Friday, January 21, 2011

Briefly About Pelikan

One of the foremost scholars of Christian dogmatic history was a Lutheran convert to Orthodoxy, Jaroslav Pelikan. This is how we have the same name attached to the impressive 50-something volume series, Luther's Works, as editor that is also attached to many important studies of, for instance, Eastern Orthodoxy.

His works accompanied me all through my graduate studies, and, all along, the vastness of this one man's intellectual accomplishment intimated and depressed me. His five volume The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine was for the late 20th Century what his model's, Adolf Harnack's, History of Dogma was for the early 20th. Harnack was a master, and so too Pelikan. Harnack was the more daring thinker; Pelikan the more disciplined historian. There is hardly any aspect of historical theology I have ever explored to which Pelikan has not made some significant contribution. He has made valuable contributions to Newman studies, to Augustine studies, and even upon the theology of Dante and Bach.

So, in light of all this, when as OLSWA librarian I was given a donation by Mr and Mrs James Doak, who indicated that some particular works of Pelikan that I had listed as needed by the Academy would be good to purchase with their donation,  I did not hesitate at all. I am writing this post in the hope that their generosity would inspire some of you to do the same, to help with the much-needed expansion of our holdings.

These are the books I purchased with their donation:

Development of Christian Doctrine: Some Historical Prolegomena1. Development of Christian Doctrine: Some Historical Prolegomena. One who has written the greatest modern history of dogma - even if not a Catholic - has more of a right than anyone to theologize about the nature of dogma in the life of the Church. In this work he studies this question by examining such key examples of doctrinal development as the Immaculate Conception.

Faust the Theologian2. Faust the Theologian. The English-speaking world doesn't know Goethe nearly as well as it ought. The Faust in the title, of course, refers to Goethe's masterpiece by that name. A story of a man who in his quest for knowledge sells his soul to the devil. The most important literary product of the Romantic Movement, full of theological significance.

From Luther to Kierkegaard: A Study in the History of Theology3. From Luther to Kierkegaard. I read this work a number of years ago, and it has been very influential in my interpretation of Lutheranism (if I am permitted to interpret Lutheranism). It has made me reduplicate some of my admiration for Kierkegaard on to Luther. An excellent read.

What Has Athens to Do with Jerusalem?: Timaeus and Genesis in Counterpoint4. What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? Timaeus and Genesis in Counterpoint. This is the book that I wanted most of all. The relationship between Greek philosophy and Christian theology was a controversial matter in Antiquity, and remains so for Protestants today, although Catholics see this matter in a very different light. I had already read a book on roughly this topic by Pelikan, entitled Christianity and Classical Culture. These were Pelikan's Gifford Lectures - a highly prestigious lectureship to be awarded. In those lectures Pelikan studied the Cappadoccian Fathers' - Sts. Basil's, Gregory of Nyssa's and Gregory of Nazianzen's - view of natural law. The title, What has Athens to do with Jerusalem, is taken from Tertullian, who rejected the overt role of philosophy in Christianity (although himself greatly indebted to Greek Philosophy). The work - half of which I've read now - studies the difference and convergences in Plato's creation myth in the Timaeus and the Creation account of Genesis and how these intertwined in various early Christian thinkers.

Interpreting the Bible and the Constitution5. Interpreting the Bible and the Constitution. Law and politics are big for many people. How Christianity has played a role in the creation of the American legal framework would be an interesting matter indeed, especially for those who argue that since this nation was founded on God's law, it should continue to adhere to it. Not my cup of tea, but that doesn't mean it's not worth investigating.


Acts
6. Acts. As a part of my Biblical History course I teach the Acts of the Apostles. Here is a writer (unlike many) truly sensitive to the requirements of ecclesiastical life in biblical study and yet an accomplished historian of early Christianity. Although I have only read the first 20 pages or so so far, it looks like it will make a good contribution to my knowledge of that book, and that of my students.

In general, the work of a scholar like Pelikan presents us with an important general question: what is the relationship between history and theology? In other words, what role does right faith play in theology? I do not think that Pelikan would dispute that there is a difference between the two, and that what he did was history, not theology. But what is the relation? Does one need faith to do Catholic doctrinal history? Pelikan liked to mention that Pope Honorius had erred (see The Christian Tradition, Volume 3, p.150, and elsewhere, as memory serves me!). Does this constitute a solid proof against the doctrinal position that the papacy is always a sure measure of the true faith in every age? He thought so. His argument was inductive. What function do laws of doctrine play against the analysis of data? Or, is the only law of doctrine that the Vincentian Canon is nonsense - that the faith is what the Church has always taught is nonsense, since, as history proves, it never always taught anything? By definition theology is not history. It is a distinct science, but one that employs history a great deal, at least by way of demonstration. Can we say that history needs to answer to doctrine? No, since that would interfere with the integrity of that science, would interfere with the work of reason, which constitutes a fundamental datum (given) of the Catholic Faith. But when do you know which is to lead: my subjective sense of the Faith or the ostensible demonstration of history? The words 'subjective' and 'ostensible' are decisive here. We can say, "Don't be stupid, the meaning of 'Christ is truly God and man' is obvious!" But, as is apparent, all of the implications of this are not obvious. What does obvious look like in theology and history? I can't really articulate it. I do know that the papacy is never wrong in official matters concerning faith and morals. And, thus, I am lead to believe that there must be some solution to the Honorius issue, and other issues like it.

History is, of course, not a fool-proof science, but one without which theology cannot thrive. There are historians who are not theologians, but I doubt if the reverse holds.

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