The Doctrine Doctor
The Library of Congress has awarded its annual John W. Kluge Prize in the Human Sciences to Yale University historian Jaroslav Pelikan (along with French philosopher Paul Ricoeur). The $1 million award focuses on those academic disciplines not covered by the Nobel prizes and have only been awarded since 2003.
In 1990, historian Mark Noll of Wheaton College wrote a brief profile of Pelikan for Christianity Today. This year, Noll was also honored by the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress, serving as the Cary and Ann Maguire Chair in American History and Ethics.
The office of Jaroslav Pelikan holds few clues to explain what has made him what he is: perhaps the foremost living student of church history. In his old, high-ceilinged office, an open semicircular arrangement of chairs suggests friendliness and availability to students. On the wall is a painting of a pelican, and around the edges of the room are an old briefcase, cardboard boxes, and piles of books laid in convenient stacks. But telltale signs of hobbies or outside interests (like an old clarinet or a tennis racket in the corner) are absent. Two computers—one a laptop on his desk—are the only obvious concessions to modernity.
It is just as hard to tell much about the Sterling Professor of History at Yale University from the way he looks. He wears standard-issue academic garb: a gray flannel jacket with a charcoal suede vest, and rubber-and-leather boots from L. L. Bean. He is congenial, and as he talks he makes occasional eye contact with his interviewers, but just as often peers at the ceiling and the book shelves around him as he swivels and rocks back and forth in his desk chair.
None of these things provide the key to Jaroslav Pelikan, for he is nothing more nor less than what he is advertised to be—a scholar and teacher of church history. Many think he is the best there is. He has chronicled the history of Christian doctrine (in a recently completed five-volume work) on a scale no one has attempted in the twentieth century. To understand what you see, you have to keep in mind Pelikan's singular commitment to his vocation.
Even when Pelikan talks about his early life, the stories and anecdotes all relate to his preparation for the tasks of a scholar.
Pelikan will tell you, for instance, about the problem he created for his parents, Anna and Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, in the summer of 1926, when he was two-and-a-half-years old, growing up in Akron, Ohio. He had, his mother's memoirs recorded, taught himself to read and now wanted to write. But he could not yet manage a pen or pencil. "My father," recalls Pelikan, "took me over to a typewriter and showed me how it worked." The result, much to the later consternation of his teachers, was a child who could type better than he could write.
By the time Pelikan started school, his parents had given him more than an introduction to the typewriter. The home was a veritable hothouse of languages, an environment guaranteed to give the young Jaroslav Pelikan what he needed to develop prodigious linguistic skills. Slovak and English were spoken in his home, as was German, which his father taught the young Pelikan before he was six years old. His mother, in turn, introduced him to Serbian. "My mother learned Serbian," Pelikan recalls, "growing up in Serbian-speaking territories [what is now Yugoslavia]. That meant that I learned the Cyrillic alphabet. From that, learning to read Russian was not hard. I started doing that at fifteen or so." And in the Lutheran parsonage of his childhood (his father was a Slovak Evangelical Lutheran pastor), there were texts of ancient languages—Latin, Greek, and Hebrew—that Jaroslav, Jr., began to study as a young adolescent.