“The church lives by the past, but for the future.”
Early in the 1950s, Karl Barth published a book about nineteenth-century Protestant theology. One of the negative developments that Barth diagnosed in this epoch of the history of theology was that the most gifted theologians had fled into history, where they found a secure space that allowed them to pursue their academic research far from the challenges of the present day. When the first English translation of Barth's book about nineteenth-century Protestant theology was published in 1959, the forward was written by Jaroslav Pelikan, at that time professor of church history at the University of Chicago and a member of the American Lutheran church. Pelikan responded to what Barth had said by remarking that when Karl Barth decided to become a systematic theologian, Protestant historical theology had lost a man who could have become a great historian of dogma, on the same level as Adolf von Harnack!1
Pelikan himself was in a close dialogue with Adolf von Harnack's writings throughout his entire life as a scholar, and he would surely have reacted strongly against any selection of the greatest twentieth-century theologians that failed to include Adolf von Harnack and his highly distinctive interpretation of the development of dogma in the early church. There was a biographical element in this link to Harnack: Jaroslav Pelikan's teacher and mentor in church history was Wilhelm Pauck, who, like Barth, had studied under Harnack. But Pelikan's relationship to Barth went deeper than this. It was through an uninterrupted dialogue with Harnack's writings that Pelikan developed his own understanding of what it means to be a historian and of the historian's task among the theological disciplines.
Jaroslav Pelikan (1923–2006) was born in Akron, Ohio, and belonged to a family that had emigrated from Slovakia to the USA. Both his grandfather and his father were pastors in a Slovakian Lutheran Synod in America. He completed his studies and took his doctorate when he was 22 years old. His career took him to both kinds of academic environments, to those linked to the church and those that were independent. From 1946 to 1949, he taught at the University of Valparaiso, and from 1949 to 1953 at Concordia Theological Seminary. In 1953, he moved to the University of Chicago. He concluded his academic career at Yale University, where he was Sterling Professor of History. When he reached retirement age in 1996, he could look back on almost 25 years at this prestigious institution. During this period, he was dean of the Historical-Philosophical Faculty for five years.
It was as professor at Chicago and Yale that Pelikan carried out his greatest literary project, the presentation of the history of the Christian tradition in five volumes. The first volume of The Christian Tradition was published in 1971, and the last volume came out eighteen years later, in 1989 – exactly 100 years after Harnack published the first volume of his Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte, as Pelikan naturally noted! He describes this work as something he had regarded as his vocation from his student days onwards, namely, to write a follow-up to Harnack's work. It was prepared in a series of lectures and seminars on “The History of Christian Thought” while he was professor at Chicago. He gave an account of what the history of dogma is, and of the methodological choices that historical theology faces, in two separate works, Historical Theology: Continuity and Change in Christian Doctrine (1971) and the prestigious Jefferson Lectures in 1983, published as The Vindication of Tradition (1984). Pelikan himself described this latter essay as “some systematic reflection on my lifelong study of continuity and change in the development of tradition.” The Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye hailed it as a “classic” for all who were interested in exploring the questions concerning tradition – a concept that also played an important role in the school of literary studies that Northrop Frye represented.
Pelikan spent most of his life as a theological teacher and writer in a free academic context. The significance of the university was that it allowed him to reflect on the church's history without being influenced by the guidelines for practical academic work, and not least the results of this work, which (he believed) easily got the upper hand in ecclesiastical seminaries and in universities with strong ties to the church. His period at Concordia was brief. It may be that he sensed even then that his literary activity not only would produce a considerable volume of important academic studies, but also was a personal “quest” that would end forty years later with his conversion to the Orthodox church in the USA.
