You are on page 1of 5

Classical Christian Thought I: Christian Beginnings

RELG 275
Tuesday/Thursday [Time]

Instructor: Adam Kotsko

Office: [room]
Office Hours: [time]
E-mail: [address]

Course Description
This course is an examination of the emergence of the form of Christianity that is claimed as the
common ancestor of the three major branches of Christianity (Roman Catholicism, Eastern
Orthodoxy, and Protestantism), tracing the development of Christian thought from the generation
after the New Testament authors (200 CE) up to the Council of Chalcedon (451 CE). Over the
course of a few short centuries, Christianity went from being a scattered collection of persecuted
sects with no clear doctrine or authority structure to being the official religion of the Roman
Empire, with a defined (and enforceable!) orthodoxy. In order to witness this remarkable change
of fortunes at first-hand, the course focuses on a representative sample of primary texts.

The course can be divided into two halves. The first half looks at a selection of the early Church
Fathers, that is, the writers whom the “orthodox” Christians of later generations accepted as their
ancestors. Our investigation focuses on their relationship to the imperial authorities, the various
forms of Judaism (from which they were not always clearly distinguished), the other forms of
Christianity that they regarded as heresies, and the intellectual life of the Greek or Hellenistic
world. The second half investigates the development of an official orthodoxy, centered on the
doctrines of the Trinity and Christology.

Course Goals
Upon completing this course, students should:
• understand the social setting in which Christianity emerged and the ways that early
Christian thinkers related to that setting;
• identify the major thinkers who contributed to the formation of Christian theology;
• identify and explain the central categories of orthodox Christian theology;
• be able to identify the central themes and arguments of ancient texts and state them in a
clear and sympathetic way in class discussion; and
• be able to formulate criticisms in a way that is attentive to the original author’s intent and

Course Requirements
1. Reading summaries: Students should complete the readings for each week by Tuesday
of that week and submit a reading summary of 2-3 single-spaced pages. Bring two copies,
one to turn in and one to refer to during class. Late assignments and e-mail submissions
will not be accepted. Summaries should include the following elements:
a. A list of several key quotations from each reading, appropriately cited.
b. A brief response to the readings as a whole—what did you think? How would you
challenge the author? How did the author challenge you?
c. Two or three questions that you’d like to discuss in class. These should not be
simple factual questions—make sure they are the kind of question that could
actually generate significant discussion.
2. Exams: There will be both a midterm and a final exam for the course, consisting of a
combination of short identification, matching, and essay questions, covering the course
lectures, readings, and discussion sessions.
3. Analytical paper: Students will be required to write a detailed analytical summary, not
to exceed six double-spaced pages, of one of the texts assigned for the second half of the
course, chosen in consultation with the professor. Students must turn in a first draft of the
analytical paper one week before the due date to ensure it conforms to expectations;
detailed comments will be provided. Papers should reflect the following guidelines:
a. They should talk about what the author found most important, as opposed to what
you found most interesting as a reader. That means first of all that the summaries
should be proportional—if the author spent half the text on a given topic, you
should spend roughly half your paper on it.
b. The papers should be in your own words. Avoid paraphrase like the plague—it is a
sign that you haven’t fully digested the material, and it produces ambiguity that
could lead to accusations of plagiarism.
c. You should read through your text more than once and make sure that you can
confidently state the main points of the argument in your own words (perhaps
talking it out with your roommate or some other long-suffering soul) before you
begin writing. Paraphrase becomes most tempting when you are trying to write
your paper while reading the text for the first time, which is obviously a bad idea
but is sometimes attempted.
d. Papers should indicate the flow of the argument—what leads the author to the next
point, what he puts forth as supporting evidence, etc.
e. The papers should include brief illustrative quotations, generally not to exceed
one full line. You are attempting to condense a lengthy text for this assignment;
don’t waste space with excessive block quotes. Somewhere between 5-8 brief
quotations per page is a good guideline. All quotations must be appropriately
cited, with quotation marks clearly designating the author’s original words.
f. Your goal overall should be to produce a text that’s reliable, one that you yourself
would trust if it was your sole study guide for an exam question on the text.
4. Class Participation: Class periods will be divided between lecture and in-class
discussion. Students are expected to arrive in class ready to discuss the assigned readings
in a way that is attentive and accountable to the texts, providing specific references to
back up their points.
5. Attendance: More than two absences will result in a reduction in the student’s final
grade. Attendance will be tracked with a sign-in sheet. Note that this concession to human
weakness does not mean that you are permitted two “skips”—you are accountable for all
lecture material and expected to participate actively in class discussion.
6. Academic integrity: All students are expected to fully abide by the Honor Code of
Kalamazoo College. Collaborative study is encouraged, but all submitted work must be
the student’s own.

