Tradition vs. History

I am attempting a difficult task. Before the end of the year, I hope to have finished reading Aladair MacIntyre’s book, After Virtue, and the first volume of Jaroslav Pelikan’s book The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600).

I’m almost half way through MacIntyre’s book, and only in the second chapter of Image result for The Emergence of the Catholic TraditionPelikan’s. So, at the very least, I’m hopeful I’ll finish After Virtue and have made substantial progress in The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition.

Meanwhile, I plan to comment on both books as I work my way through them. First up, Pelikan:

Tradition without history has homogenized all the stages of development into one statically defined truth; history without tradition has produced a historicism that relativized the development of Christian doctrine in such a way as to make the distinction between authentic growth and cancerous aberration seem completely arbitrary. . . The history of Christian doctrine is the most effective means available of exposing the artificial theories of continuity that have often assumed normative status in the churches, and at the same time it is an avenue into the authentic continuity of Christian believing, teaching, and confessing. Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.

Pelikan’s series on the history of Christianity has been recommended to me countless times, and any time I run across reading lists of my favorite theologians, professors, and/or Christian writers in general, his name is inevitably near the top five. So far, he’s living up to the hype.

His brief discussion about the difference between history and tradition is worth the price of admission. As someone who has gone through an English graduate program at a local state school, I can tell that very few academics who write about Christian beliefs and practices in history make the distinction he makes (…though in my experience it’s nearly zero). All of history is either an arbitrary series of events or worse a socially constructed narrative that reinforces contemporary power structures.

In one sense, history is both of those things. But as far as the Christian church is concerned, history is more than a series of events and more than a cultural construction. It is a living tradition that preserves divine revelation, which breathes life into the contemporary church, and connects it with the past. Individuals do not have the power to tamper with tradition in the same way they can alter historical narratives for personal prestige or empowerment. Christians participate in the tradition; they don’t write it. The distinction, even as I’m writing about it, is difficult to parse. But Pelikan reminds us that there is a difference, and that we should apply our understanding of tradition and history to the study of the development of church doctrine–past, present, and future.