Tuesday, February 17, 2004
Jaroslav Pelikan's The Emergence of Catholic Tradition
I've been spending the past week reading Jaroslav Pelikan's The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, (University of Chicago Press, 1971 -- (Volume 1 of his 5-part The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine). I've been wanting to check him out since college, ever since I heard one of my theology professors sing his praises in class, and who was fond of reciting the quote, "Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living." (Actually, I think I've read more theology and philosophy since I graduated than I ever did in my years of college).
I found Pelikan's book quite educational: covering the first 600 years of Christianity, beginning with the early Church's break with the Jewish tradition and dispute with Classical [Greek & Roman] thought to its struggles with Gnosticism and the Christological and Trinitarian controversies. Rather than present the issues chronologically, he organizes the content by issue -- "the separation of law and gospel"; "the meaning of salvation"; "Christ as divine"; "Christ as Creature"; "Christ as Homoousios", etc. -- presenting the writings of the fathers on each. (The remaining four volumes deal with the Eastern Church, medieval theology, the reformation, and contemporary theology).
However, in his effort to compose a history" of Christian doctrine, Pelikan finds himself in a curious dilemma, as noted by reviewer James S. Preus (Theology Today Vol. 29, No. 2. 1972):
What is interesting, Presus observes, is that "Christian orthodoxy" is already presupposed by Pelikan in his presentation of the various doctrinal and christological controversies, and it is not altogether clear from his treatment in this book why such and such a view prevailed -- especially when positions that we consider "orthodox" today were really very much in the minority at one time. Is it just simply a matter that, as Pelikan says at one point, "history is usually dictated by the victors"? That orthodoxy boils down to "survival of the fittest" and that body of opinions which stood the test of time? Presus concludes:
It's a fascinating paradox underlying Pelikan's work, and one that grows increasingly apparent with every chapter. Moreover, it is a question that I think any Christian will be obliged to ponder if studying the development of Christian doctrine, and I would expect to find Pelikan wrestling with it as a Christian rather than attempting an academically "neutral" historical exercise: just how did we manage to arrive where we are today, from the perpetual maelstrom of theological controversies that enveloped the early church? The disputes of men, the decisions of councils, the pronouncements of emperors, the heated exchange of ideas and anathemas -- is the creed we recite today and the doctrines we hold dear simply products of chance, random acts of history the outcome of which could very well have been otherwise . . . or do we see the glimpse of truth, the guiding hand of God, the establishment of legitimate authority and tradition?
Pelikan published this book in 1972. In March of 1998, he was received into the Orthodox Church. I wonder if researching and composing this history of Christianity influenced this decision in any way?
I imagine that there are some who will probably find Pelikan's work quite tedious, or the endless repetition of theologians and ideas -- Arianism, Montanism, Pelagianism, Sabellianism -- a daunting assignment for the average reader. I confess that as a college student, I certainly thought the same. But Oswald Sobrino ("Catholic Analysis") reminds us of the importance and usefulness of theological study:
Mr. Sobrino illustrates his point with some excerpts from Hans Kung and Roger Haight, two contemporary theologians enjoying widespread fame and noteriety for their clashes with the Magisterium. The passage from which Sobrino quotes in Kung's On Being a Christian certainly does sound like adoptionism to me, and the "christology from below" favored by Haight (and so many other contemporary theologians) is strongly reminiscent of the questionable ideas presented in Pelikan's history.
Are other readers conscious of this similarity of these contemporary theologians to the heresies of old? Disappointing as it is, I suspect that is precisely why they are found to be so appealing.
Elsewhere on the Web: