I am preparing a review of one of this eminent historian's books for an issue of the Catholic Review of Books down the road. I am attaching here two reflections on history by the late historian so they are not lost to me when or if the webpages where I found them go offline. They may be of interest to you. If they are, please let me know what you thought of them.
They are, first A Personal Memoir: Fragments of a Scholar's Autobiography
and second, The Predicament of the Christian Historian
Please enjoy and do not sue me for copyright infringement. If there is any formatting that needs to be done, I will do so eventually.
A Personal Memoir: Fragments of a Scholar's Autobiography
by Jaroslav Pelikan
Repeatedly in recent years, members of my family as well as my friends, colleagues, and former students have been urging me to write a full-length autobiography. I have resisted these suggestions, objecting that I am much more interested in the phenomenon that John Henry Newman in 1845 called "the development of Christian doctrine" through the centuries than in the phenomenon that he went on in 1864 to call "the history of my [own] religious opinions." At least in part, I tried nonetheless to address this proposal when I accepted the invitation of the Harvard University Press to write, as editor Aida Donald called it, a "middle-sized book" that "could amount to a kind of autobiography in small bites"; it appeared under the title The Melody of Theology: A Philosophical Dictionary in 1988. But that was the better part of two decades ago — for me extremely eventful decades, including as they did my Gifford Lectures at the University of Aberdeen in 1992/1993, published as Christianity and Classical Culture; my retirement in 1996 after exactly fifty years as a faculty member (although I have been holding one full-time academic appointment or another ever since); my reception into the fellowship of the Orthodox Church in 1998; the publication of the four volumes of Creed and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition with Credo in 2003; and several additional monographs, including two for 2005, one of them being my commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. These events, and particularly the third of them, do seem to call for some explanation and comment, even for something approaching an apologia pro vita sua (to borrow yet again from Cardinal Newman).
Short of such an apologia, this "personal memoir" may in some respects be read as a series of glosses on The Melody of Theology (to which, at the risk of perpetrating a self-advertising blurb for my own book, I shall be referring continually even when I do not mention it explicitly). Such entries in that book as "Development of Doctrine," "Harnack, Adolf von," "Languages," and "Newman, John Henry" underlie, and are presupposed by, much of what I am saying here. More than that book was, however, this is intended as a "personal memoir." I have been persuaded (though still somewhat reluctantly) by my beloved friends, the editors and the publisher of the present volume, to "feel free" to lay aside much of my usual embarrassment about a public display of my feelings and to speak more personally than is my wont, and to do so quite spontaneously and without hiding behind footnotes or any of the other usual scholarly apparatus. At the same time, my innate and incurable resistance to such display (a legacy, no doubt, from my mother) seems to imply that I should continue to observe a basic distinction between "personal" and "private." This is, then, definitely not my version of Augustine's Confessions; and therefore I am afraid, for example, that I must disappoint the currently fashionable curiosity (which, to me, is sometimes difficult to distinguish from voyeurism) about such private matters as my relations to my siblings, my marriage, and my relations to my children. Even about my own childhood I am mentioning only a few details that seem (to me at any rate) personally relevant to my having grown up to be a scholar of this kind rather than something else.
The subtitle of this essay, "fragments of a scholar's autobiography," is (as is, for that matter, more than a little of what I say and write) a quotation from Goethe, who once described his writings as all "fragments of one great confession." That remark has sent generations of his readers scurrying through The Sorrows of Young Werther, Wilhelm Meister, Elective Affinities, the lyric poems, and other works, and above all through the twelve-thousand lines of Faust, to get at "the real Goethe" lurking behind the various characters. Just to frustrate any oversimplified one-for-one conversion, Goethe entitled his own autobiography Dichtung und Wahrheit (Fiction [or Poetry] and Truth), in a tantalizing mixture. And he did say "fragments," which is also the most that I am in a position to promise here.
I like to say that I was born into a family that was rich in everything except money — good food in abundance, music, books, languages, and above all tradition and faith. My parents both came from Slovak families and were born in Slavic Europe — my father in what was to become Czechoslovakia (and now Slovakia), my mother in Vojvodina, which eventually became (and still is, at least as of this writing) a province of Yugoslavia, polyglot but chiefly Serbian-speaking. The genetic distribution of labor that Goethe described in his autobiographical verses,
Vom Vater hab' ich die Statur
Des Lebens ernstes Führen,
Von Mütterchen die Frohnatur
Und Lust zu fabulieren
[From my father I inherited my stature
And my seriousness about the conduct of life,
From my dear mother my happy disposition
And a delight in telling stories],
worked out rather differently in my case. Not only am I a couple of inches shorter than my father was; but my "seriousness about the conduct of life" acquired some of its special qualities from my mother, with her iron sense of duty and her loving determination that I must not, as she often put it to me, "get by on brains and glibness." The "happy disposition and delight in telling stories" that I have had since childhood and still (thank God) possess, on the other hand, is a reflection of the magical and positive view of the world for which my father was widely known throughout his life. It included a deep and all-but-pantheistic sense of affinity with Nature, which I inherited from him, together with a high energy level and a capacity for sustained effort for long stretches of time, followed by the ability to fall asleep instantly — which has proven to be just the right combination for a scholar.
As his father had been before him, from 1895 to 1930, my father was a Lutheran pastor, from 1919 to 1963, and a preacher of great eloquence and power, both in his native Slovak and in his adopted English. He and my mother, who was a parochial school teacher before their marriage, were therefore my first teachers of theology, which took the form of Luther's Small Catechism, of the Lutheran chorales in the Czech translations of Jiri Tranovsky, and of many tomes in my father's library that I read or skimmed long before I was ready for them. (My late friend, the Benedictine Godfrey Diekmann, in introducing me for a lecture at Saint John's Abbey, claimed to have discovered that when, as a little boy I could not reach the dining room table, my parents had me sit on volumes of the Patrologia, with the result that I absorbed the church fathers a posteriori.) For whatever reason, their teaching stuck, so that I have had to admit, sometimes with a bit of chagrin, that I was quite out of step with many in my generation, especially among theological scholars at universities, in never having had fundamental doubts about the essential rightness of the Christian faith, but having retained a continuing, if often quite unsophisticated, Slavic piety. The kind of orthodox confessional Lutheranism I imbibed from that source may have been slightly tinged with pietism, but it tended to sit rather loosely to ecclesiastical institutions and structures. Having emigrated to the United States with their parents in the opening years of the twentieth century, both of my parents attended German-speaking Lutheran schools: my mother, the first and only member of her family to go to college, Doctor Martin Luther College in New Ulm, Minnesota (1920); my father, Concordia [Junior] College in Fort Wayne, Indiana (1916) and Concordia Theological Seminary in Saint Louis (1919). After they married in 1921, my father was drafted by his father to serve as a pastor in the (unsuccessful) experiment at a Lutheran church independent of the state in the new Czechoslovakia. During their two years there, a son who had my name (or, rather, I was given his name) was born to them and died after a few days; I have long had the deep sense that I grew up carrying responsibility for Jaroslav Ivan as well as for myself, which could be seen as an unfair burden to lay on a young child, but which may well have helped to provide some of the extra motivating force that a scholar needs.
In 1936, at the age of twelve, I followed my father to Concordia Fort Wayne. This was a transplanted version of the classical German Gymnasium, equivalent in American terms to the six years of high school plus junior college. It was, I have often quipped, the best eighteenth-century education available in twentieth-century America for a hundred dollars a year including board and room, very light on laboratory science and social science but correspondingly heavy on the Bible and the catechism and on languages, especially German, Latin, and Greek (Hebrew having been transferred to the seminary shortly before I would have taken it). Particularly in Latin and in German — less so, to my regret, in Greek, which I came to love best but in which eventually I had to do, and did do, some catching up — I was blessed with patient and demanding teachers at Fort Wayne. My grasp of Latin took off very early, and I even won national standing in a competition based on the poetry of Vergil. Being, as a Slovak, a member of an ethnic minority there (and in the late 1930s at that), I was determined to master German better than my classmates, who often knew just enough German from home to have corrupted their English ("Pass me the pitcher of milk over" or "My hair are wet"). Memorizing the long narrative poems of Schiller and beginning on my own the annual reading of Goethe's Faust, which I have continued ever since, I even contemplated the possibility of going to graduate school in German language and literature. Combined as it was with my own bilingual background in Slovak and English (plus a fair amount of Czech and of Serbian, which then led easily to Russian by way of the Cyrillic alphabet), this saturation exposure to the Classical languages and to German became, and remains, something of an obsession for me. It was followed by Hebrew when I entered Concordia Seminary at age eighteen, so that well before I left my teens I was at the point that I would automatically read any text in the original (and, as only an eighteen-year-old can, tended to look down on anyone who could not).
