Jason Byassee: Tradition makes for innovation

The eminent historian of doctrine, Jaroslav Pelikan, praises the Masai Creed for its orthodox and creative description of Jesus.

Recently, I heard Krista Tippett, host of the Speaking of Faith radio program, talk about a favorite interview she had conducted, one from which she had learned the most. It was a conversation with the late historian of doctrine Jaroslav Pelikan. After the interview aired, Tippett said she heard especially from Unitarians that Pelikan’s words helped them appreciate the creeds better. Anyone who could do that to a Unitarian interested me, so I downloaded the interview. You should too.

Pelikan is best known for the work he describes in the interview as “filing a minority report.” All theologians are expert in their own century, so he files that report on behalf of the previous 19. He speaks movingly of the catholicity of the creed -- the way it was said by his late father and grandfather and by Christians in thousands of languages, all over the world from his campus at Yale to the Philippines and back. And he is not without criticism for Christians in ages past. In an anecdote I did not know, when Constantine’s mother, Helena, came back from the holy land in the 4th century with nails purported to be those that held Christ to the cross, the emperor had them melted down into a bit for his war horse. “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war!” Pelikan proclaimed, with a note of derision.

The bit that impressed me the most is Pelikan’s praise for the Masai creed of 1960. One would think that the author of the authoritative, multi-volume history of Christian doctrine would only go in for the antiquarian. But Pelikan praises several aspects of this creed of tribal people from Kenya and Tanzania. For one, it focuses attention on a biblical subject that the classical creeds almost uniformly overlook: Jesus’s earthly life. “He was always on safari,” the creed proclaims, using local language to describe something Christians universally hold, yet have often failed to name in creeds, about Jesus’ peripatetic existence. And speaking of his resurrection the Masai proclaim, “The hyenas did not touch him.”

Pelikan contrasts this creed with those of the German Christians who tried to root out any Hebraic hint from Jesus’ life. Those Christians, with their support of the Nazis, Germanized Christianity. The Masai, by contrast, Christianized Africa. All peoples must embrace the faith for themselves. “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks, and Pelikan emphasizes. We all describe with language and imagery from our own time, but that doesn’t mean starting from scratch. The Masai creed affirms nothing rejected by past creeds. Yet it adds its own note to the great chorus, in harmony and not conflict with the previous ones, such that the whole is enriched.

I love the way Herbert McCabe, the Dominican priest and theologian, put it: “We don’t know what Christians will believe in the 24th century, but we know they will not be Arians or Nestorians.” Creeds, usually occasioned by a new teaching the church must either bless or condemn, cut off certain roads. But they do not mandate which road we all must go down for all time. Future ages will have to figure that out, while submitting to what has come before. But that submission is a granting of freedom, not a tragic cutting off of possibility.

It is fascinating that one of this age’s greatest guardians and custodians of tradition could so enthusiastically embrace a new creed from a recently Chrsitianized people in a newly evanglized region of the world. But so it always should be. Those most steeped in tradition should also be the most ready to innovate. As Pelikan himself said many times in other venues: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”

Jason Byassee is an executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.