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In 1971 the University of Chicago Press published The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100–600), the first volume in a projected five-volume work entitled The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine. In his preface to volume 1, Jaroslav Pelikan (a professor of church history, medieval history, and religious studies at Yale University since 1962) expressed his hope that the entire project would be completed “within the next decade.” Ten years, however, stretched into almost twenty. The fifth and final volume appeared in 1989: Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture (since 1700). The intervening years—1974, 1978, 1983—witnessed the publication, respectively, of volumes 2, 3, and 4: The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600–1700), The Growth of Medieval Theology (600–1300), and Reformation of Church and Dogma (1300–1700).

Professor Pelikan’s great work has literally been a life’s work. Its original planning and outlining go back to the 1940s, its earliest drafts and sketches to the 1950s—years when he was teaching at Valparaiso University (1946–49), Concordia Seminary, St. Louis (1949–53), and the University of Chicago (1953–62). (He had received the B.D. degree from Concordia and the Ph.D. from Chicago in the same year, 1946, at age 23.) No doubt the writing of the five volumes was somewhat slowed by the author’s service as Dean of the Graduate School at Yale from 1973 to 1978.

My intent in this essay is not to provide detailed reviews of each volume. Many such reviews have already appeared in the professional journals. I propose, rather, to offer an overview of the total work, commenting on some of its most distinctive and impressive features. To this end I will make a number of comparisons and contrasts with that multi-volumed work that still (a century later) stands as the closest analogue to The Christian Tradition, namely Adolf von Harnack’s celebrated History of Dogma. In particular, as fairmindedness requires, I want to examine Mr. Pelikan’s stated intentions: his own identification of the work’s general purposes and of the concept guiding its composition and organization, with special attention to the pivotal notion of “development of doctrine.” To this end I have had recourse to two of his other books, themselves designed as background studies to his magnum opus: Development of Christian Doctrine: Some Historical Prolegomena (1969) and Historical Theology: Continuity and Change in Christian Doctrine (1971). Such a procedure, then, should enable one to offer a judicious appraisal of the work’s strengths and limitations.


One comes away from a consecutive reading of The Christian Tradition with two superlatives firmly fixed in mind: “monumental” and “magisterial.” I know of no modern work in the historiography of Christian doctrine that rivals it in both scope and size, ranging as it does from the so-called Apostolic Fathers of the early second century to the Second Vatican Council of the mid-twentieth century. Its nearest competitor remains Harnack’s History of Dogma, first published in three large volumes in 1886–89. The last edition of this work, which appeared in 1909–10, totaled 2,369 pages; Pelikan’s has 2,016 pages. According to Harnack, however, dogmatic development in the Western church found a threefold outcome or “exit” in the sixteenth century: with the Christianity of Martin Luther (whose evangelical religion ill comported with his and Lutheranism’s fateful retention of the ancient “Greek” dogmas); with radical Antitrinitarianism and Socinianism (Unitarianism); and with the Council of Trent. Harnack, therefore, did not extend his history beyond the Reformation era, except for a brief chapter on doctrinal developments in Roman Catholicism from the Tridentine decrees to those of the First Vatican Council (1869–70). 

There is nothing in Harnack, moreover, comparable to Pelikan’s superb volume on Eastern Christianity from 600 to 1700. Harnack judged that the history of dogma in the Greek church had come to an end in the eighth century, and he evidenced little esteem for “the spirit of Eastern Christendom” and Byzantine orthodoxy (what with its reputed dogmatism, traditionalism, ritualism, caesaropapism, and general theological sterility). Though, like Harnack, of confessional Lutheran heritage, Mr. Pelikan experts that his readers “will undoubtedly discern the profound affinities of the author, in piety and in theology,” with the spirit of Eastern Christianity (2:7). In any event, by writing volume 2 and by according equal attention to doctrinal developments in both East and West during the first six centuries (volume 1) and, again, in the centuries since 1700 (volume 5), Pelikan has decisively broken with a baneful tradition of Western church historiography that simply ignores “most of the development of non Western Christendom except for those episodes, such as the schism or the Crusades, that involved the history of the West as well” (2:1). 

What especially distinguishes The Christian Tradition, besides its comprehensiveness, its ecumenical breadth, is the author’s mastery of an astonishing array of primary texts in Latin, Greek, Syriac, Old Slavic, and virtually all the modern European languages. (The listings of “Primary Sources” at the beginning of each volume occupy a total of 122 pages.) Pelikan devised a unique system of marginal annotation, with reference following reference down the side of each page in rich profusion, “without intruding the apparatus of erudition” on the non-interested reader (l:x). 

The mark of the magister is evident not only in this massive textual-philological expertise (unsurpassed, I think, among contemporary historical theologians), but in the ease with which Mr. Pelikan handles doctrinal developments of great complexity and intrinsic difficulty—such as those relating to the Trinity and the person of Christ. One thinks, for example, of his pellucid treatment (in volumes 1 and 2) of such Christological “heresies” as Nestoranism, Monophysitism, Monenergism, and Monotheletism. (Someone has said that the historian’s requisite virtues are faith, hope, and clarity—and the greatest of these is clarity!) For all their lucidity, however, these volumes are not “light” reading. Each chapter is weighty with expository detail and laden with citations to and quotations from the primary (and some secondary) literature. The total work thus has an “encyclopedic” character that makes for slow going. Still, reading it is not a res arduissima, simply a res cogitans. 

The work as a whole proceeds, of course, chronologically. Yet each chapter of each volume is topical or thematic, focusing on a particular doctrine (together with its prehistory, presuppositions, and concomitants). In the author’s words: “The date of the classic formulation of a doctrine or the consummation of an important stage of the development of a doctrine has determined where I have discussed that doctrine, including earlier stages of its development” (3:viii). For example, in volume 1, the cardinal doctrines of the Trinity and of the person of Christ (the God-Man) are treated in connection with the dogmatic decrees and creeds of the first four ecumenical councils, from Nicea to Chalcedon (325–451), while the doctrine of “Nature and Grace” (Christian anthropology) is first considered in chapter 6 (the next to last chapter) in connection with the “classic formulation” of Augustine of Hippo. This procedure makes plain Mr. Pelikan’s determination to concentrate throughout on the formulation of church doctrine, rather than on the theological systems or leading ideas of individual thinkers as such (who nonetheless make their appearance in their appropriate “time and place”). 

Each volume also takes due account of the varied ways in which the developing tradition of orthodox doctrine was itself appropriated in new historical contexts. This tradition at once provided indispensable resources and posed inescapable problems for the ongoing task of determining precisely what (at any given time) constituted “the Christian tradition.” Thus volume 2 begins with a discussion of “The Authority of the Fathers,” since for the whole of Eastern Christendom—for the Chalcedonian and the non-Chalcedonian (Nestorian, Monophysite) churches alike—the preeminent authority of the ancient fathers as doctors of Scripture was axiomatic, a sine qua non for all theological work and doctrinal construction. Volume 5, by contrast, begins with “The Crisis of Orthodoxy East and West,” since “the very existence of church and dogma would, from the seventeenth century onward, confront the ‘lamentable sight’ of a growing attack by modern culture and secular thought” (5:9). Little wonder, then, that the nineteenth century—with its heightened sense of the historicality (and so the relativity) of doctrine—witnessed profound and prolonged wrestlings with the exigent issues of the continuity, viability, and truth of tradition in the modern world”in short, with the historical-critical problem of “dogma and its development” (volume 5, chapter 5). 

It should be noted, finally, that each volume is designed to be read independently of the others, though there are helpful cross-references to earlier volumes (as well as cross-references within each volume). Nevertheless, the work is a structural whole, one “with a single overall concept guiding its composition and organization” (l:ix). To this guiding concept we now turn.


Mr. Pelikan’s consistent purpose in The Christian Tradition is to provide a sequential account of the development of Christian doctrine. How, then, does he understand both “doctrine” and “development”? Pages 1–10 of volume 1 are given over to “Some Definitions” that are foundational to the total work, supplying its formal or methodological unity. Adopting and adapting a formula one encounters in Romans 10:8–10 and in the Augsburg Confession (1530) and other churchly statements of faith, Pelikan identifies Christian doctrine as “what the church of Jesus Christ believes, teaches, and confesses on the basis of the word of God.”

This description (not, strictly speaking, a definition) indicates that doctrine is “the business of the church.” It thus refers, first and foremost, to the church’s public teaching, as distinct from the theories and personal opinions of its teachers. To be sure, what the theologians themselves taught is integral to the history of doctrine, since their thought “often reflected an earlier stage in the development [of doctrine] or anticipated a later one.” Still, a doctrinal history must concentrate on “the common faith of the church,” as distinct from “the idiosyncratic thought of individual theologians.”

The history of Christian doctrine, therefore, is not to be equated with the history of Christian theology, or (more broadly) with the history of Christian thought, or (most broadly) with the cultural-intellectual history of the Christian East and West. Nor is the history of doctrine to be identified with the history of Christian ethics, worship, biblical interpretation, canon law, church organization, missions, institutions (e.g., monasticism, the papacy), etc.—all of which are included in “church history” and all of which are relevant to doctrinal history so far as they have directly influenced the formation of the church’s public teaching. Nor, finally, is history of doctrine synonymous with its cognate discipline, the history of dogma, which focuses on the normative statements of Christian belief, i.e., the church’s official teaching both adopted and enforced by various ecclesiastical authorities. Dogma, in this strict sense of “what is confessed,” is thus a part of but not coterminous with doctrine.

The history of Christian doctrine, in sum, is broader in scope than the history of erudite theology and the history of official dogma, but narrower than the history of Christian thought, church history, and a general intellectual history. Doctrinal history specifically takes into account “what is believed” as this is evident in the forms of Christian devotion, spirituality, and worship. It takes into account “what is taught” in the forms of Christian proclamation, instruction, and churchly theology, all of which aim to communicate to the church at large the content of the word of God as extracted by exegesis from the Bible. Thus the writings of the theologians are, inevitably, a prominent source for the history of doctrine, but not only their treatises on systematic theology. No less attention must be given to their role as interpreters of Holy Scripture, hence to their exegetical works as well as to their dogmatic and polemical works. And, lastly, doctrinal history takes into account “what is confessed” in the forms of Christian apologetics and polemics, and of creed and dogma, which articulate the church’s testimony against attacks from without and false teaching from within.

The church’s belief, teaching, and confession constitute its “tradition,” understood both as the ongoing process of communicating or handing on something (the actus tradendi) and as the specific content (the traditum) of that process. Pelikan’s “primary concern is not so much with the formal concept of tradition [the act of ‘traditioning’] as with its content or matter,” that is, “with the changes and continuities of various Christian doctrines as they shaped history and were shaped by it.” The focal concern is thus with the doctrines themselves and their historical development. Given his definition of doctrine, Pelikan perforce conceives such development as the historically demonstrable movement (with its changes and continuities) from believing to teaching and thence (perhaps) to confessing, and back again (insofar as “what is confessed” in creed and dogma becomes part of the church’s “authorized deposit of faith” and so is further developed in the form of “what is taught” by the theologians and even in the form of “what is believed” by the faithful at large, since Christian piety remains a powerful factor in doctrinal development).

