Bettenson’s Documents: A Year’s Experiment

This is an interactive blog. Join me as I read through Bettenson’s Documents of the Christian Church for a year.

When I was a doctoral student in history at Kansas State University, I was enrolled in a seminar with Dr. Robert Linder on the History of Christianity. Like students in all good research and writing seminars, my peers and I read assigned primary documents and also drew upon them for the original research we were doing for the written requirements of the seminar. Professor Linder often referred to a standard collection of original documents entitled Documents of the Christian Church. This selection of primary documents illustrating the ecclesiological and doctrinal development of the Church was edited by Henry S. Bettenson (1910-1979), a Classical scholar and alumnus of Oriel College, Oxford.

During my seminary student days in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Bettenson’s work had been through two editions and was considered the standard anthological collection of primary documents related to the development of the Church, but by the time I was undertaking my Ph.D. work, it was considered to be outdated, deficient in twentieth-century and non-Western sources, and specifically slanted toward Anglicanism. I often joked with my fellow graduate students that one of us really ought to update Bettenson.

Well, in 1999, Chris Maunder, head of BA Theology and Religious Studies in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at York St John University in York, England did just that: he brought Bettenson’s work into the twentieth century by adding documents related to more contemporary movements such as liberation theology, feminist theology, and documents related to Vatican II. Maunder left much of Bettenson’s original collection intact while adding more recent items.

However, I am still not satisfied. I think there is still room for a substantial collection of primary documents related to the church. I understand Bettenson’s interest in Anglican development. In fact, as a researcher, I share it. My dissertation treats the first century of the Anglican Church beginning with the Henrician Reformation. But as a teacher of the History of Christianity I long for a collection that includes many documents Bettenson left out, and I would probably not place as much emphasis on some of the writings he included.

The appearance of weblogs and the ease of using them has provided a perfect vehicle for me to make my own collection. I propose to use Bettenson’s 1947 version as a basis for a new collection. I will try to work through Bettenson for a year, publishing public domain text versions of the key writings a little at a time, and reading and reflecting on each one as I go. Along the way, I hope to add some other documents to the collection, so that by the time I have worked through to the twentieth century documents I should have an expanded collection, and an ideal one from my own perspective.

But a weblog offers another opportunity: input from a living, reading community. I want to invite others to join me on this journey of working through Bettenson (plus) for a year. Not only do I desire the encouragement of companions, but I can learn from them. I hope to learn not only what should be included in the final redaction, but, perhaps even more so, I want to be transformed in my understanding and appreciation of the remarkable men and women who have contributed to the development of the Church and her doctrines.

Another note: These readings have two major difficulties that ought to be addressed: First, they are rendered difficult to understand without a larger context. I propose to take a shot at offering context. Second, they are poorly translated for a twenty-first century audience. I will attempt to paraphrase them so that the reader can readily understand. Let the reader especially beware the latter. I could easily be mistaken and unintentionally mislead the reader. Any errors are solely my responsibility.

So, I invite you to join me. Read without merely lurking; comment with courage; help shoulder my burden. Don’t be surprised if my strength flags along the way, and don’t mock me even if I have to resort to ridiculous contests to encourage fresh participation. The end product will at least be profitable for me personally and for my teaching. I hope it is a blessing and a treasure to others as well when the journey is complete.

We open with a reading about a lady of high rank...