Reflections on Jaroslav Pelikan’s Magnum Opus, Volume 1

Doing history has been well likened to the construction of a building. To put up a well-constructed edifice one needs both bricklayers and craftsmen skilled in the details of construction, as well as architects to provide the schematic plans and overall guidance for the project. Similarly in the writing of history we need both the quarrying of primary sources and the detailed work of asking what this event or text means, as well as the overall vision of how a multitude of texts or events fit together. And just as it is rare to find one individual today who does both tasks in the building process—the actual building of the edifice and the drawing up of architectural plans—so it is rare to find historians who excel in both areas. Jaroslav Pelikan, though, is undoubtedly such a rarity as his The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) (Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press, 1971)—the first volume of his magisterial five-volume The Christian Tradition: A History of The Development of Doctrine—demonstrates. Although this work is now nearly 35 years old, it is still a benchmark study in Patristics. Pelikan is quite evidently at home with both the details of patristic scholarship—for example, the critical history of Ignatius of Antioch’s letters or the use of Scripture in the fourth-century Pneumatomachian controversy—and the overall sweep of doctrine in this formative period—for instance, the development of Christology. His perspective is informed by both rigorous, detailed scholarship and an authoritative grasp of the interconnectedness and main lineaments of Christian doctrine. And all of this is executed while being “passionately convinced of the lasting significance of the patristic achievement” [Henry Chadwick, “Book Notes: Pelikan, Jarolsav. The Christian Tradition. A History of the Development of Christian [sic] Doctrine. Vol. I: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition”, The Journal of Religion, 54 (1974), 315].

No doubt Pelikan would agree with Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930)—in his words, the “high priest of Wissenschaft” [The Melody of Theology: A Philosophical Dictionary  (Cambridge, Massachusetts/London: Harvard University Press, 1988), 111]—that “the most important period of all [Church History] is the early Church—here are the measuring rods for all the rest… Because the decisive questions in Church history are raised in this first period, so the Church historian needs to be at home here above all” [Letter to Karl Holl, 1859, cited B. Drewery, “History and Doctrine: Heresy and Schism”, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 23 (1972), 251-252.].

Pelikan is not only in agreement with this view of Harnack, but his five-volume history of Christian doctrine has been written in conscious response to Harnack’s Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte (3vols., 1886-1889), a work that Pelikan notes has been “[s]uperseded but never surpassed,…the one interpretation of early Christian doctrine with which every other scholar in the field must contend” (p.359).


Now, one of the great themes of Harnack’s work is that the deep-seated patristic interest in dogma is actually an alien imposition of Graeco-Roman patterns of thinking upon Christianity, what he calls “Hellenization” (p.45, 55). Pelikan responds to Harnack’s accusation by emphasizing that Hellenization is not as widespread as Harnack believes. Pelikan examples the theological achievement of Clement of Alexandria and Origen, both of whom have been considered “consistent hellenizer[s],” but whose philosophical categories of thought, upon close examination, are seen to be profoundly modified in light of Scripture (p.46-55). Yet, as he also shows from the work of two very different authors like Tertullian and Gregory of Nyssa, early Christians found Graeco-Roman thought very difficult to avoid, especially when it came to the nature of the soul and the impassibility of God (p.49-54). In the final analysis, though, it is the various heretical systems opposed by the Fathers that reveal the deepest impress of Hellenization. In condemning them, the Church was seeking to protect Christian doctrine from the encroachment of secular thought (p.55).

Moreover, what is often considered the supreme symbol of Hellenization is the term homoousios, used, as is well known, by the Council of Nicaea in 325 to describe the ontological relationship between the Father and the Son within the Godhead. Yet, this use of this term actually draws a sharp line between the Christian faith and the philosophical perspective of the surrounding pagan culture of that day, namely Neoplatonism. Whereas third- and fourth-century Neoplatonism postulated “a descending hierarchy of unequal first principles” [R.M. Price, “ ‘Hellenization’ and Logos Doctrine in Justin Martyr”, Vigiliae Christianae, 42 (1988), 21], the homoousios unequivocally affirms the full deity of the Son and leaves absolutely no room for a subordinationist vision of the Godhead. In this respect, the final outcome of the Trinitarian discussion in the fourth century represents a de-Hellenization of dogma and one of the most profound challenges to Graeco-Roman thought in the ancient world.