Going on to the seminary was a natural step in 1942, even though it was generally recognized, especially by my parents, that my vocation lay in scholarship and teaching rather than in the pastoral ministry Two of my seminary professors, Paul M. Bretscher and Richard R. Caemmerer, immediately became close friends and mentors (and remained so until their deaths), defending me to their colleagues and encouraging me to carry on my independent study in the well-stocked library above and beyond the rather minimal requirements of the seminary curriculum. There was in the ethos of Concordia Seminary a deep ambivalence: a respect for high level theological scholarship that would lead, for example, to the almost unique phenomenon of a church subsidy for the translation into English of Walter Bauer's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (published by the University of Chicago Press); but alongside this respect, though not from the same people, dire and constant warnings about the dangers of historical-critical study. (That ambivalence was to erupt into a full-scale schism several decades later.) For me personally, it meant that I was encouraged to pursue advanced studies, but under something of a cloud of suspicion. Many, though not all, of my fellow students manifested some of the same ambivalence, which probably tended to make me even more of a loner than I already was. I had never belonged to an athletic team or a singing group or an orchestra or any other ensemble. In later years I discovered, and began to quote, the aphorism of Harnack that "anyone who is a scholar is part monk,… and someone who wants to amount to something in scholarship must get off to avery early start." However, I had believed and practiced that all along.
Above all, my student years at Concordia Seminary gave me what confessional Lutheranism could have been expected to give, a detailed knowledge and technical grasp of church doctrine, especially the dogmas of the Trinity (only in its Western configuration, to be sure) and of the two natures in Christ (which, because of its controversies with Calvinism over the doctrine of the real presence in the Eucharist, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Lutheranism had elaborated largely on the basis of the Greek church fathers and later councils). The central defining element in Christian faith was seen as doctrine, not practice, and neither church polity nor liturgy nor piety; "consentire de doctrina evangelii [consensus on the doctrine of the gospel]" was, according to The Augsburg Confession of 1530, necessary for the unity of the Church, together with the proper administration of the sacraments. Despite occasional twinges of an inclination toward systematic theology or dogmatics, however, I knew that it was the history of Christian doctrine, more usually called (from its German origins and career as Dogmengeschichte) "the history of dogma," that I wanted to study and for which this combination of preparatory studies had in a special way been equipping me.
But I really hit my stride only in the autumn of 1944, when I entered the Ph.D. program of the Divinity School of the University of Chicago.
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven.
I was twenty years old, fully conscious (probably more than fully conscious) of my powers, and in the heady atmosphere of a place where at last it was never necessary to explain — much less to apologize for — a passion for the scholarly life.
What had drawn me to the University of Chicago, in addition to its overall academic eminence under the leadership of President Robert Maynard Hutchins (and, of course, its being in my home city, so that I could stay with my parents), was its faculty in the history of Christianity, specifically two professors, Matthew Spinka and Wilhelm Pauck. Czech-born Professor Spinka was at the time the leading university based historian of Slavic Christianity in North America — he later wrote what is still in many ways the standard work in English on the church history of the Balkans — and he had already been encouraging me in my earlier explorations of that subject. Wilhelm Pauck, pupil of Karl Holl and Adolf Harnack, was a justly celebrated teacher of the history of Christian thought and a specialist on the Reformation. It had been my plan to work with these two scholars together, concentrating in "historical theology" with a dissertation somewhere in the Slavic East. But by the time I arrived at Chicago, Professor Spinka had departed for Hartford Theological Seminary, and there was no Ph.D. program any more in the Greek and Slavic East. Thus I specialized in the Reformation, writing my dissertation in 1946 on the Czech Confession of 1535 and Luther's preface to it. It included the first English translation of that text (which, incidentally, was not published until it was included in the second volume of our Creed and Confessions of Faith fifty-seven years later). A number of my courses I took in other parts of the University, including a memorable seminar on historical method with Louis Gottschalk, historian of the French Revolution and specialist on Lafayette. When I had completed my course work and examinations for the Ph.D. in December 1945, with much of the dissertation completed, I still had three semesters to go at Concordia; by some juggling of credits, this was reduced to one semester. Thereby the seminary did not have to face the problem of a Ph.D. taking its undergraduate courses, and neither did I. I received both the B.D. from Concordia and the Ph.D. from Chicago in 1946.
My first academic appointment was in a department of history (as would my final appointment be). At Valparaiso University from 1946 to 1949 I taught a variety of courses in European history, with a concentration on intellectual history, including philosophy, but I did not have the opportunity to teach the history of Christian thought as such until after those three years I was brought to Concordia Seminary as a junior faculty member. There I took over the existing course in "History of Dogma," which concluded with the Reformation, and added a course on the history of theology since the Reformation. For this sequence I prepared in 1952 a syllabus of 51 single-spaced pages, from which I taught the courses and on the basis of which I hoped to write my book, which did not in fact begin to appear until nearly twenty years later (and with occasional phrases and sentences lifted from that syllabus). Both the burden of my heavy teaching responsibilities at the seminary and the theological climate within the Missouri Synod were making it increasingly clear to me that my pious hopes of being a scholar in the direct employ of the Church were not to be fulfilled; and in 1953, after a total of seven years of that balancing act at Valparaiso and Concordia, I accepted the invitation of the University of Chicago to succeed my mentor Wilhelm Pauck, who had meanwhile accepted the Briggs Chair of Church History at Union Theological Seminary in New York.
For the next nine years at Chicago I gave a year-long lecture course "The History of Christian Thought," usually with an accompanying seminar each quarter on specific topics from across all the periods of the history: for example, Tertullian, Athanasius's The Incarnation of the Word juxtaposed with Anselm's Cur deus homo, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Schleiermacher, the nineteenth century. I was only half-joking when I explained that I was carrying on my private education in public, filing in gaps from my previous study and deepening my grasp of the larger history. When I moved to Yale in 1962, it was to succeed Roland H. Bainton in the Titus Street Professorship of Ecclesiastical History in the Yale Divinity School, but with the understanding that I would take over Robert Lowry Calhoun's sequence on "The History of Christian Doctrine." My subsequent transfer to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and then my designation as Sterling Professor in 1972, did not alter that concentration. But my appointment as Acting Dean, then Dean, of the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences from 1973 to 1978 took me out of the classroom (though not out of the library or my study), and when I rejoined the faculty, it was as Sterling Professor of History, which I remained until my retirement in 1996. An important component of my portfolio was the graduate program in Medieval Studies, which I also chaired for several years. My signature course in Yale College was a two-semester sequence on "The Intellectual History of the Middle Ages East and West," from the Cappadocians and Augustine to the Renaissance and the fall of Constantinople.
In one way or another, therefore, most of my teaching over the years flowed into the project that already in my early student days I had begun to identify as a special vocation: to write for my generation a successor to Adolf Harnack's three-volume Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte. I would eventually take an almost mystical pleasure in the unintended coincidence that its fifth and final volume was published in 1989, exactly a century after the publication of Harnack's first volume. That sense of vocation, including the emulation of Harnack, brought together a number of both scholarly and personal elements. My grandfather, Jan Pelikan, after studies in Slovakia, completed his theological preparation at the University of Erlangen, where Harnack's father Theodosius, a strict confessionalist Lutheran (as was my grandfather), had earlier been professor. The post-World War I generation of Adolf Harnack's students in Germany had, with some exceptions, been prevented by the vicissitudes of those decades from undertaking a new telling of the history of dogma. In the United States, the two scholars best prepared to write such a history were Robert Calhoun, who also brought to the subject an unrivalled mastery of the history of philosophy, and Wilhelm Pauck, who had studied under the greats in Germany in the 1920s and who spanned the two worlds with a dazzling virtuosity; but for a variety of reasons, some of them no doubt quite personal, neither of these scholars brought it off. Therefore the preparation of a comprehensive history of Christian doctrine had in effect skipped a generation on both sides of the Atlantic.