Grade summary:
• Class participation: 10%
• Reading summaries: 25%
• Midterm exam: 25%
• Final exam: 25%
• Analytical paper: 15%

Course Texts
Required textbooks:
• Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers (Penguin Classics, 1987). (AF)
• Christology of the Later Fathers, ed. Edward R. Hardy, Library of Christian Classics
Series (Westminster John Knox, 1954). (CLF)

Recommended supplemental textbook:

• Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (University of Chicago Press,

Other required readings will be made available as PDF files on the Moodle site for this course
( Readings drawn from the required textbooks will be labeled with the
appropriate abbreviation; it should be assumed that all other readings are on Moodle.

Outline of Course and Reading

Course Introduction (September 17)
• Discussion of syllabus
• Introductory lecture on Christian beginnings

Week 1 (September 22 & September 24)

• Authority of the bishop in early Catholicism
• The role of martyrdom
Readings: First Epistle of Clement (AF), Epistles of Ignatius (AF), Epistle and Martyrdom of
Polycarp (AF)

Week 2 (September 29 & October 1)

• The beginnings of apologetics: Dealing with imperial authorities
• Self-definition against Judaism: The struggle to interpret the Hebrew scriptures
Readings: Epistle of Diognetus (AF), Epistle of Barnabas (AF), Justin Martyr (selections)

Week 3 (October 6 & October 8)

• The challenge of heresy: Gnosticism
• Canon, hierarchy, and tradition
Readings: Irenaeus, Against Heresies (selections)

Week 4 (October 13 & October 15)

• The encounter with Greek philosophy
• Marriage and celibacy
• The question of wealth
Readings: Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Heathen; Stromata, bk. III; “Who is the
Rich Man Who Can Be Saved?”

Week 5 (October 20 & October 22)

• Resurrection of the body
• Continued struggles with heresies and imperial authorities
Readings: Tertullian, Apology; De Corona; On the Resurrection of the Body (selections)

Mid-term exam: October 27

Week 6 (October 29)

• From persecution to imperial patronage
• The Arian controversy and the beginnings of orthodoxy
Readings: Athanasius, On the Incarnation (CLF)

Week 7 (November 3 & November 5)

• Defining and defending orthodoxy: The Council of Nicea
• The doctrine of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
Readings: The Nicene Creed; Gregory Nazianzen, Theological Orations (CLF); Basil of
Caesarea, On the Holy Spirit

Week 8 (November 10 & November 12)

• Submit initial draft of analytical papers November 10
• Questions of creation and human nature
• The relationship between faith and “science”
Readings: Genesis 1-3 (recommended); Basil of Caesarea, Hexaemeron; Gregory of Nyssa,
On the Making of Man

Week 9 (November 17 & November 19)

• Controversies about the person of Christ: The Council of Chalcedon
• The beginnings of Christian mysticism
Readings: Gregory of Nyssa, Address on Religious Instruction (CLF); The Tome of Leo
(CLF); Decree of Chalcedon (CLF); Pseudo-Dionysius, On the Divine Names

Course wrap-up: November 24

• Final draft of analytical papers due
• Review for final exam

You might also like