Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Christian Tradition and The Early Church

I have just finished reading all five volumes of Jaroslav Pelikan's The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine. My reaction could be summed up in Jerry Garcia's words: "What a long, strange trip it's been."

Pelikan defines "Christian doctrine" as " What the church of Jesus Christ believes, teaches, and confesses on the basis of the word of God." The books in the series are:
  • Volume 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600)
  • Volume 2: The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700)
  • Volume 3: The Growth of Medieval Theology (600-1300)
  • Volume 4: Reformation of Church and Dogma (1300-1700)
  • Volume 5: Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture (since 1700)
I don't think I can overstate the value of this series for broadening and deepening one's understanding of what Christians believe, teach and confess, and why. For the many who don't know the history of Christian doctrine, or church history in general, reading these books will be both a valuable education and an eye-opener.

If I could fault Pelikan at all (and who am I to do so?), it would be for totally ignoring the Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements. Unless I missed it, they don't even get so much as a single sentence in Volume 5 (or anywhere else in the series), even though they arguably have been the most influential force(s) in Christianity in the final decades of the 20th century, both in the United States and worldwide, simultaneously unifying the church and dividing it (and not always along denominational lines). Volume 5 was published in 1989, and the Pentecostal Movement in the United States began in 1901-1906 and the Charismatic Movement in 1960 (and in his book Christianity's Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution: A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First, Alister McGrath shows that the Pentecostal Movement had its counterparts in other countries at the same time), so Pelikan's omission is puzzling to me, as the attendant beliefs about the Holy Spirit in the life of the church and the believer can indeed be considered a development of Christian doctrine, even if not done in a creedal or conciliar way (though the doctrinal statements of various Pentecostal and Charismatic denominations can probably rightly be regarded as what they "confess," as well as what they believe and teach).

Focusing more on history than on doctrine (though in some senses the history of the Church is the history of doctrine), a great one-volume book on the first 1,000 years of the Church is The Early Church: The story of emergent Christianity from the apostolic age to the dividing of the ways between the Greek East and the Latin West (Revised Edition) by Henry Chadwick (The Penguin History of the Church 1). One should at least know what preceded the Reformation before moving on to or from Luther and Calvin and their descendants, and this is a great way to fill in one's knowledge gaps.

A quote attributed to Otto von Bismark in various forms goes something like this:
I have about made up my mind that laws are like sausages — the less you know about how they are made, the more respect you have for them.
Some of the variants include:
  • If you like laws and sausages, you should never watch either one being made.
  • Laws are like sausages — it is best not to see them being made.
  • Laws are like sausages. It is better not to see them being made.
  • Laws are like sausages. You should never see them made.
  • Laws are like sausages. You should never watch them being made.
  • Law and sausage are two things you do not want to see being made.
  • No one should see how laws or sausages are made.
  • To retain respect for sausages and laws, one must not watch them in the making.
  • The making of laws, like the making of sausages, is not a pretty sight.
After reading the above books, the reader might feel tempted to add "church doctrine" or "church history" to "laws" and "sausages."
"The history of the Church us in many ways very disconcerting." - A History of Christian Doctrine, edited by Hubert Cunliffe-Jones with Benjamin Drewery (Introduction, p. 16)
This is another book I'll probably recommend after I finish reading it.