This movement, however, as Pelikan insisted in his book Historical Theology, “is not simple, nor does it always go in the same direction” (97). In the modern period, for example, “theologians often ‘confessed’ more than they ‘believed,’ perhaps more than they ‘taught’” (5:viii-ix): one surmises that this was the case with the dogmas of the Trinity and of the bodily resurrection of Christ. Again, many doctrines have long been believed and taught that have never been formally confessed: e.g., the doctrines of Christ’s saving work, of the kingdom of God, and of the Bible’s inspiration and inerrancy. Again, some doctrines were believed and widely taught long before they ever attained dogmatic status: e.g., the Roman Catholic dogma of the Virgin Mary’s immaculate conception (first proclaimed in 1854 by Pope Pius IX, although this doctrine, in its incipient form, had been opposed in the Middle Ages by both Bernard of Clairvaux and Thomas Aquinas). And some doctrines that have been confessed were not themselves taught during the early Christian centuries: e.g., the Roman Catholic dogma of the bodily assumption of the Virgin Mary (first proclaimed in 1950 by Pope Pius XII) and the central Protestant doctrine of justification by faith as entailing the divine imputation to sinners of Christ’s own righteousness (though Protestants claimed that this doctrine of forensic justification was fully biblical, whatever its status in early church tradition). (The modern Marian dogmas, moreover, in view of their relation to the dogma of papal infallibility [1870], should not be seen as typifying doctrinal development.)

The actual development of doctrine, accordingly, cannot be construed in some a priori fashion; exhibiting no law-like regularities, it cannot be predicted. To be sure, some developments can be shown to have been “logical”: the movement, for example, from confessing the “consubstantiality” of the Logos/Son with God the Father, at the Council of Nicea (325), to the parallel confession of the Holy Split’s consubstantiality at the First Council of Constantinople (381). This development, in turn, necessitated prolonged attention to the doctrine of the Trinity as such, to the relation between the Three and the One (see 1:211–25). Pelikan has also tentatively advanced a “general rule” to the effect that “at any given time the Church believes implicitly more than it teaches explicitly, and that it teaches more than it confesses officially” (HT, 97). Nevertheless, this generalization”and all other generalizations employed by the historian of doctrine”must be both tested and warranted by the documentary evidence, i.e., by an inductive (a posteriori) inquiry.

Mr. Pelikan’s description-cum-definition of doctrine, and of its forms and its development, is exceptionally flexible and serviceable. I cannot think of any alternative construct that would have permitted him to “cover” the entire sweep of Christian doctrinal history, above all in those periods (such as the post-Reformation centuries) when formal confessions and official dogmas have been rare, if not lacking, in most churches. In the following two sections, I propose to consider, respectively, some of the signal strengths and several limitations or problem-points in Pelikan’s overall perspective and procedure.


Among the many accomplishments of The Christian Tradition, besides those already considered, the following impress me as especially noteworthy. Here, again, some comparisons with Harnack’s History of Dogma may prove illuminating.

1. Harnack basically equated Christian doctrine with dogma, and the latter, in turn, with the early church’s Trinitarian and Christological dogmas, which were authoritatively proclaimed in church councils, codified in creeds, and legally enforced by the ecclesiastical hierarchy (and by orthodox Christian rulers) as “necessary to salvation.” Pelikan, however, by not focusing almost exclusively on “what is confessed,” has been able to give ear to “all the other keys in which the church’s doctrine may be played”: in preaching, instruction, exegesis, liturgy, and spirituality. Further, by not equating dogma with the twin dogmas of the first four ecumenical councils, he has greatly broadened the scope of “what is confessed.” Thereby he has overcome Harnack’s excessively narrow and essentially juridical concept of doctrine. 

2. Harnack maintained that “the history of dogma during the first three centuries is not reflected in the liturgy.” Pelikan has demonstrated the untenability of this breathtaking assertion. In keeping with the principle enunciated by Prosper of Aquitaine (d. ca. 463) that “the rule of prayer should lay down the rule of faith,” Pelikan shows that the development of doctrine, not least of creed and dogma, would often be inexplicable apart from the requisite attention to the church’s developing patterns of worship, which thus compose “the melody of theology” (cf. 2:133–45). As regards the first three centuries, one need only recall the central role of liturgical prayer directed immediately to Christ, rather than to God through Christ, in the development of the dogma of Christ’s deity (see 1:198–200). Likewise, the iconophile doctrine that ultimately triumphed over iconoclasm in the great Eastern “image controversy” of the eighth and ninth centuries is rightly called a “liturgical doctrine” (see 2:91–145). The same is true of the doctrine of atonement or reconciliation through the work of Christ (see 5:268), which has never received dogmatic definition. 

3. Harnack was by no means insensitive to the importance of biblical exegesis for theological polemics and apologetics and so for the development of doctrine. Yet he tended simply to list key Bible passages in his text or in his footnotes, rather than discussing them in depth; nor did he consistently attend to this exegetical component of church teaching. One of Pelikan’s premier achievements is his demonstration of the Bible’s indispensable role in the formation and development of doctrine in each of its modalities. He both identifies the chief scriptural texts and accords them a luminous exposition. Thus the theologians’ Bible commentaries, as well as their other exegetical discussions (so “incidental” to the inattentive or impatient reader), have been restored to their rightful place in doctrinal history: a long overdue corrective to “standard operating procedure” in most such histories. 

