- Ecclesiastical History
- Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies
- New Testament Studies/Early Christianity
- Philosophy of Religion
- Systematic Theology
Church History is the academic discipline concerned with the history of Christianity, of Christendom, its doctrines, institutions, and cultural influence. As a discipline it occupies the intersection of Classics, theology, philosophy, salvation history, political theory, legal and constitutional history, as well aesthetics, the history of art, architecture, and music. It is arguably the original interdisciplinary scholarly pursuit. In the view of Cotton Mather (1663-1728), in his Ecclesiastical History of New England (1702), “Of all History it must be confessed that the Palm is to be given unto Church History... because the Church wherein the Service of God is performed, is much more precious than the World, which was indeed created for the Sake and Use of the Church.” This may not be the prevailing historiographical sentiment of the 21st century, but it does nonetheless underline the seriousness of the undertaking.
Chair of Ecclesiastical History
The Rev Dr Henry H. Walsh (1899-1969) was appointed Associate Professor of Ecclesiastical History in 1948, the first occupant of this chair subsequent to the 1948 agreement between the Joint Board of Theological Colleges and McGill University which constituted the Faculty of Divinity. Walsh graduated BA from the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia, STM from General Theological Seminary, New York, and received a PhD from Columbia University (aka “King’s College in the Province of New York” prior to the American Revolution) in 1933. He was known to his friends as “Nick”: after a day in the libraries, Dr Walsh would frequently arrive late at night at the homes of friends, and they came to call him Nicodemus after the enquirer who, according to the Gospel of John (3 :1 ), “came to Jesus by night.” Walsh was the author of the first volume of the pioneering critical trilogy A History of the Christian Church in Canada. His contribution was titled The Church in the French Era: From Colonization to British Conquest (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1966). The usage of “Church” in the singular marked a significant ecumenical advance over previous histories. Walsh argued that the Canadian churches, unlike their American counterparts, looked “beyond denominationalism as the final destiny of the church” towards that of ecumenism. This ecumenical sentiment is inscribed on the mantelpiece in the Birks Senior Common Room: “Ecce quam bonum et quam jucundum, habitare fratres in unum!” (Psalm 133) Walsh retired in 1968. His successor, H. Keith Markell (1915-1983), was a graduate of McGill and the Presbyterian College. He published a history of the Presbyterian Church in Canada and also a History of the Faculty of Religious Studies, McGill University, 1948-1978. In 1980 Markell was succeeded by Edward Furcha (1935-1997). Born in Transylvania, Furcha emigrated to Canada and graduated BA in History from McMaster University. He pursued graduate studies at the University of Zurich with Paul Tillich, Gerhard Ebeling, and Fritz Blanke. He completed his PhD in 1966 at Hartford Seminary. Furcha published extensively on the Radical reformers, on the theology of Huldrych Zwingli, and published a two-volume edition of Zwingli’s Works. He sat on McGill Senate and was Marshall of the University Convocation. He died suddenly of a heart attack in 1997 and was succeeded by the current Professor of Ecclesiastical History, Torrance Kirby in the same year. Like his predecessor H.H. Walsh, Kirby graduated BA in Classics from King’s College, Halifax and completed his MA in Classics at Dalhousie. From there he went to Christ Church, Oxford as a Commonwealth Scholar and received a DPhil in Modern History for a dissertation of the political theology of Richard Hooker in 1988. Kirby is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, McCord Fellow of the Princeton Centre of Theological Inquiry, and a life member of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. His research centres on the English Reformation and the history of the reception of Platonism. He currently holds a four-year SSHRC Insight Grant to investigate ‘The Reception of German Mysticism in Early Modern England’, a collaboration with colleagues at the Centre for the Study of Platonism at Cambridge University.
Torrance Kirby is Professor of Ecclesiastical History and sometime Director of the Centre for Research on Religion at McGill University, Montreal where he has been a member of the Faculty of Religious Studies since 1997. He holds BA and MA degrees in Classics (Greek Philosophy and Literature) and was a Commonwealth Scholar at Christ Church, Oxford University where he received a DPhil degree from the Faculty of Modern History in 1988. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and has held Visiting Fellowships at St John’s College, Oxford, New College, University of Edinburgh, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and the American Academy in Rome. He is a McCord Fellow of the Princeton Centre of Theological Inquiry and a life member of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Recent books include Persuasion and Conversion: Religion, Politics and the Public Sphere in Early Modern England (2013), The Zurich Connection and Tudor Political Theology (2007), and Richard Hooker, Reformer and Platonist (2005). He is also the editor of A Companion to Richard Hooker (2008), Richard Hooker and the English Reformation (2003), and co-editor of A Companion to Peter Martyr Vermigli (2009) and Paul’s Cross and the Culture of Persuasion, 1520-1640 (2014). His most recent book is an edition of selected Sermons at Paul’s Cross, 1521-1642 (Oxford, 2017).
Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies
This field is meant for students who want to pursue graduate work at either the M.A. or Ph.D. levels on texts of the Hebrew Bible found in either the Jewish or Christian Biblical canons. The subjects covered are Ancient Near Eastern history and institutions from 1500 B.C.E. to 200 B.C.E., ancient historiography and ancient and modern Hebrew Bible interpretation.
Chair Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies
The first person to occupy what was then called the Chair of Old Testament Language and Literature was R. B. Y. Scott, from 1948-1955. A person of considerable energy and foresight he also held the title of first Dean of what was then called the Faculty of Divinity a position he held for one year from 1948-1949. Scott is known particularly for his commentary on the Book of Proverbs and his involvement in obtaining certain fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls for McGill University Library. Upon Scott’s leaving to take up an appointment at Princeton in 1955, Stanley B. Frost was appointed to the Chair. It was during the period 1956-1975 when he wrote his two best known books in the area of Biblical Studies, one on the Prophets and the other on Apocalypticism. Frost was also Dean of the Faculty of Divinity from 1957-1963 and subsequently Dean of Graduate Studies. In 1975 he chose to resign his position at the Faculty of Religious Studies to become founding director of the McGill History project at which point Robert C. Culley assumed the Chair of what was then still spoken of as Old Testament Studies. Culley’s work in the area of Hebrew poetry with particular reference to the Book of Psalms helped to shape understanding of oral composition in the discipline of Old Testament Studies. In 2000 Culley took early retirement and the chair was then occupied by Patricia G. Kirkpatrick. Kirkpatrick’s own work in the field has redefined our understanding of oral composition and transmission of ancient biblical narratives especially with regard to the matter of historicity and historical veracity of the biblical text.
In addition to this Chair since 1964 there have been several appointments to the field of Old Testament Studies which have complemented the work of the Chair. The development of a Graduate programme in the field of Hebrew Bible / Old Testament Studies & Judaism, Early Judaism / Second Temple Period has only been possible since 1964 when of a minimum of two full-time appointments to the field was normalized.
In the past, and in addition to these positions, there are those in the field of New Testament Studies which help to round out the broad Area of Biblical Studies. As well, colleagues in the fields of Christian Theology, Church History, Ethics and Comparative Religion enable a wide range of expertise, and therefore interdisciplinary overlap, in the study of the Biblical text.
Fields of interest: Hebrew Bible, Old Testament Studies, Biblical Historiography, Feminist Biblical Studies.
Teaching: Literature of Ancient Israel, Ancient Historiography, Archaeology of Ancient Israel, Women and the Christian Tradition.
Research interests: Oral Narrative Composition and Transmission, Folklore Studies, Historiography in the Biblical Text, Jewish Christian Dialogue, Gender and the Church.
New Testament Studies at McGill
In mid-century Germany, Ernst Käsemann protested the alienation of historical criticism and theological exegesis:
"[t]he tension between Gospel and Scripture is the indispensable presupposition of all theological interpretation and the inner meaning of those problems of Scripture of which historical criticism takes account. Whatever motive may have caused the taking over of historical criticism into the exegetical sphere, any retreat from this criticism in the present must necessarily make the problems of Scripture more obscure, reduce the diverse utterances of Scripture to a single level, remove the tension of Gospel and Scripture and endanger the proper historical character of revelation. ...In [historical criticism’s] attainment of independence this connection has been forgotten, the servant function has become the final objective of exegesis… The validity of this process must be questioned."
Käsemann Ernst. New Testament Questions of Today. [German: 1957, 1962] London: S.C.M., 1969. 9-10.
At McGill University that necessary tension between candid historical criticism of the earliest Christian texts and their appropriation in theological engagement has been vigorously professed. The first regularly-appointed professor in New Testament Language and Literature in the Faculty of Divinity was George Bradford Caird (1950-1959), who served simultaneously as the Principal of the United Theological College. Trained in Latin and Greek at Peterhouse, Cambridge and in Theology at Mansfield College, Oxford, Caird taught Old (sic) Testament Language and Literature at St. Stephen's College, Edmonton, before coming to Montreal. From McGill he returned to Oxford, eventually becoming Principal of Mansfield College, a position he reluctantly left to become Dean Ireland's Professor of the Exegesis of Holy Scripture in the University of Oxford.
Caird’s career was characterized by deep respect for the complex integrity of Scripture and for each of its languages. Among many contributions to more strictly New Testament scholarship, it is thus perhaps Caird’s The Language and Imagery of the Bible (1980) for which he is best remembered. Caird did not live to complete his masterful New Testament Theology, posthumously edited and completed by Lincoln Hurst (1994), in which Caird imagined the unity and diversity of New Testament theology as that of "an apostolic conference on faith and order," neither monotonous nor chaotic.