Intellectual and scholarly trends in theological scholarship, as in humanistic and historical scholarship generally, were at the same time working against such a history. Increasingly, a historical scholar had to be identified by region and/or period, as I was by the Reformation, especially after becoming editor of the American Edition of Luther's Works in 1955. But both in my teaching and in my publishing, I was determined not to succumb to the lure of such specialization in one epoch. By selecting only one aspect of Christian history (though still a massive one) — as I would define it at the opening of my first volume, "what the church of Jesus Christ believes, teaches, and confesses on the basis of the word of God" — I strove to be responsible to the primary texts regardless of period or provenance and to pay attention not only to change but also to continuity. My lifelong love affair with all those languages helped to make this possible. So did the growth of ecumenism, as Christians were discovering that there were believers and churches on the other side of the mountains. I had the opportunity to participate in this process directly during the 1950s and 1960s as a member of the Commission on Tradition and Traditions of the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches (WCC), chaired by Albert C. Outler and bringing together into the same room my once and future mentors, Wilhelm Pauck and Georges V. Florovsky (with me in the crossfire between them). I saw it as one of my assignments to introduce the several Christian traditions to each other — and, even more importantly, to their own ancestors. The price I paid for such an assignment was the increasing inability to take a direct part in contemporary theological debate. Students and colleagues used to complain that when I was expounding Augustine they thought I was a card-carrying Augustinian, until I came to John of Damascus or Thomas Aquinas or Luther or Schleiermacher or Dostoevsky, when I was again stating the position of each of them as though from within. There was, no doubt, a certain amount of a tentative relativism at work here, together with a conscious effort to achieve, at least pedagogically, what Samuel Taylor Coleridge calls "a willing suspension of disbelief." But increasingly I came to believe that every theological system, even a heretical theological system, emphasizes one valid aspect or dimension of orthodoxy defined as "the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20.27), but at the expense of others. Therefore I also found, not in theological liberalism and historical relativism (as so many of my predecessors, teachers, and contemporaries did) but in tradition and orthodoxy, the presupposition from which to interpret any portion or period. At some point, therefore, The Christian Tradition became the working title of "the big book" (as I usually referred to it unofficially).
Just as various of my books and articles on various periods that appeared before and during the publication of the five volumes of The Christian Tradition between 1971 and 1989 were essentially "feeders" providing more detailed documentation for the larger work, so, particularly as I was completing it, I began investigating its implications for several fields of human thought and culture: philosophy already in my first book, From Luther to Kierkegaard (1950), and then in others, including What Has Athens to Do with Jerusalem? (1997) on Plato's Timaeus; music in Bach Among the Theologians (1986), on the occasion of the tercentenary of his birth; historiography in The Excellent Empire (1987), coming to terms with my boyhood study of Gibbon's Decline and Fall; art history in Imago Dei (1990); higher education in The Idea of the University — A Reexamination (1992); literature in "Russia's Greatest Heretic" on Tolstoy (1989), Eternal Feminines (1990) on Dante, and Faust the Theologian (1995) on Goethe; rhetoric in Divine Rhetoric (2001), and Constitutional hermeneutics in Interpreting the Bible and the Constitution (2004). I did not pretend that I had become a scholar in any of these fields, although I did read myself deeply into the scholarly literature and was, on the whole, received hospitably by the inner circles of the specialists. Rather, as a chronicler of one of the most overwhelming explosions in the history of the human mind and spirit, I was looking at its fallout across the cultural landscape. That was also in keeping with my primary location within the academy, which for most of my career has been in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. I was never dean of a divinity school, much less of a church seminary, but of a graduate school of arts and sciences. I was president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences from 1994 to 1997, and of the American Academy of Political and Social Science for 2000–2001. The two highest recognitions I have ever received for my scholarship were both humanistic rather than theological or ecclesiastical: the Jefferson Award of the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1983, and the John W. Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Human Sciences in 2004. But I have been deeply gratified that my historical scholarship has been of service to the Church, its laity as well as its clergy, and to theological seminaries and church colleges across the denominational spectrum, and increasingly, through many translations (including, now, at long last, even translations into Slavic languages), across the globe.
Both from the observations of my reviewers and from my own "authorial intent" it seems clear that my history of Christian doctrine differs from its predecessors, and specifically from Harnack's, in several important respects. It consciously rejects the arbitrarily narrow definition of the history of dogma by which Harnack felt able to ignore not only the individual theologians but also the creeds and confessions of all the post-Reformation churches (which are surely "dogma" even in a technical sense). It takes the relation of Christian doctrine with its Jewish partner not as a problem that the first and second centuries had to overcome, but as a permanent component of the teaching of the Church (as the Epistle to the Romans says it is). By contrast with Harnack, who in the appendix to his first volume could bring himself to say that it was "another instance of the exceptional nature of Christianity [that] for a considerable period it possessed no ritual at all," I interpreted the formulation of church doctrine as the process by which what was already believed in worship was spelled out in creed and confession. And a major component of my narrative was an examination of the key passages of Holy Scripture that the church claimed to be bringing together in articulating its doctrines.
There is at least one additional point of differentiation between my history of doctrine and Harnack's (as well as most others): the inclusion of the Christian East. Harnack was born in Dorpat/Tartu, Estonia, in 1851, when it was part of Tsarist Russia, and in school he was required to learn Russian, which in fact he would know better than he did either French or English. Nevertheless he was shockingly tone-deaf to the specific accents of Eastern Orthodoxy such as the devotion to icons. "It was," he said describing the Orthodox liturgy, "to destroy this sort of religion that Jesus Christ suffered himself to be nailed to the cross!" In addition to the heavy reliance on Greek and Syriac patristic materials in my first volume and on Russian and Greek theologians in the fifth volume, I devoted the entire second volume (1974) to The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-17OO), corresponding in time span to volumes 3 and 4 for the West, which were so much longer because they had to encompass scholasticism and the Reformation. In that second volume, moreover, various readers could discern personal accents along with the scholarly ones, and my late friend Father John Meyendorff was gracious enough to call it "the most comprehensive history of ideas in the Christian East, very perceptive and challenging."
This was one in a series of books over several decades by means of which, I may quote myself yet again, "while others were reading their way into Orthodoxy, I wrote my way into Orthodoxy." Already in The Riddle of Roman Catholicism (1959), winner of the Abingdon Award and (at least partly because of its timing in relation to the Presidential election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 and to the Second Vatican Council) the first of my books to receive widespread public attention, it was evident from the chapter "How Christianity Became Catholic," which quoted A. S. Khomiakov on its second page, that the book was animated by a vision of the Church more akin to the Eastern than to the Western tradition. The invitation to deliver the Andrew W. Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery of Art, on the twelve-hundredth anniversary of the Second Council of Nicaea in 1987, became the occasion for an analysis in depth of how "a faith which began by attacking the worship of images… eventually embraced such worship and turned prohibition into permission — and permission into command." The Melody of Theology of 1988, which has been a subtext for this entire memoir, concludes its preface with the words: "The book bears no dedication… If there were a dedication, it would have been inscribed to Georges V. Florovsky (1893-1979), who, more than any other person except my late father, taught me to sing 'the melody of theology' this way." When Clifton Fadiman invited me to prepare The World Treasury of Modern Religious Thought, which came out in 1990, I chose as the two bookends for this interfaith collection Dostoevsky's "The Grand Inquisitor" and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Nobel Lecture, "Beauty Will Save the World." And when I was honored by the University of Aberdeen to give the Gifford Lectures on Natural Theology in 1992/93, I defined their scope by "triangulation" from two of my predecessors in the lectureship there, Etienne Gilson (The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, 1930/32) and Karl Barth (The Knowledge of God and the Service of God according to the Teaching of the Reformation, 1937/38): "The Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism," as this was manifested in "the Three Cappadocians," Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, Saint Basil of Caesarea, and Saint Gregory of Nyssa, together with the sister of the latter two, Saint Macrina the Younger, whom I dubbed "the Fourth Cappadocian"; thus I examined the systems of thought which, taken together, do for the Christian East much of what the theology and philosophy of Saint Augustine of Hippo do for the Latin West.
After all these hundreds of published pages it may have been something of a shock, but I cannot believe that it came to anyone as a surprise, when, on the Feast Day of the Annunciation to the Theotokos (25 March) in 1998, I was received by chrismation into the sacramental fellowship of the Orthodox Church in America. As I said to my friend and father in Christ, His Beatitude Metropolitan Theodosius, who chrismated me, "any airplane that circled the airport for that long before landing would have run out of gas." Quoting more broadly than its original meaning the commandment "Every one should remain in the state in which he was called" (I Cor. 7.20), I had long been resisting the ecclesiastical conclusion to which the force of my ideas and beliefs was increasingly pressing me. Meanwhile, the Lutheran Church in America, in a series of moves that I had begun to limn, however dimly, in an essay that was published in The Christian Century in 1963, was becoming, to use the terminology of that essay, less and less of a "confession" and more and more of a "denomination." Thus we were, as Yogi Berra might have put it, "headed on a collision course by moving in opposite directions."
I shall happily leave to some future psychobiography (if any) the task of sorting out the "real reasons" and deeper motivations of my move. In response to literally hundreds of inquiries, most of them quite friendly but some rather hostile, I usually ended up using one of two quotations: from Moliere's M. Jourdain, who exclaimed, "For more than forty years I have been speaking prose without knowing it"; or from Robert Frost, who defined home as "the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." Scholars of autobiography, as well as its more self-critical practitioners, have long warned both against the danger of confusing memory with legend and against the Whiggish tendency to look at an entire lifetime through the prism of its outcome and therefore to suppose that it could not have come out any other way than it in fact did. I hope I may nevertheless be permitted, with sincere gratitude to God, to find a certain continuity between the direction of the drive and the direction of the putt.
This essay was originally published in Orthodoxy and Western Culture and reprinted with permission of St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.
The Predicament of the Christian Historian
By Jaroslav Pelikan
About the Author: Jaroslav Pelikan has made the Christian tradition the subject of his scholarly work for more than fifty years. His five-volume opus, The ChristianTradition, charts continuity and change in Christian doctrine from 100 AD through the second Vatican Council. In addition to his contributions as editor of several now-standard multivolume reference series, Dr. Pelikan's own books include Luther the Expositor (1959); The Shape of Death: Life, Death, and Immortality in the Early Fathers (1961); The Light of the World: A Basic Image in Early Christian Thought, Christianity and Classical Culture (1962); Spirit versus Structure: Luther and the Institutions of the Church (1968); Jesus through the Centuries (1985); The Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism (1993); and Mary through the Centuries (1996). He lectured at the Center of Theological Inquiry on the plight of the Christian historian in April, 1997.
In my study at home, where I have written all of my books, there are on the walls–in addition to a seventeenth-century map of my ancestral Moravia by Jan Amos Komenskÿya, a bust of Goethe, a massive painting by Siegfried Reinhardt, and the icons of Christ, the Theotokos, the Three Cappadocians, Saints Cyril and Methodius, and Saint Jaroslav the Wise of Kiev–only two conventional portraits: Father Georges Vasilievich Florovsky, who was the last of my mentors and the one to whom I owe the most; and Adolf von Harnack, who, as the author of the greatest history of Christian doctrine ever written (completed in 1889, precisely one hundred years before I completed mine in 1989), has been my lifelong role model. In this lecture, therefore, I am juxtaposing those two portraits by appropriating the title of Father Florovsky's essay of 1959, "The Predicament of the Christian Historian,"2 which was his contribution to the Festschrift for Paul Tillich, and then employing Adolf von Harnack as the case study of that predicament. Tillich's own relation to Harnack, whom he once called " the teacher of all of us in many respects,"3 becomes clear at several places in his work.4 Florovsky's relation to Harnack is more diffuse, but also quite important, especially to me; it becomes decisive as the foil for what George Huntston Williams in his tribute to Father Georges has called Florovsky's "Christian Hellenism." 5
Seeking to emulate Harnack as a scholar even while I was being nurtured by Florovsky as a spiritual father was, therefore, my continuing challenge and my own predicament as a Christian historian while I was working on the five volumes of The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine. Over the twenty-five years since the publication of its first volume, readers and reviewers, in seeking to identify how my interpretation of the history of dogma differs from Harnack's, have proposed several possible answers, all of which may ultimately be seen as converging on one answer:
1. There is probably no historical construct for which Harnack is better known than "the Hellenization of Christianity."6 Less than one percent of the way into his monumental work, on page 20 of what would be well over two thousand pages in the final edition, he stated flat-out: "Dogma is in its conception and in its structure a work of the Greek spirit on the ground of the gospel."7 Therefore he interpreted Gnosticism as "the acute secularization or Hellenization of Christianity."8 And he invoked the concept of Hellenization repeatedly as an "interpretive principle" for the historical explanation of various subsequent developments.9 As an intellectual and scholarly grandson of Adolf Harnack, who was the teacher of my teacher, I was deeply under the influence of this interpretive principle when I began; and it helped to shape From Luther to Kierkegaard (1950), my first book after the disseration, especially its interpretation of "natural theology."10 But as I was moving toward my magnum opus, that perspective on Hellenization and natural theology shifted profoundly. The shift made itself evident in many places in my works, but it was to reach its consummation in my Gifford Lectures at Aberdeen in 1992-1993, and in the periodic sentence with which I opened them:
It remains one of the most momentous linguistic convergences in the entire history of the human mind and spirit that the New Testament happens to have been written in Greek–not in the Hebrew of Moses and the prophets, nor in the Aramaic of Jesus and his disciples, nor yet in the Latin of the imperium Romanum; but in the Greek of Socrates and Plato, or at any rate in a reasonably accurate facsimile thereof, disguised and even disfigured though this was in the Koine by the intervening centuries of Hellenistic usage.11
As that sentence makes clear, I had completely made my own the "Christian Hellenism" of Father Florovsky.
2. Harnack declared near the end of his career: "Rejecting the Old Testament in the second century was a mistake that the main body of the church properly rejected; keeping it in the sixteenth century was a destiny from which the Reformation was not yet able to extricate itself; but to go on conserving the Old Testament within Protestantism as a canonical authority after the nineteenth century is a consequence of a paralysis of religion and the church."12 By diametrical contrast, I have seen the Christian engagement both with the Jewish community and with the Old Testament as a never-ending theme, without which the history of Christian doctrine does not make sense, and I have therefore dealt with it throughout the work rather than disposing of it at the beginning, as has been the usual practice.13 Indeed, I have gone on in a later work to raise the question of the doctrinal and the moral consequences of the estrangement between Judaism and Christianity, and in a rhetorical question that is also a theological question I have asked:
Would there have been such anti-Semitism, would there have been so many pogroms, would there have been an Auschwitz, if every Christian church and every Christian home had focused its devotion on icons of Mary not only as Mother of God and Queen of Heaven but as the Jewish maiden and the new Miriam, and on icons of Christ not only as Pantocrator but as Rabbi Jeshua bar–Joseph, Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of David, in the context of the history of a suffering Israel and a suffering humanity?14
3. To a far greater extent than Harnack did, therefore, I have emphasized the biblical exegesis that formed and informed the doctrinal positions of the church fathers, instead of seeking to explain those positions on the basis primarily of philosophy or psychology or politics (all of which certainly played a role). For example, I have examined the debates over the doctrine of the person of Christ before and after the Council of Chalcedon in 451 not primarily, as the textbooks do, on the basis of the rival schools of thought of Antioch and Alexandria, with Rome and Constantinople acting as power brokers, but by identifying the "key passages" in the light of which each of the christological alternatives interpreted the rest of Scripture.15 That has also led me to examine what Augustine called the "canonical rule [canonica regula]" for being faithful both to Scripture and to the church's teaching: a rule for classifying the biblical references to Christ according to the distinction, employed by St. Paul in the second chapter of Philippians and probably based on an earlier creed or hymn, between the "form of God" and the "form of a slave."16
4. As the most perceptive reviewers of volume 2 of The Christian Tradition have noted, I have–while striving not to play favorites among these five intellectual children of mine (any more than I did among the three children of my family)–resonated most deeply of all when I was interpreting the Eastern Orthodox tradition, both in its Greek and in its Slavic embodiments. Therefore my late lamented friend, Father John Meyendorff, paid me the high honor not only of calling that volume "very perceptive and challenging," but even of identifying it as "the most comprehensive history of ideas in the Christian East," listing it alongside the work of Father Florovsky.17 By comparison, I think it is fair to say that there was no major part of the church to whose history Adolf von Harnack had so unresponsive an antenna18 as Eastern Orthodoxy. "Nothing is sadder to see," he said of it in one of his harshest judgments, "than this transformation of the Christian religion from a worship in spirit and in truth [John 4:23] to a worship of symbols, formulas, and idols. . . . It was to destroy this kind of religion that Jesus Christ permitted himself to be nailed to the cross."19 That insensitivity is all the more surprising in the light of his biography. For having been born in Dorpat/Tartu, Latvia, then part of Czarist Russia, where his father, Theodosius Harnack, was professor of theology, Adolf Harnack from his childhood had far closer ties to Russian Orthodox culture than almost any other Protestant scholar; indeed, his grandfather, Johann Philipp Gustav Ewers, whose pioneering contribution to the scientific study of the history of dogma Harnack gratefully acknowledged in the preface to his own first volume,20was also the founder of the historical study of Russian jurisprudence.21
