Do Theological Controversies Belong in the High School Classroom?

By Rist, Mark | Momentum, November/December 2012 | Go to article overview

Do Theological Controversies Belong in the High School Classroom?


Rist, Mark, Momentum


They do at Nolan Catholic High where each class is a practice in the arts of primary text interpretation, rational discussion and inferring logical conclusions

many Catholic catechetical publishing companies are beginning to market Great Catholic Ideastype of books. They're doing so because of the demand in Catholic high schools for theology seminar courses. Mortimer Adler introduced this kind of course in his "Paideia Proposal" (1982) in the 20th century. Colleges such as St. John's in Maryland and New Mexico as well as Thomas Aquinas in California perfectly exemplify the seminar style of learning. There is also the growing phenomenon of the Honors College- the college-within-a-college- at many universities that use similar seminar-style courses for the curriculum.

This article is a modest proposal for a high school senior-level theology seminar course that works. I designed and have been teaching it since 1997 at Nolan Catholic High School in Fort Worth, Texas. I want to share what I've experienced in the 15 years I've taught the class, and perhaps it will be helpful for those of you who are using this type of course or are contemplating doing so.

I've titled the course Great Theological Controversies (GTC). This is a fancy title for a course on the history of Christian thought. The reason for renaming a rather traditional high school theology course is because of its nature and procedure. Each class is a practice in the arts of primary text interpretation, rational discussion and inferring logical conclusions. In short, the course is fun, engages the students' attention and, most importantly, is a unique learning experience for students and teachers alike.

Students Use Primary Texts

Great Theological Controversies address the critical theological issues from the second century through the 20th century. The authors whose works we study include Justin Martyr, lrenaeus, the Gospel of Thomas, Origen, Arius, Gregory of Nyssa, Nestorius, Augustine, John of Damascus, Anselm, Abelard, Thomas Aquinas, William of Ockham, Luther, Calvin, Locke, Hume, Schleiermacher, Kant, Bultmann, and Rahner. The controversial ideas we discuss, and on which the students write essays, are: Gnosticism vs. religious authority, philosophy vs. theology, reason vs. revelation, faith vs. works, free will vs. predestination, grace vs. freedom, justice vs. equality, ecclesiastical authority vs. biblical criticism.

Using excerpts of the primary Christian-related texts, the students read, interpret, discuss and understand the basic teachings of Christianity through its literary history. Excerpted writings include documents that are considered to be orthodox and heretical, as well as texts that are anti-Christian. The texts are read aloud in class by students who volunteer. The teacher then facilitates a discussion of what the theologian/philosopher means, thus engaging in an analysis of what the author is intending. Discussion of the text includes both agreement and disagreement among the students as to what the author means by what is written, as well as the implications of the writer's point of view.

Two keys are center to my course. The first is the two-volume set of books, "Readings in the History of Christian Theology" edited by William Placher (1988). Most of the writings posted on my website (www.theology4.com) are taken from those books. I've added a few other writings such as those from the pagan philosophers: Plato, Aristotle, Celsus, Porphyry, Lucretius and Plotinus. The writings are excerpts in a relatively short format of one to six pages each. In addition to the offerings of the Catholic publishers, other books on the market that are excerpted anthologies of Christian thought would work well.

The second key is the configu ratio the classroom. The desks are arranged in a two-tiered horseshoe shape, which more easily facilitates discussion. I have my comfortable GTC chair in which I sit with no obstruction between the students and me. …

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