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"I hear the message all right; it is only the faith that I lack.",
This review is from: The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 5: Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture (since 1700) (Volume 5) (Paperback)
This final volume of Pelikan's massive study of Christian belief has much in common with the first. In that introductory work Christian doctrine unfolds in an alien and at times antagonistic cultural setting, though then the adversaries were for the most part "diverse outsiders" so to speak, Jew and Roman. Volumes two through four tend toward intramural Christian in-house struggle. This work at hand again explores the relationship of Christian belief with outsiders, the key difference being that the outsiders, in many cases, were once insiders. Enlightenment Christianity was beginning to embrace agnosticism.
Pelikan begins his work with Goethe's lament, "I hear the message all right; it is only the Faith that I lack." Goethe was no mean theologian; if anything he was symptomatic of a widespread state of ecclesial exhaustion after several centuries of Reformation wrangling. At roughly the same time Goethe was rending his own soul , two young men attended Holy Thursday services at St. Peter's in Rome. Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Henry Newman left with distinctively different blueprints for the future of foundational theology. How such great minds in the churches embraced the dual factors of exhaustion and modern doubt frame the discussion of doctrinal development into the twentieth century.
Pelikan labors mightily to keep his study from undue influences of modernity [Descartes, Newton, Kant, etc.] but this is not always possible, particularly when the battle ground of dogmatics was shifting away from "shouting louder" to [presumably] more rationally certifiable grounds such as history, which enjoyed a remarkable resurgence under Gibbon and Von Harnack, among others. History proved to be a corrective to a great number of somewhat soft denominational claims, but in some respects historical research only heightened an already prevalent cynicism about churches in general.
History would become a major prop for a nascent ecumenical movement later in the period, but in the short term it raised intriguing questions about the authenticity of ancient texts. John Newman, of course, is the example par excellence of a fruitful return to patristic sources, but it was the scholars who dared look to Scripture texts themselves who proved most revolutionary. The first wave of such study, in the heat of historical optimism, attempted a reconstruction of the historical Jesus, a return to the ultimate source, so to speak, in part an attempt to escape what John Milton once decried as the tyranny of churches [denominations.]
This new scriptural criticism would raise or reopen questions of faith, such as the nature of miracles, and this biblical science would itself have to face the searing scrutiny of other modern sciences, including archaeology, linguistics, comparative religions and even eventually psychology. Not surprisingly, while academics toiled away at post-Enlightenment formulations of faith, nearly all Christian communions experienced a renewed interest in religious experience, be it Methodism or Jansenism. Peliken devotes a major chapter, "The Theology of the Heart," to the devotional search for truth and, perhaps more importantly, verifying subjective experience. Modern thought could take believers only so far, as Peliken observes when he comments that all the historical research in the world does not verify that it is "sacred history."  Religious experience is a staple of theological study today, but as both Emerson and Newman observed on that particular Holy Thursday, too much of the wrong kind could be dangerous and even flat wrong. I might add here my own surprise that neither William James nor Rudolf Otto are cited in this context, curious omissions.
Meanwhile the dogmatic scholars plowed ahead, even as they faced pious, denominational, and agnostic head winds. One product of their work was very touchy: if dogma was to be examined historically, implied in the process is change; Pelikan's time line includes Hegel and Marx, among others, both of whom promulgated an almost Old Testament dynamic of history. Whiles Descartes and Kant might find satisfaction in a kind of dualism between the scientific mind and the metaphysics of faith, this does not seem to have been a satisfactory answer for most Christian communions--not in the 1800's, anyway--whose leaders labored, awkwardly at times, to square the circle of faith and reason.
The two extremes of this effort were Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox. Catholicism could not deny the past--its own linguistics of faith was the medieval rationalism of Aquinas. And yet the unfolding of nineteenth century society, outlined well in Chapter 4, "The Christian World View," forced the Church to manage its interpretation of flux and place in the world through the declaration of papal infallibility in 1870. The Orthodox tended toward hegemony of the primitive Church experience as definitive for faith; hence its fierce defense of the precise wording of the Nicene Creed, the line in the sand of its sense of doctrinal development.
Protestantism bounced back from detours of the nineteenth century with the new cosmology of Barth and the existential relevance of Bultmann. Clearly the two men are far apart in methodology, but Protestantism was able to buy at least another century with its radical embrace of "Kingdom of God" theology. The fact that Scripture scholars were leading the way made ecumenical venture more possible. Pelikan's final chapter, "The Sobernost of the Body of Christ," begins with the 1920 Lambeth [Anglican] Conference, which in some respects predates the Roman Catholic Vatican II [1962-65] in its call for Church unity. Despite the author's useful and detailed account of the theological and doctrinal discussions of the need for the witness of one Body of Christ, he overlooks one of the premier causes for reflection, two World Wars and the Holocaust..
It goes without saying that Pelikan's multi-volume study is a classic for the Christian student. It is worth underscoring, however, that the author's focus is the development of Christian doctrine--it is not a history of the Church or a theological overview per se. Many issues shaped Church belief that does not appear here. Within its professed goals, however, this series is a treasure for the ages.
The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 5: Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture (since 1700) (Volume 5)(10 customer reviews)