The Passing of a Giant

At the insistent urging of a motel clerk near the Minneapolis airport a few years ago, I took the motel shuttle to that temple of American consumerism, The Mall of America, even though, as I told the lady at the front desk, I am not a mall kind of a guy. After a few bewildering minutes of strolling about, I headed to the one appealing refuge, a large Barnes & Noble bookstore. While browsing in the religion section I turned to my right, and who was standing next to me but Jaroslav Pelikan? Jerry, I stuttered, whatever are you doing here? His response was Pelikanesque: Looking through the indices of books to see if my name is mentioned, thus proving my grandmother to be correct about the universal stain of original sin.

There you have it: Pelikan of immense pride in his own accomplishments; a hint of whimsical self deprecation, and a quick allusion to his own deep Lutheran roots nurtured by generations of Pelikans from Eastern Europe, ultimately ending in Ohio. The next day, at Saint Olaf’s College in Northfield, Minn., at the conference where we were both speaking, he delivered a deeply learned and brilliantly constructed lecture on the veneration of the Theotokos in the Orthodox liturgy, a faith tradition he embraced in 1998 after a lifetime as a Lutheran.


Jaroslav Pelikan was, by any fair estimate, the premier historical theologian of our era. His five-volume The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1971-89) was not only characterized by his vast grasp of the Christian theological tradition, but it was also crucial in that it turned Adolf Von Harnack’s turn-of-the-century thesis that Christianity was corrupted by its embrace of Hellenism on its ear. He argued precisely the opposite: that Christianity converted the pagan world into which it was born.

Pelikan did not hesitate to undertake big works. In his early career, he was a seminal figure in bringing the more than 20 volumes of Martin Luther’s works into English. And late in life he labored over and brought to completion the three-volume Creeds and Confessions of Faith of the Christian Tradition, which replaced the standard 19th-century reference work The Creeds of Christendom, by Philip Schaff.

Born in Akron, Ohio, in 1923, Jaroslav Pelikan benefited from his own Eastern European background, learning not only the canonical languages, ancient and modern, needed by the serious theologian, but also attaining competency in a number of Slavic languages. I remember feeling distinctly ill educated one Sunday morning in Jerusalem as I sat in a van behind him and the French scholar Nicholas Lossky as the two discussed the linguistic intersections between Ukranian and Russian. Pelikan put his vast knowledge to use in a whole series of works on figures as diverse as Bach, the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint Augustine, Dante and John Henry Newman. His book The Riddle of Roman Catholicism (Abingdon, 1959), written on the cusp of the Second Vatican Council, was a seminal work of ecumenism.

Pelikan’s ability to reach an audience wider than academe was perhaps best illustrated by a series of lectures that he delivered and then published in book form as Jesus Through the Centuries (Yale Univ. Press, 1985)which, by some counts, has seen over 100,000 copies in print. It was there that he was able to marshal not only his vast theological learning but his knowledge of art and literature to show how different ages gave prominence to different depictions of Christ.

After early teaching appointments at Valparaiso University in Indiana and Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, he joined the faculty of the University of Chicago in 1953, where he remained until 1962, at which time he left to join the faculty of Yale University. At Yale Pelikan was soon elected to the Sterling Chair of History and for five years served as dean of the graduate faculty. Outside the university he gained national and international honors. He was a founding member of the Council of Scholars for the Library of Congress, served on the boards of the Smithsonian Institution and the American Philosophical Society and, in 1996, became president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His Gifford Lectures of 1992-93 were later published as Christianity and Classical Culture (Yale Univ. Press, 1993)a profound study that demonstrated his mastery of the Greek patristic tradition. In 2004 he shared the prestigious Kluge Prize from the Library of Congress with the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur. As an act of pietas toward his new church family, he donated his portion of the considerable monetary award to St. Vladimir’s Seminary, the Orthodox school where he had been received into the Orthodox Church and the place where his funeral would be celebrated.

Upon retirement from Yale in 1996 (though retirement is hardly the word for it), he stepped down from his regular academic duties there, opting to stay at his home in Hamden, Conn. There he continued his prodigious scholarly publications. Currently I am reading his theological commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, published in 2005 by Brazos Press. It is the first volume in a projected series of theological commentaries on the bible. It has all the marks of Pelikan’s scholarship: a close reading of the Greek text; a verse-by-verse commentary on that text studded with references to the great patristic commentators; and a constant eye on the theological and homiletical possibilities of the text itself, as well as its place in the liturgical life of the church both West and East.

The commentary on Acts, in fact, bears the same copyright year as another of the last books he published, entitled Whose Bible Is It? (Viking). As he relates in that book’s introduction, its roots derive from an honorary doctorate he received from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. That was a rare honor for a Christian historian. Pelikan was praised for having given full authority to the Judaism from which Christianity flowed. A few years later he wrote the program notes for a performance of Handel’s Messiah at Carnegie Hall, using then the title that became the title of this book.

Whose Bible Is It? is a highly readable account of how the Hebrew Scriptures became joined to what we now call the New Testament. In this relatively brief work he manages to describe that history economically while also tracing out the history of biblical interpretation, and ends with a lovely afterword, in which he writes that the Bible does not belong to any of us. It is the Book of God, and we, to borrow a phrase from Edmund Burke, are its temporary possessors and life-renters. Yet, Pelikan continues, while it is true that only those who read it with the eyes of faith can see it fully, it is also true that the eyes of unfaith have sometimes spotted what conventional unbelievers have been too preoccupied or too bemused to acknowledge.

In the final analysis, Pelikan believes, it is the task of the communities of faith to keep the Bible available and to comment on it within those communities. Pelikan does not denyindeed, he vigorously argues forthe constant need for philological and historical scrutiny of the Scriptures; but that is vastly less important, he says, than the religious need to understand it in order to obey it. Today we have a whole raft of writers who wish to deconstruct the Scriptures in favor of some other vision of faith nourished by the current fad for Gnostic truth, or to illustrate the mistakes or seeming contradiction in the text (almost all noted by Origen of Alexandria at the end of the second century). Pelikan, by contrast, operates not with the hermeneutics of suspicion but the hermeneutics of trust, and he does so in this book with authority.

I can pay no greater tribute to the quality of Whose Bible Is It? than to say that the next time I teach my freshman introductory course I will have the students read it both because it is so readable and because it will put them in contact with the very best of scholarship.

It should be noted in passing that this is not the first time that Pelikan wrote on the history of the Bible; in 1996 his The Reformation of the Bible/The Bible of the Reformation (Yale Univ. Press) was a close study of how the Reformation brought the Bible back to the center of Christianity and, in so doing, how the Bible came to be read in new and diverse ways.

Jaroslav Pelikan died on May 13, 2006, at the age of 82. Yet, as Christians believe, Christ is risen from the dead and by his death he has trampled upon death and given life to those who are in the tomb.

Whose Bible Is It
A History of the Scriptures Through the Ages

By Jaroslav Pelikan
Viking. (2005) 288p $24.95

By Jaroslav Pelikan
Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible
Brazos Press (2005) 320p $29.99

Historical and Theological Guide to Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition

By Jaroslav Pelikan
Yale Univ. Press. (2003) 672p $45

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

Why are there so many Catholics on the nation’s highest court?
Allyson EscobarJuly 18, 2018
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash
Said with purpose and conviction, the Memorare can remind 20-somethings that we are not alone in our restlessness.
Allyson EscobarJuly 18, 2018
Jesus would have definitely taken his paid days of vacation—all of them.
Jack Bentz, S.J.July 18, 2018
Hasn’t the good Lord given someone to watch over you?
Terrance KleinJuly 18, 2018