and as it is connected to spiritual practices such as prayer, worship, the use of sacraments, and the contemplation of religious icons.

Through his lucid and engaging explanations, Professor Cary provides intriguing analyses of these ideas in their unique historical, social, and biographical contexts to help you understand the power of each tradition within its particular time and place. The result is a sweeping yet in-depth survey that probes some of the most common questions about Christian faith as it has developed over the centuries.

Answers to Your Questions about Christianity

What makes Catholics think differently from Protestants? How do different Christian denominations view the role of free will in salvation? Why did the Eastern Orthodox Church split off from the West? Are the divisions within Christian faith and worship inevitable or can they be mended in the future?

In designing this course, veteran Teaching Company Professor Phillip Cary has sought to address these and other questions about Christian faith in its various forms—questions he received from customers of his previous Teaching Company courses on religion.

To answer these questions, Professor Cary weaves together intriguing insights from a wide range of intellectual disciplines, including religion, history, and philosophy. Through this course, you gain these benefits:

  • An understanding of the meaning of faith for today's Christians. The best way to understand one's own faith is to understand the faith of others. In this course, you explore how the differences among today's Christians first arose and why these differences mattered so much to previous generations of believers that they have left their mark on Christian life to this day.
  • A fascinating overview of the history of the Christian church. From the Nicene Council to the Reformation to Vatican II, this course highlights the major events of church history and provides a valuable and enlightening complement to other courses on Western history.
  • An appreciation of the philosophical depth of Christian thought. Professor Cary examines the intellectual rigor that underlies Christian theology and explores the sometimes fruitful, sometimes contentious relationship between religion and philosophy. Through this course, you gain a deeper grasp of the role of Christian theology within the larger intellectual history of the West.

"Outward Words Shape Our Inner Hearts"

As Professor Cary explains, the concepts of Christian theology are more than just words on a page or abstract tenets. They are "outward words that shape our inner hearts."

As you take this journey through the development of Christian thought, you meet the many faithful who have committed themselves to the teachings of Jesus and encounter the diverse ways faith shaped their lives. You see how

  • Christian faith determines not only what we believe, but also what we fear. As Professor Cary explains, our faith shapes our psyches. Catholics worry about whether their "good works" are good enough; Calvinists anxiously seek proof that their faith is real; Lutherans fear they may have already lost salvation. You see how the theologies of these different traditions shape the different kinds of anxiety that Christians experience and how these beliefs are manifested in spiritual practice.
  • Christian faith is a life-or-death issue. For true believers, faith is not just a matter of outward observance or intellectual conviction. With the meaning of their existence at stake, Christian believers will suffer persecution and even death before they will deny their faith. From the martyrs of the early church to the Anabaptists of the Reformation, you witness how Christians throughout history have faced torment, suffered execution, and fled their homelands to preserve their faith.
  • Christian faith is a voice that speaks within. In Christianity, faith is a deeply personal experience. It has been a powerful voice of inner experience, from visionary encounters with Jesus by the 16th-century Spanish mystic Theresa of Avila to the practice of listening to the inner voice of the Holy Spirit that is widespread among contemporary American evangelicals.

Christianity in the Modern World—and Beyond

As you come to understand the complex path of Christian belief throughout the centuries, you contemplate crucial questions about today's Christian church: What will happen to Christianity in the future? Can faith survive in an increasingly secular world? How does theology remain connected to traditions of religious practice?

Professor Cary provides unique insights into the current condition of modern Christian practice—informed by its complex intellectual and social history—and offers a tantalizing glimpse into the future of the faith in which Christians of all denominations grow spiritually by understanding their differences as well as what they have in common.

Join Professor Cary for an enriching and thought-provoking journey into the fascinating and inspiring world of Christian thought. Whether you're interested in a deeper understanding of your own faith or you're curious about the role of Christianity in the larger social and intellectual history of the Western world, The History of Christian Theology will enrich and transform your understanding of this powerful spiritual tradition.

