Jesus Through the Centuries

Written by Jaroslav Pelikan

(Yale University Press. 1999)

Reviewed by Colin Kerr


Pelikan was one of the major figures of 20th Century dogmatic history. He began as a Protestant, and left an indelible mark on English-language theology as the editor of Luther’s Works. Then he jumped ship and joined the Orthodox Church. Yet he never confined himself to Eastern thought.

His most significant production was his five-volume The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, which, although more objective and less pugnacious than his model’s, Adolf von Harnack’s, History of Dogma, produced in the late 19th century, nevertheless lacked something of its punch and literary mastery. Nevertheless, by the 20th Century scholars had generally come to believe that pulling off what Pelikan attempted, that is to say, drawing into narrative focus such a massive and unwieldy thing as Christian doctrinal history, had become an impossibility. And for good reason. Who could possess an even passing familiarity with the number of the relevant sources centuries of digging had by then produced? Yet no one was more familiar with these sources than Pelikan.

Jesus Through the Centuries is very much in the spirit and style of The Christian Tradition, and yet profits from the sustained treatment possible to a more confined topic. It is not a comprehensive history of Christology, but it presents fascinating and learned vignettes of several key moments of that history. Christology in general, and this book in particular, enables one, first, to transcend the ideological hemming in of the divine mystery brought about today by liberalism with its one-dimensional, unimposing judge-not Christ. Christ has meant a lot of different things to people over the years, and the modern Christian could benefit from reflecting on many of these.

Of special relevance for contemporaries would be the final two chapters, “The Liberator,” which deals with the views of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Tolstoy, and “The Man who Belongs to the World,” which deals with the contemporary ecumenical and global context. Also of special significance, given the current papacy, would be Chapter 11, which deals with St. Francis’ view especially, and the broader context of his age’s concentration on the full humanity of the Lord.

This is a very accessible and trustworthy study.

The Early Church

Written by Henry Chadwick

(Penguin Books, 1993)

Reviewed by Colin Kerr


When I think of great introductions to Early Christianity, none is most accessible and reliable than the first volume of the Pelican History of the Church than Chadwick’s. I think I first read this when I was perhaps 16, when not even a serious Christian. I went back to it over the years and was never disappointed. Few modern historians of the Church have left a greater impact on the subject. He died just six years ago. His brother, Owen, is also a significant Church historian.

There are a million ways to introduce the Early Church, many of these  just as contentious, debatable, slanted, and subjective as the next.

What do you even chose as subject headings? What figures do you chose to talk about? And, seeing that you only have 300 pages to work with, who and what do you leave out? If you think retelling the history of something so vast and multi-faceted as the Church is a simple task, you have no idea what you are talking about. But a historian can be judged by the manner in which he divides up his subject matter. Among the focuses of his chapters we find, one devoted to the Jewish and Roman Imperial backgrounds, a chapter devoted to Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, one on Clement and Origen, one of Constantine, one on Arianism, and the papacy, for example. You might get the impression that this is an elitist approach to history, as these are all devoted to rulers and thinkers, and yet he also has chapters on Early Christian worship and on asceticism.

It is an excellent place to begin. Penguin has been publishing it since the 60s.


Human Nature: Opposing ViewPoints

Edited by Mark Ray Schmidt

(Greenhaven Press, 1999)

Reviewed by Colin Kerr


This is an excellent way to cover an important subject. I was happy to see that this fine book is a part of a large series called the Opposing ViewPoints Series, which numbers more than 90 volumes. Judging from this volume, the books take on controversial issues by including excerpts from authoritative or otherwise insightful sources, which are briefly introduced by the editor.

The selection included in Human Nature is by no means comprehensive, but the excerpts are certainly well chosen and arranged. Even though most of the excerpts here are from philosophers, like Hobbes and Sartre, for instance, they are all comprehensible to the non-specialist. There are also excerpts from people like Solzhenitsyn, Freud, and Orwell, and even from the Bible. Of course, you have to keep in mind that this is only a sample of the leading viewpoints that have been formulated on the topic. The book won’t make you an expert. However, it is a good place to get you started thinking about the issues involved in such an important topic. Textbooks that are usually used in university courses are much longer and intimidating, so I suppose that, if the subject matter interests you, you could start with one of these books first, just to see if you are ready to take on the issue full-force. Whatever the case, this book will definitely give you some things to think about, and enable you to get a sense of the intellectual lay of the land.

I liked Hobbes’ piece the best, which the editor entitled, “Human Nature is Antisocial.” It resonates with my Augustinian pessimism. An interesting piece, but one with which I could not in anyway agree was that by Riane Eisler: “Human Nature is not Aggressive.” I enjoyed reading it because it’s easy to see that her idea is a popular one today, although completely mistaken. Well, not  completely, but roundly. (I call this optimistic position the “Gene Roddenberry Myth.”)

There are a few volumes in this series I can see myself reading in the future. Civil Liberties, Religion in America, Homosexuality, Hate Groups, Education, Culture Wars, and Censorship, are the titles that attract me, but there’s lots of others to choose from, ones devoted to animal testing, euthanasia, etc. They seem a little pricey for their size, but it looks like you can pick up most of them second-hand quite inexpensively on Amazon or Abebooks.