Professor Jaroslav Pelikan

Author of 'The Christian Tradition' who pointed up the difference between tradition and traditionalism

Monday 12 June 2006 00:00
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Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, church historian: born Akron, Ohio 17 December 1923; ordained minister 1946; member of faculty, Valparaiso University 1946-49; member of faculty, Concordia Theological Seminary, St Louis 1949-53; member of faculty, University of Chicago 1953-62; Titus Street Professor of Ecclesiastical History, Yale University 1962-72, Sterling Professor 1972-96 (Emeritus), Dean of the Graduate School 1973-78; President, American Academy of Arts and Sciences 1994-97; married 1946 Sylvia Burica (two sons, one daughter); died Hamden, Connecticut 13 May 2006.

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: a history 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 der Dogmengeschichte (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 understanding key historical texts. He lamented:

It is still 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 a half (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 Concordia 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.

Pelikan produced more than 30 books; his published work was wide-ranging, but he had a fondness for the arts. Bach Among the Theologians (1986) looked at the Christian background of Johann Sebastian Bach (fully three-quarters of whose output was written to be performed in church, as Pelikan constantly reminded audiences). He and the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, a good friend, staged joint concerts, with Pelikan providing theological meditations. His fascination for Faust and Dostoevsky's holy fools was reflected in his writing.

As a labour of love, he wrote a biography of Cardinal Josyf Slipyj, the head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, published in 1990 as Confessor Between East and West. He detailed Slipyj's endurance over 18 years in Soviet labour camps before his sudden release by Nikita Khrushchev in 1963. Pelikan admired Slipyj's unrelenting commitment to continuing his Church's theological education as a foundation for its survival.

Pelikan's output seemed undimmed in retirement. The 2003 book he co-edited, Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition, was praised by Archbishop Rowan Williams and the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI).

Widely honoured (he gained more than 40 honorary degrees) and a frequent guest lecturer, Pelikan was invited to give the Gifford lectures in Aberdeen in 1992-93. He also served as President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and founding chairman for the Council of Scholars at the Library of Congress.

A committed Lutheran for many years, while "proud to be an adopted son" of the Benedictine Abbey at Collegeville, Minnesota, Pelikan was interested in the broad sweep of Christianity, past and present. Apart from Harnack, his other hero was the Orthodox theologian Georges Florovsky. Pelikan hung their two portraits side by side on his wall.

"The hardest thing for me to say about Professor Pelikan is why he is not Orthodox," his good friend Fr Alexander Schmemann said as he introduced Pelikan at St Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary in New York in 1975. That changed in 1998, when Pelikan finally took the step of joining the Orthodox Church in America. His wife, Sylvia, soon followed him. He became a trustee of the seminary, where he also worshipped, remaining active even when suffering from the lung cancer that eventually killed him.

"Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living" was Pelikan's most famous dictum:

Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenised tradition.

Felix Corley

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