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Book Review



A Historical & Theological Guide to Creeds 

and Confessions In the Christian Tradition

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Jaroslav Pelikan (1923-2006) was Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University:

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Author: Jaroslav Pelikan

One of the world’s leading theologians offers important insights into the history and significance of Christian creeds.

"(Pelikan's) book is learned, indeed massively so, yet because of the lucidity of its prose it is accessible to the general reader."   Luke Timothy Johnson, Washington Post Book World"

“A work of keen insight, great learning, and ecumenical generosity.”  —Robert Louis Wilken, First Things

“Indispensable...An achievement unlikely to be surpassed.” 
—Donald K. McKim, Theological Studies

Review by Fr. Kurt Messick (5 Stars):

Credo: I believe...

With these words, Christians around the globe and across the millennia have on a regular basis begun their regular recitation of faith. 

Christianity has been from very early days a faith that has laid heavy emphasis on orthodoxy (right belief) apart from (but not always separate from) orthopraxy (right action) - indeed, Christianity has always hoped that right belief leads to right action, but it has put the focus upon right belief as the foundation.

Jaroslav Pelikan, emeritus professor of History at Yale, has written extensively on the history of Christendom, specializing in many of these texts on the history of Christian belief (his masterful five-volume series on this topic is still a standard). 

Honored with degrees, awards, and even a post at the Library of Congress, there are few in the same league as Pelikan when it comes to developing the history of Christian thought. 

This particular volume, Credo, is both a stand-alone volume of the basic history of development of the creeds or belief structures of the major strands of Christianity, and also serves as an introductory volume in the larger work "Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition", a series most likely to find a home in major libraries, but rarely in individuals' homes, save the most serious of scholars. 

That is not a problem with this volume, however; as it should find a place of honor in the libraries of Christians Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant.

Pelikan, an ecumenically minded scholar but decidedly orthodox Christian, gives an admirably fair overview of the traditions presented here, striving as best he can to preserve the terminology of each tradition as each defines itself. 

This can be confusing at at times, as Pelikan notes; every tradition sees itself in terms of being orthodox, evangelistic, catholic, and reformed in differing ways against differing social and historical contexts.

The narrative essays comprise four major sections: 

  • Definitions of Creed and Confession; 

  • The Genesis of Creeds and Confessions; 

  • The Authority of Creeds and Confessions; 

  • The History of Creeds and Confessions. 

Much hinges on the definitions employed when talking about creeds and confessions - churches are sometimes defined by these or over against these, but as Pelikan states, these are more easily described than defined. 

Pelikan spends a good deal of time showing the different kinds of formulae and statements of faith, how there is both continuity and change in their development across the many strands of Christian expression, and what exactly creeds and confessions are meant to do and not do. 

In exploring the creation of creeds and confessions, Pelikan starts with scripture, but quickly moves on to the other influences; the number of Christians over time who have maintained an exclusively-scriptural creedal or confessional basis is vanishingly small. 

In this confusing field, Pelikan lays out very clear paths. 

Similar confusion occurs in looking at the issue of authority, which brings up another difficult issue in interpretation - the interpretation of creeds and confessions can be as difficult and varied as biblical interpretation.


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All of these set a strong contextual stage for examining history-proper of the creeds, stepping from the early church to the Eastern Orthodox formulation, to the Medieval West, to the Reformation Ear, and finally to statements of faith in the modern Christianity.

There are three other major sections: first, an extensive bibliography with up-to-date titles in the area of Christian history and the creeds; second, indexes to the other volumes of the "Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition"; and third, several indexes to the present volume, including indexes to scripture, to various creeds and confessions, and to persons mentioned in the text. 

The majority of Pelikan's references are in English and English-translation, on the assumption that scholars can draw from these the original language references more readily than non-scholars could draw from original language; however, again given the scope this work, perhaps a few extra pages could have been incorporated to permit these references as well. 

These are small issues in an otherwise magnificent research resource.

There are indeed many works on creeds, confessions and the development of Christian profession (as distinct from Christian theology or Christian history proper); there are smaller volumes that cover the same material, but this volume takes advantage of the latest scholarship, and the vast encyclopedic knowledge of Pelikan and his team of scholars, including among the many contributors Valerie Hotchkiss (co-editor of the other volumes in the series) and Bishop Kalistos Ware.

Pelikan's work on creeds and confessions began in earnest with his doctoral dissertation in 1946, nearly 60 years ago; he has spent as long a professional life in this field as it is almost physically possible for anyone to do. 

This work may not be the capstone on his career, but it is certainly a worthy standard in its own right, and should serve as a major touchstone for years to come. ___________________________

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