It has been nearly ten years since Jaroslav Pelikan died and a full twenty-five since he completed The Christian Tradition, his five-volume, 2,100-page history of “what the church of Jesus Christ believes, teaches, and confesses on the basis of the Word of God.” Who was Jaroslav Pelikan, and why does his work remain so important for serious Christian scholarship today?
Pelikan loved to quote this line from Goethe, his favorite poet: “What you have received as heritage, take now as task and thus you will make it your own.” Pelikan’s remarkable scholarly career was rooted in his Slavic family background. Both of his parents were born in Europe. His father and grandfather were Lutheran pastors. His mother was a school teacher who learned English by reading the essays of Emerson. They bequeathed to young Jary, as he was called, both a love for learning and a desire for God.
When he was a little boy and couldn’t quite reach the dinner table, his parents had him sit on stacked-up volumes of Migne’s Patrologia, a collection of patristic writings in the original languages. He later quipped, “I thus absorbed the church fathers a posteriori!” His facility with languages was astounding—not only the classical tongues of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew but also German, Slovak, Czech, Dutch, Russian, Serbian, all the romance languages, and many more. On occasion he would stay up late at night listening to a short-wave radio to keep fresh his language skills—including Albanian, which he once found useful in a conversation with a taxi driver.
Pelikan’s deep religious faith was nurtured on Luther’s Small Catechism, the great chorales of J. S. Bach, and, above all, the Bible. Each of these – Luther, Bach, and the Bible – would play a major role in his scholarly work. Though he became an ordained Lutheran minister and once taught at Concordia Theological Seminary, Pelikan spent most of his life in the environs of the secular academy. But he never lost the rich faith he received as a small child. As he once confessed, “I was quite out of step with many in my generation, especially among theological scholars at universities, in never having had fundamental doubts about the essential rightness of the Christian faith, but having retained a continuing, if often quite unsophisticated, Slavic piety.”
A precocious Pelikan received both his seminary degree, and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, in 1946 at age twenty-two. His first book, From Luther to Kierkegaard, came out a few years later (1950). Soon Pelikan established himself as one of the most prolific Luther scholars of his generation. He was general editor for the 55-volume American Edition of Luther’s Works and wrote a separate volume on Luther’s biblical exposition. Pelikan always had a great interest in ecumenical affairs. His book The Riddle of Roman Catholicism (1959), written on the eve of the Second Vatican Council, offered an irenic introduction to the world’s largest Christian community.
It is said that Karl Barth drew up a plan for his “collected works” at age ten! Just so, Pelikan had a clear, detailed plan of what he called his “big book” early in his career. He would write a comprehensive history of Christian doctrine. No one had attempted such a grand project since Adolf von Harnack, the great scion of German liberal Protestantism, who published his massive History of Dogma in the late nineteenth century. Pelikan greatly admired Harnack, whose picture he kept on his study wall along with that of the great Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann. Harnack, however, for all his erudition, had little sympathy with the doctrinal content of his subject and presented a version of Christianity freed from the dogmatic shackles of the past. Pelikan, working with the same historical rigor, approached his subject with much more sympathy. As he put it, “I found, not in theological liberalism and historical relativism (as so many of my predecessors, teachers, contemporaries did) but in tradition and orthodoxy, the presupposition from which to interpret any portion or period.”
Robert Louis Wilken recognized this trait in his former teacher. Shortly after Pelikan’s death in 2006, Wilken wrote in a moving tribute titled Jaroslav Pelikan, Doctor Ecclesiae: “Pelikan knew, and his scholarship demonstrated, what many Christian theologians and church leaders have forgotten, that over the Church’s long history, the orthodox and catholic form of Christian faith . . . has been the most biblical, the most coherent, the most enduring, the most adaptable, and yes, the most true.”
As a capstone to his lifelong interest in the central texts of the Christian faith, Pelikan edited (with Valerie Hotchkiss) what could only be called a second magnum opus – Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition, a four-volume critical edition with a one-volume historical and theological guide called simply Credo.
Judaism has its shema, and Islam its shahadah, but Christians, responding to Jesus’s question, “Who do you say that I am?” have produced literally thousands of statements of faith across the centuries. Pelikan’s collection includes several hundred of these, among them The Masai Creed from Kenya. This creed Africanizes Christianity by declaring that Jesus “was always on safari doing good.” It also declares that after Jesus had been “tortured and nailed hands and feet to a cross, and died, he laid buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day, he rose from the grave. He ascended unto the skies. He is the Lord.”
This creed was brought to Pelikan’s attention by one of his students, a woman who had been a member of a religious order working in a hospital in East Nigeria. Pelikan commented on his reaction to this text: “And so she brought it to me, and I just got shivers, just the thought, you know, the hyenas did not touch him and the act of defiance – God lives even in spite of the hyenas.”
Pelikan dealt with many deep and difficult subjects in his scholarly work, but he wrote in a simple, elegant style with a clarity that is compelling. He had a way of capturing profound truths in short, unforgettable statements. Among his most memorable are these: “Jesus Christ is too important to be left to the theologians”; “Everybody else is an expert on the present. I wish to file a minority report on behalf of the past”; and “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” Though he never quite matched the popular appeal of his Yale predecessor, Roland H. Bainton, some of Pelikan’s books did reach a wider audience, including his Jesus Through the Centuries and Whose Bible Is It?
On 25 March 1998, the Feast Day of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Pelikan and his wife Sylvia were received into the fellowship of the Orthodox Church in America. Pelikan remarked that while some might have been shocked by his act, few who knew him well could have been surprised. As he put it, “Any airplane that circled the airport for that long before landing would have run out of gas!” Indeed, Pelikan’s tilt toward the East can be traced back to his Slavic roots, his love for the Eastern liturgy, his close friendship with the Orthodox theologian Georges Florovsky, and the sheer joy that permeates the pages of The Spirit of Eastern Christendom, the second volume of his history of doctrine. He spent the last years of his life serving on the Board of Trustees of Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, where he is still held in great affection and esteem.
I never had Jaroslav Pelikan as a classroom teacher, but I was one of his students, as everyone seriously interested in Christian history has to be. As a young student of historical theology, I once determined to read everything Pelikan had written. It is a daunting task, let me assure you: A 1995 bibliography of his works, which does not include his last prolific decade, runs to some fifty printed pages. He was a generous colleague and friend and a great encourager.
Since 1962, Pelikan had taught at Yale University and served for a while as Dean of the Graduate School there. He thrived in the world of the arts and sciences and wrote learnedly about art, politics, law, poetry, educational theory, and public ethics, as well as history and theology. But he did all of this as a scholar who was also a Christian. Jaroslav Pelikan had a love for all things human and humane, and his work still enriches every person who looks at the world with intellectual curiosity and moral imagination. But his legacy shines especially bright among those who follow Jesus Christ, belong to his church, and see the world through the eyes of the Savior’s love.
Pelikan’s Bach Among the Theologians concludes with a chapter titled “Johann Sebastian Bach – Between Secular and Sacred.” Pelikan points out here that Bach began his compositions by writing Jesu Juva (Jesus, help) and closed them by writing Soli Deo Gloria (To God alone be the glory). These are also good grace notes for one of the most diligent and faithful scholars the church has known in recent times.
Timothy George – First Things