Essay / Misc.

“Devices for Symbolizing the Living Tradition”

Jaroslav Pelikan (1923-2006) wrote a book in 1959 called The Riddle of Roman Catholicism (Abingdon: 1959). While parts of it are dated, it’s also a wise and patient Lutheran interaction with the phenomenon that is the Roman Catholic Church. In chapter 16, “The Challenge of Roman Catholicism,” Pelikan muses about what American Protestantism can learn from the Roman church, and among the other items on his list (comprehensive world view, inclusive appeal, urban ministry, sacramental worship), he includes “a living tradition.”

If you know Pelikan you know that for his entire career he was in tradition like a fish in water, so it’s hard to imagine that he would be so short-sighted as to take up the lament that his American Lutheran church was somehow magically disconnected from tradition. There it sits, objectively just as traditioned as any church. But what Pelikan wants Protestants to learn from Roman Catholics is how to present themselves in such a way that they express that living tradition clearly.

In describing this, he hits on a term which I found instructive: “Devices for symbolizing the living tradition.” He asks, “Can Protestantism find devices for symbolizing and carrying the living tradition of the Christian past that are truly meaningful to the general church public?” (p. 234)

By “devices,” I don’t think Pelikan is just talking about gimmicks. He pokes fun for a bit at ham-fisted attempts to symbolize tradition, like “Russian Orthodox chants in a Baptist church or the introduction of ‘the daily sacrifice of the masss’ in a Methodist church,” which he views as “exoticism, not living tradition.” But he is aware that human ingenuity needs to seek out some cultural mechanisms for making tradition visible, because tradition is one of those odd things that goes invisible if you neglect it.

Churches, in other words, are objectively located in a stream of tradition, but some do a better job of finding “devices for symbolizing the living tradition.” He makes a number of recommendations, including such things as older hymns and ancient creeds and confessions. Along the way, he makes a recommendation which warms my heart:

…Protestant thought should be able to adapt some of the devices now being used to symbolize and carry our cultural heritage. For example, some Protestant congregations have experimented successfully with a “Great Books” discussion of selected writings by church fathers. In such a discussion the lay members of these congregations have found an affinity with the fathers that they have never dreamed could exist. A Protestant who reads Irenaeus’ Proof of the Apostolic Preaching or Augustine’s Enchiridion –both of them available in modern English translations, with helpful notes and introductions– will learn that he has a greater claim upon the living tradition of catholic Chrisitanity than he would ever have supposed.

I haven’t done that in a church setting, but in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola, all we do is Great Books discussions, with a heaping helping of church fathers, medievals, and reformers in the mix. We even happen to read Irenaeus’ Proof and Augustine’s Enchiridion! And yes, I can affirm that we are about ten years into having “experimented successfully” with it, enjoying the experience of watching students find “an affinity with the fathers that they have never dreamed could exist,” and re-living vicariously my own experience as a young believer of discovering that joining the church meant joining a communion that goes around the world and back across the centuries. As “devices for symbolizing the living tradition” go, reading old books can’t be beat. As the curriculum loops its way back through Justin Martyr, Eusebius, Thomas Aquinas, the Heidelberg Catechism, and Jonathan Edwards year after year, the student here can find “a greater claim upon the living tradition of catholic Chrisitanity than he would ever have supposed.” I know I do.

The Roman poet Terence said “Homo sum, humani nil a me alienum puto;” that is, “I am human. Nothing human is alien to me.” Church historian Philip Schaff tweaked that to “Christianus sum; nihil christiani alienum me puto;” or, “I am a Christian. Nothing Christian is alien to me.” Nothing is off limits. It’s all mine.

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