What Does Theology Do, Actually? 3

The Masters in Ecumenical Studies (MESt) Program at the University of Bonn is a research-oriented masters degree equipping students for research on the histories and presents of the Christian churches. A distinctive of the MESt as an “ecumenical” effort is its interest not in advancing Christian unity but in facilitating mutual understanding of differences. In 2022, the MESt is celebrating its 15-year anniversary. In the 15 years since its inauguration, the MESt has graduated students from over 36 different countries and has seen over 20 twenty students go on to pursue doctoral research. The What Does Theology Do project will partner with the MESt for WDTD3, devoted this time to the discipline of Church History, in celebration with the MESt of work accomplished and in anticipation of the challenges ahead. 

To speak of “challenges” is not an arbitrary choice of words. “WDTD3: The Unity of the Church and its Histories” seeks to engage the seemingly irresolvable tension between the idea of a universal church and the particularity of Christian traditions from historical perspectives. In so doing, challenges arising from this tension related to confessional identity, belonging and acceptance take center stage. Building on the WDTD Project’s interest in the confessional and cultural diversity of approaches to work in the theological disciplines, WDTD3 will consider how the work of the History of Christianity or Church History is evolving as the participants and actors doing this work engage their field interculturally and in conversation with issues of contemporary global concern. 

In conversation with current MESt scholars from India, South Korea, Iran, the UK, the USA, Ghana and Nigeria five such issues have been identified as holding particular importance for scholars of Christian history and for church leaders. These form the foci of the conference panels: 

  • Church History between theology of the Church and histories of churches
  • Monocultural churches in multicultural societies: historical perspectives
  • Political resistance and the formation of religious identity in the history of Christianity
  • The contributions of women to representations of the Church historically, in ecumenical focus
  • Ecological perspectives on the history of Christianity

Event Details

Date and Time

Thursday, 07. July 2022
18:00 start

Saturday, 9. July 2022
Open end


For details please contact gnet@uni-bonn.de.


18:00-20:00 MESt Anniversary. Welcome and Keynote Address

Welcome, Hermut Löhr, Vice Dean of the Faculty of Protestant Theology

“Ecumenical Studies in Bonn: The First Fifteen Years”, Wolfram Kinzig, Director of ZERG

"A Transcultural Perspective on Ecumenical Studies: The Next Fifteen Years", Amélé Ekué, Academic Dean, Globethics.net

20:00-21:30 Reception celebrating 15 Years of the MESt

9:00-9:30 WDTD3. Welcome and Introduction 

Maria Munkholt & Julia Winnebeck (WDTD3 organizers) with Matthew Robinson (WDTD Project Lead)

9:30-11:00 Openings. Our Histories before, in, as the Church 

An ecumenical panel of early-career scholars from four different regional-cultural centers of Christianity will open the symposium with short provocations. The panel raises ecclesiological questions about the relation between the Church as theological ideal and historical reality. The church as prophetic sign and servant can and does influence its surroundings, but is necessarily also influenced by them to a profound extent. 

This dynamic relation between the vision of the Church, on the one hand, and political and social manifestations of the churches, on the other hand, gives rise to both historical- and systematic-theological questions, including: How do context and social embeddedness influence the formation of groups’ ideas of what it means to be Church? How has this embededdness influenced Christians’ understandings historically of what their church should be? And how do these contextual dynamics affect the reasons and ways the histories of Christianity are studied academically in various cultural and ecclesiological settings?

11:00-11:30 Coffee Break

11:30-13:00 Panel 1. The Church in, or as, History

Panel 1 aims at the cultivation of deeper understandings of the role, aim and method of church history as a theological discipline in different confessional and geographical settings. In Western Europe, in the context of (particularly Protestant) academia, historical critical methods have been implemented as the fundamental tool in the field of “Church History”, and the discipline is understood to have both a critical and constructive relation to churches (typically state or people’s churches). In other contexts, historical research on Christian churches is dealt with differently. The title of Elizabeth E. Clark’s notable article “From Patristics to Early Christian Studies”, for example, indicates the development that there has been in the field of “Church History” at North American universities. This shift is just one example illustrating a broadening and complexification in the field, as it has moved beyond studies of dogma and (male) ecclesial authorities towards an embrace of intercultural and cultural-scientific approaches to the historical study of Christianity.

