Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Book Review: Jaroslav Pelikan "The Christian Tradition" Volume 1

This is a review of Volume 1 of 5 "The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600)" by Jaroslav Pelikan, the famous Lutheran historian who eventually converted to Eastern Orthodoxy before passing away in 2006.

I began reading this book over a year ago and to be up front, his style is, in the words of a certain friend of mine "dry". It's not so much the dryness that bothered me as it was the uninterrupted streams of thought. Some may prefer that style and he does have a talent for it but I found it very cumbersome to read since I don't usually have long stretches of time to devote to book reading during my normal week (except when on vacation which is where I read most of this book). I usually prefer books which can be digested in smaller chunks (like a few pages at a time) but this one requires you to read for long periods of time to really grasp the train of thought.

For most of the material, especially the earlier centuries I was already pretty familiar with the patristic writings but I felt at a disadvantage when he covered material which I was not already well studied on. This isn't a book I would recommend for anyone hoping to dive into patristics for the first time. You can still learn quite a bit from him if that is the case, but I would suggest that the book is most useful for someone who already has a strong grasp on the patristic literature of the time period. What Pelikan does is draw a long line of doctrinal development moving seamlessly between the fathers.

My quarrels aside from the style are limited to his dismissal of the papal development as not belonging to the "history of doctrine" but to "Church history and the history of canon law". It certainly belongs to those as well but the preeminence and jurisdiction of the papacy was in fact developed along theological lines during this time and would have deserved a chapter of its own. In fact, a large theological development (whether it was right or wrong) belonging to the first five centuries of the Catholic Church was left to a few pages in the interest of down-playing a school of thought which might lead to conclusions other than his own (Lutheran at the time of this writing).

That being said, he deals quite fairly with most issues and is a good read for Protestants, Catholics or anyone interested in those early centuries of the Church. This is not a book on Church history but on the development of doctrine. I do not intend to read the others in the series because my interest lies mostly in the ante-Nicene era.

I have reviewed his book entitled "Mary Through the Centuries" here.


R. E. Aguirre. said...

Good review Tim. I also find it funny when Patristic scholars of other traditions read the evidence and come to far different conclusions than Catholic scholars. This same tendency can be seen in one of my favorite Protestant (Anglican) scholars, J. N. D Kelly, especially on Mariology and to a certain extent Roman Primacy, (Early Christian Doctrines).

R. E. Aguirre

Tolle Lege! Tolle Lege!

Mike Burgess said...

One thing I had to constantly do when reading Pelikan's series was mentally imagine segues. The man was almost stream-of-consciousness!

Still, it is an indispensible survey. Looking forward to your further thoughts.