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36 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    What Is Theology?
    For more than two millennia, Christians have explored a set of critical theological questions: Who is Jesus Christ? How does his life impact the lives of the faithful? This lecture offers a definition of the intellectual discipline that seeks to answer these questions: Christian theology. x
  • 2
    Early Christian Proclamation
    For the first believers, Christian faith was a quest to understand the nature of a single, remarkable person. In this lecture, you will gain an understanding of what the first members of this faith believed about Jesus as you explore the earliest recorded Christian hymns, prayers, and sermons. x
  • 3
    Pauline Eschatology
    Early Christians viewed themselves as living between the time of Christ's resurrection and Christ's return as redeemer and king. This lecture examines the theology of this expectation of the Second Coming—called "eschatology"—as it is presented in the writings of the apostle Paul. x
  • 4
    The Synoptic Gospels
    The Gospels are the four books of the New Testament that narrate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Three of them, the synoptic Gospels, tell his story in roughly the same order. This lecture analyzes the subtle literary structure by which these narratives evoke an answer to the question, "Who do you think Jesus is?" x
  • 5
    The Gospel of John
    Unlike the synoptic Gospels, the Gospel of John dwells at length on Jesus's divine identity. You explore the unique elements of John's message—including his famous prologue in which he declares that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh—and examine how the Gospel of John provides a foundation for later doctrines about Christ's divinity. x
  • 6
    Varieties of Early Christianity
    By the second century, the Christian church was largely non-Jewish, or Gentile. In this lecture, you take a closer look at some radical offshoots of Gentile Christianity, the Gnostics, and see how these controversial groups rejected Christianity's Jewish roots in favor of a more spiritual view of the universe. x
  • 7
    The Emergence of Christian Doctrine
    Here, you learn how the very idea of official church doctrine arose, as well as its opposite, "heresy." In response to Gnosticism and other rejected teachings, the mainstream church developed institutions such as the office of bishop, whose function was to maintain continuity with the tradition of teaching by the apostles. x
  • 8
    Christian Reading
    Looking back to Jewish scriptures, early Christians could not ignore the powerful relationship between the Jewish people and their God. You examine how early Christians created strategies to insert themselves into this grand story by interpreting the ancient teachings as bearing witness to Jesus Christ. x
  • 9
    The Uses of Philosophy
    You explore the profound interplay between two great forms of ancient thought: early Christianity and ancient philosophy. Agreeing with the philosophers' emphasis on reason, wisdom, and happiness, the church fathers adapted many themes from ancient thinkers, including Platonist metaphysics and Stoic moralism. x
  • 10
    The Doctrine of the Trinity
    You examine the most fundamental teaching proposed by the church fathers, the doctrine of the Trinity, which identifies the God of the Christian faith as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—a single divine essence that mysteriously manifests itself in three distinct, complete individuals. x
  • 11
    The Doctrine of the Incarnation
    The establishment of the doctrine of the Trinity paved the way for the development of a second key teaching, the doctrine of Christ's Incarnation. You examine the implications of this doctrine, which states that as the Son of the Father, Jesus is truly God, while as the son of Mary, he is truly human. x
  • 12
    The Doctrine of Grace
    The third fundamental doctrine proposed by the early church fathers states that believers become children of God by adoption, through the grace of Christ who is the Son of God by nature. Augustine develops this into a doctrine of the inner help of the Holy Spirit, which is necessary for salvation. x
  • 13
    The Incomprehensible and the Supernatural
    You move from the ancient world of the late Roman Empire to the Middle Ages as you consider a distinctive concept of Christianity: the incomprehensibility of God. This concept follows from the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity and is grounded in ineffable mysteries such as the eternal begetting of God the Son by God the Father. x
  • 14
    Eastern Orthodox Theology
    Next, you examine a second great development in medieval Christian history, the formation of a distinctly Eastern Orthodox version of Christian theology. You explore some of the hallmarks of Eastern Orthodox theology, including the veneration of icons, the transfiguration of Christ, and the energies of the Trinity. x
  • 15
    Atonement and the Procession of the Spirit
    In 1054, the Christian Church saw its first great schism: the separation between Eastern Orthodoxy and the Western church. You explore a fundamental principle that led to this schism: the doctrine of "double procession," which teaches that the Holy Spirit proceeds eternally from both the Father and the Son. x
  • 16
    Scholastic Theology
    In medieval universities, scholars such as Thomas Aquinas applied Aristotelian concepts of logic and science to the study of theology. You examine the result of the intellectual interplay: scholasticism, a distinctively Western deepening of the relationship of faith and reason that used a method of disputation to harmonize diverse strands in the theological tradition. x
  • 17
    The Sacraments
    Take a closer look at the practices of the medieval church as represented in the development of an important church institution—the seven sacraments. Derived from scripture and believed to be instituted by Christ, these sacred rites were seen as external signs that both signified an inner gift of divine grace and bestowed it on those who believe. x
  • 18
    Souls after Death
    While early Christians were more concerned with the second coming of Christ than with the fate of the soul after death, there eventually developed teachings about the Christian afterlife. In this lecture, you examine the development of these beliefs and see how they derived from a variety of sources, including Hebrew scripture, the New Testament, and Platonic philosophy. x
