Observations After Reading Jaroslav Pelikan: On Scripture, Tradition and Reason

I was raised in the Lutheran Church. As such, while I received a pretty good religious education on the Bible and the Reformation, I am largely ill-informed about the early history of the Church. After hearing more and more about the early Church fathers, I decided to rectify this failing. I am starting with the first volume of Jaroslav Pelikan's five volume series on the history of Christian Doctrine, entitled The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine. This first volume focuses on the very early Church--100 A.D. to 600 A.D.

I am only at the beginning of Pelikan's book, but one of his early observations stuck me as very interesting. He notes that the early church doctrine developed as a result of two dialogues--the first with Jews (both Christian Jews and non-Christian Jews), and the second with classical Greek and Roman philosophy. The New Testament is largely a reflection of the first dialogue. Only one of the authors (Luke) of the New Testament books was not a Jew, and it reflects only some of the dialogue that occurred with Greek philosophy. As Pelikan points out, most of the dialogue with classical philosophy occurred well after 100 A.D. , and well after the New Testament works were complete. And the dialogue with Judaism was largely over once Jerusalem was sacked in 70 A.D.

Why is this interesting? Several reasons come to mine. It was contact with classical philosophy that largely led to the development of such important Christian doctrines as the nature of God, the Trinity, and even the nature of Jesus Christ. Almost all of these doctrines became settled only centuries after the New Testament was complete--and all sides in the disputes over these doctrines relied on the New Testament works as proof texts. And each of these disputes was heavily influenced by (or was at least a reaction to) philosophical thinking prevalent in the times.

This history, to me at least, shows an important limitation on the Protestant concept of solo scriptura. Scriptures, without tradition and reason, will simply fail to adequately explain the justification for many important Christian doctrines.

Perhaps more importantly, there is a lesson in this for those of us trying to live our faith in the modern world. As Pelikan explains in great detail, the early church fathers were actively engaged in the culture and intellectual issues of their time. Christian doctrine is not merely the result of the Scriptures--it is also a result of the early Church fathers attempting to live their faith in the times they lived in, using reason (and yes, their experience) in addition to the Scriptures. It seems to me that we should not be afraid to follow their example.


Pastor Zip said…
Greetings, Chuck. I'm one of those readers pointed this way from titusonenine. I'm impressed by your ambition in reading Pelikan. For another look at the engagement of early Christian thinkers with the world they lived in, see The Spirit of Early Christian Thought by Robert Louis Wilken. Pelikan and Wilken both were noted Lutheran scholars of ancient church history, and as Pelikan embraced Orthodoxy, Wilken has been received in the Roman Catholic Church. It's a great way to see just how the Ancient Church Fathers still speak so well to us in the early 21st Century.

Popular posts from this blog

Luke Timothy Johnson on Homosexuality and Scripture

Bultmann versus Wright on the Resurection

Washington Post Forum on Liberation Theology