The foreword to Karl Barth's book about Protestant theology in the nineteenth century is a good example of how Pelikan reflects on the task of the historian, which can be described briefly as creating the interest or the irritation in the readers that is necessary, if they are to open their minds for the fathers and brothers – today, we would add: “the mothers and sisters” – who speak through the historian, provided of course that these fathers (and mothers) have succeeded in establishing a dialogue with the historian himself or herself.2 It is this that makes Barth's book so important in Pelikan's eyes. Barth has communicated an epoch to us in such a way that it seizes hold of the reader. Pelikan argues that this power is due to Barth's ability to open himself up to the past in a way that is best described by saying that the past will speak through the historian only if the past has spoken to the historian. Barth displays the ability that is utterly decisive for a historian, and that Pelikan described in another context as “polyglot.”3 On this point, Barth shows his greatness, in contrast to the small-mindedness displayed by his inferior imitators. After reading the master, they had no interest in studying the past; why should one read liberal theologians who, like Harnack, had got lost in the mists of history, when one had seen the light itself in Karl Barth's theology? Harnack was to prove a fruitful dialogue partner throughout Pelikan's life, and everything that he wrote bears the traces of this conversation.
Why ought theologians to take an interest in the past and spend time on thinkers who belong to a different age? Pelikan's writings are sustained by the conviction that every thinking person and every institution, whether religious or cultural, needs history as a liberator from inappropriate influences. He refers here not only to influences from the past. A conscientious investigation of the past is required in order to counter the forms of influence to which we are subject, and which derive both from our own selves and from the air we breathe. This is why the historian's task cannot be compared to the task of an auditor. The auditor examines the accounts from the past in order to show again and again how far we ourselves have come, in comparison with those who lived before us. The historian must learn other languages. Pelikan has in mind not only ancient languages like Latin, mediaeval English, and Norse, although this too can prove necessary. Rather, he refers to the ability to get into a conversation with another age. This is absolutely essential, if the historian is to be able to function as an interpreter between the past and the present.
The significance for theology of this kind of historical thinking ought to be obvious. One cannot get away from the fact that the churches are the bearers of a tradition; and this is true, irrespective of how far out on Christianity's left wing one may be.4 A church that allows the past to remain uninterpreted will inevitably incur the risk that its current faith and praxis will slowly but surely lose their meaning. Pelikan himself formulated an aphorism that has often been quoted: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”5
For Pelikan, tradition means “What the church of Jesus Christ believes, teaches, and confesses on the basis of the word of God.”6 His working hypothesis as a historian was that such a tradition exists throughout the whole of the church's life and history, but it was important for him that this tradition should be studied from the perspective of development.7 He gained this insight from his study of development as an intimate interplay between continuity and change – an interplay that traditionalism is unable even to grasp, still less to take seriously.
Where is this tradition present in the churches’ life in such a way that it can be made the object of historical investigation? Some would reply by pointing to confessional documents that contain summaries of Christian doctrine, others to preaching as the place where tradition comes alive, while others again prefer to investigate the development in the theologians’ studies. None of these answers is wrong, but Pelikan believes that they become wrong if one forgets to point to the liturgy. The presentation of the history of the Christian tradition is not the same as the “history of dogma.” This is what Harnack did, but his perspective was too narrow. Nor did Pelikan want to write a “history of theology,” because that would attribute too much importance to the theologians’ role. This does not mean that their contribution to the history of the Christian tradition was insignificant; but Pelikan's chosen perspective has no place for a continuous search for their originality, in order to organize the material around this. The theologians were important as participants in a dialogue that runs through the whole of the church's history. And this is why those aspects of the Christian tradition that the theologians felt compelled to reflect upon were given a prominent place in Pelikan's narrative; indeed, they determined the structure and the course of this narrative. In chapter after chapter, through the shifting epochs of the church's history, his aim was not to present the plurality of theological schools. Rather, the themes that were central in each period came to form the structure in the great narrative of the Christian tradition that Pelikan gradually wrote. He wanted to base this on the church's doctrine, not in the form of defined articles of faith, but as the living interplay between faith and adoration, preaching and teaching, discussion, dialogue, debate, and polemic.
Is there anything that holds this plurality together? Is it possible to make the basic assumption of a tradition or (to use another expression frequently found in Pelikan) an “orthodoxy”? The American historian of ideas Arthur O. Lovejoy had almost totally dismissed the idea of any inherent cohesion in Christianity.8 Pelikan himself writes positively about the author of The Great Chain of Being in The Christian Tradition, but his own position was the exact opposite of Lovejoy's. He claimed that the duality between “doctrine” and “praise” that is found in the term “orthodoxy” itself was a clear enough indication of where this unity and coherence were to be found.9 To speak of the Christian tradition while prescinding from the liturgy is due to an erroneous conclusion that forgets that “doctrine” is certainly not the only activity of the church, nor even its primary activity. “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.”10
When Pelikan undertook the great task of writing a history of dogma, the role of the liturgy in this history was one of the elements that meant that his researches formed a counterpart to Harnack's work. Harnack had claimed that the formation of the church's dogma was unconnected to the liturgy, but Pelikan made the ancient formula legem credendi statuat lex orandi, “the law of praying is to constitute the law of believing,” a methodological strategy in his studies of the history of dogma. He wished to demonstrate that the growth and development of the Christian dogma was a clarification and articulation of the faith that lived in and through the liturgy.11
It follows that the liturgy is the most important “locus” of tradition in the church's history. It is here that faith is contemporary, and history shows examples again and again of how worship, prayer, and praise have generated genuine theological problems. To use an image that Pelikan himself employs, we may say that the church's tradition is present in the liturgy in a way that recalls the letters demanding ransom money that we see in detective films. As we know, they are cleverly put together from words and letters cut out of newspapers and magazines. The skillful investigator is able to discover the sources and thus find out what the kidnapper is up to; but it is the combination of words and letters that are intended to be meaningful here and now for the one who receives the ransom demand. At the same time, the liturgy preserves another important characteristic of tradition, that is to say, the openness that means that when we read the past, we must bear in mind that unity is not the same as uniformity. One final point: the correct relationship between theology and liturgy is important for Pelikan simply because it is the language of the liturgy – and strictly speaking, only this language – that preserves the profound paradox that we cannot speak of God, and yet we do so.
The term “polyglot” is also important when we wish to grasp Pelikan's understanding of the concept of tradition.12 The Christian tradition speaks with many tongues. Both prose and poetry are necessary – both prayer and praise, both speech and silence. And the usual demands for logical consistency do not get us very far. Tradition represents a blend of continuity and change, and these two concepts are the most important building bricks in Pelikan's understanding of the “development of doctrine.”13 On this point, he acknowledged his debt to another important nineteenth-century theologian alongside Harnack, namely, John Henry Newman. Pelikan maintained that “development of doctrine” was Newman's concept. “I have adopted – and adapted – John Henry Newman's concept of the development of doctrine, and I have sought for the elements of continuity as well as for those of change, in fact, for the elements of continuity in the change, as I have learned to see, in Newman's brilliant oxymoron, that ‘great ideas change … in order to remain the same’.”14
In parallel to his magnum opus, the five-volume The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Pelikan also published a number of individual studies in which he applied the methodology in The Christian Tradition to a wide field in the history of ideas and of culture, always with the explicit intention of identifying links between culture and the church's tradition. He had already studied the history of philosophy in the modern age from this perspective in one of his earliest books, From Luther to Kierkegaard (1950). Plato's influence on the Christian tradition was the theme in a study of the dialogue Timaeus (What Has Athens to do with Jerusalem?, 1997). The book Bach among the Theologians (1986) was about music. In The Mystery of Continuity (1986) and The Excellent Empire (1987), he studied the understanding of history in the Western tradition. The first of these two books has its starting point in Augustine, while the latter looks at Edward Gibbon's classic Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Pelikan tells us that he had read this book regularly since his boyhood!
Many passages in Pelikan's writings demonstrate his conviction that historical theology must transcend the traditional boundaries of this discipline, and must include fields such as art and literature. Studies of this kind include Pelikan's Imago Dei: The Byzantine Apologia for Icons (1990) about visual art, while the Christian tradition and literature are the theme in his studies of Dante (Eternal Feminines, 1990) and Goethe (Faust the Theologian, 2001); the latter book is dedicated to Northrop Frye. Pelikan's experience as a university teacher forms the background to The Idea of the University – A Reexamination (1992), in which he reflects on developments in higher education in America, in a dialogue with John Henry Newman and his book The Idea of the University (1852).