Continuity and healthy dialogue in New Testament Studies were ensured by the appointment in 1956 of John C. Kirby and by the succession of George Johnston in 1959 to Caird’s position, Kirby serving until 1979 and Johnston until 1981. Johnston was trained in Glasgow and Cambridge. His international reputation rested especially on his work on John’s Gospel (notably, The Spirit-Paraclete in the Gospel of John (1970)), but his academic and pastoral career cohered around the tension between Spirit and Scripture within the life of the Church (from The Doctrine of the Church in the New Testament (1943) to Discovering Discipleship (1983) and Opening the Scriptures (1992)). Johnston served as Dean of the Faculty of Religious Studies (1970-1975), as a Governor of the University (1971-1975) and, in his turn, as Principal of the United Theological College.
Appointment of Frederik Wisse in 1980 and of Nicholas Thomas Wright the next year maintained the strong duality of church engagement and uncompromising scholarship. After early formation in Engineering in the Netherlands, Fred Wisse pursued theological studies at Calvin College, Michigan, and doctoral research in Claremont, California. His primary expertise was in New Testament textual criticism, as a key proponent of the Claremont Profile Method for classifying manuscripts. Wisse also built a significant research programme in Coptic literature, from the Nag Hammadi codices to the on-going international project editing and translating the works of Shenoute “the Great.”
N.T. “Tom” Wright served at McGill from 1981-1986 at an important juncture in his own development and in that of the Faculty, before returning to the U.K. and a series of posts deliberately spanning Church and Academy. Wright’s output in Pauline studies, Historical Jesus Research and more popular apologetics has been too massively influential to need summary here.
In 1988 the Faculty appointed Ian H. Henderson, trained in classics (Manitoba), theology (St. Andrews), Judaism and Christian origins (McMaster) and New Testament (Oxford). His research and teaching begin from issues in Gospels literature and Historical Jesus Research, and in the study of Greco-Roman religious rhetorics (Jesus, Rhetoric and Law (1996)).
Following Wisse’s retirement in 2004, Ellen Bradshaw Aitken was appointed in the broadened area of Early Christian History and Literature. From 2007 Aitken served in addition as Dean of the Faculty of Religious Studies until her untimely death in 2014. (In 2014-2015 Henderson served as interim Dean.) Aitken was trained in classics and in folklore studies at Harvard University (BA, ThD), and taught on the faculty of The Divinity School. Along the way she found theological education in St. Andrews, Scotland, and at the University of the South (DMin). Her research investigated the relationship between Greco-Roman hero cults and ancient Christian attempts to make sense of Jesus (Jesus’ Death in Early Christian Memory (2004); her work on Philostratus with Jennifer Berenson Maclean, 2001, 2003), intentionally crossing boundaries between classics and New Testament studies, history of religions and theology.
Most recently, the School of Religious Studies together with the Department of History and Classical Studies has recruited Heidi Wendt to a joint position, even more explicitly linking early Christian studies with studies of the Greco-Roman world. Wendt completed an MA in Classics and PhD in Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean at Brown University, after an MTS in New Testament and Christian Origins at Harvard Divinity School. Before coming to McGill she taught New Testament and Christian Origins at Wright State University and Wesleyan University. Her research focuses on situating Jewish and Christian actors and phenomena in their Greco-Roman milieu (At the Temple Gates: The Religion of Freelance Experts in the Roman Empire (2016)).
Philosophy of Religion
Long one of the School of Religious Studies’ principal disciplinary foci, McGill’s program in Philosophy of Religion is anchored by the John W. McConnell Chair in Philosophy of Religion. The Chair was established when the unit itself was founded as a Faculty of Divinity, in 1948. It has afforded the philosophy of religion a central position in the critical study of religion at McGill. Professors James Sutherland Thomson (Theology, Glasgow) and Joseph C. McClelland (Theology, Edinburgh), the first holders of the Chair, were also Deans of the Faculty, before Maurice Boutin (Theology, Munich) held the Chair from 1991-2010. The Chair has long been dedicated to the investigation of historical and systematic relations between European Philosophy and Theology.
The Philosophy of Religion program is led currently by two members of the School of Religious Studies: Professors Garth Green (John W. McConnell Professor of Philosophy of Religion) and Jim Kanaris (CAS Associate Professor of Philosophy of Religion). Professor Green focuses on medieval philosophical theology, particularly Christian neo-Platonism, on German Idealism, particularly Kant and Fichte, and on French Phenomenology. Professor Kanaris focuses on the relation between contemporary, post-phenomenological philosophy and theory of religion.