Personally, I would find myself in broad agreement with Pelikan’s answer to what has been a major approach of numerous late nineteenth-century and twentieth-century students of Patristic thought. Nevertheless, there is room to ask if the very concept of the “Hellenization” of Christianity as enunciated by Harnack, a concept that demands a clear-cut and rigid demarcation between Judaism and Hellenism, is historically accurate. Or is it an explanation that is primarily ideologically motivated? Is it not the case that there was an extensive interpenetration of Jewish and Greek thought before the era of the Fathers, as seen, for instance, in the work of such figures as Aristobulus of Paneas, Philo, and even Josephus? For some of what follows, see Price, “ ‘Hellenization’ ”, 18-23.

Even in the New Testament one needs to take note of the ease with which the Apostle Paul can quote pagan sources in his sermon on the Areopagus and in Titus 1. Are the very sources of the Christian tradition then guilty of “Hellenization”? Or is it the case that the interplay of thought in the world of the New Testament and the Fathers is somewhat more subtle than the idea of “Hellenization” allows? What R. M. Price suggests with reference to the ante-Nicene authors may well be correct as a general principle with regard to this whole debate over “Hellenization” and early Christian thought:

“Grand vistas of hellenization…are a distracting irrelevance that distort the picture and raise the wrong questions. We need to draw a more intricate map of the intellectual world of the pre-Nicene period, with more attention to the subtle and undramatic gradations of the terrain” (“ ‘Hellenization’ ”, 22).

Pelikan’s response to Harnack’s thesis of “Hellenization” could have been strengthened if he had begun his account with the New Testament, thereby showing the strong links between New Testament thought and what followed [Robert L. Wilken, “The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine. Vol. I: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600)”, Saturday Review, (August 7, 1971), 26]. Given Pelikan’s emphasis on the importance of biblical exegesis for the development of doctrine in the Patristic era this omission is strange indeed.

Pelikan on Augustine

Equally strange and startling is the lack of any real discussion of Augustine’s Trinitarian perspective. Augustine’s enormously influential Trinitarianism is summed up and dismissed in one sentence (p.224). This omission is also noticed by Chadwick, “The Christian Tradition”, 316 and Ernest L. Fortin, “Book Reviews: The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600). By Jaroslav Pelikan”, Theological Studies, 33 (1972), 331. Pelikan is certainly aware of Augustine’s importance in this regard in Western Christianity (p. 67, 197, 350-351). Elsewhere, Pelikan can actually state that Augustine’s On the Trinity is, for the Latin West, “the classic summation of the central teaching of Christianity” and may rightly be reckoned as Augustine’s “most brilliant intellectual and theological achievement” (Melody of Theology, 16).

One wonders if there is more at stake here than simple oversight. For instance, it is noteworthy that Pelikan’s treatment of Augustine’s defence of the sovereignty of grace in the salvation of sinners is unmistakably critical of the North African theologian (p. 313, 321, 325). This is curious in light of the clear attempt by Pelikan to present the various heretics of the Patristic era—men like Marcion and Arius—in as sympathetic light as possible [I. John Hesselink, “Book Reviews: Jaroslav Pelikan. The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600)”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 2 (1973), 375]. And even more curious when Pelikan later gave it as his opinion that Augustine is “arguably, the only figure from all of late antiquity…whom we can still read with understanding and empathy” (Melody of Theology, 17-18).

Other lacunas

The omission of Augustine’s Trinitarianism is one of a number of noticeable lacunas. Another is an examination of the Apostles’ Creed, which is without a doubt the most important of Western credal statements. There are a few brief mentions of it, but no real discussion (p.117, 150-151). For this omission, see Robert L. Calhoun, “A New History of Christian Doctrine: A Review Article”, Journal of the American Academy of Religion 40 (1972), 503.

The so-called Apostolic Fathers also receive scant attention, though they are important links between the Apostolic era and second-century Christianity. One thinks of Irenaeus of Lyons’ link with the Apostle John via Polycarp of Smyrna.

These omissions are matched by some odd inclusions. For example, Pelikan notes that among the defenders of the Nicene Creed, obviously Athanasius deserves “pride of place”, but, he continues, two other Eastern theologians deserve to be ranged alongside him, namely, “Amphilochius [of Iconium] and especially Didymus” (p.203). It is certainly curious to see Amphilochius mentioned, who, from a strictly theological perspective, is the least of the Cappadocian Fathers and whose written corpus that has come down to us is ever so slight.