  • 19
    Luther and Protestant Theology
    The break between medieval Catholicism and Protestantism is marked most importantly by a single famous figure, Martin Luther (1483–1546). In this lecture, you examine how Luther came to make his break with the established church and examine some of his key teachings, including the idea that one is justified by faith alone. x
  • 20
    Calvin and Reformed Theology
    You begin to examine a second great movement of Protestant theology, the Reformed tradition. Founded by John Calvin, Reformed theology pioneers a new concept to Protestant thought, adoption, or the idea that God elects to make some people his children through the grace of Christ. x
  • 21
    Protestants on Predestination
    Calvin taught that God predestines some people for damnation as well as salvation. Later Calvinists incorporated this doctrine of "double predestination" into a system of eternal divine decrees governing all the events of time. Examine the development of these views as they appear in the classic five-point doctrine of Calvinism. x
  • 22
    Protestant Disagreements
    While the Reformed and Lutheran traditions of theology were very similar, they also diverged on several key points. One of these key points, which you explore in this lecture, is the nature of Christ's presence in the Eucharist, or the Lord's Supper. x
  • 23
    Anabaptists and the Radical Reformation
    A radical wing of Protestantism, the Anabaptists, diverged even further from the Catholic tradition when they could see no grounds for infant baptism in scripture. You explore the origins of these persecuted Christian communities and trace their development in today's Mennonite tradition. x
  • 24
    Anglicans and Puritans
    Now, you move from Germany and Switzerland to England to trace a further divergence within Protestant theology. You see how the Anglicans sought to find a middle way between Catholic practices and Reformed theology, while the Puritans desired a more thoroughly Reformed church divested of all traces of Catholicism. x
  • 25
    Baptists and Quakers
    Continue your consideration of English Protestantism with two new Christian communities: the Baptists and the Quakers. These traditions are known for their rejection of the state church, their persecution by governing authorities, and their championing of religious freedom. x
  • 26
    Pietists and the Turn to Experience
    In response to the dry arguments of Protestant scholasticism, the Pietist theologians of Germany advocated a focus on the inward, emotional experience of religious faith. In this lecture, you explore the teachings and practice of the Pietists and a similar but distinct group, the Moravians. x
  • 27
    From Puritans to Revivalists
    Continue your examination of Protestant traditions with an introductory look at American Revivalism. Beginning in the 18th century with the teachings of Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards, the Revivalists stressed the importance of a strong, deeply felt conversion experience as a critical part of salvation. x
  • 28
    Perfection, Holiness, and Pentecostalism
    You trace the further development of American Revivalism as it was influenced by the teachings of John Wesley, who proposed that through the process of sanctification, one could attain spiritual perfection. This notion became a key tenet of Methodism as well as in the Holiness movement promoted by Phoebe Palmer and led to the concept of the baptism of the Holy Spirit in Pentecostalism. x
  • 29
    Deism and Liberal Protestantism
    You examine two traditions that grew out of the intellectual crisis of the 18th-century Enlightenment. The Deists sought to derive a "natural religion" from the teachings of Reason, while the liberal Protestants based their theology on inner experience, and especially the inner impression made on Christian consciousness by the historical Jesus. x
  • 30
    Neo-Orthodoxy—From Kierkegaard to Barth
    In the 20th century, neo-orthodox theologians turned from liberal theology's focus on consciousness to an Existentialist focus on the transformation of human existence. Examine how theologian Karl Barth pioneered this reimagining of faith, only to reject it later for a revision of the doctrine of election x
  • 31
    Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism
    You explore how Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism developed out of the concern that liberal theology was rejecting fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith. Learn about Dispensationalism, whose doctrine of the end times was influential both in Fundamentalism and its offshoot, Evangelicalism. x
  • 32
    Protestantism after Modernity
    Modernity is both Protestantism's child and its challenge. In this lecture, you examine this central irony—how Modernity was produced by the habits of mind inculcated by Protestantism and yet, according to some theologians, may undermine the faith through its increased emphasis on secularization. x
  • 33
    Catholic Theologies of Grace
    Now, you return to the 16th century and pick up the story of modern Catholicism. Starting with the teachings of the Council of Trent, you trace the development of Catholic teachings on grace, its role in salvation, and its relation to free will. x
  • 34
    Catholic Mystical Theology
    In modern Catholicism, mystical theology means supernatural prayer directed toward a union with God in love. This lecture explores this tradition through the writings of St. Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross and in Rome's response to the mystical movement known as Quietism. x
  • 35
    From Vatican I to Vatican II
    You continue to follow the history of Roman Catholic theology in the modern period with an examination of the 19th-century council that defined the infallibility of the pope and the 20th-century council that opened up the Roman Catholic Church's relationship to the world, other religions, and other Christians. x
  • 36
    Vatican II and Ecumenical Prospects
    The Roman Catholic involvement in ecumenism, initiated in Vatican II, has major consequences for other Christians, especially Protestants. In this final lecture, you explore the notion that Protestants and Catholics have much to learn from each other as they continue to develop their traditions of faith. x

