Early Christian Studies/History in the Australian tertiary context

I have a vested interest in this topic, since I’ve just completed a PhD in the field and would like a job in it. So, I thought it would be interesting to look at the place of ECS/ECH (Early Christian Studies/History) in Australian tertiary institutions.

By ECS, I specifically mean post-biblical material, anything from the Apostolic Fathers through to the early middle ages. I exclude New Testament studies as a specific discipline for reasons that ought to be relatively apparent.

I divided my survey into three categories: Evangelical institutions, non-Evangelical religious institutions, and Universities (generally state, but not always).

  1. Evangelical institutions.

I examined 12 different colleges across Australia, drawing my data from publically available Faculty profiles, and course descriptions. Of these 12, 11 are affiliated with the Australian College of Theology, a kind of umbrella accrediting organisation. This is important, as I will explain below. I defined ‘primary specialisation’ by examining the doctoral thesis of faculty, and considering listed research interests and publications where available.

Of these 12, only 4 staff have a primary specialisation in an ECS/ECH area. 2 of those faculty are at the same institution, so 3/12 colleges have a faculty member with an ECS/ECH specialisation.

I also considered what the primary specialisation was of the faculty responsible for teaching ECH. For members of the ACT, ECH is a single overview subject of “Church History to 1550” in the undergraduate and graduate programs. Of the 12, the 9 who did not have ECH specialists have the subject taught by someone whose specialty is either (a) systematic theology, or (b) reformation or denominational church history.

Furthermore, at 3, or possible 4, of these institutions, ECH is currently taught by someone without a doctoral degree (generally an MTh).

That’s the data of Evangelical Colleges. I would now like to speculate as to why. Firstly, ACT exerts a controlling influence on the course structures and units provided, so that ECH is, in a 24 unit 3-year degree, a single unit, which is either (a) The Church to 1550, or (b) Early Church History (30-451). There is no single unit that covers 451-1550, so all periods of medieval and byzantine theology are excluded.

The ACT also provides for these same 2 modules to be taught at varying levels (200, 300 representing undergraduate subjects, 500 being MDiv equivalents. Theology of Augustine may be taken as a higher level subject for an MA, 700 level.

Nonetheless, for most member institutions, ECH represents a single, undergraduate overview subject. It is difficult to put forward a specialist ECS hire for a teaching load of 1-0, and such a hire would have to teach outside their specialty. This in itself is not a problem, but I suggest that Evangelical institutions are far more likely to hire a reformation/denominational history specialist, or a systematic theologian, and ask them to teach ECH, than vice versa.

Of the 4 faculty with ECS specialisations, one is the principal and has a strong NT and Greek profile. One presents more as a systematic theologian whose primary doctoral research happens to be in ECS. One was in their faculty position prior to completion of their ECH doctorate, and the last is a focused ECH specialist.

I mean these observations primarily as observations, and my critique should be considered very mild at best.

  1. Non-Evangelical Institutions

To survey these religious colleges, I examined member institutes of the Sydney College of Divinity, and the University of Divinity (formerly the Melbourne College of Divinity). These two do not represent all such colleges, but I believe they are a representative group. In each case I looked at who the primary faculty responsible for ECH studies/courses were. This approach is justifiable since these institutes are generally too small to field research-only faculty.

This generated 17 institutes, 4 of whom are Catholic in identity, 3 Eastern (one Eastern Orthodox, two Coptic), and the rest a mix of protestant denominations (including liberal and conservative groups).

Out of these 17, 3 faculty members have identifiable ECH specialisations, and they teach in the Orthodox/Coptic colleges. These colleges, likewise, have more than 2 ECH subjects as part of their standard curricula.

In all 14 other non-Orthodox and non-Coptic colleges, ECH is taught by a non-specialist, and typically occupies a single subject, or 2 at most (often ECH forms a single subject taught at multiple levels, or else is subsumed in a larger survey history subject). Even at Catholic institutes, where one might have expected more ECH expertise, ECH is taught by specialists in other periods.

  1. Universities

To understand the place of ECH in Australian universities, one needs to understand how religion is differently situated in Australian higher education, compared to say the USA or Britain. The founding of the University of Sydney, in 1852, occurred at a time of significant religious conflict in that Oxbridge entry was restricted to Anglicans. Australian universities avoided sectarian conflict by pursuing a deliberate secularisation strategy, excluding theology from their purview and ordained clergy from faculty. ‘Religion’ was apportioned out to the ‘member’ colleges, which now primarily serve as residential colleges for the university rather than true colleges in the Oxbridge model.

This explains why, unlike the USA or Britain, almost no major university has a theology department in Australia. That has changed since the 60s and the Martin Report, and some universities such as Flinders (SA), Murdoch (WA), and Charles Sturt (NSW) do include theology, often in partnership with local religious colleges and faculty.

Religious studies has re-entered some institutions, such as U.Sydney, but not in a significant way. At U.Syd, for example, ECH occupies a single subject, taught by Iain Gardiner, whose specialty is ECH areas.

This leaves two universities where ECH is flourishing: Australian Catholic University, and Macquarie University.

ACU is the host of the Centre for Early Christian Studies, which includes such powerhouses as Pauline Allen, Wendy Mayer, Geoffrey Dunn, and many others. It is a research focused centre with considerable funding. It sits within the Theology and Philosophy Faculty of ACU, which lists at least 13 faculty staff with Patristics or ECH as specialist areas.

Macquarie University’s Ancient History department took on an ECH focus largely due to the pioneering influence of Edwin Judge. That work continues in the broader setting of a large Ancient History faculty, with at least 5 faculty/staff that I can identify working primarily in ECH or Late Antique patristics. Particular research has focused on papyri.

So, that’s a wrap. University wise, almost all ECH work is being done out of two places in Australia – ACU and Macquarie, and they have different foci. The larger of these is definitely ACU and that is unlikely to change. Reflecting back across the religious colleges, only the Orthodox and Coptic colleges can be said to have a major interest in ECH in their curricula and faculty, while the number of protestants, evangelical or otherwise, specialised in ECH is very low.



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