4. Harnack’s work is famous (or infamous) for its principal thesis that the dogmas of the Trinity and of the God-Man were “a work of the Greek spirit on the soil of the gospel,” thus marking a victory of the Hellenistic philosophy of religion over the primitive Christian message (though this original gospel was not then, nor has it ever been, eradicated). The result was that a fancied, metaphysical Christ supplanted the real, historical one. Pelikan, in volume 1, has justly protested that “‘hellenization’ is too simple and unqualified a term for the process that issued in orthodox Christian doctrine” (45). He argues—convincingly, I think—that early Christian theology achieved a definite victory over classical thought, while stressing that this “triumph of theology” was incomplete (see 41–55). Two doctrines in particular—the immortality of the soul (as distinct from the resurrection of the body) and the absoluteness (ontological immutability/impassibility) of God—are “perhaps the most reliable indications of the continuing hold of Greek philosophy on Christian theology” (51). This latter emphasis on God’s absoluteness, as well as the Augustinian tradition’s rejection of Judaism’s refusal “to polarize the free sovereignty of God and the free will of man” (22), may be seen as evidence of the “de-Judaization” of Christianity. Conversely, a “re-Judaization” may be seen in the developing cultic-hierarchical idea of a Christian “priesthood” (with the bishop identified as “high priest”) and in the growing use of language about “sacrifice” in the Eucharist (25). Finally, a strong case can be made that the Trinitarian and Christological dogmas actually represent a “dehellenization” of the theology that preceded them and that (in the words of Werner Elert) “by its dogma the church threw up a wall against an alien metaphysic” exhibited in the very speculations and heresies condemned by the creeds and councils (55). Pelikan’s perspective on “hellenization,” in sum, is much more nuanced and qualified than was Harnack’s. 

5. One of Harnack’s most distinguished pupils, Friedrich Loofs, himself an eminent historian of dogma, once called his mentor’s great work “a monograph on the rise and development of the dogma of the fourth century, written with genius and placed into a large context.” Quite so! For Harnack that large context amounted to nothing less than a history of Christian theology from the New Testament to the sixteenth century—a surprising (albeit, perhaps, compensatory) procedure given his narrow definition of dogma. In the course of his three volumes, Harnack wrote the equivalent of full-scale monographs on Augustine and Luther, who, along with Origen and Athanasius, were his special “heroes of faith.” This massive attention to the private ideas of individual theologians gave the impression of episodic development and of discontinuity from one period of Christian history to another. Pelikan’s own great work, by not concentrating on the theological virtuosos and their “big ideas,” has both uncovered and underscored the fundamental continuity of churchly teaching over the centuries. In his own words: “Because it is with tradition that we are dealing, we shall be interested not only in change but also in continuity, not only in conflict but also in agreement” (1:7). Nonetheless, by taking care not to impose a false uniformity on doctrinal development or to posit an a priori consensus, Pelikan’s history has also remained open to the “new,” i.e., to the emergence of “innovation” vis- -vis the “tradition.” 

6. Pelikan’s strict adherence to his decision to write a history of church doctrine, not of learned theology, has resulted in many historiographical advances. For example: intellectual historians of the Western Middle Ages have usually approached the monastic and scholastic theologians as philosophers of sorts and, in any case, not as representatives of and contributors to “the common Christian faith.” Pelikan, however, has demonstrated that these same thinkers made important, even permanent contributions to the development of such doctrines as the redemptive work of Christ, the hypostatic union (of Christ’s divine and human natures), and, above all, the nature of grace and of the sacraments. In the process he has supplied the fullest and finest summary to date of early medieval doctrine from the seventh through the eleventh century (the subject of the first four chapters of volume 3). Likewise, in keeping with the newer historiography of the past quarter-century, Pelikan (in volume 4) has firmly anchored the Reformation in its late medieval context and in its continuity with the succeeding age of confessional dogmatics (1300–1700). The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries witnessed a “doctrinal pluralism,” which was mirrored in the doctrinal pluralism of the seventeenth century, save that the latter was now based on the rival church doctrines and confessions of the sixteenth century. Pelikan has thus broken categorically with all those older German Protestant histories of doctrine that evinced a monogamous passion for the religious thought (if not the formal theology) of the mainline Protestant reformers (above all Luther), as if the “reformation of church and dogma” were synonymous with their work and writings during the years 152060. One should add that Pelikan’s focus on church doctrine has also marked a salutary break with traditional histories organized around other, more familiar foci, such as church councils or prominent pontificates or party labels or, most often, a few pivotal doctrines ( loci theologici ) whose treatment served the current needs of systematic and confessional-polemical theology. 

7. It was long assumed by all Christians, whatever their theological persuasion or confessional allegiance, that “doctrine” and “development”—that “tradition” and “history”—are incompatible magnitudes, since the church’s teachings (especially its creeds and dogmas) are absolute, immutable, the product not of human history but of divine revelation, hence supernatural and timeless. Only heresy has a history! This perspective was universally operative from the first through the seventeenth century. In Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and conservative Protestant circles it has obtained well into the twentieth century. Perhaps Pelikan’s greatest service [at least to the non-expert reader) is to have rendered untenable, once and for all, this traditional concept of the Christian tradition. Without giving way to modish debunking or exhibiting a hypercritical spirit, he has employed the “new genetic way of viewing tradition” fashioned by modern historical-critical research, which makes “the location in time of a particular doctrinal formulation an essential element in the understanding of that formulation” (1:8). Temporally conditioned as they are, doctrines also develop under the pressure of new times and new situations, albeit such development regularly displays continuity within change (and vice versa). Thus, for example. Eastern Orthodoxy has ever deemed anathema the very idea of doctrinal innovation. Yet Pelikan shows that even in the putatively unchanging East there was “a new development of the doctrine of the person of Christ” during the seventh and eighth centuries (2:75–90); that the developing “mystical way of being a theologian”—from the time of Simeon “the New Theologian” (d. 1022) to that of Gregory Palamas (d. 1359)—actually produced “a new theology” in the strict sense, namely a new doctrine of God (2:252–70); and that the impact of the Reformation on Greek Christianity eventually required Eastern Christendom to produce its own statements of doctrine in the seventeenth century”confessions that moved well beyond a simple repristination of “Scripture, fathers, councils” (2:280–95). 

8. Besides demonstrating the fact of doctrinal development, Pelikan has rightly warned against—and duly avoided—“an anachronistic reading of the history of doctrine” that assimilates earlier stages of development to later dogmatic definitions, on the assumption that “what eventually came to be confessed must have been believed, if not taught; that it must have been, as Cardinal Newman said, ‘really held everywhere from the beginning’ “ (1:8). The “must,” in this case, is neither logical (causally necessary) nor empirical (historical), but patently theological (dogmatic). Consider also the familiar claim that a given dogma simply rendered “explicit” what was “implicit” in earlier teaching and/ or belief: this reading of history is anachronistic if there is no convincing evidence for precisely such a development. One of Harnack’s animating concerns was to show how “ecclesiastical theology” took the church’s finished dogma as its starting point and therewith obscured the complex developments that actually led to dogma’s formation, with the result that this “official” theology not only lost its hold on history but was even obliged to condemn, retrospectively, the “theological fathers of dogma,” whose thought now appeared heterodox in various respects (cf. Origen). Notwithstanding his own positive appraisal of dogma and churchly theology, and his many other differences from Harnack, Pelikan is fully at one with his renowned predecessor in his scrupulous adherence to the exacting standards of professional historiography.


The Christian Tradition also has its complement of problematic features, which are, on the whole, intrinsic to its distinctive point of view and methodology. Among these features are the following:

1. As already noted, each chapter of each volume of TCT contains hundreds of citations to and quotations from the primary literature. The words and works of individual authors—many of whom are not discussed or even named in the text itself-are thus used to “illustrate” a particular doctrinal theme or perspective or development. Often these authors were widely separated in time, sociopolitical circumstance, and geographical locale. One also finds citations to the same author that come from different periods in his career and from different literary genres (such as biblical commentaries and polemical treatises). Such selective citation and quotation poses a series of questions, all related to the difficult issue of “contextualization.” Has justice been done to the author’s specific historical (temporal and spatial) setting? Has justice been done to the integrity of each author’s teaching (especially to the carefully ordered and subtly nuanced teaching of theologians who were themselves systematic artists: such masters of the craft as Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Albrecht Ritschl, and Karl Barth)? Has justice been done to developments within the literary corpus (and thus in the teaching) of a given author? Has justice been done to the different rhetorical and methodological strategies in the different writings of a single author? And has justice been done to the significant differences or disagreements among authors whose works are considered together under the same doctrinal rubric? For example, in volume 4, chapter 4, the writings of Zwingli, Bucer, Oecolampadius, Bullinger, Calvin, and Beza are all cited in support of a distinctively Reformed (as contrasted with a Lutheran) position on “The Word and the Will of God,” though these theologians were by no means of one mind on such doctrines as the means of grace and predestination. It would be inaccurate and unfair to say or imply that TCT’s use of the sources has led to any falsification of the evidence. One can justly maintain, however, that it does entail a certain “homogenization” and “de-contextualization” of the evidence. 

2. Mr. Pelikan has acknowledged that his definition of doctrine “answers one question by begging a great many others, including the question of what the Church is and how it is to be identified” (HT, 95). Given the many diverse and competing “churches” throughout Christian history, how is the historian of doctrine to identify “the church of Jesus Christ” that is the actual subject of believing, teaching, and confessing? For Pelikan this question (which involves the idea of the “true” church) is ultimately a normative-theological one rather than a descriptive-historical one. It is thus a matter for adjudication by dogmatic theology (with the necessary cooperation of historical theology). Still, the historian of church doctrine does have to work with some concept of “church.” In the absence of any formal definition, one judges that, for Pelikan, “churchly” doctrine is belief, teaching, and confession that are congruent with what he calls (in volume 1, chapter 7) “the orthodox consensus” that had been reached by 600 in both East and West. In volume 1 Pelikan’s account appears to read forward to and backward from this patristic consensus, which could thus serve to identify the “mainstream” Christian tradition. (See chapter 2, “Outside the Mainstream,” on Marcionism. Gnosticism, and Montanism.) Churchly Christianity, then, is what eventually came to be seen as Catholic Christianity or as “the orthodox Catholic tradition.” Volumes 2–5 go on to trace the most significant contributions to, changes in, continuities with, disputes about, and rejections of this orthodox corpus doctrinae, this fides catholica, which was considered by its original formulators to be of one piece with the normative biblical-apostolic tradition. This general procedure is surely defensible since it conforms to the canons of a “descriptive” historiography. (It is also one that I find religiously and theologically satisfying.) However, by basically identifying church doctrine with orthodox-Catholic doctrine, Pelikan has de facto adopted the standpoint of all those Christians who, since the second century, have ascribed such orthodoxy and catholicity to themselves in the conviction that their belief, teaching, and confession are in direct continuity with original biblical-apostolic Christianity and who have thus judged themselves to be “the church of Jesus Christ.” Since he makes no independent effort to test or demonstrate the historical truth (accuracy, tenability, plausibility) of this standpoint, Pelikan must operate with the self-evaluation of the majority of his historical agents. (He thus recounts what they believed to be the case.) Readers of TCT may well find this procedure problematic because they will presumably want to know on what historical-critical grounds this functional identification of “churchly” with “orthodox-Catholic” and so with “biblical-apostolic” can be justified. They will, in other words, expect the critical historian to join his description with his own evaluation (as distinct from that of his protagonists). 

