Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

When I walked into the chapel at St. Vladimir’s Seminary on a bright spring morning for the funeral of Jaroslav Pelikan, I saw an open casket in the center of the church. Next to it was a young woman standing at a reading desk chanting a psalm with tears running down her cheeks. As she turned the pages of the psalmbook, her other arm held a young girl standing on a chair to her left. Members of the seminary community had been taking turns through the night reciting psalms as they kept vigil over Jaroslav’s still body.

As I listened to the recitation of the psalms, the eyes of the saints painted on the walls of the chapel looked down on the simple ritual unfolding before them. Soon the building would be filled with mourners, but it seemed that the church was already present to commend Jaroslav to the care of the angels. When people began to take their places, I sensed that on this occasion there would be few reminders of the university world in which Pelikan had lived for so many decades. Besides the Pelikan family, most in attendance were from the local community: students and faculty garbed in the Orthodox inner cassock, called a podryasnik; mothers and wives; women and men carrying infants in arms; two little girls playing quietly on the wood floor close to the casket. The company that gathered that morning was more like a family, the family of the Church, a fellowship united by much deeper bonds than those of the academy. Their words and music and gestures were the solemn liturgy of God’s people who had come to offer praise to the holy, mighty, and immortal God and to celebrate, in the language of the Orthodox Church, a “Divine Service for the Funeral of a Layman During the Forty Days of Pascha.”

It was fitting that Professor Pelikan’s funeral should take place at St. Vladimir’s. He and his wife, Sylvia, had been regular communicants in this chapel, and his final book, a theological commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, was dedicated to “my liturgical family at Saint Vladimir’s” with the inscription, “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in the breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42). But there was another reason a theological seminary was the right place. Though Jaroslav Pelikan had a distinguished career in the university, he was a graduate of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, where he taught for several years. He always felt at home in a theological community and saw himself, and was revered by others, first and foremost as a doctor ecclesiae, a teacher of the Church.

The first volume of his history of Christian thought, The Christian Tradition, begins: “What the church of Jesus Christ believes, teaches and confesses on the basis of the Word of God: This is Christian doctrine.” His life was devoted to the exposition and teaching of that Christian doctrine, but he knew that doctrine is not the only activity of the Church. The Church worships God and serves the poor and needy, the sick and dying, and is always more than a school. And yet it cannot be less than a school, for without doctrine, without teaching, it would not be the Church of Jesus Christ.

By doctrine Pelikan did not mean just any teaching. He meant the central truths of Christianity: that God is triune, that Christ is fully God and fully manthose teachings that were solemnly declared in the ancient councils and are confessed in the ecumenical creeds. His historical study had convinced him that the most faithful bearer of the apostolic faith was the great tradition of thought and practice as expounded by the orthodox Church Fathers.

In the last generation, it has become fashionable among historians of Christian thought not only to seek to understand the Gnostics or the Arians but also to become their advocates and to suggest, sometimes obliquely, sometimes straightforwardly, that orthodox Christianity made its way not by argument and truth but by power and coercion. The real heroes in Christian history are the dissidents, the heretics, whose insights and thinking were suppressed by the imperious bishops of the great Church.

Pelikan never succumbed to this temptation. In the classroom, in public lectures, and in his many books, he was an advocate of creedal Christianity, of the classical formulations of Christian doctrine. In one of his last books, Credo, he cited such writers as Edward Gibbon, Adolf von Harnack, and Matthew Arnold, who believed that “creeds pass” and “no altar standeth whole.” But he answered them with John Henry Newman, who said that dogma is the principle of religion, and Lionel Trilling, who wrote that “when the dogmatic principle in religion is slighted, religion goes along for a while on generalized emotion and ethical intention . . . and then loses the force of its impulse, even the essence of its being.”

Pelikan knew, and his scholarship demonstrated, what many Christian theologians and Church leaders have forgotten, that over the Church’s long history, the orthodox and catholic form of Christian faith, what the Church “believes, teaches and confesses on the basis of the Word of God,” has been the most biblical, the most coherent, the most enduring, the most adaptable, and yes, the most true.

Long before the study of the biblical commentaries of the Church Fathers and medievals had become fashionable, Pelikan turned his attention to the role of the Scriptures in the formation of Christian thought. He suggested, for example, that I write my doctoral dissertation on the commentaries of St. Cyril of Alexandria. He was not alone in urging study of the classical Christian biblical commentators. In the 1950s the French Jesuit Henri de Lubac was publishing his four-volume Exégèse Médiévale, where he showed that theological science and the interpretation of the Scriptures are one.

