It was with a mixture of sadness and joy that I received the news last week that Dr. Pelikan had passed away from cancer. Being the father of modern theological history, Pelikan won his readers over with a direct, if not often dry, style that nonetheless gave strong opinions. The main thrust of his writing is contained in this little gem of a book, namely, that we have to understand the meaning and value of tradition if we are to understand our present context and our future course of action. And it is with a hope in this tradition of the Church that I wish Dr. Pelikan rest in the presence of the Fathers and "may his memory be eternal," now that his own voice has been added to the democracy of the dead.
Chesterton, in his book Orthodoxy, stated that tradtion is the democracy of the dead. Pelikan comes to a similar conclusion when he writes that it is the living faith of the dead. Giving your ancestors a vote is something that modern culture, as well as in academia no less, finds a bit untrustworthy. After all, is not progress, that dogma of the modern era, the antithesis of tradition? Not quite, writes Pelikan. Only within the context of a tradtion that has as its hallmark the ability to both hold the person within its embrace while at the same time pointing beyond itself can true progress be both understood as such and achieved, connected to the past and yet living within the potential of new growth. The modern error, and that of so many of the greatest heresies, is that it fails to maintain a connection with the whole. This is the modern iconoclastic temptation- to break the image of the past in the hopes of inventing it anew. It is destined to fall short.
Theologically, for Pelikan, his whole notion of tradition reflects the view of one of his own mentors, Georges Florovsky. For Florovsky, the tradition is nothing less than the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church (see his "Bible, Church and Tradition"). To rebel against tradition properly understood is akin to reinventing the theological wheel, which is the tendancy in Zwinglian American Protestantism.
A fantastic read. You will find it as a key to the underlying stream of thought in all of Pelikan's works.