The Predicament of the Christian Historian : A Case Study

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Jaroslav Pelikan


The purpose of a historical understanding is not so much to detect the Divine action in history as to understand the human action, that is, human activities, in the bewildering variety and confusion in which they appear to a human observer.

In my study at home, where I have written all of my books, there are on the walls-in addition to a seventeenth-century map of my ancestral Moravia by Jan Amos Komenský, a bust of Goethe, a massive painting by Siegfried Reinhardt, and the icons of Christ, the Theotokos, the Three Cappadocians, Saints Cyril and Methodius, and Saint Jaroslav the Wise of Kiev—only two conventional portraits: Father Georges Vasilievich Florovsky, who was the last of my mentors and the one to whom I owe the most; and Adolf von Harnack, who, as the author of the greatest history of Christian doctrine ever written (completed in 1889, precisely one hundred years before I completed mine in 1989), has been my lifelong role model. In this lecture, therefore, I am juxtaposing those two portraits by appropriating the title of Father Florovsky's essay of 1959, "The Predicament of the Christian Historian," which was his contribution to the Festschrift for Paul Tillich, and then employing Adolf von Harnack as the case study of that predicament. Tillich's own relation to Harnack, whom he once called "the teacher of all of us in many respects," becomes clear at several places in his work. Florovsky's relation to Harnack is more diffuse, but also quite important, especially to me; it becomes decisive as the foil for what George Huntston Williams in his tribute to Father Georges has called Florovsky's "Christian Hellenism."

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Pelikan, J. (1999). The Predicament of the Christian Historian : A Case Study. Reformed Review, 52(3). Retrieved from