3. Harnack insisted that in the history of doctrine “everything depends on where and how one begins.” He also judged that “the simple fundamental proposition that only that is Christian which can be authoritatively established by the gospel has never yet received justice in the history of dogma.” Hence he was constrained to begin his account with the preaching (gospel) of Jesus himself and with the common preaching (kerygma) about Jesus in the first generation of believers—for only so could one determine “what the Christian religion originally was.” Mr. Pelikan, clearly, has made a dramatic break with Harnack’s precedent by deciding to begin his account with the second century. This decision has many far-reaching consequences. For one, consider Pelikan’s stipulation that churchly believing, teaching, and confession take place “on the basis of the word of God.” Harnack would agree that they should do so, while seeking to determine whether they have done so by direct appeal to the gospel of and about Jesus Christ, as attested in the New Testament (on the basis of the Old Testament). Pelikan’s starting point means, however, that his history “will not deal with the doctrinal content of the Old Testament and the New Testament in their own terms”; rather, “for our purposes the theology of the New Testament is not what Jesus and the apostles may have taught but what the church has understood them to have taught” (1:6). Pelikan, accordingly, recounts how the “word of God” was understood at any given time in respect to any given doctrine, but—unlike Harnack—he does not endeavor to test the correctness of these interpretations (and the resultant doctrines) through a prior determination of what is authentically biblical-evangelical. Here, too, Pelikan adopts the standpoint of his protagonists, in this case that of the church’s biblical expositors, whose “readings” of Scripture he carefully describes without any explicit evaluation of their exegesis. This procedure, again, is entirely justifiable. Its particular value is that it demonstrates the coinherence of Scripture and tradition throughout the history of doctrine (over against a long-standing Protestant biblicism that posits the “aloneness” of the Bible’s normative authority in an exclusive sense, i.e., in isolation from the ongoing history of biblical interpretation in, by, and for the church). I also view this procedure as problematic, however, since it does not address the critical issue of whether the entire course of doctrinal development exhibits a demonstrable congruence between Scripture and the interpretive tradition. Moreover, I anticipate that many readers will come to TCT with the expectation that its author will take into account the doctrinal consciousness of the present (including the findings of contemporary biblical scholarship) with a view to appraising the doctrinal consciousness of the past (including its biblical interpretation). In any event, Harnack would find it remarkable that a modern history of Christian doctrine would intentionally start with the year 100 and thereby prescind from the historical-critical task of establishing exegetical-theological criteria for judging all the varied doctrinal claims, advanced in the course of the Christian tradition, to be “biblical,” “apostolic,” “evangelical.” This evaluative issue is an acute one because many claims of fidelity to the apostolic teaching and preaching were themselves “tainted” by anachronistic argument, in that a given historical outcome was simply “read back” into the time of Christian origins (as happened, for example, when a fully developed episcopal order of ministry—the so-called historic episcopate—was forthwith labeled “apostolic”). 

4. The concept of development in TCT is a subtle and sophisticated one. It is also an intentionally limited or circumscribed one, since Mr. Pelikan decided not to relate doctrinal developments to their total historical milieu, thereby distinguishing his approach from that of Ernst Troeltsch in his magnum opus, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches (1912; Eng. trans., 1931). Pelikan has called the latter work “the most articulate statement of the thesis that Christian doctrine cannot be interpreted—as it has been interpreted in our work—in isolation from its social and cultural setting” (1:360]. Why reject Troeltsch’s model? Because “if one were to follow Troeltsch, the history of doctrine would be absorbed into the history of Christian thought, which would in turn be absorbed into the general history of ideas” (HT, 90). Pelikan also declined to follow other, more current models of social-cultural history, seeing in some of them, at least, a blatant reductionism, inasmuch as “historians [today] have lost the ability to resonate to the religious convictions of previous ages, which they therefore feel obliged to explain away in terms of political, economic, or psychological factors” (HT, 80). These are all weighty reasons in support of Pelikan’s chosen procedure (ones with which I largely concur). Still, in ordinary historiography, a full description-cum-explanation of historical development requires attention to the relevant social, political, and economic “factors” (not necessarily “determinants”), as well as to general intellectual currents, in order to account for the emergence of a given phenomenon (e.g., the iconoclastic controversy) at a particular time and place, and in order to account for the particular direction in which this phenomenon developed. Such “thick description,” as it has been termed, is widely considered a necessary component of a fully adequate historical interpretation. Its absence in TCT is problematic. 