5. Closely related to that difference is another. In an appendix to the first volume of his history of dogma he maintained: "In this, too, Christianity constitutes an exception: . . . The history of the dogma of the first three centuries is not reflected in the liturgy, insofar as we know it, nor is [the liturgy] a clearly emerging presupposition of dogmatics."22 In antithesis, citing and applying the principle that "the rule of prayer establishes the rule of faith [lex orandi lex credendi]," I have accounted for much of the rise and development of Christian dogma as the explication of the liturgy. My interpretation of the history of the doctrine of the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, for example, starts with the rise during the second and third centuries, among other ways of speaking about the Sacrament, of the description of it as a sacrifice (and therefore of the eucharistic ministry as a priesthood).23 Eventually, though not in full-scale form until the ninth century, someone had to ask whether the body sacrificed on the altar was identical with the body born of Mary that had been sacrificed on Calvary.24 When that question was answered in the affirmative, that was the doctrine of the real presence. Western Latin language about transubstantiation in fact arose as a way of speaking about the real presence, not as a replacement for it.25 Even the Council of Trent, responding to Reformation critiques of Catholic teaching, acknowledged this in its surprisingly mild reaffirmation concerning the "change of the entire substance" of bread and wine into the substance of the body and blood of Christ: "This change has conveniently and appropriately been called transubstantiation by the holy Catholic Church."26
6. And, I suppose above all, I have, while accepting the challenge of historical research and of historicism to any simplistic claims of doctrinal absoluteness, gone beyond that challenge to a definition of doctrine as orthodox and catholic, and of the church as catholic and orthodox, in which this very relativity becomes a positive force, by suggesting how unity differs from uniformity, and how the church is–in the word of the Psalm that Pope Leo XIII in Orientalium dignitas of 1894 quoted to defend the distinctiveness of the Eastern Christian tradition–"circumdata varietate [surrounded with diversity]," in its liturgy and governance but even in its theology, while preserving the unity of its doctrine.27 Therefore I have adopted–and adapted–John Henry Newman's concept of 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."28
Adolf von Harnack was one of the most celebrated humanistic scholars of his time and, by common consent, the outstanding–and the most controversial–historian of Christianity in the learned world.29 He was the historian of the Prussian Academy of Sciences, as well as the festival speaker at its two-hundredth anniversary; in 1906 he added to his professorial duties the general directorship of the Royal Library of Berlin; he was knighted by Kaiser Wilhelm on 22 March 1914, being one of the last to be so honored; and at his seventy-fifth birthday in 1926, President Paul von Hindenburg of the Weimar Republic presented him with a congratulatory plaque bearing the inscription: "Dem Träger deutscher Bildung."30 His monumental three-volume Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte of 1886-89, is, as his student and my teacher, Wilhelm Pauck, has said, "the clearest expression of [his] basic conception of the historian's task. It shows concretely how and to what extent he tried to carry out his historical principles in his own field of study."31 Thus it is not only the most influential of his books, but the one that most amply documents the predicament of the Christian historian. But the book that addressed the predicament most explicitly and that achieved the greatest notoriety together with the widest circulation, with translations into at least fifteen languages (including English soon after the original), as well as many critical responses on both sides of the Atlantic, was Das Wesen des Christentums, first published in 1900.
Das Wesen des Christentums consisted of the stenographic transcript of a series of sixteen public lectures that Harnack delivered from notes in the winter semester of 1899/1900 to audiences of "about six hundred" students representing all the faculties of the University of Berlin, of which he became the rector for 1900.32 As his daughter and biographer has observed in narrating the account of the lectures, "The turn of the century provoked on many sides reflection about what the nineteenth century had achieved and what it could transmit as a legacy to the newborn twentieth century. Schleiermacher had attempted something similar a hundred years earlier in his Addresses on Religion to the Cultured among Its Despisers."33 The parallel to Daniel Friedrich Schleiermacher's dithyrambic Reden of 1799 is almost irresistible, also because, as Erich Seeberg said at Harnack's memorial service on 12 July 1930, "two men belonged to the Theological Faculty of the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin who were at the same time representatives of the spirit of their age: Schleiermacher was one, Harnack was the other."34
Harnack, whose profound spiritual ties to Goethe repeatedly came to voice in these lectures (i,3; vii,77; viii,94-95; xi,122),35 was as conscious as Schleiermacher had been a century earlier that he was addressing an audience who had become increasingly secular. For his hearers, "the Christian religion has outlived itself" (i,3); and they had concluded, not without a certain existential pathos, that it was irrelevant to modern society (v, 57) and no more than a "dream," because it was "inextricably bound to a picture of the world and of history that has long since been made obsolete" (viii,94-95). But for my examination of "the predicament of [Harnack] the Christian historian," the most important way in which Harnack sought to differentiate his Wesen des Christentums from Schleiermacher's Reden and the myriad similar efforts during the nineteenth and earlier centuries was his disavowal of apologetics, whether Rationalistic or Romantic, in favor of a methodological approach that professed to be dealing with the questions of religion and of Christianity (as he said already in his introduction) "purely in a historical sense [lediglich im historischen Sinn]" (i,4), and that did not "want to be wiser than history" (xi,110-11). Repeatedly he warned that this historicist methodology precluded "absolute judgments" (i,11) and "exclusive judgments" (viii,92), and he quickly caught himself up whenever he sensed that in speaking about the person and message of Jesus Christ he had transgressed his self-imposed boundaries as historian (viii,89), the boundaries beyond which "all research must keep silence" (vii,81). Answering the objections of his contemporaries, who found the early Christian preoccupations with the death and the resurrection of Christ to be "alien," he declared: "It is not our task to defend [these preoccupations]; nevertheless it is the duty of the historian to learn to know them with such understanding that in retrospect he can empathize with [nachempfinden] the significance that they have possessed and still possess" (ix,98).
At times such protestations of the objectivity of the historian do appear to be somewhat disingenuous, especially coming from him, but they betokened the drastic intellectual and scholarly shift that had taken place since the last time a century had turned. For many, including Harnack, both the natural science and the critical philosophy of the nineteenth century (especially Kant) had permanently discredited the traditional speculative proofs of apologetics, whether those of Anselm (ix,98-99) or of High Scholasticism (xiv, 153-54). Although it was Tolstoy (v, 51; vi,68-69; xiii,151), not Dostoevsky, to whom he repeatedly referred, the central issues with which he dealt in going beyond these proofs to a "purely historical" (i,4) approach were in fact the Grand Inquisitor's three themes in the "Pro et Contra" of The Brothers Karamazov: miracle (ii,16-19), mystery (xiii,146-50), and authority (i,3)–or, as Father Florovsky would have wanted me to say, "cudo, tajna, avtoritet." Nor was the nineteenth-century Romanticist apologetic of Chauteaubriand (and Schleiermacher), which had spurned rationalistic proofs in favor of aesthetic ones, any more impressive to him; for in effect the aesthete-apologist "stood before the ruins of the old church and exclaimed: 'Oh, how beautiful!'" (xi,124-25).
Conversely, however, the nineteenth century had been the historiographic century par excellence, in the universities of many countries but above all in those of Germany, in many of the humanistic disciplines such as literature, philosophy, and law, but above all in theology.36 It was the golden age of the Christian historical scholar. As Karl Barth once lamented, evidently contrasting his teacher Adolf Harnack (and Harnack's most significant predecessor, Ferdinand Christian Baur of Tübingen) with Schleiermacher, "In the history of Protestant theology the nineteenth century brought with it the none too dignified spectacle of a general flight, of those heads that were wisest, into the study of history."37 That study of history, including especially the study that produced Harnack's own Dogmengeschichte, had demolished absolute claims (x,116). But he believed that history had a correlative and positive task, which was indeed its "highest task," namely, to identify and to communicate "what is the essence [das Wesentliche]" (i,8) within and behind the welter of historical details. Could the historian of Christianity, having demonstrated how historically conditioned the faith and dogma of the church had been, now also be the agent for the reconstruction of this Wesen? That question was Harnack's version of Florovsky's "predicament of the Christian historian."
