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Thursday, May 17, 2012

How Jaroslav Pelikan Blew My Mind

Last month I finished a three-year (albeit stop-and-go) project: reading Jaroslav Pelikan’s five-volume The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (1971-89). Let me tell you the Top Ten incredibly cool things about this work.

1) It’s written by a guy named Jaroslav Pelikan. “Jaroslav” is pronounced YAHR-oh-slahv, and “Pelikan” is pronounced like the bird. That’s probably enough reason to read it right there.

2) Pelikan was a historian at Yale University for a really long time. His focus of study was historical theology. That’s the corner of the field of theology that looks at how ideas about God and his work of creation and redemption have been expressed and have developed in the church over the 1900 years since the apostles. He was a Lutheran who, at the end of an entire life studying the history of theology and doctrine, converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. (There’s probably something to be learned from this.)

3) Pelikan also wrote a short book that I adore called Bach among the Theologians, which should be read just because of its title.

4) The historical span of The Christian Tradition extends from the death of the apostles to the Second Vatican Council in 1962-65. The names of the five volumes are (1) The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600); (2) The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700); (3) The Growth of Medieval Theology (600-1300); (4) Reformation of Church and Dogma (1300-1700); (5) Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture (since 1700).

5) All told, including indexes, bibliographies, and prefatory material, the five volumes together come in at 2,003 pages.

6) The first paragraph of the work proper (in a section entitled “Some Definitions”) says:
What the church of Jesus Christ believes, teaches, and confesses on the basis of the word of God: this is Christian doctrine. Doctrine is not the only, not even the primary, activity of the church. The church worships God and serves mankind, it works for the transformation of this world and awaits the consummation of its hope in the next. “Faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love”—love, and not faith, and certainly not doctrine. The church is always more than a school. . . . but the church cannot be less than a school. . . . The Christian church would not be the church as we know it without Christian doctrine.
7) The final paragraph of that section reads:
The theological presupposition of this history, a presupposition which is in turn based on upon a particular reading of history, is the variety of theologies and the unity of the gospel—the unity as well as the variety, and the unity within the variety. It is based on an acceptance of genuine novelty and change in Christian history and on an affirmation of true development and growth. “Credo unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam” [I believe in one holy catholic (universal) and apostolic church].
8) Between those paragraphs appears the deliciously quotable aphorism, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”

9) This work is an education all by itself—so much so that I almost felt like I didn’t know what Christian theology was until I had read it. That’s not true, as it happens, but that feeling I had indicates how wide this work blew my mind open and expanded both what I knew and what I thought about what I knew.

10) In some places this work is surprisingly easy to read; in others it’s surprisingly hard. For me, reading through volume 1 was a pleasure (though I grant that it might be tough going for people unfamiliar with the terrain). I found myself re-reading sections and chapters to understand them most often in volumes 3 and 5. He is hardest to understand when he tries to summarize things that are almost unsummarizable. I recommend volume 1 to every interested reader. Later volumes should be attempted after reading the first, but they might be unreadable without theological training; I’m not sure.

Over these three years of reading this work (especially during the first) I occasionally wrote essays for myself about issues raised by the books where they had greatly stimulated my thinking. Over the next few posts I’m going to publish them here. I am scarcely going to edit them, because that would take work. Therefore, since I wrote these for myself, they may be quite difficult to understand at times with undefined technical terms and passing references to things. They tend to be speculative and usually end with an unanswered question. They probably won’t be of much value to anyone. But hey, what are blogs for? (Consider that Unanswered Question #1.)

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