5. Given the relative infrequency of the creedal and dogmatic forms of doctrine since 1650, one well understands Mr. Pelikan’s statement that in the later volumes of TCT “the history of doctrine will move into, but will never quite become, the history of theology” (1:5). Hence one expects that volume 5, in particular, will devote much more attention to “what is taught” (in the form of individual theologies) than to “what is confessed.” Even here, however, Pelikan has declined to present “the history of systematic theology since 1700, much less the history of philosophical theology or the philosophy of religion” (5:6). This declination is problematic in view of the near equivalence—on Pelikan’s own terms—between “doctrine” and “theology” in the modern age. Pelikan defended his procedure as follows: “But volume 5, too, bears the title The Christian Tradition, and that has had to determine the selection of topics and authors. It has likewise dictated that the use of the Christian past—of tradition, creed, and dogma—by the church in the modern period bulks large in this narrative, much larger than it does in most histories of modern theology” (5:ix). Even in volume 5, therefore, the criteria for determining what is “doctrinal” are not derived—as one would otherwise expect—from the contemporaneous teachings of the theologians (“the soloists,” as Pelikan calls them), but from the tradition, from the creed and dogma of the Christian past (“the chorus”), which thus sets the agenda of “topics and authors.” In effect, then, the modern theologians are measured by the premodern tradition, although many of them—especially those teachers associated with the so-called New Protestantism from Schleiermacher to Troeltsch (ca. 1800–1920)—contended that the orthodox tradition had by now devolved into a sclerotic traditionalism and so required a comprehensive re-formation: a far-reaching development that volume 5 does not trace in detail or discuss in depth. To be sure, we presently possess several first-rate histories of modern theology. (One thinks, above all, of Claude Welch’s superb Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century, 1799–1914 [2 vols., 1972, 1985].) Pelikan’s focus on the modern church’s “use of the Christian past,” therefore, is a most welcome and much-needed complement to these histories of “thought” (as distinct from “doctrine” in its fullest sense). His volume 5 demonstrates that even in the midst of momentous cultural change and insistent calls for doctrinal change, there has been an impressive continuity between modern Christian teaching and the age-old Christian tradition. 

6. It is clear, accordingly, that Mr. Pelikan’s approach to Christian doctrine since 1700 is fully consistent with his concentration on the long-term development of “the orthodox consensus” in belief, teaching, and confession that emerged during the first six centuries and that was subsequently adhered to by the great majority of Christians as “the Christian tradition” (notwithstanding the serious disagreements about various components of this tradition that arose from the East-West schism and from the confessional divisions of the Reformation era). Little wonder, then, that the last chapter of volume 5 and of the total work should be titled “The Sobornost [Universality] of the Body of Christ” and should treat the renewed quest for Christian unity, and the attendant reaffirmation of the classic Christian tradition, as evidenced in the ecumenical movements of the twentieth century and in the work of the Second Vatican Council. TCT’s internal coherence, its steadfast adherence to its grand design from first to last, is an admirable achievement. What remains unclear in volume 5—even on its own terms regarding “the use of the Christian past”—is why (on what doctrinal-historical grounds) certain theologians have been singled out for extensive discussion, to the absence or relative neglect of others. Why, for example, does it devote some ten pages to the writings and teachings of Walter Rauschenbusch, while those of Schleiermacher are given rather less notice, those of Troeltsch are discussed but cursorily, and those of Paul Tillich, the Niebuhr brothers (Reinhold and H. Richard), and Karl Rahner are not considered at all? 

7. In view of Mr. Pelikan’s procedure and particular selection of topics and authors in volume 5, the title of this volume is problematic because potentially misleading. One expects Pelikan to bring “Christian doctrine and modern culture” into direct confrontation, into a sustained “argument” one with the other, in the process both describing and explaining the widespread, if not universal, “modern consciousness” of alienation from and opposition to the classical (orthodox-Catholic) tradition. In Pelikan’s own words: “For the modern period in the history of Christian doctrine may be defined as the time when doctrines that had been assumed more than debated for most of Christian history were themselves called into question: the idea of revelation, the uniqueness of Christ, the authority of Scripture, the expectation of life after death, even the very transcendence of God” (5:viii). Even so, one asks: who were the primary agents in this massive “calling into question” of the Christian doctrinal tradition and why was this tradition widely felt to be so problematic or so burdensome or so intellectually untenable? Yet there is no mention, much less discussion, of such “great questioners” and “explainers” as Hegel, Marx, Feuerbach, Renan, Nietzsche, and Freud; no direct reference to Darwin and Darwinism (though there are several references to “evolutionism”); and only a brief notice of D. E Strauss. Likewise, in the pivotal section on “Dogma and Its Development” (265–81), there is no treatment (or mention) of Troeltsch’s important and influential writings on the acute problems posed for Christian faith by modern historical-critical thinking, nor of Troeltsch’s (and Harnack’s) project of “overcoming dogma by history.” This section is dominated by the contributions of John Henry Newman. I count twenty-two citations to his writings, chiefly his Essay on the Development of Doctrine (1845). By contrast, there are only two references to Harnack’s History of Dogma and but five to the seminal works of Ferdinand Christian Baur, though it must be granted, I think, that Harnack’s and Baur’s (and Troeltsch’s) ideas of development were more representative of “modern culture” than was Newman’s idea. In sum: here in volume 5, if anywhere in TCT, Pelikan’s account would appear obliged to expand itself into a wide-ranging cultural-intellectual history. That it has not done so—for reasons already noted—suggests that this final volume of TCT would more appropriately have been titled “Christian Doctrine in the Modern World (since 1700).”


God alone knows the future; only a historian can alter the past.” So said the American humorist Ambrose Bierce. And the wit was right! Historians routinely engage in altering “the past,” so far as the latter can still be reconstructed on the basis of its surviving traces. Such reconstructions, presented in the form of written histories, always remain open to revision. The Christian Tradition is precisely such a work of historical revisionism vis- -vis earlier histories of Christian doctrine, as becomes especially plain in comparing it with Harnack’s History of Dogma. This comparison, one should stress, is by no means arbitrary or coincidental. Mr. Pelikan himself has said: “Superseded but never surpassed, Harnack’s work remains, after more than eighty years, the one interpretation of early Christian doctrine with which every scholar in the field must contend” (1:359). Whether or not the latter estimate is presently shared by “every scholar in the field” is, for our purposes, immaterial. The salient fact is that Pelikan has chosen (on reasonable and defensible grounds) to make Harnack (along with Newman) his leading “dialogue partner” in the planning and execution of his total work. Hence a comparison of their two histories serves to illumine the aims and accomplishments of TCT.

No doubt other historians will wish to propose, and in due season may actually write, comprehensive histories of the development of Christian doctrine that break materially with the models of both Harnack and Pelikan. But that is simply another way of saying—and emphasizing—that “the past” of Christian doctrine is a historical past: one not available to us for direct inspection, but one still existing for us through inquiry, through the patient investigation of its traces, of the extant evidence. Hence this past of Christian doctrine is always subject to alteration because the evidence is always open to differing interpretations and explanations. Even so, the historiography of Christian doctrine is an ever-changing enterprise. Within present-day historiography, however, TCT commands the field—and rightly so, as should be plain from my critical observations and reflections throughout this review.

I also judge that TCT will be to future historians of doctrine what Harnack’s work was to Pelikan himself: an indispensable point of departure for the continuing task of historical reconstruction. Pelikan has maintained that “the fact of [doctrinal] development cannot be appreciated nor the issues of [the] legitimacy and [the] limit [of such development] adjudicated [by polemical and dogmatic theology] until the processes of doctrinal development have been charted with greater accuracy” (Development of Christian Doctrine, p. 42). He grants that dogmatic theology “must strive to formulate some a priori judgments about the development of doctrine” (39), but he insists that “the investigation of the development of Christian doctrine in the history of theology is too important to be left to the theologians” (43). Doctrine, that is, “develops out of earlier doctrine within the context of the total life of the Church in the world. And it does not do so on the basis of the a priori logic prescribed by the theologian, but on the basis of an a posteriori logic to be described by the historian” (51). In short, the accurate charting of the actual processes of development is the distinctive task of the historian. TCT has carried out this task with consummate skill and tact. In this it remains paradigmatic for all historians of Christian doctrine.

What, then, of the significance of TCT for other than professional historians? A full answer would require a much fuller (or quite different) review. Still, most of my prior comments have in fact been directed to the “general” reader, rather than to fellow members of the historian’s guild (whose critical interests tend to focus on formal issues of methodology and conceptualization). In closing, and by way of summary, I should like to emphasize that a consecutive reading of Mr. Pelikan’s five volumes leaves no doubt that to speak of “the Christian tradition” is historically warranted, despite perennial disagreements among Christians about various components of this tradition. There is, in brief, a multifaceted body of Christian doctrine that throughout the centuries has constituted “the common Christian faith.” This body of the church’s public doctrine has gradually come into being, and is still in process of formation (and re-formation), through the complex interplay of Christian belief, teaching, and confession in changing historical contexts, on the basis of the ongoing exposition of the biblical-apostolic gospel. This body of doctrine, accordingly, has a history of development, in which continuity (“commonality”) has, on the whole, been more conspicuous than discontinuity (“conflict”). Such development has thus been distinguished, not least during the Reformation era and in modern times, by a continuing quest for catholicity (universality of doctrine) and unity (identity of doctrine), in testimony that the variety of Christian theologies has not precluded the unity of the Christian gospel (“the unity within the variety,” in Pelikan’s apt phrase). Having developed (and still developing), this body of doctrine is not timeless but is, invariably and inevitably, time-conditioned, though the latter proviso does not mean (as Harnack judged) that such doctrine is inescapably time-bound (for otherwise the manifest continuity of Christian doctrine would be historically inexplicable, or attributable only to inertia and a spurious “conservatism”). From start to finish, then, Pelikan’s great history bespeaks its “churchliness,” its ultimate grounding in the Christian doctrine of the Holy Spirit, who, in Martin Luther’s words, “calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth and preserves it in union with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.” Hence one is not surprised to find that TCT closes (5:336), as it began (1:10), with the belief, teaching, and confession: “Credo unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam.”

I submit that this church-centered history is of surpassing importance for the contemporary Christian churches, especially in North America, where an antihistorical (or, at least, ahistorical) spirit has long prevailed and is today, I think, even more acute. One does not have to look far (beyond one’s seminary classroom!) to observe that a lively sense of “the Christian tradition” has become exceedingly attenuated within American Christianity (and not solely within the old liberal Protestant mainstream); that “tradition” and “traditionalism” are widely taken to be synonymous (though Pelikan justly opposes them as “the living faith of the dead” versus “the dead faith of the living”); that a laudable concern for ecumenicity in space (“globalization of theology”) has not been attended by—and often militates against—a profound concern for ecumenicity in time (“tradition as history and as heritage”); and that classic Christian doctrine, where not dismissed outright as irrelevant or superannuated, is subjected to a variety of “total revisions” apart from a clear and coherent knowledge of this doctrinal tradition in all its remarkable pluriformity (its diversity in unity), and thus in its own intrinsic capacity for generating creative reappropriations and reinterpretations of “the faith once delivered” to the faithful of old. To be sure, there has been an egregious failure of historical-theological pedagogy here, in local congregations as well as in church-related colleges and universities and in seminaries and divinity schools. In this larger educational context Professor Pelikan’s magnum opus may be seen as nothing less than what once was called ministerium verbi: a service to and of the Word.

And these reflections lead to my final word. One comes away from a consecutive reading of The Christian Tradition with three superlatives firmly fixed in mind: monumental, magisterial, and ministerial.

David W. Lotz is the Washburn Professor of Church History at Union Theological Seminary, New York. He is coauthor, with Richard A. Norris and Robert T. Handy, of A History of the Christian Church.