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):
- An institution in the very process of defining itself cannot be presupposed until that formative process and definition is farther along. Orthodoxy and heresy cannot be presupposed when describing the very conflicts out of which these categories assumed concrete identification. The definition of doctrine as "the church's" confession on the basis of the "Word of God" demands, in a genuinely historical account, some clarity about who speaks for "the church" at each given moment, how that body is so identified, and what is meant by "word of God" (other than what the church is confessing) in the absence of a universally accepted canon of Christian Scripture, creed, or teaching magisterium. . . . Ultimately we are given no criterion when we ask, on what basis does one locate and identify orthodoxy at this time? The "word of God," which according to the opening definitions is presumably the "basis" of the orthodox mainstream, is neither clearly identified nor distinguished from the process and content of tradition.
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:
- . . . against 500 years of background which demonstrates precisely the opposite, Vincent of Lerins defines correct doctrine as that "which has been believed "always, everywhere, and by everyone." How could such a fantastic definition take hold and be successfully maintained, given the actual development so faithfully described by Pelikan? . . . He is probably more eminently qualified than anyone around to pursue such further questions as the relationship between the development of the idea of a uniform, normative orthodoxy and the institutional development of the church itself, along with its accompanying self-understanding and claims. Within this nexus, what is the meaning of the canon and its development (an issue almost ignored in the book), and how does it illuminate the identification of "word of God"?
Did the church confess certain doctrines because they were orthodox? Or are some doctrines orthodox because the church confessed them? The weight of Pelikan's historical account points decisively to the second alternative, while the substance of his own commitment seems to embrace the first as well. To what exent, and how, is that commitment grounded in history?
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:
- Counterintuitive it may sound, this study is crucial to the Gospel because many of these old imperfect or heretical attempts at understanding the relation of Christ to the Father are being recycled by modern theologians. . . . highly educated theologians continue to repackage what was decisively rejected centuries ago. So the student is well served by studying the forgotten names of erroneous theologians so that he or she can recognize the erroneous theologians of today who are destined to share the same obscurity.
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: