Daily Mail Attempts to Whip Up Controversy over Oxford Theology Degrees

From the Daily Mail:

Oxford theology students won’t have to study Christianity throughout their degree – but dons deny it’s being ‘marginalised’

  • Students and lecturers have overturned 800-year-old university tradition
  • The changing way religion is seen and practised in UK has driven change
  • Students will study Christianity in first year but have more choice later on

The authors have extracted some details from an essay in the Times Higher about humanities teaching (alluded to in the article), and added a rent-a-quote from evangelical Christian Right activist Andrea Minichiello Williams to try to generate a controversy:

Andrea Minichiello Williams, of Christian Concern, said: ‘I think it’s sad … The founding fathers of Oxford believed that truth was noble and it was found in the pursuit of theology which we understood to be the study of Christianity’.

Here’s how the Times Higher article explained it:

It is 1916. You are an undergraduate at the University of Oxford studying theology in the hope that the ministry will be a good career choice. Your timetable says that you will be studying doctrine, biblical studies, the history of Christianity and Hebrew. In year three there is a single module given over to “other religions”.

…After seven years of consultation, a new course will be arriving in September 2017 under the name “theology and religion” for the first time.

Johannes Zachhuber, professor of historical and systematic theology and the theology faculty’s board chairman, said that the name change “was the moment we chose to recognise things really have become different”. While options to study “other” religions are certainly not new, compulsory Christianity papers will be gone by the second year so students can avoid studying the religion altogether and take papers such as “feminist approaches to theology and religion”, or “Buddhism in space and time”, should they so wish…

The news also reached The Times, which tried to make a link with the recent protests against the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College.

This seems to me to be something of a non-story. The Faculty of Theology at Oxford officially became the Faculty of Theology and Religion in 2012; at the time, the website explained that:

Oxford has the largest department for the study of Theology and Religion in the UK, and is a leading international centre for teaching and research.

While the Faculty maintains its historic strengths in the study of the Bible, the history of Christianity, Theology, and Philosophy, it is now also a major centre for the study of world religions, the relation between religion and science, and the place of religion in public life.

Also, some world religions – including ancient Near Eastern traditions essential for those specializing in the Hebrew Bible – have been provided by the Faculty of Oriental Studies for some time, while “Courses for Ministry” remain available for those seeking religious ordination. As Zachhuber himself says, the (overdue) amendment to the syllabus is recognition of a change that has already happened.

Meanwhile, the “800-year-old tradition” element is a bit of a stretch, although the detail is taken from the Faculty’s website. Of course, virtually all intellectual speculation 800 years ago was (medieval Roman Catholic) “theology”. The Faculty actually traces back to a School of Theology introduced in 1869. The Spectator observed at the time that:

…the conception of allowing men whose chief interest lies in Theology, to go out in Theology at their final examination rather than in Logic and Philosophy, or Mathematics, or Natural Science, or Law and Modern History, or Modern Languages and Literature, was quite appropriate… 

It is a matter of no common importance that the University of Oxford should open honours to men who, whatever their future profession may be likely to be, prefer to acquire the necessary clearness and sureness in dealing with great and subtle questions, from theology rather than directly from logic and ethics.

No opportunistic bleating there about “tradition”. However, the magazine did worry about whether the examination would be one of opinion rather than of knowledge:

Mr. [John William] Burgon thinks, for instance, that the Messianic character of prophecy is demonstrated as completely as the equivalence of 2 and 2 to 4 can be demonstrated by our Lord’s statement “Oh fools and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken,—ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory I”. But this only shows how utterly incompetent Mr. Burgon is to discuss the question on which he lays down so positive an opinion. Would it involve an intellectual slur on any man’s learning and reasoning powers,—and these are what a University examination properly tests,—to believe, as so many learned men, English and German, believe, that the text of our Gospels is of very uncertain authenticity,—or that Luke, especially, was an editor of comparatively late date? Again, should any candidate be told that he was simply an ignoramus, because he had arrived at the Unitarian inference about Christ, and believed Him to be not God, but man ? … And yet, as far as we can see, the new theological statute gives no guarantee whatever that Mr. Burgon’s definition of ” ignorance ” shall not be adopted, and a candidate refused his testamur, or his proper class, for differing in opinion from the examiner.

Compare the level of discussion in the above with Williams’s barely intelligible platitude about how “truth was noble”, and with the shallowness for what passes for the supposed “controversy” that the Daily Mail wants to whip up.

In 2011, the Mail‘s sister paper attacked the BBC for using “BCE” and “CE” rather than “BC” and “AD”.

3 Responses

  1. Thing is for many years now few of the professors believe the Bible to be the infallible truth – they think religion is a shop window choice .
    They have swallowed Darwin’s nonsense.

    Two years of Jesus then a year of Devil worship where those students not achieving satisfactory grades are sacrificed to Baal as in the wicker man .

    All the “Gods” of the gentiles are Demons

  2. Rev. Said the son of God to Thyatira ” & I will give him the Morning star” Can Oxford/Cambridge etc with all their thelogy/philosophy reveal this integral truth. Except that their truth today is but to rebellion off the Jezebel spirit warned against by the one with eyes as flames of fire & feet as of fine brass

  3. Thank-you for this Bartholemew. Excellent news. Well done Oxford!

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