Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi

I’m just over half way through the first volume of Jaroslav Pelikan’s History of Christian Doctrine. Fingers crossed, I’ll finish it before the end of January.

One of Pelikan’s main observations throughout the book is that Christian doctrine developed in (at least) three distinct ways: as a response to Judaism and Greek philosophy, as a response to heresy, and as an articulation of the life of the church–i.e., its liturgical forms of worship and common practices among Christian believers. Having grown up in a non-denominational church I regularly heard about how early Christian writers were responding to heresy and contemporary religious belief systems. But I can’t recall anyone making the claim that liturgy preceded doctrine. Even now, as a member of an Anglo-Catholic parish with strong sympathies for the Orthodox church, I’m struck by how strange it is that early orthodox Christians were worshiping the Trinity before they had any clear idea of how the theological conception of the Trinity is distinct and separate from the worship of any other deity.

By the first century, Christians were already meeting regularly, praying together, baptizing their infants, and celebrating the Eucharist. It wasn’t until teachers began articulating the specifics of Christian belief that controversy arose. The baptizing of infants, for example, inspired discussions about original sin–what is it? how did we acquire it? how does baptism affect it? The Eucharist raised questions about Christology, of the relationship between Christ’s divine and human nature, and whether Christ was present in the Eucharist itself.

I don’t know if Pelikan makes this point later in his series, but from this lay-observer’s point of view, it seems that the relationship between liturgy and doctrine has been inverted in most Protestant churches. When I talk with my low-church evangelical Image result for thomas aquinas strawfriends about the Anglican liturgy, I’m often met with questions about whether prayer to the saints, infant baptism, or belief that Christ is present in the bread and wine is biblical. The answer to both questions is an emphatic “Yes!” But this would have been a strange question in the second century of the church. They were worshiping and believing based on the teaching and revelation that had been passed down to them from the apostles, not based on careful biblical exegesis (…though of course early Christian writers were also busy analyzing the Old Testament and outlining its continuity with the revelation of Christ).

Like poetry, the life and prayer of the church says more in its form and ritual than any single doctrine could express in any number of volumes. It’s no wonder that Thomas Aquinas, after experiencing a beatific vision toward the end of his life, considered all of his writings to be nothing but straw. The power of liturgy cannot be fully harnessed by the rational mind. It always transcends and encompasses rational thought.

 

 

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.