Reporter 459, 20 November 2000

Leeds scholars survey two millennia of constant change in Christian tradition

Christianity is a ‘chameleon tradition’ which has been through 2000 years of ceaseless change, according to the editor-in-chief of the newly published Oxford Companion to Christian Thought.

Emeritus Professor Adrian Hastings, a historian by training who has written extensively on English and African Christianity, said the project had been ‘demanding and exciting’ and amounted to the main achievement of his career.

Sign of the times: Christ leads a procession in Stephan Fridolin’s Schatzbehalter der wahren Reichtümer des Heils, printed in Nuremberg in 1491 and featuring fifteenth-century architecture and clothing. Christianity ‘takes on the character of the age’, notes Professor Hastings

Senior lecturers Alistair Mason and Hugh Pyper, also from theology and religious studies, were associate editors and departmental administrator Ingrid Lawrie co-ordinated the 260 contributors. Leeds scholars contributed about a quarter of the book.

"The primary focus is on Christianity in the present day, but there is of course a great deal of history in it. Philosophy, fiction writing, music and poetry all have their place," said the editor.

As well as established authorities, contributors include many young writers of unconventional views. Professor Hastings said the enterprise had been self-consciously ‘ecumenical’.

Get thee behind me: St John’s Gospel in a fifteenth-century French illuminated Book of Hours, depicting the evangelist resisting temptation on the island of Patmos

"We pushed the contributors to be reader-friendly, intelligible to non-experts, but otherwise we did not impose an editorial ‘line’. We have Catholics, Protestants, Quakers, conservatives and radicals. I hope no-one will agree with all of the text, because it sets out to reflect the plurality and inclusiveness of the Christian tradition."

The editor believes that the position of the Leeds theology department within a broad Arts faculty has worked to its advantage: "Some theology schools are rather cut off from wider concerns. Our Leeds contributors came from a wide range of academic backgrounds."

Founding fathers: Christ with the apostles from Hartmann Schedel’s Liber chronicarum, printed in Nuremberg in 1493. The illustrations here represent some of the treasures in the special collections of the Brotherton Library

Professor Hastings said that Christianity has undergone a continual process of change in its first two millennia. His own definition of the term encompasses ‘the entire range of beliefs and practices’ which followers of Jesus have adhered to down the ages.

"Christianity is everything that Christians have made of it. By comparison to Islam or Judaism, it has an enormous capacity for self-renewal.

"The one constant has been the figure of Jesus Christ: Christians have been divided on a great many other issues, from the divinity of Christ to sacramental practices or the authority of the Bible.

"Christianity is certainly not the same today as it was in the time of Jesus. It is addressing issues today that did not arise in earlier centuries, and this is why the Companion pays a lot of attention to twentieth-century thinkers.

"It keeps making itself relevant to the world around it. There is something of the chameleon about Christianity: it exists in an extraordinary variety of forms and takes on some of the character of the age in which it is lived."

Professor Hastings said he would not argue that theology is a scientific discipline, though a great deal of it is based on historical studies and the application of reason: "Still, a lot of what we do regard as science is not strictly provable. Beyond mathematics and physics, there are limits to certainty: Christianity is more of an art than a science."

Contentious topics covered in the Companion include globalisation, sexuality and debates in medical ethics.

Contributors include George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury, his predecessor Lord Runcie and John Habgood, former Archbishop of York.

The absence of any biblical text that either demands monogamy or proscribes polygamy is highlighted in a discussion of marriage. On divorce, it is argued that the exclusion from communion of Christians doing their best within a committed second marriage seems contradictory to Christian morality as a whole.

Capital punishment is confronted with the argument that Christian thought has not been able wholly to shake itself free of the lex talionis, ‘a life for a life’. On homosexuality, the book notes that there are many devout gay Christians, including ministers, living in sexual relationships and seeing their sexuality and their partner as gifts from God.

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