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The Vindication of Tradition: The 1983 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities Paperback – September 10, 1986
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From the Back Cover
In this carefully reasoned book, noted historian and theologian Jaroslav Pelikan offers a moving and spirited defense of the importance of tradition.'A soul-stirring self-analysis, no less than a distillation of the life-work of the living historian best qualified to provide solutions to those 'Tradition versus Bible-Only' controversies that have plagued Christianity since the Reformation.'--L. K. Shook, Canadian Catholic Review
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‘Tradition’ is a slippery word with multiple meanings. For the dean of church historians, the associations are, automatically, religious. For the Sterling Professor of History at Yale, the associations are also, automatically, far wider. ‘Tradition’ is that which, many would say, separates Catholicism from Protestant denominations. While Protestants rely heavily upon the Bible (divine ‘revelation’; the book of God’s word [along with the book of God’s works—the creation] in renaissance conceptions), Catholics also rely upon ‘tradition’. This is generally understood to mean the teachings of the church fathers, preeminently St. Augustine, but an entire panoply of early commentators. This is clearly problematic, for the church fathers are men, not God, and while they may have been holy and learned they were not inspired by God in the same manner as the authors of scripture. This is even more problematic when we can detect in these writers decidedly biased views (or should I say, person-specific views). A large and imposing example is the Augustinian suspicion of women and the role that it has often been said to play in the ensuing history of the church.
Pelikan’s purpose is to defend ‘tradition’, writ large, but to do so with the clear eyes of a historian, one who knows, e.g., that ‘history’ has often been used to deflate the claims or pretensions of tradition by getting to the bottom of things and revealing their contingency. He argues that ‘tradition’ is much more than the teachings of learned commentators. It is, perhaps even more importantly, the continuing practices of the people of God, the fact that, e.g., the members of the church have taken bread and wine, sacramentally, for millennia. For Pelikan, ‘tradition’ is as much democratic as it is elitist, with the views and practices of the faithful not just bubbling up to become subject matter for elite commentators but also constituting the all-important continuities within Christianity that have survived the quirks, quibbles and heresies of the Church’s commentariat.
While ‘tradition’ has been subjected to evangelical attack during the Reformation and rational attack during the Enlightenment, it still serves as the foundation for those who, like Emerson, would prefer to substitute ‘insight’ for ‘tradition’, when the simple, imposing weight of the latter cannot be denied or set aside. In Pelikan’s words, “the growth of insight—in science, in the arts, in philosophy and theology—has not come through progressively sloughing off more and more of tradition, as though insight would be purest and deepest when it has finally freed itself of the dead past. It simply has not worked that way in the history of the tradition, and it does not work that way now. By including the dead in the circle of discourse we enrich the quality of the conversation” (p. 81).
Essentially, we must “learn to interact creatively with the ‘tradition’”, the point being best encapsulated by Goethe’s comment which serves as the lecture’s epigraph and its closing words: “What you have as heritage,/Take now as task;/For thus you will make it your own!”
The lecture is long by lecture standards, short by book standards (ca. 90 pp.), but it makes for a lovely read and a profound reminder of some central principles in our intellectual and spiritual lives.
It is important to note that the discussion in the book is not focused necessarily on religious tradition, and can be applied to many areas of life. One could successfully argue that many of the problems in today's society is a breakdown in respect for tradition - and it is tradition that binds us with the past and preserves our heritage for the future.
As Pelikan points out, tradition need not be dead in fact, tradition ties us to the beliefs of those who have gone before us in a way that cannot be done without it.
In the end, I would call this a philosophy book, not a theology book, and that gives it, I think, a broader audience. All in all, an excellent little book to help anyone understand the importance of tradition in any community.