We should also mention individual studies of the history of theology that have a more traditional character. Pelikan's book about Luther the Expositor (1959) is an introduction to Luther's exegetical writings, and was published as a supplementary volume to the great American edition of Martin Luther's works, of which Pelikan was one of the chief editors. His study Obedient Rebels (1964) deals with the theology of the Reformation period, with a subtitle that expresses Pelikan's approach: Catholic Substance and Protestant Principle in Luther's Reformation. Three of Pelikan's books are in a group by themselves, since they were written for a wider readership. Jesus through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture, first published in 1985, found many readers and has gone through numerous editions. He followed this up in 1996 with Mary through the Centuries, a book with the same broad intention of giving information about her place in the history of culture. The third book of this kind was published in 2005, with the Bible as its theme: Whose Bible is it? A History of the Scriptures through the Ages. The ecumenical perspective, which had been fundamental in all his writings up to that point, was now broadened to include the other “peoples of the book,” the Jews and Muslims.
In the last years of his life, Jaroslav Pelikan was involved in a large project that aimed to make the confessional documents of Christian churches from all epochs available in modern language. The three-volume work Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition, with a CD-ROM containing the confessional texts in their original languages, was published in 2003. He wrote an introduction to this comprehensive collection of confessions of faith, in a large volume entitled Credo (2003). Here, as also in his own contribution to the Festschrift that was published to mark his eightieth birthday – “The Will to Believe and the Need for Creed” – he underlines a prominent motif in his writings, namely, the untenability of the widespread antithesis between personal faith, on the one hand, and the common confession of the church, on the other. It was this sense of unease that led him finally to leave the Lutheran church in America.
Many of those who reviewed Pelikan's five-volume work on the Christian tradition drew special attention to the wide place that the Orthodox tradition receives in his presentation. Pelikan devoted the whole of the second volume, with the subtitle The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600–1700), to a period in the history of the Eastern tradition in which – according to customary opinion – very little had happened that was worthy of a historian's interest. Pelikan begins this volume with two quotations (p. 1). The first is from Adolf von Harnack, who had in effect asserted in his history of dogma that “the history of dogma in the Greek church came to an end, [so that] any revival of that history is difficult to imagine.” The second is from Edward Gibbon, who wrote that the Christians in the East “held in their lifeless hands the riches of their fathers, without inheriting the spirit which had created and improved that sacred patrimony.”
For Pelikan, such statements illustrated all too well the prejudices that had led Western historians to ignore Eastern Christianity, apart from those episodes in which the so-called Western church was also involved. He seeks to amend this state of affairs by showing that the Orthodox line was not a dead traditionalism, but a living tradition to which one could meaningfully apply the perspective of continuity and change.
In 1992, Pelikan was invited to deliver the prestigious Gifford Lectures on Natural Theology at the University of Aberdeen. Here, he stepped back from the presentation in The Spirit of Eastern Christianity, and sought to depict the Eastern theological patrimony as the result of the encounter between Christianity and the Hellenistic classical culture, an encounter that found expression in the so-called Cappadocian fathers, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzen, and Basil the Great, all of whom lived in the second half of the fourth century.15 He gave the printed version of these lectures the title Christianity and Classical Culture, and in retrospect, this must be said to be his intellectual and literary tour de force. The book has two parts, each of which studies “natural theology” from two perspectives, that of “apologetics” and that of “presupposition.” These two perspectives are referred to in the book's subtitle: The Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism. Each of the two principal parts is divided into 10 chapters, in such a way that each of these chapters has its counterpart in the other principal part. Pelikan thus elegantly gives the book a mirror-structure.