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Your professor

Phillip Cary

About Your Professor

Phillip Cary, Ph.D.
Eastern University
Dr. Phillip Cary is Professor of Philosophy at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, where he is also Scholar-in-Residence at the Templeton Honors College. After receiving his B.A. in English Literature and Philosophy from Washington University in St. Louis, Professor Cary earned his M.A. in Philosophy and Ph.D. in Philosophy and Religious Studies from Yale University. Professor Cary is a recent winner of the...
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History of Christian Theology is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 104.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I have purchased 20 Religious books from Great Courses. I have completed 15 of the 20. The professor are very knowledgeable and provides you with information that one can use to make his own religious believe.
Date published: 2020-08-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I LOVED this course I truly loved this course! It is enlightening, engrossing, and intellectually stimulating. I listened to it over many weeks while walking for exercise in the beautiful outdoors, and plan to listen again start to finish in order to fully absorb the information. I am a professional academic in an unrelated field, have never studied theology, and am a lifelong Episcopalian with a faith that waxes and wanes. My educational background has "cursed me" with the need to understand the facts and logic behind practices and beliefs. Despite being a church goer off and on for decades, the answers to many basic questions about why different branches of Christianity believe what they do and why creeds and prayers are worded exactly as they are eluded me until now. And, a bit surprising to me, this course has rekindled my interest in religion and strengthened my faith. I am grateful to have found it.
Date published: 2020-04-23
Rated 2 out of 5 by from These lectures often sound like a sermon I found it necessary to filter out the lecturer's bias in order to ascertain "history" in the presentations. I know that is frequently necessary in any knowledge sharing exercise, but Cary seems more prone to inject his own religious background and practice into this work. It was disappointing but held great potential. I will only recommend it to people whom I believe can filter his comments.
Date published: 2019-12-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Received what I had hoped for This course explains what Christians believe, the history of the church and how these beliefs came about. I found the professor to be very clear in thought and enjoyable to listen to. He also covers areas of doctrine that did not become part of Orthodox Christianity along with the history of unorthodox Christian sects that existed during the early days of the church.
Date published: 2019-07-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very engaging I bought this course as audio a month or so ago, and have listened to about a third of it so far (I'm a GC addict, with about 24 courses on my plate). The lecturer is engaging, insightful, and informative, and the guidebook helps greatly to keep me on track when more than a few days pass between listenings.
Date published: 2019-01-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting Overall Survey My first experience listening to Great Courses. Professor Cary's voice is easy to listen to, with few distractions in his presentation style. My wife listened to a few of these with me and she commented that he had a habit of repeating himself often. I agree that he does this in a few lectures, but over the 24 lectures, I only was distracted by this on a few lectures. His knowledge is certainly deep and he manages to make each lecture worth listening to. A few of the lectures I found most interesting were The Doctrine of the Incarnation and Protestants on Predestination. I have a degree in history and so a lot of this course was review for me, but there were also areas where he was exploring avenues that I had not heard a lot on and was fascinated with the information presented. I enjoyed my first experience with the Great Courses and have now purchased some new ones as well.
Date published: 2018-12-26
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Well that's different Only on first cd but one of his comments was curious. His take on Mary not being the first to greet Jesus when he arrives after the death of Lazarus was because she was home "sulking". Yeah: sulking, grieving; easy to confuse the 2 right? Mmmm, my confidence in this course has already dropped.
Date published: 2018-12-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great survey of theology and its history A very interesting and valuable complement to other courses about the New Testament and the history of Christianity, explaining in a very accessible way how very abstract theological ideas actually played out in practice.
Date published: 2018-11-17
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