14 May 2006 - Sunday

Jaroslav Pelikan 1923-2006

Word is circulating that Jaroslav Pelikan, the greatest contemporary church historian, died yesterday of lung cancer. He was 82. According to OrthodoxWiki, the funeral will happen Wednesday.

My first contact with Pelikan's work came in the form of this lecture: "The Predicament of the Christian Historian."

No historicism about the West and no exoticism about the East could excise that specific history, the history of Jesus and of the movement that came out of his life and message, from the history that had produced the members of [Adolf von] Harnack's audience at the University of Berlin in 1900, who could be and were ignorant of it but who could not be and were not unaffected by it in a fundamental way. As he put it in his opening words, "The great philosopher of Positivism, John Stuart Mill, once said that the human race cannot be reminded often enough that there was once a man named Socrates. He is right, but it is more important to go on reminding the human race that a man named Jesus Christ once stood in their midst."

But there was a more substantive and fundamental reason as well: the history of Jesus and of his message carried that force also because his sayings and parables uniquely "speak to us through the centuries with the freshness of the present." ...

Was it "the Christian historian" as historian or "the Christian historian" as Christian, perhaps even "the Christian historian" as theologian, who was speaking in pronouncing such judgments? It is the predicament of the Christian historian to live in that tension; for, as I have suggested elsewhere, every historian must be a polyglot, speaking one or more of the dialectes of "past-ese" and simultaneously communicating to contemporaries in "present-ese."

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