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Jaroslav Jan Pelikan

Jaroslav Jan Pelikan (December 17, 1923–May 13, 2006) was a scholar in the history of Christianity, Christian theology and medieval intellectual history.


Early years

Pelikan was born in Akron, Ohio, to a Slovak father and a Serbian mother. His father was a Lutheran pastor and his paternal grandfather a bishop of the Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches then known as the Slovak Lutheran Church in America.

Before he turned three, his mother had taught him to use the typewriter, as he could not yet hold a pen. His facility with languages (he is thought to have had a command of at least a dozen different tongues) may be traced to his multilingual childhood and early training. That linguistic facility was to serve him well in the career he ultimately chose (after first contemplating becoming a concert pianist)--that of a 20th century historian of Christian doctrine. He did not confine his studies to Roman Catholic and Protestant theological history, but also embraced that of the Christian East.

He earned both a seminary degree from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis and a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in 1946 when he was 22.

Writings and interviews

Pelikan wrote more than 30 books, the five-volume The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (1971–1989). Some of his later works attained crossover appeal, reaching beyond the scholarly sphere into the general reading public (notably, Mary Through the Centuries, Jesus Through the Centuries and Whose Bible Is It?).

His 1984 book The Vindication of Tradition gave rise to an often quoted one liner. In an interview in U.S. News & World Report (July 26, 1989), he said: "Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. 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 homogenized tradition."

Yale University professor

He joined Yale University in 1962 as the Titus Street Professor of Ecclesiastical History and in 1972 was named Sterling Professor of History, a position he held until achieving emeritus status in 1996. He served as acting dean and then dean of the Graduate School from 1973–78 and was the William Clyde DeVane Lecturer 1984-86 and again in the fall of 1995. Awards include the Graduate School's 1979 Wilbur Cross Medal and the Medieval Academy of America's 1985 Haskins Medal.

While at Yale, Pelikan won a contest sponsored by Field & Stream magazine for Ed Zern's column "Exit Laughing" to translate the motto of the Madison Avenue Rod, Gun, Bloody Mary & Labrador Retriever Benevolent Association ("Keep your powder, your trout flies and your martinis dry") into Latin. Pelikan's winning entry mentioned the martini first, but Pelikan explained that it seemed no less than fitting to have the apéritif come first. His winning entry:

Semper siccandae sunt: potio
Pulvis, et pelliculatio.

Pelikan was appointed to numerous leadership positions in American intellectual life. He was the immediate past president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was editor of the religion section of Encyclopædia Britannica, and in 1980 he founded the Council of Scholars at the Library of Congress.

In 1983 the National Endowment for the Humanities selected him to deliver the 12th annual Jefferson Lecture, the highest honor conferred by the federal government for outstanding achievement in the humanities.[1] Pelikan's lecture became the basis for his book The Vindication of Tradition.[2]

Pelikan gave the 1992–1993 Gifford lectures at the University of Aberdeen, which were published as the book Christianity and Classical Culture.

President Bill Clinton appointed Professor Pelikan to serve on the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities. Dr. Pelikan received honorary degrees from 42 universities all over the world. At the age of 80, he was appointed scholarly director for the “Institutions of Democracy Project” at the Annenberg Foundation.

In 2004, having received the John W. Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Human Sciences, an honor he shared with the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, Pelikan donated his award ($500,000) to Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, of which he was a trustee. At the ceremony, he quoted a leitmotif passage from Goethe that had moved him all his life: "Was du ererbt von deinen Vaetern hast, Erwirb es um es zu besitzen" -- "Take what you have inherited from your fathers and work to make it your own."

Lutheran pastor to Orthodox layman

For most of his life Pelikan belonged to the Lutheran Church, and he was ordained a pastor therein, but in 1998 he and his wife Sylvia were received into the Orthodox Church in America in St Vladimir's Seminary Chapel. Members of Pelikan's family remember him saying that he had not as much converted to Orthodoxy as "returned to it, peeling back the layers of my own belief to reveal the Orthodoxy that was always there."[3]

Pelikan died in Hamden, Connecticut, at the age of 82 after a battle with lung cancer. He was honored by a memorial service in Yale's Battell Chapel on October 10, 2006 with speeches by distinguished scholars and a musical performance by cellist Yo-Yo Ma. It was reported that, before Pelikan died, he delivered the last in a lifelong series of memorable aphorisms: "If Christ is risen, nothing else matters. And if Christ is not risen -- nothing else matters."

