By Seraina Berger |

The German term Orchidenfach (orchid subject) refers to an academic field or discipline that is considered rare and exotic. In Switzerland, the term seams to apply to theological studies. Once the foundation of any university and scholarly knowledge in general, theology has lost its academic prestige as fewer students enroll in theological studies and courses each semester. In keeping with the idea and general perception of theology as outdated, rare, and exotic, as a theology student I always felt somewhat like an orchid.

The reactions I received from many folks after telling them about my field of study and my interests in religious and theological aspects of life underscore this particular feeling. The responses varied from incomprehension and reproach to indifference. Incomprehension, because they couldn’t understand why a young woman would study such a supposedly outdated and/or exotic subject. Reproaches, because quite a few are convinced that religion is to blame for all the evil that has been happening in the world since the Crusades. Indifference, because they couldn’t imagine what the study of Theology encompasses and entails. The latter response is one that I experienced irritatingly often in the academic environment.

After completing my master’s degree in theology and being ordained as a reformed pastor (after another year of training), I decided to keep pursuing this allegedly exotic path and recently started my PhD at the Institute of Reformation History (IHR) in Geneva. The suspicion and irritation of various colleagues and friends hasn’t changed though. Accordingly, reflecting, explaining, and positioning myself have been a crucial part of my “daily bread” ever since I was an undergraduate. And it still is today as a pastor, theologian, and a PhD student. Which is why I’d like to give you a short, very personal, and subjective glimpse into some of my thoughts on and positioning with my subject and––hopefully––make it more connectable.

Studying theology has been a fascinating path. The curriculum is extremely broad and stretches from antique languages, historical, ethical, and philosophical subjects to interreligious topics and practical matters such as pedagogy and spiritual care. The seminars and lectures are very intimate and therefore very challenging yet fruitful. Sometimes it was just me, the professor and four fellow students in a classroom—an unimageable setting in most other classrooms at my former alma mater.

Church history has always been my most beloved area of theology. The French and English-speaking world calls it History of Christianity which as a term has not gained popularity in the German-speaking world, although I’d say it would be an appropriate description of the subject’s “day-to-day business”. But what exactly is Church history’s daily business? And (since I am talking about positioning myself) how does it position itself towards general history?

Those questions have been debated for a long time. The term History of Christianity, however,perfectly describes the path that church history has taken in recent years: During the past decades, the field of church-historical research has expanded considerably. It no longer includes only the history of the church, but also the history of Christianity and Christianity itself. “Universal history” thus comes into view more comprehensively, increasing the communicability and plausibility of church-historical yields beyond theology. It is relegated beyond the church/theology to historiography, from which it does not differ methodologically.

Church history, like general history, examines its sources with the historical-critical method: It inquiries into the place and time of origin of a text or non-literary testimony, seeks information about its author or producer, and the more precise context of its writing and emergence. In doing so, it applies the generally accepted and binding rules of historical thinking and in this shows itself to be a discipline of historical science. According to Christoph Markschies, there can be no “special hermeneutics of church history or independent methodology of church history,” but there can be “an independent theological contribution to the general discussion of history and historical interpretation” (Markschies 2001, 1180).

            What could this “independent theological contribution” be? Religiosity and spirituality are firm pillars in human history, all the more so the further back in time we travel. They have shaped institutions, power relations, and historical subjects and objects alike, and are at the heart of our cultural, social, and intellectual self-understanding. My field of interest is Reformation history, which––as a result of the 500th anniversary celebrations in 2017 (Germany) and 2019 (Switzerland, and Zurich respectively)––has recently attracted particular interest from both historians and theologians. Their studies of the16th century upheavals have underscored the importance of religion in the lives, thoughts, emotions, and actions of 16th century. They have identified religion as a central driving force linked to aspects of ecclesiastical and theological, as well as cultural, social, legal, and intellectual history (cf. e.g. Hendrix 2004; Eire 2016).  Accordingly, in order to better understand historical subjects and their Lebenswelten (life worlds) or past conceptions of nature, knowledge, body, emotions, travel, law etc.—to name just a few areas of historiographical interest—one can’t neglect the religious and spiritual influences that drove those very subjects.

This is where my theological background comes into play. The methodological diversity I have acquired during my studies helps me to immerse myself in the life words of the late 15th and 16th centuries. I am perfectly equipped to locate and classify religious practices and piety, to tease out the social, cultural, and intellectual influence of theological institutions and biblical texts (the basis of much early modern scholarly debates), and to discover ideologies and dogmas in the various sources I work with. My faith and my activity as a Reformed pastor, moreover, open up another unique access to the pious subjects and objects I’m studying, allowing insights that—with all due distance, of course—shouldn’t be underestimated.

            The methodological diversity of general history has taught (and so has 1. Kor. 13) that there is a “pluralism of readings” of the sources and the past and that our knowledge is always fragmentary. Church history contributes another, but all the more important, reading. It operates between the secular and the religious and thus makes an important contribution to a better understanding of our Christian culture and its past. Accordingly, church history has not only a scientific, but also a mediating and explanatory function that transcends all epochs.

I am excited to see what insights and fragmental knowledge I can add as a theologian to understand the world(s) of the Reformation.

Eire, Carlos M. N.: Reformations. The Early Modern World. 1450–1650. New Haven/London 2016.

Hendrix, Scott: Recultivating the Vineyard: The Reformation Agendas of Christianization. Louisville/London 2004.

Markschies, Christoph: Article Kirchengeschichte/Kirchengeschichtsschreibung, in: RGG4, 4th ed. Tübingen 2001, col. 1179.

Seraina Berger is a PhD candidate at the Institute d’histoire de la Réformation in Geneva, Switzerland. She holds an MA from the University of Basel.