Two contributing members of the Department of Philosophy are actively involved in several graduate co-supervisions: Professor George di Giovanni (an Associate Faculty Member of Religious Studies) and Professor Philip Buckley, as are members from within the School of Religious Studies itself.
Philosophy of Religion at SRS offers a uniquely wide range of introductory and advanced undergraduate courses that address traditional topics in the field while cultivating forms of philosophizing germane to religious studies. Courses range from the 300-student Introduction to the Study of Religions (RELG 207), which traces the history of philosophy and theory of religion, to the more discipline-specific, 50-student "Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion" (RELG 341), to advanced courses in Phenomenology of Religion (RELG 351; RELG 555), Religion, Philosophy, Modernity (RELG 380), and Theories of Religion (RELG 456), amongst others. The principal focus of our program is a large and dynamic graduate community. All graduate students are enrolled in coursework in the theory and philosophy of religion. Graduate seminars include, for example, Professor Green’s Modern Philosophy of Religion (RELG 641) Contemporary Philosophy of Religion (RELG 642), as well as Professor Kanaris' Currents in Philosophy of Religion (RELG 535). The program also offers seminars from contributing faculty and associate members. Further, all doctoral students take Professor Kanaris’ required seminar, Meaning and Interpretation (RELG 745), to engage the methodological controversies surrounding the history and concept of religion.
From their inception in the thirteenth century, universities have offered graduate level research in theology, alongside medicine and law, pursuant to undergraduate studies in the arts and sciences. Theology continues to be pursued with vigour at McGill in the School of Religious Studies. It is taught at both the undergraduate and the graduate level, not only in the broad sense in which it embraces fields of study and of professional interest treated elsewhere in these pages, but also as a distinct discipline in its own right.
One of the foundational chairs of the original Faculty of Divinity was devoted to that discipline, systematic and historical theology, and has been ever since. This chair functions in close collaboration with the five others.
The original occupant of the theology chair was Gerald R. Cragg, who served transitionally in that capacity while the new faculty was being founded in 1948 with the support of Principal Cyril James. Cragg would go on to produce lasting works on the relation between religion and reason, and between freedom and authority, as perceived in the volatile period of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The first permanent occupant of the chair was Robert H. L. Slater, who served from 1949 to 1958, under the deanship of J. S. Thompson, FRSC (himself, inter alia, a theologian). Professor Slater went on to found the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard. He was followed at McGill by Eric George Jay, formerly Senior Chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who held the chair from 1958 to 1975, serving also as Dean from1964 to 1970. Professor Jay produced works on a great variety of subjects, from Greek grammar to the reliablity of the Gospels to commentaries on treatises by Origen and Aquinas.
In 1975 Douglas John Hall assumed the chair, which he held until he became professor emeritus in 1995. Professor Hall, CM, while carrying on the tradition of historically and culturally and contextually engaged scholarship, brought out the critical and systematic dimension of the chair with remarkable success. Like his predecessors, he lectured widely in North America, Europe and Asia and served extensively in ecumenical circles. Seeking a new path for Christian thought and life in the evolving post-Christendom era, he not only published prolifically but produced a three-volume systematic theology for the North American context.
Douglas Bryce Farrow, the current holder of the chair, came to McGill from a post at King’s College London, as had Eric Jay decades earlier. Joining the Faculty in 1997, he has laboured to extend its legacy through public lecturing and writings that probe the interface between church and state, religion and society, theology and the university itself, while also producing substantive historical and constructive scholarship and biblical commentary. Professor Farrow’s work at the borders of Catholic and Protestant thought has introduced a new dimension to that legacy.
Several others have taught theology at McGill over the decades, working closely with the foundational chairs. Donald Neil MacMillan, for example, and former college principals such as William Klempa and John Simons, might be mentioned; in theological ethics, professors Gregory Baum and Karen Lebacqz likewise. Dr Pablo Irizar, director of the Newman Centre, has lately brought new expertise in mediaeval theology. Professors Fiasse and Cere supply help in ethics and political thought, as do professors Henderson, Kirkpatrick, Salvatore, and Wendt in their own various fields.
Committee in Theology
The Committee in Theology presently consists of professors Douglas Farrow, Garth Green (philosophical theology) and Torrance Kirby (ecclesiastical history). Expansion is anticipated as new appointments are made.
The committee conducts and supervises research from the apostolic and early patristic period to the present, taking account of Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Enlightenment, and Postmodern developments in the history of ideas and institutions.
Special attention is given to trinitarian theology through classical sources in the patristic and mediaeval periods, to Reformation theology both Continental and English, and to modern theology in its political, ethical, and cultural dimensions. Course work and comprehensive examinations include historical and systematic studies of major figures and motifs, as well as specialized contemporary topics. Competence in primary texts is prized along with interdisciplinary expertise.