Selected bibliography

  • Acts (2006) Brazos Press, ISBN 1-58743-094-0. A theological Bible commentary
  • Bach Among the Theologians (1986), Philadelphia: Fortress Press, ISBN 0-8006-0792-9
  • The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, 5 vols. (1973–1990). Chicago: University of Chicago Press
    • Volume 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition 100–600 (1973) ISBN 0-226-65371-4
    • Volume 2: The Spirit of Eastern Christendom 600–1700 (1974) ISBN 0-226-65373-0
    • Volume 3: The Growth of Medieval Theology 600–1300 (1978) ISBN 0-226-65375-7
    • Volume 4: Reformation of Church and Dogma 1300–1700 (1984) ISBN 0-226-65377-3
    • Volume 5: Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture since 1700 (1990) ISBN 0-226-65380-3
  • Christianity and Classical Culture: The Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism (1993) Gifford lectures at Aberdeen, Yale U. Press, ISBN 0-300-06255-9
  • Confessor Between East and West: A Portrait of Ukrainian Cardinal Josyf Slipyj
  • Credo: Historical and Theological Guide to Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition (2003) Yale U. Press, ISBN 0-300-09388-8
  • Development of Christian Doctrine: Some Historical Prolegomena
  • Divine Rhetoric: The Sermon on the Mount As Message and As Model in Augustine, Chrysostom, and Luther (2000) St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, ISBN 0-88141-214-7
  • The Excellent Empire: The Fall of Rome and the Triumph of the Church
  • Faust the Theologian (1995) Yale U. Press, ISBN 0-300-07064-0
  • Fools for Christ: Essays on the True, the Good, and the Beautiful (1995) Fortress Press, (2001) Wipf & Stock ISBN 978-1579108021
  • The Idea of the University: A Reexamination (1992) Yale U. Press, ISBN 0-300-05834-9
  • The Illustrated Jesus Through the Centuries (1997) Yale U. Press ISBN 0300072686
  • Interpreting the Bible and the Constitution (2004) Yale U. Press ISBN 0-300-10267-4
  • Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture (1985) Yale U. Press, ISBN 0-300-07987-7
  • The Light of the World: A Basic Image in Early Christian Thought (1962) Harper and Brothers, no ISBN
  • Martin Luther's works (1955–1969) multiple volumes
  • Martin Luther's Basic Theological Writings
  • Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture (1996) Yale U. Press, ISBN 0-300-07661-4
  • Mary: Images Of The Mother Of Jesus In Jewish And Christian Perspective
  • The Melody of Theology: A Philosophical Dictionary ISBN 0-674-56472-3
  • The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century (Forward) ISBN 0-8070-1301-3
  • The Riddle of Roman Catholicism (1959)
  • Sacred Writings: Buddhism – The Dhammapada (1987) Book of the Month Club, no ISBN
  • Sacred Writings: Hinduism – The Rig Veda (1992) Book of the Month Club, no ISBN
  • Sacred Writings: Islam – The Qur'an (1992) editor, Book of the Month Club, no ISBN, in English with Arabic sub-text
  • The World Treasury of Modern Religious Thought (1990), editor, hardcover: ISBN 0-316-69770-2, paperback: no ISBN issued
  • The Vindication of Tradition: The 1983 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities (1986) Yale U. Press, ISBN 0300036388.
  • What Has Athens to Do with Jerusalem?: Timaeus and Genesis in Counterpoint (1998) Thomas Spencer Jerome Lectures, University of Michigan Press, ISBN 0-472-10807-7
  • Whose Bible Is It? A History of the Scriptures Through the Ages (2005) ISBN 0-670-03385-5


  1. ^ Jefferson Lecturers at NEH Website (retrieved January 22, 2009).
  2. ^ Jaroslav Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition: The 1983 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), ISBN 0300036388.
  3. ^ George, Timothy (Summer 2006). "Delighted by doctrine". Christian History & Biography (Christianity Today International) (91): 43–45. 

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