Identifying "das Wesentliche" after nineteen centuries of accretion necessarily entailed a drastic reductionism, though not by shriveling religious faith into a "function" (i,5) of something else that was thought to be real in a way that faith and its object were not, such as economics (i,2) or politics (vi,66) or ethnicity (xvi,176). In Harnack's eyes both as historian and as theologian, the Reformation of Martin Luther was the prime example in history to document the thesis that "every truly significant reformation in the history of religions is in the first instance a critical reduction; for in the course of its historical development, insofar as religion adapts itself to its circumstances, it draws to itself much that is alien" (xv, 168; italics original).38 For Harnack, the most alien of such alien elements in Christian history were (to echo, reorder, and paraphrase the Grand Inquisitor's triad of miracle, mystery, and authority): ritualism, institutionalism, and dogmatism. As mentioned earlier, Eastern Orthodoxy or "Greek Catholicism" as he called it (xii,135), was to him the most extreme embodiment of the first element, ritualism, which, he concluded, "has nothing whatsoever to do with the religion of Christ. All of this is the religion of classical antiquity, attached to some concepts of the gospel" (xiii,150). Or, as he put it in the Dogmengeschichte, the Byzantine devotion to icons was carried on "just as it had been in paganism, only the sense of beauty had been corrupted"; for it was one of the distinctive marks of Christianity that its teaching was not defined by its liturgy.39
Roman Catholicism, whether medieval or modern, represented the ultimate expression of the second "alien" element, institutionalism. As "the ancient Roman empire, sacralized by the gospel" (xiv, 157), it evoked from Harnack as historian the following quite remarkable tribute: "The Roman church is the most comprehensive and the most powerful, the most complicated and yet the most unified construction that history, so far as we know it, has ever brought forth. All the powers of the human spirit and soul and all the elemental powers that are at the disposal of the human race have had their part in building this construction" (xiv, 153). Nevertheless–or rather therefore–it evoked from Harnack as theologian this no less remarkable condemnation as well: "In everything that presents itself here as external ecclesiasticism [äußeres Kirchentum] with a claim to divine status, there is lacking any connection at all with the gospel" (xiv, 163).
Despite the bitterness of these polemical statements, it was the third "alien" element, dogma and dogmatism, that Harnack the historian had treated in the greatest detail and with the most magisterial control of the historical source material in his Dogmengeschichte and that he stressed throughout Das Wesen des Christentums. The message of Jesus was not "eine Lehre" but "Leben" (i,7)–or, by a similar assonance in English, not creeds but deeds–no "construct of thought" (iii,28); for "it lay completely outside his view of things to provide, apart from the gospel, a 'doctrine' about his person" (vii,81). But the subsequent development of church dogma overcame, though never completely, "the elemental powers of this religious temperament" (ix,104), and the identification of Jesus Christ as Logos, "the most important step ever taken within the history of Christian teaching" (xi,127), led to the church's identification of dogma as "religion itself" (xi,129). It was these three elements of traditional Christianity, and above all its dogma perhaps even more than the miraculous, that the secularized students of 1900 whom Harnack was addressing found the most offensive, specifically because these elements were the bulwark of "particularism."
Disengaging the person and message of Jesus from this particularism, therefore, was the means by which the historian (and apparently only the historian) could show the universality of the message, which was "more simple than the churches want to make it out to be–more simple, but therefore also more universal and more earnest" (viii,90). Although the sectarians, also within Reformation Protestantism, made the claim, "We, that is, our particular church [Partikularkirche], . . . are the true church" (xvi,184), it had been the revolutionary message of the authentic Reformation to affirm: "Our church is not the 'Partikularkirche' in which we stand, but the 'societas fidei,' which has its members everywhere, also among the Greeks and Romans" (xv, 173). While it was necessary to acknowledge historically that "Jesus Christ and his first disciples stood within their own time just as we do within ours" (i,8), it was a characteristic of all "epochmaking personalities"–therefore also and preeminently of him, though not only of him–that they were not to be seen in the light of what they shared with their contemporaries (iii,34-35). It had been his greatness to recognize "man as he basically remains ever the same" (i,11); and the willingness of his disciples in the next generation to distinguish between "kernel" and "shell" even in his own person and message, and thus to transcend particularism in the name of universality, "is the most impressive fact of the apostolic age" (x,112-13). But in so doing, they were in fact carrying out the deepest impulses of their Master, whose Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount "set religion free from everything external and particular" (iv, 47). The emphasis of Jesus on God the Father and on the infinite worth of the human soul, therefore, showed "that the gospel is not just one positive religion among others, that it does not contain anything . . . particularistic, but that it is religion itself" (iv, 41). The massive body of particularistic christological dogma that had developed, specially in the East, during the councils of the first several centuries of church history stood in the sharpest possible contrast to the view of himself that Jesus had held and taught, which Harnack with some irony designated in a major section of the book as "The Question of Christology" (vii-viii,79-92). The dialectic between particularism and universality at work in Harnack's interpretation is visible near the end of this section, in the one sentence from Das Wesen des Christentums that evoked the most controversy,40 and then in the sentence that immediately followed it (which his critics often chose to ignore): "Not the Son, but only the Father belongs in the gospel as Jesus proclaimed it. But the way he knows the Father, no one else has ever known Him, and he brings this knowledge to others" (viii,91; italics added).
But making such a claim, even in so dialectical a form, not only sounded very much like the sort of "absolute judgment" (i,11) and "exclusive judgment" (viii,92) that Harnack the historian had forsworn as outside his province, but that he could not avoid; it also raised, in the Berlin of 1900, the question that was to become so tragically poignant precisely a third of a century later, in the Berlin of 1933: the relation of Jesus Christ to Judaism. To paraphrase that question as posed to Harnack by his Jewish colleagues, "What do you mean to be saying about this Christ of yours? He did not bring anything new!" (iii,30). For the very analysis by which the historian had created (or, as he would certainly have preferred to say, rediscovered) the chasm between the religion of Jesus and the religion about Jesus seemed to have imbedded the person and message of Jesus all the more firmly in the highly particularistic soil of first-century Palestine, creating a new predicament for the Christian historian. Conversely, the drive for universality had meant, when "'original Christianity' had to be submerged in order for 'Christianity' to abide" (i,9), the expansion of the church's horizon beyond Palestine to the Graeco-Roman world, in short, the very "Hellenization of Christianity" that Adolf von Harnack, in the Dogmengeschichte and elsewhere, had identified as the betrayal of the original Christian message and as the transformation out of which had come the intellectualism of dogma and creed. At both poles, therefore, "particularity" and "universality" were involved in a profound ambiguity for the Christian historian-as-theologian.
Harnack's answer to this predicament was to emphasize, as historical fact, the distinctiveness and universality of the message of Jesus as a contrast to the ambivalence of the Judaism of the first century, in which "sometimes the horizon seems to be as narrow as the circle of hills surrounding Jerusalem, sometimes it embraces all humanity" (viii,86). But Jesus, who had not studied in any rabbinical school (ii,20-21) and was not representative of normative Judaism, managed to transcend that ambivalence. He broke with the punctilious ritualism of his people (iv, 45-46; v, 58), which was what made the later ritualism of Eastern Orthodoxy such a betrayal (xii,135; xiii,148-50). The connection of his message with Judaism was an almost accidental one (i,10), and therefore the Jewishness of Jesus and of the early church belonged to the "palaeontological" (ii,14) phase of the history of the Christian message. "As non-Jews," according to Harnack, "we simply do not understand" the basic meaning of the concept "Messiah" (vii,81). The Christian use of the "Old Testament," too, was highly ambiguous (ii,16), especially when it was repeatedly invoked to provide Christian social and political programs with the specific moral, political, and legislative content that was missing from the New Testament (vi,63). Harnack summarized his view of this cluster of issues in a programmatic paragraph:
Over and over men have arisen in the human race with the sure consciousness of possessing a divine message and of being obliged, willingly or not, to proclaim it. But the message was always imperfect, fragmentary at this or that point, bound up with the political and with the particularistic, intended for a momentary situation; and the prophet often did not stand the test of being himself the example of his message. But here [in Jesus] the most profound and the most comprehensive message was brought, which seized man at his very roots and in the framework of the Jewish people addressed all the human race–the message of God the Father. It is not fragmentary, and its genuine content is easily separated from the necessary husks of its historically conditioned forms (vii,82; italics added).
That meaning of the message was achieved when, through the activity of the apostle Paul, "the gospel was transplanted from the Orient, where also later it never properly took root, to the Occident" (x,111).
