Saturday, December 05, 2009

Jesus Through the Centuries by Jaroslav Pelikan

Jesus Through the Centuries is a work of enormous scope, in which Jaroslav Pelikan seeks to establish Jesus' "place in the history of culture" spanning two millenia.

The book consists of eighteen essays on the interaction of culture and Christology, demonstrating the way in which they have influenced each other. In Pelikan's account, Jesus appears initially cloaked in the language and imagery of a Jewish Rabbi, but when the gospel is transmitted to the Gentiles, the image of Jesus becomes less Jewish, and instead the emphasis is upon Jesus as the 'Logos', the word, the fulfillment less of the Old Testament - than of Greek philosophical tradition. With breathtaking ease, and a quite astonishing range of knowledge and sources Pelikan continues his journey through the Christological debates of the 3/4 centuries, monasticism, Reformation, Enlightenment, Romanticism, Liberation and Universalism.

Personally, how much I gleaned from each of the 18 essays was somewhat dependant on the background knowledge which I brought to them. Some of the patristic stuff, the Reformation and Liberation theology related chapters I found straightforward enough (the blurb does say that the book is pitched at the interested lay reader!), yet one or two chapters such as that on the Romantic movement, with many references to poets and authors like Emerson I found required some concentration!

The surprise of the book was that the final chapter suggested a late 20th Century dichotomy between particularity and universalism, with Re-thinking Missions, the definitive document of a christian universalism, Karl Barth's career a re-statement of particularity, and Vatican II, seeking to affirm elements of both. Whether or not Pelikan wished to leave the reader with a sense of his own persuasions on the matter I don't know - but the book did come to a conclusion weighted heavily towards universalism. All in all however this is inspiring and instructive reading. It is illuminating to see how the church over two thousand years has sought to hold together three essential things, (i) the Christ of Faith, (ii) the historical Jesus (iii) who together satisfies contemporary questions. We judge some of them to have got this right, others to have lost their grip on one or two elements of it. This in turn provides us with the humility to assume that we don't manage that perfectly in our own day; but the thought that the more we think, learn, and pray - the image of Jesus will clarify for us. Of course, we will only see through a glass darkly, this side of glory, and complete vision will elude us until then. Books like this, though are a fascinating map of our journey thus far.

Another top book recommendation from Dr Stumpy Greenisland, I might add.

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