Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Jaroslav Pelikan on the Catholicity of the Reformation

'Every major tenet of the Reformation had considerable support in the catholic tradition. That was eminently true of the central Reformation teaching of justification by faith alone…That the ground of our salvation is the unearned favor of God in Christ, and that all we need do to obtain it is to trust that favor – this was the confession of great catholic saints and teachers…Rome’s reactions [to the Protestant reformers] were the doctrinal decrees of the Council of Trent and the Roman Catechism based upon those decrees. In these decrees, the Council of Trent selected and elevated to official status the notion of justification by faith plus works, which was only one of the doctrines of justification in the medieval theologians and ancient fathers. When the reformers attacked this notion in the name of the doctrine of justification by faith alone – a doctrine also attested to by some medieval theologians and ancient fathers – Rome reacted by canonizing one trend in preference to all the others. What had previously been permitted(justification by faith alone), now became forbidden. In condemning the Protestant Reformation, the Council of Trent condemned part of its own catholic tradition.'

Jaroslav Pelikan (1923-2006) The Riddle Of Roman Catholicism (Abingdon Press, 1959)[italics mine]


Not many who read the books of this erudite scholar today are aware that Pelikan was a son of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Slovak synod of that august church body to be precise. He graduated from Concordia Seminary in St Louis in 1946 and was ordained into the Lutheran ministry before going on to his stellar career in academe. Sadly, Pelikan did not remain in the LCMS, but walked a path followed by others since to liberal Lutheranism and thence out of the Lutheran fold altogether. However, in Pelikan's case he ended up not in Rome but in Constantinople (i.e. Eastern Orthodoxy). Evidently Pelikan never quite solved the 'riddle of Roman Catholicism', but just how, we wonder, did he reconcile himself to the 'faith plus works' of Orthodoxy?


Lvka said...

I think confusion still reigns within the West, especially within Protestantism.

David, Manasseh, and the Prodigal Son were not expected to 'perform' in order to be forgiven: they just asked in meekness and repentance for His mercy, and obtained His grace. But this does not mean that the forgiveness thus freely gained cannot be lost, as it happened with the unmerciful servant, who did not pardon the debt of hundred pence after being himself absolved of an even grater debt, of ten thousand talents. So refraining from evil and doing only good keeps us in this state of grace and mercy and forgiveness, as it is said in the Lord's Prayer and in Matthew 6:14-15; Mark 11:25-26; and John 5:14 & 8:11.

Pastor Peters said...

Thought you should know that although he was in formal communion with Orthodoxy, Pelikan died while listening to Bach's B minor Mass, so in his heart, anyway, he was still Lutheran...

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Thanks Pr Peters; I didn't know that.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

'David, Manasseh, and the Prodigal Son were not expected to 'perform' in order to be forgiven: they just asked in meekness and repentance for His mercy, and obtained His grace. '

Precisely, Lucian; I would only add that they asked in faith.

Re the danger of falling from grace you'll get no argument from me there - Lutherans are not Calvinists! With that in mind, I would caution against using the category 'Protestant' - the Lutherans at the 2nd Diet of Spires were the original 'Protestants' (taking a stand for the Gospel against Rome), but the extension of the term to cover all non-Roman Catholic bodies without further distinguishing between their own doctrines is not very helpful. Thus an argument used against a Calvinist does not necessarily play with a Lutheran.

Terry Maher said...

Pelikan's argument is untenable.

If justification by faith alone were something that Rome selected for opposition at Trent but not before, then what was there to reform, what was the point of the Reformation?

His conversion to Orthodoxy was in 1998, at age 75. But it was not sudden, nor did he see it as a conversion. He was a close friend of one of the major figures in my life, Godfrey Diekmann OSB, he was a charter member of the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research at die Abtei, not a bastion of traditional faith, his "Jesus Through the Centuries" is dedicated to die Abtei, and the subtitle of his "The Christian Tradition" is A History of the Development of Doctrine.

We would do well to heed his own confession, that his Orthodoxy was not a conversion but a coming to what had always been there, and take his "Lutheranism" accordingly unless we want to end up in the same place. He was never Lutheran "in his heart", and his selbstverstandnis was keenly aware of that.

The "catholicity" of Lutheranism is well attested in Concordia, not to mention Scripture itself. It needs no help from someone who never quite bought it anyway.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

'If justification by faith alone were something that Rome selected for opposition at Trent but not before, then what was there to reform, what was the point of the Reformation?'

Clearly, Terry, by the late middle ages the catholic faith had been hijacked by semi-Pelagians and worse and needed reforming (goodness, even the Romanists admit that!). As for Pelikan's argument being untenable, neither Chemnitz nor Gerhard would have thought so, since they devoted so much of their labours to showing how the Lutheran reformation was consistent with the best of the Fathers.

As for Pelikan himself, his legacy is ambiguous. You're right - his writing became progressively less interesting and unorthodox as his career advanced and his lauded history of doctrine I personally find almost unusable. But he carries great weight in some circles - circles to which I have an allergic reaction, I might add - and it is they who I am primarily addressing here: 'that their words may be used against them'.

Past Elder said...

I certainly agree that the Lutheran Reformation is consistent with the "best of the Fathers" and more importantly with the catholic, as distinct from Catholic, faith.

I maintain though that this is not demonstrable in the way Pelikan seeks to demonstrate it, and the untenability of that way directly contributed to his later full embrace of heterodoxy and can do so for others who accept it and become the Orthodox they always were or the Catholic they always were, exposing the Lutheran they never were.

I'm logged in as Past Elder at the moment, that being Terry Maher.