Pelikan himself said that he had brought about, by means of these lectures, a profound change in the perspective on the Eastern tradition in comparison with Harnack's celebrated statement that “dogma is basically a work of the Greek spirit on the ground of the Gospel.” Pelikan regards this as an excessively simple description of what came out of the encounter between Christianity and Hellenism. Where Harnack saw a “Greek spirit” that was easily discernible in the theology of the fourth and later centuries, Pelikan saw an “influence” that itself had been influenced by this encounter – indeed, an “influence” that had undergone a transformation or metamorphosis as a result of this cultural encounter. In Hellenism, there was a philosophical tradition that had emerged as an alternative, or even as an antidote, to the traditional religion with its cultic acts and sacred narratives. But the Greek church fathers were not only philosophers and apologists. They were also priests and preachers, and they could not think of theology detached from Christian praxis – a praxis that for them was identical with the liturgy. This is why the classical natural theology did not form a synthesis with Christianity, but itself underwent a metamorphosis. How was it possible for Harnack to take such a different view? What was the decisive factor in the tradition to which he himself belonged? Pelikan has no doubts about what is at stake here: it is a question of the importance of the liturgy in the Christian tradition. Harnack and academic theology lacked a vital sensitivity to what Pelikan (borrowing an expression from an Eastern patriarch) liked to call “the melody of theology.” In an article published in 1973, he goes into this matter as follows:
A disciple of St. Augustine formulated the Western Latin version of this ‘melody of theology’ in the principle that ‘the rule of prayer should lay down the rule of faith’. The supreme instance of this principle was, of course, the dogma of the Trinity. It is not, in the strict sense, a doctrine of the New Testament; it is, rather, the church's way of saying what it had to say to be faithful to the New Testament and to its own fundamental pattern of worship. If it was right to speak to Christ as the worship of the church did, and if the monotheism of the Bible was to be preserved, something like the dogma of the Trinity seemed to be the only way for ‘the rule of faith’ to be conformed to ‘the rule of prayer’ and for ‘the melody of theology to be sung in harmony with both.16
Five years after the publication of his book on the Cappadocians, Jaroslav Pelikan was received into the Orthodox church. He wrote that while others read their way into a conversion, he wrote his way into the Orthodox church. And he added that if an airplane had circled over the runway for as long as time before it landed, it would have run out of fuel long ago. He fell asleep in the Orthodox faith on May 13, 2006.
It is not easy to classify Pelikan in the same category as other historians. Most church historians choose one small area of the past, which they gradually master, but Pelikan had much larger ambitions from the very outset. He wanted to interpret the whole of Christianity's past and to describe the development of Christianity from the earliest times down to the present day. And he did this in a continuous dialogue with the two nineteenth-century thinkers who, in his opinion, had made the greatest contribution to reflection on Christian tradition and history, Adolf von Harnack and John Henry Newman.
Pelikan's writings can be seen as a protest against the development in church history towards an ever more specialized discipline in academia. His work is also characterized by a profound conviction that many ecclesial traditions today want to wash their hands of the past, and that this can only lead in the long term to irreparable damage. He remarked, with the Lutheran church in America particularly in mind: “Too often we have supposed that the knowledge of God is something that the church possesses once and for all – or, at any rate, something that our particular church has come to possess once and for all.”17 Pelikan believed that it was both immature and harmful to think that one particular epoch in the church's history had been entrusted with Christian doctrine in its complete form. In the same way, it would be presumptuous to claim that one part of the church no longer needed to grow in the knowledge of God. It is here that history plays the important role of working against a collective loss of the church's memory. This differs from Harnack's view of the task of the history of dogma, namely, to correct the past in order to make the church's message more comprehensible to the German bourgeoisie. The historian must be a spokesman for the past, and this means that his task – unenviable, but very important – is to disturb ecclesial self-satisfaction in all its forms. To be a spokesperson means allowing the voices from the past to be heard in a church that tries to forget them, but that needs to hear them afresh. This also means that one avoids claiming the support of the past for one's own positions. Martin Luther should not be studied because he was a “Lutheran” (something he certainly was not), nor should Calvin be studied because he allegedly was a Barthian! “[T]he church can have authentic creativity in her theology and her worship only if she overcomes the dread disease of amnesia which, especially in the modern world, does so easily beset us all.” Ultimately, this means that Pelikan wrote his important works not for his own age alone, but just as much in view of the future, for the twenty-first century. “The church lives by the past, but for the future.”18
A comprehensive bibliography of Jaroslav Pelikan's writings will be found in:
- The Predicament of the Christian Historian’, http://www.ctinquiry.org/publications/pelikan.htm (accessed January 23, 2012), Center of Theological Enquiry. , ‘
A good introduction to this subject is his own essay: Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition.
See the subtitle to The Christian Tradition: “A History of the Development of Doctrine.”
- The Predicament of the Christian Historian,” 3. http://www.ctinquiry.org/publications/pelikan.htm (accessed January 12, 2012). , “
Ibid., p. 207.
Ibid., p. 205.