The Necessity for Creed and Tradition

Dr. Jarislov Pelikan

I came across, early this morning, an intriguing interview with Dr. Jarislov Pelikan, recorded on March 20, 2008. In it, Pelikan reflects on the need for creeds. We all, as human beings, need a pattern, a shape, and an articulation of order to make sense of our own life and our surroundings. In developing such a creed, we attempt to answer or deliberately (and devotedly) debunk the need to answer the following questions: “Where did I come from? Where am I going? Why am I here?”

The mysterious reality of “tradition” and its nature in the Christian faith was a something that Pelikan studied and spent many volumes articulating. “The Holy Tradition” is, as it were, the rainforest from which springs prayer, scripture, fellowship, ministry, and witness. These are sustained and flourish, nourishing we who dwell in the forest and venture forth from it to share its treasure.

I invite you to either read or listen to this challenging and wonderfully enjoyable interview here.

Specifically, I would like to share with you the last exchange between Dr. Pelikan and his interviewer, Ms. Tippett, in which there is an amazing and stunningly profound statement regarding the relationship between stability and the seeming instability that necessary changes in our life provoke.  Of course, I though how this profound theme is explored to some degree in  the musical, “Fiddler on the Roof.” Here is the excerpt:


Dr. Pelikan: The centrality of tradition as a force, as the bearer of the message, as what the church believes even if I don’t believe anything at a particular moment, and the capacity of tradition to sustain itself and to sustain the church is something with which I have been impressed partly through my own studies and partly by my faith and the realization that, of course, there was tradition before there was a Bible.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Dr. Pelikan: That the Bible came out of tradition and…

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm, took a couple of hundred years to pull together.

Dr. Pelikan: …and tradition went on interpreting the Bible after the last book of the Bible had been written, and a deep awareness and, I suppose, a deepening awareness, historically, of not only change but of continuity. I’ve never seen it in print that every day, since the middle of the first century, Christians have gathered together around bread and wine, thanked God and received it as the body and blood of Christ, that there has been no day when that didn’t happen. The doctrines about it have changed, the liturgical forms have changed, all of that, but that this has happened every day — you multiply 2,000 by 365 with an extra day for leap years, that’s a massive continuity, and creeds represent that. And you know, Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, he discovered one day that he had been speaking prose all his life. And so I sort of discovered that I’d been speaking Orthodox all my life. And so I didn’t really convert. Convert is to change, and I didn’t change. I simply discovered the continuity that had been there all along.

Ms. Tippett: Well, isn’t that what change is often about? I don’t know.

Dr. Pelikan: Well, I suppose.


The fruit of the interplay between “staying the same” and “constantly changing” is the realization of our true home and identity. In this, we are invited to make contact with and move in the flow of God’s faithfulness in the midst of all our transitions – times of liminality – in which we might doubt that His faithfulness is real. The transformative work of the Holy Spirit might be articulated as this interplay in the context of the love of God the Father in the person of Christ Jesus His Son.

Fr. Thomas


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