Book Review: Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine 4- Reformation of Church and Dogma (1300-1700)


Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine 4- Reformation of Church and Dogma (1300-1700). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1983. li, 425 pages. $25.00.

Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine 4- Reformation of Church and Dogma (1300-1700) deals comprehensively with doctrinal fragmentation of the West during the late Middle ages as preserved and developed in the diverse churches generated by the Reformation. Pelikan’s particular goal is to show how the doctrinal developments of the Reformation stand in fundamental continuity with the history of Christian doctrine both preceding and succeeding the era of the reformers. As Pelikan alludes to in the preface,n (p. vii) this volume of his magnum opus is a return to his graduate work at the University of Chicago, now reinforced with the years of scholarship which led him to the Sterling Chair of History at Yale. Those years clearly have not gone to waste, as Reformation is filled with detailed citations of the primary literature in every major European language, with virtually every paragraph containing a mixture of Pelikan’s translations of relevant documents and paraphrases of the broader arguments of the literature in question, interrupted only intermittently by his own critical remarks and engagement with secondary literature. This heavy engagement with the primary sources serves Pelikan’s stated aim of revealing “what the church of Jesus Christ believes, teaches, and confesses on the basis of the word of God” throughout the Reformation. (p. 3)  Pelikan presupposes that the normal narrative of historical influence is essentially right, and explicitly focuses upon figures that have churches in clear doctrinal descent from their work. (p. 6) On that basis, he sets out to trace the doctrinal influence of those Reformation personalities who made an obvious, easily documented impact upon the doctrines of a church.

The central thrust of the book is tracing how a complex debate about the nature of grace and authority in the late Medieval Church generated by the appalling failure of the institutional Church in unity and holiness was continued and completed in the divided churches of the reformation. (p. 68) The first chapter documents the growth of “a series of “Augustinian syntheses”, (p. 13) focusing especially upon the tensions about justification between the synthesis which focused upon Augustine’s predestination in opposition to the syntheses which coalesced around his sacramental theology and increased Marian devotion justified by Augustine’s doctrine of original sin. The second chapter demonstrates how the divide of the Western Church by schism and heresy occasioned a new debate about ecclesiology, and documents the utter division and confusion about the Church’s apostolic essence with Gerson’s papalism, Nicholas of Cusa’s Councilarism, Wycliffe’s invisible Church, and Ockham’s focus on the apostolic example all contending for dominance. (p. 126) The central four chapters of the book document how these tensions about justification and ecclesiology were resolved in each major tradition, with Pelikan arguing that the Lutheran tradition resolved the justification debate with an intense focus upon the Work of Christ imputed to us by God and ecclesiological debate with an appeal to each Christian’s personal receipt of that same saving work through the Gospel. (p. 154, 178-182) In chapter four, Pelikan documents how a strong focus on God’s perfect will revealed in his Word by the Spirit provided a unitary basis for justification and ecclesiology in the Reformed tradition; with Calvin and others proclaiming that salvation comes by hearing and accepting the entire Word of God and the church is ordered around following and implementing that same word as present in the Covenants. (p. 188, 243-244) Pelikan’s treatment of the Catholic response in turn focuses upon the magisterium’s hard line on the mediated character of grace through the church and saints and in the life of the individual with the explicit assertion that only within the bounds of church tradition and Papal authority could the full witness of God be known and obeyed. He then turns to the various radical responses, documenting how humanism took Scripture interpreted via the New Learning as an authority and Anabaptism’s rejection of any importance for Church history in preference to pure reenactment of the life of the early Church as both authoritative and justifying, whether through rigorous adherence to the literal Word as in Simmons or via Denck’s ever-present inspiration of the Spirit. (p. 313-322) The final chapter focuses upon the aspects of the three mainline traditions that generated the most external polemic and internal debate throughout the Seventeenth Century, the Lutheran doctrine of the Ubiquity of Christ, the Reformed Doctrine of Predestination and Covenantal election, and the Catholic debates about Free Will and Predestination, and how each of these arguments set the stage for the battles over Christ’s personality, Salvation-History, and supernatural grace that would rage in the modern period.

The primary critique I have of the book is that Pelikan generally neglects the political theology of the reformers, apparently not believing that this is major doctrinal issue. However, given the political nature of many of the religious conflicts, and how that shaped the characteristic features of virtually every religious group in reformation Europe, this is a puzzling neglect, especially since a consideration of political theology would have allowed for a more detailed treatment of Anglicanism, and included such theologically pregnant moments as the Peasant’s War. Even when we look at the confessions and catechisms we see substantial discussion of political issues related to oaths and warfare, and that debate certainly occupied a substantial amount of theological energy that is put to the side in this account. Given that the political theology of each Reformation church shaped the life of Europe, and thereby the future theological development of the West, I would argue that this absence is a major flaw in the work’s effort to provide a holistic account.

Nonetheless, Pelikan’s overall narrative is highly convincing, and his voluminous citations of the primary source evidence makes clear that the consensus of both followers and detractors of each sub-section of the Christian plurality accepted his characterization of their principle doctrines and complaints. The narrative itself is compelling and flows rapidly from development to development in each doctrinal dispute, while illustrating clearly how each stage of doctrinal development produces new problems and opportunities for doctrinal clarification. The one problem is that Pelikan presupposes that his readers will always be able to follow the chain of thought driving the narrative, and rarely justifies why he chooses to address doctrines in the order that he does, frequently making the argument difficult to discern. More signposting of the argument would render the book more useful to a critical reader, as the motivations for the construction of the narrative in the manner Pelikan chooses are rarely if ever explained.

Overall, I found Pelikan’s narrative method of illustrating how the central doctrinal statements of each branch of the Reformation acted as a solution to a crisis about salvation and authority in the Medieval Church highly compelling. Pelikan’s enormous historical research provides detailed evidence that his theological reconstructions of each denomination closely parallel the statements of reformers in a wide variety of contexts, convincing the reader that if Luther could read Pelikan, he would find in this work a fair summary of his views. The primary weakness in detailing the history of doctrine mentioned in the title is overly top-down approach, with limited consideration of more popular materials to determine if the theology in the pulpit matched the theology in the pews and reading rooms of the laity. Overall, Pelikan’s narrative provides an invaluable basis for reflecting on the inter-relationship of Reformation doctrines to the past and present of Christian dogmatics, and provides a useful counterbalance to those texts which treat the Reformation as a thunderbolt from Wittenberg. I suspect the complexity of the text would render it unsuitable for most undergraduates, especially given the lack of clear explanation for the narrative structure of the argument in many places, but for graduate students and other scholars this interpretation of the Reformation is essential to understanding the doctrinal motives behind this crisis in church history.

Joseph Longenecker, Wheaton College



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