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.

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