Remembering Jaroslav Pelikan and his Books

The United States of America is really sort of a backwater in terms of Lutherans. There aren’t very many of us, and, quite frankly, the credentials of all of the “Lutheran” churches look a little dubious, depending on the lighting. Because of that, the famous Lutherans have generally been European. This is the second in a series of posts highlighting both important and improbable characters from the American side of the things.


Not the right kind of Pelikan.

Bear with me for a short time on this one. On Wednesday, September 28th, the Roman church observes the feast day of St. Wenceslas. For those of you who don’t know, in addition to going out on the feast of St. Stephen, Wenceslas is the patron saint of the Czech Republic. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any famous Czech-American Lutherans. However, thinking about the Czechs made me remember that they formerly shared the country of Czechoslovakia with the Slovaks. And I do know of a Slovak-American Lutheran that you all should know about: Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan.

And while there’s a lot to know about Dr. Pelikan, I’d like to focus on one thing: his voluminous literary output. He wrote a lot of books, both popular and academic, and I’d like to focus on his books because they represent a facet of Dr. Pelikan’s life and work that the Lutherans in America often sorely miss.

Jaroslav Pelikan represents a Lutheran theology grounded in history and not afraid to do serious academic digging. He knew over a dozen languages and had an interest in subjects as diverse as the music of Bach and the literature of Dostoevsky. And so, in honor of St. Wenceslas, Dr. Pelikan, and my own convoluted chain of thought, here are three books by Jaroslav Pelikan that every pastor ought to read (and every layman could benefit from):

  1. Fools for Christ – In this book, Pelikan weaves together the story of six towering figures in the history of Christian theology: the Apostle Paul, Martin Luther, Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Johann Sebastian Bach. In weaving them together, he highlights the three chief temptations of Christian theology, namely the identification of the Holy with the good or the true or the beautiful. In each instance, he redirects the theology back to its true object: Jesus Christ.
  2. Whose Bible is It? A Short History of the Scriptures – In Whose Bible is It?, Pelikan turns his historical interest to the formation of the Bible. Written for a popular audience, this book provides clear answers to common questions about how the Bible came to be.
  3. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine – This last recommendation is actually a five volume set. To put it simply, in these five books, Pelikan does the reading for you. While not light reading by any measure, Pelikan presents an accessible guide to the development of Christian doctrine, all the way from the early church up to the present day. As both a history and a reference, it ought to be in every pastor’s office.