What de Lubac did for the patristic and medieval period Pelikan did for Martin Luther. Helping prepare the American edition of Luther’s works, he insisted that fully half of the volumes be devoted to Luther’s exegetical writings. Luther had been known and interpreted primarily through his polemical and catechetical works, and the history of Christian thought was being taught as largely an affair of ideas and concepts, theological terms and philosophical distinctions, that floated free of the exegetical scaffolding supporting them. In a companion volume to the edition Luther the Expositor, Pelikan challenged his fellow scholars to open their eyes to the scriptural foundations of Christian thought. “Historians have sought to assess the influence of everything from the theologian’s vanity to the theologian’s viscera upon the formulation of theological doctrines, meanwhile regarding as naïve and misinformed the suggestion that the Bible may be a source of these doctrines.”

Pelikan’s scholarship helped put classical Christian thought at the center of the theological enterprise. The great figures of the past were not disqualified because of the accident of death. He taught us that Christian thinking takes place in conversation with a great company of thinkers whose writings span the centuries: Justin Martyr, Origen, Tertullian, Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose, Augustine, Cyril of Alexandria, Maximus the Confessor, John of Damascus, Symeon the New Theologian, Anselm of Canterbury, Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and John Calvin, even Friedrich Schleiermacher, Albrecht Ritschl, and Adolf von Harnack (whose picture hung on his study wall across from one of Alexander Schmemann). More than any other scholar, he gave the history of Christian thought a public face in the United States.

And he had the largest vision. Most other scholars were specialists in a particular historical period, but Pelikan roamed freely and confidently over the whole history of Christian thoughtand that history was never simply history for him. He had a certain diffidence about the merits of modernity. The great thinkers of the past were living interlocutors whose ideas, way of reasoning, and imagination commended them to Christian thinkers today.

When Pelikan began to teach in the 1940s, it was assumed, at least among most Protestant thinkers (and it must not be forgotten that for most of his life Pelikan was Lutheran), that the chief points of reference for theology were the Bible (as filtered through the historical critics), the Reformers, and the nineteenth-century thinkers. There would be an occasional genuflection in the direction of Augustine or Anselm of Canterbury, but the Greek Church Fathers, the Byzantines, and the medievals were seldom part of the conversation. Today it is unthinkable that one can do serious theological work without reference to the full sweep of the classical Christian tradition. This has brought a new confidence, a new assertiveness, a new willingness, to present the truth of the faith on its own terms and to interpret the Scriptures within the Church’s theological and liturgical tradition.

I saw Jaroslav Pelikan for the last time a few weeks before his death. I knew that he was gravely ill, and I wanted to have one last conversation with him. On that day he was bright and alert, and I enjoyed a simple Lenten luncheon with him and Sylvia at their home in Hamden, Connecticut. We talked about many things: about his scholarship and writing, about the Church Fathers, about his joy in the Orthodox Church, about friends and colleagues, about books and music, and about the strange ways of God. He learned that he had terminal lung cancer two days after he had received the prestigious Kluge Prize from the Library of Congress.

He said he had been reading again Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Milton’s Paradise Lost (even though Milton was an Arian and probably a Pelagian, quipped Pelikan), and Goethe’s Dichtung und Wahrheit. But it was when we came to music that his eyes shone and he spoke from the heart. He said that he was listening mostly to Bach and in particular to the B-minor Mass. As we talked about Bach, he told me a story about the conductor Robert Shaw. On several occasions Shaw had invited Pelikan to give a theological lecture in connection with the performance of a great religious choral work at Carnegie Hall in New York. On the evening Shaw conducted Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, before he lifted his baton to begin the performance, he addressed the audience. He said that for some in the audience this evening, this will be the first time you will hear the St. Matthew Passion; for others, it will be the last time. Then he turned to the orchestra and choir to begin the opening chorus.

Jaroslav Pelikan will not hear again the serene boys’ voices high above the full chorus in the opening strains of the majestic choral “O Lamm Gottes unschuldig.” Now he joins the “great number, which no man can number, from every nation, from all tribes, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb.’” 

Robert Louis Wilken is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of History at the University of Virginia.