In five exquisitely argued chapters, Jaroslav Pelikan establishes, defines, circumscribes and extols the discipline of historical theology. In certain fields, perhaps best exemplified by literary criticism, the rise of the theorist seems concomitant with the demise of the practitioner. At first it may appear reasonable, then, to dismiss such brash arm-chair coaching. This author, however, is no mere theorist. By the time this work appeared in 1971, he was already a formidable historian and Luther translator; for the next almost 40 years afterward, he would put his advice into practice to become the 20th century’s most remarkable historical theologian. Despite this, many of his philosophical commitments and fundamental orientations have been ignored or rejected by conservative evangelical historians.
The first two chapters trace the problem of doctrinal change, or rather, the awareness that doctrine has developed and the resulting difficulties. The first chapter examines pre-modern attitudes toward doctrinal development, which can be summarized in two statements: “True doctrine is immutable,” and the readily following, “Innovation is heresy.” Thus, histories of dogma written by pre-moderns are largely litanies of heretical innovations, each in turn being staved off by the defenders of orthodoxy, the consensus of the church from its earliest days. Several people, Abelard and Thomas in particular, recognized the presence of contradiction within their tradition, but their attempts to resolve it were unsatisfactory.
The modern consciousness of history grew out of the Reformation and the Enlightenment. The Reformation, with its plurality of quite different denominations all claiming to be the true heirs of the apostles and the Christian tradition, provided an immediate need to rethink perspectives on history; the Enlightenment’s scientific disposition, especially the insistence on using original sources and literary criticism, provided the tools for grappling with the past. According to Pelikan, these streams meet in the nineteenth-century critical studies. The great exemplar of historical theology is Adolf Harnack’s History of Dogma. Rightfully challenged on many points, it remains the magnificent edifice of 19th century historical scholarship – painstakingly researched, dependent upon primary sources, sweeping in scope, bold in analysis. Rejecting the dogmatic – previous doctrine is judged by present orthodoxy – approach on one hand and the relative – doctrine is wholly the result of historical forces – approach on the other, Pelikan seeks a via media by which the living can listen to the dead, but not to repeat them.
Chapters Three, Four and Five respectively answer the questions, “What is historical theology?”, “How does one do it?”, and “What relationship does it bear to exegesis and theology?”. These chapters are insightful, but not as foundational, I survey them briefly. Chapter Three seeks to situate historical theology as a discipline distinct from history on the one hand and theology on the other. The proper scope and subject matter are addressed. Drawing from Romans 10:8-10, Pelikan defines Christian doctrine as “what the Church believes, teaches, and confesses.” This definition both limits the task of historical theology and simultaneously expands it beyond a history of the ideas of private theologians. Chapter Four, perhaps a bit dated now, examines several models for examining historical contexts and makes suggestions concerning periodization. Chapter Five argues that historical theology plays an auxiliary yet significant and in some ways reciprocal role in the Church’s theologizing.
To the ears of a conservative evangelical, the most striking assertion is that “the fact of change somehow belongs to the very definition of Christian truth.” Pelikan hints at an incarnational model for explaining this: the gospel is not a timeless truth but the result of Incarnate acts within history; similarly, “it is not given to any mortal … to apprehend timeless truths in a timeless way.” Given his position, Pelikan’s praise of Harnack makes sense, for Harnack’s appeal was largely to young people, who, faced with the seemingly incontrovertible fact of historical change, were losing faith and looking for an alternative not tied to immutable truths passed down pristine through generations.
It is clear, though, at least for Pelikan, that the immutability of doctrine is a belief that is rendered untenable by the weight of scientific fact; his suggestions for a theological resolution are an afterthought. Even without a satisfactory theological foundation for his beliefs, he would continue to believe in doctrinal development.It is unlikely, though, that without such a doctrinal foundation conservative evangelicals will ever be won to his position. Evangelicals, however, are not the only ones dissatisfied with Newman-esque ideas of development. John Behr, Professor of Patristics at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary is currently writing a multi-volume Formation of Christian Theology that challenges developmental theses. Nearly 40 years after the writing of Historical Theology, there is still no consensus as to the nature of historical theology. Anyone who loves it, though, will delight to acquaint himself with Jaroslav Pelikan.