Yet this Westernization and universalization happened through the medium of the Greek language, with all the conceptual baggage that this carried. Harnack recognized that there were undeniable "elective affinities" (xi,126: Goethe again!) between the Jewish and the Greek traditions, above all perhaps the quest for wisdom, as the two traditions were combined, for example, in the Wisdom of Solomon. The idea of justice/righteousness as a divine attribute and as a human virtue was one such shared element (v, 48-49), with the corollary sense that injustice demanded punishment (ix,100); and demonology was another (iv, 37-38). Nevertheless, it was on the contrasts between the two that he dwelt. The Gospels containing the life and teachings of Jesus (by which Harnack meant almost exclusively the synoptic Gospels) were, to be sure, written in Greek. But Jesus had "no relation to Hellenism" (ii,22), and the Greek of the Gospels did not mean that they were "determined by the Greek spirit," for their Greek language was in fact nothing more than "a transparent veil [ein durchsichtiger Schleier]" (ii,13-14); that was true even of the Gospel of Luke, though it was written by a Greek and in the "literary language [Büchersprache]" of Hellenism (ii,15). Thus when the apostle Paul carried the gospel into the Roman world, preaching and writing in Greek even while he was speaking to his fellow Jews or addressing his epistle to the Christians in Rome, he imbued it with a language that made it intelligible not only to Greeks and Greek-speaking Romans, but to everyone who was human, thus transcending Greek particularism no less than Jewish particularism (x,111). Yet it was this Greek language that provided the basis and the justification for "the influx of Hellenism, of the Greek spirit, and the fusion of the gospel with it," above all by the Christian appropriation of Greek philosophy, though also by the adaptation of the simple actions that Jesus had instituted in baptism and the Lord's Supper (ix,101) to the Greek notion of "mystery," and by the assimilation of Greek polytheism with the Christian cult of the saints (xi,125-26). The identification of the Logos of Greek philosophical speculation with the person of Jesus of Nazareth "gave a historical fact metaphysical significance and made a person who had appeared in space and time a part of cosmology and the philosophy of religion" (xi,128). But the effect of this Hellenization was to reduce the contrast between the emphasis of Jesus on the universality of faith, as this was found in the Lord's Prayer, and the elitism of Plato (iv, 42-43), as well as the contrast between the primitive Christian hope based on the Easter experience and the Platonic notions of immortality (ix,102-3), and ultimately to make the orthodox dogma about him into a weapon to be used in the persecution of fellow Christians (vii,79). In sum, the universality seemingly provided by the Hellenization of the gospel and its "intellectualism" (xii,132) became instead, through the authority of dogma as doctrine that was officially legislated and politically enforced, the most oppressive brand of particularism.
The quest for the universality of faith did not, however, lead Harnack to embrace one of the concepts that had drawn widespread support, in the century whose conclusion he was observing, as a means of transcending religious particularism and achieving religious toleration: the concept of "natural religion." In his Testament creating the lectureship that bears his name and that began in 1881, Lord Gifford had prescribed as the content of the lectures "promoting, advancing, teaching and diffusing the study of natural theology."41 But Harnack–who, like John Henry Newman, was overlooked by the Gifford Lectureship–made clear that this "abstraction, namely, the sum total of the elemental intuitions and procedures that can be shown to exist in all religions," was not the sort of "critical reduction" (xv, 168) he had in mind as the way out of the cul-de-sac of particularism; for, speaking as a historian, he found it "questionable where such [universal intuitions and procedures] really exist and whether they are sufficiently clear and identifiable to be brought together into a whole" (xii,138). Nor did he find himself impressed by–or, for that matter, even very much interested in (i,4)–the history of the world religions. Judaism was, of course, the exception, because it had a historic connection with Jesus and early Christianity, but also because in a unique and universal sense it represented "the authentic history of religion for humanity" as a whole (viii,89). Thus Buddhism appeared in his account only as a foil for Christian social teaching (vi,63) or as a device for taking account of the denial of self and the world by Christian asceticism (v, 50). Similarly, Islam provided him with opportunities to contrast the high estimate of Muhammad as a prophet with the primitive Christian exaltation of Jesus as a prophet but as far more than a prophet (ix,97-98), to contrast the permanently Arabic character of Islam with Christian universalism (x,112), and to comment (in 1900!) on the significance of the loss of territory by Eastern Orthodoxy to Islam in such places as Bosnia (xii,137). A year after the lectures on Das Wesen des Christentums, in a lecture delivered on 3 August 1901, Harnack addressed himself specifically to the question of the place of a particularistic Protestant or Roman Catholic theological faculty in a modern secular university operated by the State. The study of the world religions was an essential component of the research and teaching of the university; but in the structure of the German university, as this had been worked out by Wilhelm von Humboldt and his colleagues (including not only Fichte but Schleiermacher) at the founding of the University of Berlin, that study belonged in the Philosophical Faculty, not in the Theological Faculty, which continued to have its own distinctive vocation even in a secular society.42
In a discussion that sounds like a reprise of the late medieval controversies between Nominalists and Realists about universals,43 Harnack insisted upon its being historically verifiable that universality was not merely a speculative construct so that only the particulars were real, and on the other hand that it was not a reality unto itself so that the particulars could be ignored; but that the "universalia in rebus" were both real and knowable. Instead of seeking to move around (or behind) the particularistic religions to a universal faith, therefore, Harnack was proposing a critical methodology that would employ the scalpel of historical analysis to find that universal faith within particularistic religion–or, more specifically, within one particularistic religion–and would go through that to the universal, once again in search of "das Wesentliche." But in the University of Berlin at the conclusion of the nineteenth century it was unavoidable for the historian to ask the question: Why, among them all, should one study this specific religion and single out its historical development? One reason was that "what developed then is our history, for there would be no concept of 'humanity,' no 'world history' in the higher sense, without that decisive change" (v, 49; italics original). No historicism about the West and no exoticism about the East could excise that specific history, the history of Jesus and of the movement that came out of his life and message, from the history that had produced the members of Harnack's audience at the University of Berlin in 1900, who could be and were ignorant of it but who could not be and were not unaffected by it in a fundamental way. As he put it in his opening words, "The great philosopher of Positivism, John Stuart Mill, once said that the human race cannot be reminded often enough that there was once a man named Socrates.44 He is right, but it is more important to go on reminding the human race that a man named Jesus Christ once stood in their midst" (i,1).
But there was a more substantive and fundamental reason as well: the history of Jesus and of his message carried that force also because his sayings and parables uniquely "speak to us through the centuries with the freshness of the present" (iii,33). Therefore Harnack emphasized the message of Jesus as "religion itself" (iv, 41), as well as the claim of Christianity, even of a highly particularistic orthodox Christianity, "that in the doctrines with which it was opposing its adversaries it had given expression to religion itself" (xi,129). This, then, was the assignment he took upon himself:
In these lectures we do not want to concern ourselves with "the religious principle" and its evolutions, but we want to attempt to answer the more modest but no less urgent question: What is Christianity? What has it been, and what has it become? We hope that from the task of answering this question light will be shed on the more comprehensive one: What is religion, and what should be it? Within this latter question, however, we finally have to do only with the Christian [religion]; the others do not move us to our depths any more (i,4).
And all of that was to be presented, as he claimed in that immediate context, "purely in a historical sense" (i,4). That did not deter him from going on to acknowledge the validity of the concept of "religion" as this was held in common by all the faiths (i,6), or from explaining various events of Christian history by reference to what was "inseparable from every higher religion" (ii,17) and by reference to "a constantly recurring phenomenon of the history of religions" (x,108; viii,89), or from describing as a characteristic of "the higher religions" (which he did not list, but in which he included Christianity) that prayer was their most decisive element, as the Lord's Prayer supremely showed (iv, 41).
Although such prayer was not only individual but corporate–the Lord's Prayer was, after all, addressed to "Our Father"–Harnack was, as noted earlier, profoundly suspicious of the corporate expression of prayer in such forms as those of ritual and liturgy, above all Eastern Orthodox ritual and liturgy, except for the simplified worship of the Protestant Reformers (xv, 169-70). Making his own Augustine's familiar formula, "All I desire to know is God and the soul, the soul and its God,"45 he interpreted the petition "Thy kingdom come" to mean that "the kingdom of God comes in that it comes to individuals, makes an entry into their soul, and they take hold of it" (iii,36). Such "individualism" had already been growing in the Judaism out of which Jesus came (viii,85). Jesus "always has his eye only on the individual and on the constant attitude [Gesinnung] of the heart in love" (vi,71), and his followers insisted "that the Christian religion would not be the last and highest [of religions] if it did not provide every single person with an immediate and living connection to God" (ix, 104). Therefore it was mistaken to see Jesus as a "social reformer" (v, 56; vi,63). Harnack recognized–and made his own significant contributions to–the growing sense of "moral duty" (vii,72) toward the social order, which underlay the Social Gospel movement also in the United States, and in the final lecture he hailed this rising social consciousness as a new era (xvi,188); but that did not entail equating the gospel with social revolution (vii,73). The unity of the human race was to be found "in persons" (viii,89-90). Therefore Harnack would have understood, and would have made his own, the celebrated and often caricatured definition in the second of the Gifford Lectures of his contemporary, William James, according to which religion was "the feelings, acts and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine."46 For history showed that it was the mark of an authentic religious faith that it could enable the believer to overcome the universal human condition of slavery to death (ix,102) and the burden of the absurdity of life and death (iv, 40), with all their toil and trouble (vii,76). It meant, as Harnack said in the first lecture, "eternal life in the midst of time, by the power and in the presence of God" (i,5; xi,120). And that faith was both perennial and universal.
But that leaves the question ultimately unresolved: Was it "the Christian historian" as historian or "the Christian historian" as Christian, perhaps even "the Christian historian" as theologian, who was speaking in pronouncing such judgments? It is the predicament of the Christian historian to live in that tension; for, as I have suggested elsewhere, every historian must be a polyglot, speaking one or more of the dialectes of "past-ese" and simultaneously communicating to contemporaries in "present-ese."47All of which confirms the thesis of Father Georges Florovsky in his conclusion:
The Christian historian will attempt to reveal the actual course of events in the light of his Christian knowledge of man, but will be slow and cautious in detecting the "providential" structure of actual history, in any detail. Even in the history of the Church "the hand of Providence" is emphatically hidden, though it would be blasphemous to deny that this Hand does exist or that God is truly the Lord of History. Actually, the purpose of a historical understanding is not so much to detect the Divine action in history as to understand the human action, that is, human activities, in the bewildering variety and confusion in which they appear to a human observer. Above all, the Christian historian will regard history at once as a mystery and as a tragedy–a mystery of salvation and a tragedy of sin. He will insist on the comprehensiveness of our conception of man, as a prerequisite of our understanding of his existence, of his exploits, of his destiny, which is actually wrought in his history. The task of a Christian historian is by no means an easy task. But it is surely a noble task.48
And I believe that, too, thanks to both of the portraits on my study wall.
Notes for The Predicament of the Christian Historian
1. A lecture at the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton, New Jersey, 3 April 1997, co-sponsored by the Orthodox Christian Fellowship as the Fourth Annual Florovsky Lecture. I have amplified it with portions of my inaugural lecture for the Joseph Chair at Boston College, 22 January 1997, and of my inaugural lecture for the Godfrey Diekmann Center at Saint John's University, Collegeville, Minnesota, 13 March 1997.
2. Georges V. Florovsky, " The Predicament of the Christian Historian," in Walter Leibrecht, ed., Religion and Culture: Essays in Honor of Paul Tillich (New York, 1959), 140-66; reprinted in Georges V. Florovsky, Collected Works, 2 (Belmont, MA, 1974), 31-65, 233-36 (notes). Because of its relatively greater accessibility, I shall cite the latter.
3. Paul Tillich, ,A History of Christian Thought, ed. Carl E. Braaten (New York, 1968), 292.
4. See especially Paul Tillich, Perspectives on 19th and 20th Century Protestant Theology, ed. Carl E. Braaten (New York, 1967), 219-23.
5. George Huntston Williams, "The Neo-Patristic Synthesis of Georges Florovsky" in Andrew Blane, ed., Georges Florovsky: Russian Intellectual-Orthodox Churchman (Crestwood, NY, 1993), 331, note 10.
6. Walther Karl Erich Glawe, Die Hellenisierung des Christentums in der Geschichte der Theologie von Luther bis auf die Gegenwart (Berlin, 1912).
7. Adolf von Harnack, Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte (5th ed., 3 vols.; Leipzig, 1931), 1:20; translations from Harnack are my own.
8. Harnack, Lehrbuch, 1:250; italics added.
9. Aloys Grillmeier, "Hellenisierung-Judaisierung des Christentums als Deuteprinzipien der Geschichte des kirchlichen Dogmas," Scholastik 33 (1958):321-55, 528-58.
10. Jaroslav Pelikan, From Luther to Kierkegaard: A Study in the History of Theology (Saint Louis, 1950), esp. pp. 24-48.
11. Jaroslav Pelikan, Christianity and Classical Culture: The Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism (New Haven, 1993), 3.
12. Adolf von Harnack, Marcion: Das Evangelium vom fremden Gott ( 2d ed. ; Leipzig, 1960), 217.
13. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (Chicago, 1971-89), 1:12-27; 2:200-215; 3:242-55; 5:111-13, 191-92, 292-93, 334-35.
14. Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus through the Centuries (New Haven, 1985), 20.
15. Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, 1:243-56.
16. Phil. 2:5-11; Augustine, On the Trinity I.vii.14; Jaroslav Pelikan, "Canonica regula: The Trinitarian Hermeneutics of Augustine." In Collectanea Augustiniana, I, Augustine: "Second Founder of the Faith," ed. Joseph C. Schnaubel and Frederick Van Fleteren (New York, 1990), 329-43.
17. John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes (New York, 1974), 229; italics added.
18. To borrow his own metaphor upon confronting the "dialectical theology" of Karl Barth, Agnes von Zahn-Harnack, Adolf von Harnack (2d ed.; Berlin, 1951), 416.
19. Adolf von Harnack, Das Wesen des Christentums (4th, corrected ed.; Leipzig, 1900), 148.
20. Harnack, Lehrbuch, 1:iv.
21. Johann Philipp Gustav Ewers, Das älteste Recht der Russen in seiner geschichtlichen Entwicklung dargestellt (Dorpat, 1826).
22. Harnack, Lehrbuch, 1:806-8.
23. Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, 1:166-71.
24. Ibid., 3:74-80, 184-204.
25. Ibid., 3:202-4, 268-69.
26. Ibid., 4:297-300.
27. Jaroslav Pelikan, Confessor between East and West (Grand Rapids, 1990), 58-59.
28. John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845), 1.1, ed. James Munro Cameron (New York, 1974), 100.
29. A useful introduction in English is G. Wayne Glick, The Reality of Christianity: A Study of Adolf von Harnack as Historian and Theologian, "Makers of Modern Theology," ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (New York, 1967).
30. Agnes von Zahn-Harnack, Harnack, 409.
31. Wilhelm Pauck, Harnack and Troeltsch: Two Historical Theologians (New York, 1968), 22.
32. His Rektoratsrede was delivered on 15 October 1900: Adolf von Harnack, "Sokrates und die alte Kirche," Reden und Aufsätze (2d ed.; Gieen, 1906), 1:27-48.
33. Agnes von Zahn-Harnack, Harnack, 181-82.
34. Erich Seeberg, "Gedächtnisrede auf Adolf von Harnack" (Tübingen, 1930), 11. Hereafter I shall cite Das Wesen des Christentums in the body of the text by a lower-case Roman numeral for the number of the lecture and an Arabic numeral for the page of the fourth edition (Leipzig, 1901), which contained Harnack's corrections; that should facilitate reference to any other edition or translation.
35. Cf. Adolf von Harnack, "Die Religion Goethes in der Epoche seiner Vollendung," Erforschtes und Erlebtes (Gieen, 1923), 141-70.
36. Jaroslav Pelikan, Historical Theology: Continuity and Change in Christian Doctrine (New York, 1971), 51-67.
37. Karl Barth, Protestant Thought: From Rousseau to Ritschl, tr. Brian Cozens and H. H. Hartwell, int. Jaroslav Pelikan (New York, 1959), 311.
38. Jaroslav Pelikan, "Adolf von Harnack on Luther," in Interpreters of Luther, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (Philadelphia, 1968), 253-74.
39. Harnack, Lehrbuch, 2:480; 1:806-8.
40. On this, see Karl H. Neufeld, Adolf Harnacks Konflikt mit der Kirche: Weg-Stationen zum "Wesen des Christentums" (Innsbruck, 1979).
41. Stanley L. Jaki, Lord Gifford and His Lectures (Edinburgh, 1986), 72-73.
42. Adolf von Harnack, "Die Aufgabe der theologischen Fakultäten und die allgemeine Religionsgeschichte," Reden und Aufstze, 2:159-97.
43. Lehrbuch, 3:505-14.
44. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, ch. 2, in Edwin A. Burtt, ed., The English Philosophers from Bacon to Mill (New York, 1939), 967.
45. Augustine, Soliloquies ii.7.
46. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, int. Jaroslav Pelikan (New York, 1990), 36.
47. Jaroslav Pelikan, "The Historian as Polyglot," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 137 (1993): 659-68.
48. Florovsky, "Predicament," 65; italics original.
© Copyright 2002-2004 Center of Theological Inquiry
Princeton, New Jersey | Feedback
Posted by Jacob Thomas at Sunday, May 04, 2008