In the light of this historical development of the field of the historical study of Christianity, the panel will ask: 1) Is it even possible today to give a description of the current state of church-historical studies, or has the field lost its unique mandate in a variety of sub-fields with varying agendas and methods? 2) What is the future of the past in research on Christianity, particularly in light of realities such as the colonial stain that marked so much of Christianity globally or when some of the fastest-growing Christian groups around the world today are protestants with a stronger connection to Scripture or experience than tradition? What are current trends, and what will be future needs in the field(s)? 3) What does it mean for the relationship between academia and the churches that both the idea of “the Church” and the discipline of church history are themselves in constant historical development, as reflected, for example, in different churches’ understanding of the unity of the Church and what diversity this unity might be able to sustain? 

13:00-14:00 Lunch Break

14:00-15:30 Panel 2. Among kindred spirits. The significance of culture, ethnicity, and social order in the formation of Christian communities

There appears to be a strong correlation between ecclesiastical and cultural identity in many churches. Christians with migration backgrounds or in diaspora and expat situations living abroad often turn to churches to preserve their own religious and cultural identity, while majority (national and people’s) churches tend to display likewise high levels of national and ethnic homogeneity even in increasingly multicultural societies. Is this a modern phenomenon or a trend observable throughout history? In what ways do Christian self-understandings as “one in Christ” coincide with or reach across national, cultural or other identity-related self-understandings? The history of Christianity offers plenty of examples of Christian minority communities whose members lived in societies dominated by different beliefs and traditions as well as examples of the ways majority Christian societies have treated Christian and other religious minorities. Studies of these encounters have sometimes focused on the question of what separated them dogmatically, ethically or liturgically from the churches or other religions of the surrounding societies. Other factors, however, such as factors related to cultural and socio-ethnic identity and the impact of factors like social or national homogeneity for community resilience are less well-researched. 

This panel aims 1) to thematize the dynamic interrelations of culture, ethnicity, and other identity framings in minority-majority ecclesiological encounters, 2) to explore the significance of these identities vis-a-vis dogmatic conviction in historical examples, and 3) to discuss historically the problem of cultural identity in intercultural and ecumenical theology. The discussions will complexify topics like church identity, doctrine, and liturgy with social- and cultural-historical perspectives. Possible questions which might be addressed are: How do historical and present-day minority churches reflect on both the identity of their own community and the church traditions of the surrounding societies? What role does the history of this community play (e.g., the narratives of its foundation or shared history and traditions with other churches)? How do factors of joint cultural or national heritage affect ecclesiological self-understanding in these communities? How do relatively monocultural churches understand and regard themselves as contributing to the idea of the oneness/universality of the Church?

15:30-16:00 Coffee Break

16:00-17:30 Panel 3. Church, Religion and Political Resistance

The question of whether Christians should engage with secular politics and stand up to oppressive and unjust rulers is as old as Christianity itself. The approval or disapproval, as well as the nature and extent, of Christian resistance have regularly been linked to theological understandings of the sovereignty of God, creation, the Church’s relation to the World, the last judgment, and the arrival of the Kingdom of God. From Jesus to Paul to Augustine to Luther, theo-logics interrelating God, Church and World have inspired resistance or submission, and have been perceived as catalysts of or bulwarks against political instrumentalization. But what effects have resistance and protest had on the formation of religious identity for Christian churches and other religious groups in their relationships with Christian churches or Christian-majority societies?  

In the present, there is again a growing expectation that churches and other religious groups actively intervene on issues of socio-political concern in the public sphere. This invites historical reflection on the theo-logics that have motivated and stymied religious resistance and in particular a discussion of the ways such interventions can become definitive for their sense of identity as a chosen, righteous, holy or sacred community. In sociopolitical situations of resistance, the self-identity and boundaries of groups may be influenced, both inwardly and outwardly. This panel will engage with the problem from both the theological and sociological perspectives. Moreover, the topic will be approached from the perspective of non-Christian religious communities, allowing it to transcend religious boundaries. Possible questions which might be addressed are: 1) How are experiences of resistance and oppression effected by religious communities’ self-understanding? 2) How are historical self-(re)presentations of Christian groups presented, enacted and reiterated in liberating movements? 3) In what ways can social-political resistance be recounted interreligiously?

17:30-17:45 Break

9:00-10:30 Panel 4. A History of Overcoming Barriers. The Significance of Gender in Narrating Church History

Once history writing was dominated by the idea that history is made up of great men and their achievements. Ecumencial history is still often told as a story of founding fathers and great male leaders. This is of course largely due to the fact that until recently women were not invited or seen as eligible for leadership positions in most Christian churches. Even today, women and their experiences are still not adequately represented in many ecumencial contexts.

Advances produced in feminist scholarship and insights drawn from gender theory in the last decades have led to radical new ways of approaching history, including the histories of Christianity. Not only are relevant female figures increasingly sought out in Christian sources, but the traditional way of writing history is also being questioned. Since Christian women are mostly known in historical sources from writings by male authors, many have begun to ask what the ‘male gaze’ means for the way women have been depicted. Going a step further, this panel seeks to explore the significance of women and gender dynamics, not only for understandings of women throughout Christian history but for the conception of the Church in general and the ecumenical movement in particular. 1) What is known about women’s engagements in the cultivation of churches’ self-understanding as “the Church” over the course of Christian history, whether in homiletical, liturgical and catechetical settings or via church-political or private channels? In particular, how have women’s voices been included in the depiction of this history? 2) How have women influenced the modern ecumenical movement, and were there precedents to their labors in earlier clashes or negotiations among churches? Finally, 3) what are the experiences of women who have worked towards ecumenical unity in recent history?

10:30-10:45 Coffee Break

10:45-12:00 Panel 5. The ekklesia of Creation and the Ecologies of the Church: Church- Historical Reflections 

Christian ecclesiologies are rooted in moral relationships, between love of God and love of neighbor. And yet, in consideration of the “more-than-human” (non-human animals, plants, ecosystems and landscapes) that have been encountered and inhabited by Christians over the centuries, Christian behavior has often been rather less than neighborly. The panel is thus to be oriented by three sets of considerations and questions: 1) Ongoing relationships with the more-than-human in all its manifestations, whether ideational or embodied, are a fact of existence for all human communities, and church communities are no different. How these relationships have been conceptualized historically and then negotiated in practice is a question of growing contemporary significance. How have “church” and “ecosystem”, as unities both immanent and transcendent, be seen to interrelate on a spiritual level? 2) More specifically, how has the non-human historically been understood by Christian groups in relation to various conceptions of “church”, from local congregations rooted in particular communities (both particularly human and more broadly ecological) to the totality of the transcendent union with God, and how has this varied between different denominations and traditions? 3) Finally, is there a difference between approaches at local, denominational and ecumenical levels? How might indigenous and other perspectives that have often been underrepresented in church-historical research but that promote a relationship with the natural world rooted in greater fellowship and respect, provide a useful resource for re-conceiving Christian relationships with the wider environment?

12:00-12:30 Final Discussion

12:30-13:30 Lunch Break

(13:30-16:30 Bonn-Oxford-Meeting)

16:30-Evening MESt BBQ 

Alumnae/-i of the MESt, members of the Protestant and Catholic Faculties and Old Catholic Seminar, their guests, and friends are welcomed to join in a casual “Sommerfest”-style potluck and BBQ. Food or drink to share are warmly welcomed, but not necessary.


Avatar Robinson

Dr. Matthew Ryan Robinson

R 3.007

Am Hofgarten 8

53113 Bonn

+49 228 73-69031

Further Information

Please contact Matthew Robinson by e-mail: gnet@uni-bonn.de


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