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Christian History Home > 2006 > Issue 91 > Delighted by doctrine


Delighted by doctrine
Timothy George | posted 7/01/2006 12:00AM

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When Jaroslav Pelikan died at age 82 on May 13, 2006, the world of Christian scholarship lost its greatest living advocate and the best church historian America has ever produced. Words like "greatest" and "best" are frequently used in a loose manner simply to say something nice about someone—but in the case of Jary, as his friends called him, they are really true.

The achievements of his life are remarkable: He wrote nearly 40 books and over a dozen reference works on numerous aspects of Christian history. He taught several generations of students at Valparaiso University, Concordia Theological Seminary, the University of Chicago, and, since 1962, Yale University. He served as Dean of the Graduate School at Yale and was also President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He received the Jefferson Award of the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1983 and the John Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievements in the Human Sciences in 2004. He presented the Gifford Lectures at University of Aberdeen and the Gilson Lectures at the University of Toronto and was awarded honorary degrees from 42 universities around the world.

Many other accomplishments could be listed, but accomplishments alone do not reveal the deepest passion of his soul—to tell the story of the Christian tradition in all of its fullness, drama, coherence, romance, and rigor, thereby exposing the deepest textures of meaning inherent in the Christian message itself.

A Slavic heritage

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. Both his father and grandfather were Lutheran pastors. His mother was a schoolteacher who learned English by reading the essays of Emerson. They bequeathed to young Jary 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, 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."

The grand scope of tradition

A precocious young Pelikan received both his seminary degree and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1946 at age 22. 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.




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