Jaroslav Pelikan’s important five-volume work on historical theology might well be the most important modern study on the subject we have. It is not always an easily readable work but it remains extremely important for anyone who wants to study the developments of Christian tradition from the first century to the present. It puts “tradition” in a positive light and helps the reader understand how and why the Church has thought the way it has about various doctrinal and liturgical matters. Evangelicals who have begun to talk a great deal about an “ancient-future” faith need to read Pelikan.
Perhaps Jaroslav Pelikan’s most important, or oft cited, quote from the entire five volume work occurs in the first volume, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, 100-600 (page 9): “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” The question modern Christians need to ask is simple: “Do the dead get a vote in deciding what we believe and why?” Better yet, “Do they get a vote that has any real authority in how we determine what we believe, and what we do with what we believe, as Christians?”
Pelikan argues that tradition without history homogenizes all the stages of development into a statically defined truth. We have “our unique tradition(s)” and often do not see that tradition is actually dynamic if we understand the role of the Holy Spirit and the work of the whole catholic Church in processing truth as a community of faith. This is the danger of the non-evangelical churches to varying degrees. They replace the Spirit with tradition.
Pelikan further argues that history without tradition produces a historicism that relativizes the development of Christian doctrine in such a way as to make the distinction between authentic growth and cancerous aberration purely arbitrary. This is the evangelical danger in my judgment. We generally celebrate the novel and the modern without serious reflection upon where the church has been and what it has thought through the ages, especially in the early stages of the Christian Church.
In all the evangelical attempts to link ancient-future faith this tension will remain an important one for serious evangelical thought and practice. (Movements come and go that fail to grapple with this tension.) I can think of a number of reasons for why evangelical Protestants should listen to the traditions of both the Catholic (West) and Orthodox (East) Churches but none are more evident than this—we are in danger of embracing fads again and again unless we pay more careful attention to Christian tradition. The doctrine of sola Scriptura can and must be extremely sensitive and nuanced by this tension and reality. Those who taught this doctrine in the 16th century, i.e., the early magisterial Reformers, understood this. Their modern heirs often do not.