A problem with methodology

But probably my greatest problem with Pelikan’s work has to do with his methodology. While it is encouraging to see him include in this study not merely formal theological works but also material drawn from the worship and liturgy of the church, his attempt to treat the church’s theology in isolation from the social and personal matrix in which it took shape is deeply regrettable. Pelikan states at the beginning of this study his desire to “listen to the chorus more than to the soloists” (p.122). But, as he came to admit in the fifth volume in this history of Christian doctrine, there “have been a few soloists…whose life and teaching have made them…major themes for the chorus, rather than primarily soloists in their own right” [The Christian Tradition. A History of the Development of Doctrine. Vol. 5: Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture (since 1700) (Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 7]. From the early Church Fathers he cites two—Origen and Augustine. If this be the case, then the lives of the theologians who produced the themes for the chorus must be considered.

As R.F. Evans stresses in one of his books on Pelagius: “the comparison of systems of thought involves an abstraction from the actual course of events. In theological controversies it is not in the first instance systems of thought which “confront” each other, but men—men who speak and write on concrete occasions, men whose thought may be in flux and may be bent by the very events of controversy in which they are participating” (cited Drewery, “History and Doctrine: Heresy and Schism”, 252).

Moreover, when we remember that the writings of the early Church were personal works, directed to specific individuals or to particular groups, and caught up in networks of personal relationships, Pelikan’s consideration of the doctrine of these works apart from their personal matrix is inevitably problematic. Consider, for example, Basil of Caearea’s On the Holy Spirit (375).

Basil of Caesarea & Eustathius of Sebaste

This work grew out of Basil’s controversy with Eustathius of Sebaste, one of his closest friends, indeed the man who had been his mentor when he first became a Christian in 356. Eustathius’ interest in the Spirit seems to have been focused on the Spirit’s work, not his person. For him, the Holy Spirit was primarily a divine gift within the Spirit-filled person, One who produced holiness [Wolf-Dieter Hauschild, “Eustathius von Sebaste,” Theologische Realenzyklopädie, 10 (1982), 548-549]. When, on one occasion at a synod in 364, he was pressed to say what he thought of the Spirit’s nature, he replied: “I neither chose to name the Holy Spirit God nor dare to call him a creature”! [Socrates, Church History 2:45. See Pelikan, Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, 212].

For a number of years, Basil sought to win Eustathius over to a confession of the Spirit’s divinity. Finally, in the summer of 373 he met with him for an important two-day colloquy, in which, after discussion—much of which was recorded by two tachygraphers—and prayer, Eustathius eventually acquiesced to Basil’s view of the Spirit’s nature. At a second meeting Eustathius signed a statement of faith that affirmed the Spirit’s indivisible unity with the divine nature (Basil, Letter 125.3).

Another meeting was arranged for the autumn of 373, at which Eustathius would sign this declaration in the presence of a number of Christian leaders. But on the way home from his meeting with Basil, Eustathius was convinced by some of his friends that Basil was theologically in error. For the next two years Eustathius crisscrossed Asia Minor denouncing Basil as a heretic, for he claimed that the bishop of Caesarea was in reality guilty of Modalism.

Basil was so stunned by what had transpired that he kept his peace for close to two years. As he wrote later in 376, he was “astounded at so unexpected and sudden a change” in Eustathius that he was unable to respond. Finally, he simply felt that he had to speak. His words were those of one of the most important books of the entire Patristic period, On the Holy Spirit, written in 375 at the personal request of Basil’s friend, Amphilochius of Iconium. And Basil used as the basis of this work the shorthand record of his colloquy with Eustathius. Can the precise form of Basil’s pneumatology in this work be genuinely appreciated apart from some awareness of the context that drew it forth?

Clearly this work on the Spirit does not belong to the category of purely private and personal correspondence. It was intended to have a wider circulation well beyond its initial recipient. But it shows how Patristic writings and Patristic doctrine were frequently embedded in personal contexts. And for doctrine to be properly understood it must be seen in the matrix out of which it arose.

As Michael Blecker has rightly affirmed: “To do theology without history is to study cut flowers, not living plants.”