History of Christian Doctrine Yaroslav Pelikan


The late distinguished professor at Yale produced a five-volume series of books (1685 pages) about Christian doctrine from the ancient Church to the present.

I’m not an academic type person. I read this to get the big-picture. It turns out that there are a lot of Pelikan’s biases in the writing (which he admits). He was raised Lutheran, so there is as a consequence a large amount of material about the doctrines of the Reformation (as he points out, the Reformers and their followers challenged all the doctrines of the Catholic Church.

But, only in the last chapter of the last volume does he indicate the overall emphasis in each (arbitrary) period of doctrinal development. It is perhaps owing to the lack of the printing press and other means of communication that some of the disputes lasted for centuries and centuries.

This book could be subtitled the review of the heresies of Christianity since the beginning up to the present.

I would advise anyone attempting to read this series to make a cheat-sheet organized by doctrine (or heresy) and the person who that doctrine (or heresy) is attributed to. In one pass through of reading, I certainly did not come away with any competency of this complex subject.

Pelikan investigates the doctrines with his unrelenting energy. He really delves into these in great detail. His list of primary and secondary sources is extensive. He is described as a master teacher.

He seems to accurately describe Catholic doctrine, and how the Roman Catholic Church just hangs out there all by itself in promulgating doctrines and dogmas, despite the opposition. The information he covers in 10 pages might represent a couple centuries of theological study.

It is surprising to learn that early “Catholic” theologians were accused of heresy, even Augustine and Aquinas. He didn’t seem to expand on how Augustine embraced Manicheanism for seven years, after he became a Catholic.

The Reformers challenged that there was a visible church that one could call “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” He explores each of those attributes virtually ad absurdem. There are those who feel the Catholic Church is none of these.

Augustine shines as an early “father” of the church, for Catholics and Reformers, respectively choosing different quotation from him to support their position. He seems to have largely favored predestination, but there is some acknowledgment of free will in his writing.

It was an effort to plow through all this reading. Pelikan ended the book largely praising Lumen Gentium from Vatican II, for how it addressed a lot of concerns internal and external to the Church.


There are stinging criticisms of the Catholic Church, from various directions, such as from Reformers and from the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Again, Pelikan joined the Orthodox Church before his death, which may give you a definitive view of his assessment of the development of Christian doctrine.

The Orthodox Church doesn’t like novelty or innovation in doctrine, which is the basis of its criticism of the Roman Catholic Church, for centuries. Pelikan quotes writers who bemoan how doctrines are put forward that cause schism among Christians. In a number of places he cites oppostion to Catholic doctrines, whose critics complain that they hardly represent anything more than theological speculation.

He mentions several time that his subject is not about exegesis of scripture, but it is about the history of what people thought about scripture, as put forward in expressed doctrines.

One of the early “innovations” in doctrine that was not scripture, was that part of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed that talks about the “substance” of the persons in the Holy Trinity. This language was criticized as the product of the influence of Greek philosophy on the thinking of the early church. (homoouisis - “same substance”).


You mean before he became Catholic, don’t you? His early years as a Catholic were devoted to combating Manichaeism.


Well, I was reading pretty fast, “before” or “after” is relative. I thought Pelikan said “after.”


[quote="sirach2v4, post:4, topic:333207"]
Well, I was reading pretty fast, "before" or "after" is relative. I thought Pelikan said "after."


I can imagine that it was a lot of info to digest. Regarding St. Augustine, he was a Manichæan prior to becoming a Catholic, and upon becoming a Catholic he remained a Catholic for the rest of his life on earth.


Portalié, Eugène. "Life of St. Augustine of Hippo." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 18 Jul. 2013 http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02084a.htm.


It's been awhile since I read Pelikan's book on the Reformation period (Vol. IV I think). I found it very informative. Upon completing it I recall wondering how the author could possibly remain Protestant knowing what he had communicated in that book. I was not the least bit surprised to discover he converted to Orthodox later. Too bad he didn't make it all the way home to Catholicism.


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