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


New Revelation vs. Deeper Revelation

“My child, do not expect a new Revelation. I shall only speak to thee of the things which have been told to men from the beginning. What may be new will be the particular attention given to certain aspects of the eternal truth.” In Thy Presence, by Fr. Lev Gillet, pg. 11

What I hear Fr. Lev Gillet saying goes to the very at the very heart of the traditional understanding and application of the Good News of salvation in Christ Jesus – the God-man.

I have been involved, over the years in many conversations in which the concept of a “new and deeper understanding of the revelation of God in Christ” was used to validate policies and practices in the Church that flatly contradicted what has been understood by the Church at all times, by all, in all places since the time of the apostles.

I have never quite understood how such a rationale could be articulated let alone put into place through concrete policies and actions. The reason I find this approach to be an insult to the Holy Tradition issues from my training. My mentors plowed deeply into my mind a deep commitment to  a “conciliar” understanding and application of the Scriptures.

There is a difference between a deeper understanding of the meaning of the revelation of God in Christ which is unchanging and a purported understanding of the revelation that represents a clear and obvious departure from what the Church has come to understand the revelation means and requires of the faithful.

If, in fact, as the Church Fathers contend, the Church has been and is the Spirit-filled and directed community in union with the Living Christ, in its understanding of the revelation of the Good News and its application, then any change that might be contemplated by any part of the Church must, inevitably, be submitted for consideration by the whole Church; participate in that consideration, and abide by the decision of the whole Church regarding the contemplated change.

One aspect of a conciliar understanding of the revelation of God in Christ is inner consistency. That means that no matter how deep our understanding of any aspect of the revelation might become, it will have a “sameness” to all of our previous understandings of the same aspect of the revelation. This sameness witnesses to the integrity of not only the revelation but our interpretation.

Of course, integrity does not disqualify diversity. Diversity is no enemy of unity in the arena of the Church’s life or the validity of its comprehension of the practical meaning of the Word become flesh for our salvation. From the beginning of the Church’s life, regional diversity of understandings and applications have been common. However, these diverse understandings and applications have been build upon an underlying common understanding.

A second aspect of the conciliar character of the Church’s relationship with the revelation is that any decision must be in agreement with what has been understood at all times, in all places, by all over all the way back to the apostles.

The Church, if it is the Church, is One. This is the Church’s conciliar understanding of our Lord’s words in John 17. This chapter is like a doorway to many other passages to be sure.

It might be fair to contend that all of the Church’s problems are the fruit of its repudiation of conciliation and its refusal to embrace re-conciliation (the re-establishment of conciliation as a foundation stone of its operation and of its practical union).

The likelihood of another “Ecumenical Council” is slim. Why? Well, consider, for a moment, what would have to happen for that to take placd. Each and every denomination would have to submit its entire understanding and practices to the mind of the Church as it was last understood when the Church was one in practice. In other words, the whole Church would have to repent – die to the mind it has that caused and sustained the inner division and be born to its authentic mind (its only mind), which is the mind of Christ.

In my opinion, and that is just what it is, an opinion (and not I am sure all that humble), the only way for the Church to move ahead with authenticity is to tackle the issue of its own division. The Church’s division is, perhaps, the most convincing proof of its repudiation of a conciliar understanding and application of the Gospel.

Fr. Thomas