Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Vindication of Tradition

In this fascinating and provocative book, noted historian Jaroslav Pelikan distinguishes between tradition (“the living faith of the dead”) and traditionalism (“the dead faith of the living”) and argues that tradition, far from binding the soul and stifling intuition, creativity, and freedom, provides the foundation on which these things exist and operate. As such, the book seeks to vindicate tradition against its detractors. Pelikan succeeds in creating a book that will cause all who read it to think deeply about tradition, whether one agrees with all of the particulars of the work or not.

As a Baptist, I found Pelikan’s frequent treatment of the Reformation to be very interesting. He is not altogether unsympathetic to Luther. This is good seeing as though he has edited a number of volumes of Luther’s works. Yet he devotes an entire chapter to John Henry Newman (a man he has also written on) and his journey towards understanding tradition that led him to the conclusion that to be intellectually honest he must join the Roman Catholic Church.

Regardless of one’s take on this, there is rich ground for discussion here. Furthermore, in an Evangelical Protestant culture in which the altar of the new seems to have been erected in a whole host of sanctuaries, this call back to the beauty of tradition is refreshing. There seems to be a growing Protestant backlash against the constant wave of innovation and, more so, against the presumptive attitude that demands this of “successful” pastors. I, for one, will attest that this backlash is largely responsible for my own reading of this book.

However, the reader will find no quick fixes here. This book is, at times, difficult, and not all will agree with Pelikan on every point (I didn’t). However, as an alternative to the cult of innovation that has invaded the modern church, we may see this vindication as a breath of fresh air.

Pelikan is to be commended. His is a voice deserving of consideration. I would encourage you to do just that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *