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 friends 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.