Jaroslav Pelikan, 82, Prolific Church Historian

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

Jaroslav Pelikan, who died on May 13 at 82, was one of the world’s foremost scholars of the history of Christianity.

Pelikan was the author of more than 30 books, but his magnum opus was “The Christian Tradition,” a five-volume history of Church doctrine published between 1971 and 1989 and tracing the story of what, in its 20 centuries, “the church of Jesus Christ has believed, taught, and confessed on the basis of the word of God.”

In all The Christian Tradition runs to more than 2,100 pages; there are 80 pages of references to modern authorities, and another 100 for “authors and texts” in their original languages (Latin, Greek, German, French, Russian, Danish, Czech, and Swedish, among others).

The five volumes deal with the history of doctrine from the early Church through the Reformation and up to the modern era. Nothing comparable had been attempted since the work of the German church historian Adolf von Harnack a century earlier; one commentator compared Pelikan to a “medieval craftsman” who had constructed “the print equivalent of a Salisbury cathedral or Chartres.”

His original intention had been to publish all five volumes at once (so that he could revise earlier material in the light of new insights and research), until a friend advised him: “You will die with the biggest filing cabinet in the world and no book.”

Pelikan’s interest was not so much in theological debate as in demonstrating historical continuity. He examined the way in which doctrine changed over time, noting that it often had to “catch up” with changes in religious practice, and detecting a constant effort to maintain the Church’s identity and universality. He once defined tradition as “the living faith of the dead”; traditionalism as “the dead faith of the living.”

The eldest of three children, Jaroslav Jan Pelikan was born on December 17 1923 in Akron, Ohio; he was named after an elder brother who had died at 10 days old, and many years later Pelikan observed: “By giving me his name, which I’m told by people in pediatric psychiatry is not a good idea, I’m sure in some sense [my parents] saw me as a surrogate for him. I unconsciously took that role of fulfilling the hopes they had for him as well as for me.”

His father was a Lutheran minister from Slovakia, his mother a schoolteacher who had been born in Serbia. The family was both scholarly and, on his father’s side, steeped in the Lutheran tradition: a great-uncle was one of the last Lutheran bishops in pre-Communist Czechoslovakia, and his grandfather had been the first bishop of the Slovak Lutheran Synod of North America.

Jaroslav could read by age 2, and because he could not yet control a pen his father taught him to type. From his Serbian mother, he learned the Cyrillic alphabet, and by the age of 15 he was reading Russian; in boyhood he learned to speak Slovakian, Serbo-Croat, Czech, and German.

Admitted to high school in Pittsburgh at age 9, Jaroslav was adopted by a group of black football players who protected him from bullies. Later he attended a Lutheran boarding school in Indiana where he learned Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Syriac.

Pelikan went on to the Concordia Seminary at St. Louis, although he had no ambition to become a pastor. He combined his degree at the seminary with a doctoral thesis at the University of Chicago on the Lutheran and Hussite reformations.

He taught for three years at a university in Indiana, then at the Concordia Seminary, from where he had graduated. In 1950 he published “From Luther to Kierkegaard” and in 1953 accepted a teaching post at Chicago.

His next book, “Fools For Christ” (1955), was a wide-ranging work which addressed figures from St. Paul to Dostoyevsky, Luther to Nietzsche, Kierkegaard to Johann Sebastian Bach. “The Riddle of Roman Catholicism” (1959) pointed to the common ground between Protestants and Catholics, and suggested how both communions could learn from ecumenical dialogue.

In 1961 he published “The Shape of Death.” Addressing the thoughts of five church fathers (Tatian, Clement of Alexandria, Cyprian, Origen, and Irenaeus), he examined the “core of the Christian faith,” a “pessimism about life and optimism about God, and therefore hope for life in God.” In the following year he went to Yale as Professor of Ecclesiastical History at the Divinity School.

“Obedient Rebels” (1964) argued that Luther had been a conservative reformer who “believed he was standing for the same gospel for which the church had stood before it became corrupt and condemned him.”

Pelikan’s many other publications included “The Christian Intellectual” (1966); “Spirit Versus Structure: Luther and the Institutions of the Church” (1968); “Jesus Through the Centuries” (1985); and “Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture” (1996). Between 1955 and 1970 he edited the 22-volume “Luther’s Works.” Last year he published “Whose Bible Is It?: A History of the Scriptures Through the Ages.”

In 1972 Pelikan was appointed Sterling Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale. He was dean of the Yale Graduate School from 1975 to 1978. He was a former president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and was appointed by President Clinton to serve on his Committee on the Arts and Humanities. He was awarded more than 40 honorary degrees.

In 1983 he delivered the Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities; in 1992-93 and 1993-94 he gave the Gifford lectures in Scotland. Pelikan edited the religion section of Encyclopedia Britannica, and in 1980 founded the Council of Scholars at the Library of Congress.

In 2004 Pelikan shared (with the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur) the $1 million John W. Kluge prize. Pelikan donated his award to St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, of which he was a trustee; he had converted to the Eastern Orthodox Church in 1998.

Jaroslav Pelikan married, in 1946, Sylvia Burica. They had two sons and a daughter.


The New York Sun

© 2024 The New York Sun Company, LLC. All rights reserved.

Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. The material on this site is protected by copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, cached or otherwise used.

The New York Sun

Sign in or  Create a free account

By continuing you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use