As of a few weeks ago I’ve been posting a series of reflections on Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Christian Tradition, and this postscript is one final reflection, not on what Pelikan wrote but on what he didn’t write. Specifically, this is about what he might have written if he were writing his magnum opus 100 years from now.
Each chapter of The Christian Tradition is about a theological theme, either a doctrine or a movement. But each chapter is also about a period of time (usually about a century) during which that theme dominated the deliberations of the church. So as I read I couldn’t help but wonder, “If Jaroslav Pelikan were writing this from the future about the era we’re living in—say from 1965 to some unknown point in the future—what would the chapter be about? What would he call the issue (or issues) that dominates our time?” Below are four doctrines that I believe future historical theologians will believe we made history by talking about.
When a doctrine becomes prominent in the deliberation of the church for an extended period of time, it usually matters to history for one of three reasons. (1) A challenge from within the church or without (or both) requires that a doctrine be more clearly articulated than previously, perhaps for the first time, and once it is clarified it sets the boundaries for all future discussion. (2) Like reason (1), a challenge arises, but unlike (1) the discussion ends without complete or satisfactory clarification or settlement of the dispute, setting the stage for the same doctrine to be rehashed in the future, perhaps with new insight and perhaps not. (3) New insight emerges from within or without that either opens a new doctrine or a new way of looking at all doctrine. The doctrinal themes that I outline here exemplify all three reasons.
One doctrine about which our age is making history is the doctrine of humanity as male and female. As we live through it, we frequently fail to recognize this as doctrine-in-the-making in our era. We usually categorize the controversies as moral rather than doctrinal, and we usually fail to recognize the common rootage of the moral issues. But the ethical issues of our time that in some way pertain to human sexuality—in no particular order, gender equality, marriage, marital roles, divorce, women in ministry in the church, abortion, contraception, genetic selection, homosexuality and transgender, pornography, human trafficking, child abuse—all stem from the crucial doctrinal question, what does it mean that “God created humankind in his own image . . . male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27)?
The process of answering this question is painful as churches are riven over it and as it touches intensely personal and vulnerable areas of individuals’ lives. But despite the pain, this is an exciting time. Currents in our culture have compelled us to examine and expound an area of doctrine that has not been systematically addressed in two millennia of church history! I pray that by his grace God would give his people insight to settle this question in a way that sets the boundaries for all future generations just as Nicea and Constantinople did for the doctrine of the Trinity.
Unfortunately, a second doctrine that we are wrestling with now is a rehash of earlier unsettled debates, and we seem to be making little progress toward resolving them—specifically, I’m referring to the doctrine of the atonement. The atonement first began to receive serious, sustained treatment in the West in the Middle Ages after the Great Schism separated it from the East. The doctrine received further development in the controversy of the Reformation and then was at issue again during the rise of the Enlightenment. Each time the doctrine was considered during or just after a major split in the Christian family, so fragmented confession and teaching about the doctrine has prevailed. Now, at least among Protestants, the same debate about penal substitution that took place during the Enlightenment is replaying itself. The only new component to the discussion in our day may be the so-called “new perspective on Paul,” which itself is more related to the doctrine of the atonement than part of it.
A third prominent doctrine in our era is much more hopeful: the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, particularly of his gifts and power. The person of the Holy Spirit received significant examination by the church when it was explicating the Trinity in the 4th century, and the regenerating and sanctifying work of the Spirit appeared prominently in the explication of conversion during the evangelical/pietist movement of the 18th century. But it took until the 20th century for the doctrine of the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit to begin to be expounded.
Given that Pelikan finished The Christian Tradition about 70 years after the beginning of the Pentecostal movement, it is a little surprising that it gets no mention whatsoever in the final volume his work. On the other hand, Pentecostalism, especially at its beginning, typically thrived among social, educational, and ecclesial underclasses that sadly often escape academic notice. For similar reasons, the movement has been slow to make the landmark, sophisticated confessional statements that a historical theologian would take notice of. Thankfully, several trends since the heart of Pelikan’s career have made this area of doctrine impossible to ignore. One is that the long gestation of Pentecostalism finally began producing noteworthy theologians and biblical scholars. Another is a new “wave” of outpouring of the Holy Spirit that struck established confessional churches—the charismatic movement. And the third is the rapid spread of Pentecostal/charismatic Christianity in the Christian boom in the Two-Thirds World. Another happy result of all these trends is that, despite significant skepticism that still exists, the Pentecostal/charismatic movement has largely been accepted as a genuine (if to some perplexing) expression of the Christian faith unlike its ancient predecessors, the Montanists, who were eventually deemed heretics.
The final prominent doctrine under examination in our day is the doctrine of revelation, the question, does God speak, and if so, how? I talked about this in my last post about the Enlightenment and evangelicalism, and the debate today is in most ways the same as it was almost 300 years ago. But today’s deliberation is more than a simple rehash.
One new element is that the Enlightenment project, which began with total confidence that humans can discover the truth about God by their reason, has foundered into great skepticism about this proposition but without a corresponding conviction that God communicates convincingly to human beings who can’t find him on their own. This is the heart of the shift that took “universalism” and renamed it “pluralism” without changing its substance: it is the shift from the belief that all religions have found God to the belief that all religions are unsuccessfully groping for him. Similarly, the heirs of the Enlightenment have gone from believing that all reasonable humans can easily grasp truth to questioning what truth is, whether it exists, and whether logical consistency has anything to do with it.
Another new element is a new fascination with the concept of Story. The Enlightenment fascination with history and the parallel evangelical fascination with eschatology have recently coalesced with a wider cultural interest in the nature of story and the nature of humanity as a storytelling species. In the mid-20th century, scholarly interest in the biblical message as Story—not merely as a random assembly of stories or as narratival ore out of which doctrine is to be mined—began surging and transforming the theological disciplines. It is an interest that cuts across all traditions and is found (albeit differently) among both conservatives and liberals.
I am inclined to believe that if there is a unifying theme to the prominent doctrinal issues of our day, it is in the doctrine of revelation. Its questions—does God speak?, what is truth?—are so foundational that they go a very long way to determining the answers to the other questions. Objections to substitutionary atonement generally fall a lot closer to “I can’t accept it” than to “the Bible doesn’t say it,” and that presupposes one’s belief about revelation. The same feature is found in debates about human sexuality with the added complication of clarifying the relationship between the two testaments of God’s biblical revelation. And the assertion that the Holy Spirit presently gives power to prophesy to members of “all flesh” baptized into the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:17, 38-39) may be the strongest statement yet made against the Enlightenment rejection of special revelation and Christian exclusivity.
In all these cases, as we muddle through today, we may be supplying these questions with answers that will be relied upon by Christians for generations to come.