Monday, May 15, 2006

"Dr Jaroslav Pelikan falls asleep in the Lord" You've probably heard elsewhere about the recent passing of the eminent church historian; the announcement from St Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary is here. Another notable church historian, Mark Noll, now of Notre Dame, wrote an article about Dr Pelikan in a 1990 issue of Christianity Today that included the following two paragraphs: ... Pelikan's academic career, carried on largely outside of Christian institutions, has not lessened his commitment to the faith. Although he has long worked in the precincts of the secular university, he continues to uphold, as the title of one of his earlier books puts it, The Finality of Jesus Christ in an Age of Universal History. Pelikan's life work has given him a way to combine his scholarly passion with just such convictions about the enduring reality of Christian orthodoxy. "I came to think that the same historical study which relativized absolute claims at the hands of Harnack could also reintroduce the next generation to the valid and continuing affirmations of the Christian tradition. Historical study became for Harnack the bridge by which he crossed from the orthodox Christian tradition to a kind of reductionist liberalism. At some point I discovered the bridge was a two-way street. As someone who had come from the tradition and lived in the tradition and never really seriously contemplated believing any other way, I became not just a curiosity in a museum but a spokesman for what was still a living reality." I would like to excerpt the end of Dr Pelikan's 1965 Presidential Address to the American Society of Church History (it was subsequently published in Church History 35 [1966]), which I have read (and probably will read) a number of times. It is entitled "An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine": When the processes of development, rather than its legitimacy and its limits, become the object of historical research, the problem of the development of doctrine can be lifted, at least temporarily, from the arena of polemical theology. For while the parting of the ways between Christian communities, in Father [John Courtney] Murray's phrase, may indeed take place on the issue of development of doctrine, the historians of the several communities ought to be able to collaborate on an investigation of the processes of development. For an entire generation, philosophers and theologians have dealt with the role of presuppositions in the work of the historian and have taught us all to be exceedingly modest about claiming "scientific objectivity" for our historical work. The simple-minded conception of historical objectivity, writes Collingwood, ... appears a satisfactory account of historical thought only to persons who embrace the fundamental error of mistaking for history that form of pseudo-history which Croce has called "philological history": persons who think that history is nothing more than scholarship or learning, and would assign to the historian the self-contradictory task of discovering (for example) "what Plato thought" without inquiring "whether it is true." This was a lesson which all historians, and particularly church historians, had to learn, but they have learned it only too well; for what Collingwood, with Croce, disparages as pseudo-history or as "philological history" is, in fact, the very kind of history on which we depend for a study of the processes of the development of doctrine. Such "philological history," moreover, is a form of historical research that can transcend - though it does not automatically transcend - differences among theologians of various confessional presuppositions. To mention only two problems, the text of the epistles of Ignatius of Antioch and the two recensions of the text of the De unitate of Cyprian of Carthage have both been argued over for centuries on the basis of divergent confessional and theological presuppositions. But the historical problems have been solved fairly well during the past century with the aid of sound scholarship, even though this scholarship seemed in both instances to contradict the denominational presuppositions of the scholars. Protestant scholarship has demonstrated the authenticity of the "hierarchical" passages in Ignatius despite their early date, while Roman Catholic scholarship has shown that Cyprian probably "altered the text of chapter 4 [of his De unitate] ... because Rome was reading more into it than he had intended." It is simply not true that if one knows the presuppositions of the historical scholar, he can predict the outcome of that scholar's researches - unless the term "presuppositions" be widened to include historical honesty. Thus scholars of various confessions should find it possible, by means of the sort of "philological history" to which Croce and Collingwood refer with such condescension, to trace the processes by which various Christian doctrines have developed in various periods. None of this research will, of course, settle the tough and perhaps irreconcilable questions in the development of doctrine, but it will make a discussion of those questions both more intelligent and more complicated. Does the development of the doctrine of the Trinity, whose results most Protestants accept, correspond to that conception of the authority of Sacred Scripture which these same Protestants maintain? Did not the Arians, rather than the orthodox, hold to something like a Sola Scriptura? On the other hand, if the definition of papal infallibility set down a century ago is retroactive, does a study of the documents bear out the contention that doctrine has in fact developed under the tutelage of an ecclesiastical magisterium so defined? If Peter spoke though the mouth of Leo at Chalcedon, as the council fathers affirmed, through whose mouth did he speak at Nicaea? Again, does the historical scholar have a warrant in some "patristic consent" for going beyond the philologically ascertainable ipsissima verba of his documents and for finding in them early hints and traces of what, by subsequent development of doctrine, has become the faith of the Church Catholic? If he has such a warrant, what are its methodological limits? If he does not have it, does this require a redefinition of the processes of development? With these and similar issues we shall have to deal if, as church historians, we want to be responsible both to our scholarly discipline and to our distinctive vocation. Church history is always more than the history of doctrine, but it should not be less. The historian of doctrine must continue to do his own homework, but he must do it as a historian. He will, of course, find the theological questions in the history of doctrine ineluctable; and in this sense he, too, will have to speak as a theologian. Thus the founder of this Society was speaking as a theologian when he wrote: Truth in God, or objectively considered, is unchangeable; but truth in man, or the apprehension of it, grows and develops with man and with history. Change, if it be consistent, is not necessarily a mark of heresy, but may be a sign of life and growth, as the want of change, on the other hand, is by no means always an indication of orthodoxy. But Philip Schaff had won the right to speak this way by investing hard historical research into the detailed investigation of the history of such change and development. As the problem of development of doctrine moves to the frontier of research and of theological discussion, we who follow in his train will need to make no less costly an investment.

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