Jaroslav Pelikan: Author of The Christian Tradition' who pointed up the difference between tradition and traditionalism (obituary)





As a church historian, Jaroslav Pelikan fought all his life to overcome Christians' amnesia of their own past - not only Protestants' ignorance of Reformation history, but Western Christians' ignorance of the Eastern Christian heritage, Christians' ignorance of Christianity's Jewish past and Christians' and Jews' ignorance of their Classical Greek heritage.

Pelikan's magnum opus was The Christian Tradition: ahistory of the development of doctrine, published in five volumes between 1971 and 1989, a project he claims to have conceived in his teens. Unlike his great hero Adolf von Harnack, whose own magnum opus, Lehrbuch derDog-mengeschichte (History of Dogma), was completed exactly 100 years before his, Pelikan was determined that Eastern Christian thought would be fully integrated, complaining that Harnack had been "tone-deaf to Eastern Orthodoxy".

Pelikan was desperate to overcome ignorance of languages - particularly ancient languages-which prevented theology students and lay people under-standingkey historical texts. He lamented: It is stil astounding to be reminded that, throughout most of Christian history, most theologians have expounded most Christian doctrines without any knowledge of the Hebrew language. I saw my polyglot upbringing and schooling as a further moral obligation to interpret - a word that means both "to translate" and "to make sense of" - the Christian tradition to its unknowing heirs.

He began his publishing with editing and often translating 22 volumes of a new American edition of Martin Luther's Works, published between 1955 and 1970. Jaroslav Pelikan - Jary to his friends knew his mission in life early. He once claimed to have learned to read and even type at the age of two and ahalf (he found holding a pencil too difficult). Born in Arkon, Ohio, the son of a Slovak Lutheran pastor who played a key role in building up the Slovak Lutheran Synod in the United States and a Serbian mother (their first child to be born in the New World), Pelikan grew up steeped in Lutheranism, but with wide horizons. "He combined German Lutheran scholarship and Slavic Orthodox piety - and fortunately not the vice versa," Pelikan's father once declared.

The young Pelikan studied at Con-cordia Theological Seminary in St Louis and was ordained a minister at the age of just 22. He then began his long teaching and writing career - at Valparaiso University in Indiana, at Concordia and at the University of Chicago - ending up in 1962 as Titus Street Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Yale and, from 1973 to 1978, head of the graduate school. He was remembered as a lively teacher who wore his learning lightly.


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