Jesus Through the Centuriesby Jaroslav Pelikan
Length: Approximately 9.5 hours. To read (232 pages)
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How has the view of Jesus changed over time? In answering this question, Mr. Pelikan recounts church history as seen through the lens of the view of Jesus through the centuries.
Who should read this?
Anyone desiring to learn more church history, and those interested in how the views of Jesus have changed over time. This is not a beginner’s church history book but better suited for those who already have a working knowledge of church history.
In Mr. Pelikan’s own words, “The nature and purpose of this book [is] not a life of Jesus, nor a history of Christianity, nor even a history of theological doctrines about Jesus, but a series of images portraying his place in the history of culture.”
From the time when the concept of Messiah arose, followers of God have had a view of Him. Jesus faced much opposition from those who expected Messiah to act in certain ways, but Jesus continually surprised even those closest to Him when he didn’t fit their preconceived Messianic notions. So it should come as no surprise that even after Jesus lived, died, resurrected, and ascended into heaven believers still change the way they view Jesus.
With this book, Mr. Pelikan shows the intersection of faith and action – how one’s view of Jesus changes their life and leads them to action. Mr. Pelikan does this by looking at individuals and movements throughout church history. Despite Mr. Pelikan’s attestations, this is a book on church history, but it’s not your regular book on church history as it focuses on how throughout history the church viewed Jesus and how that prompted action in response to its view. So while church history is infused in these pages, the primary flavor is Jesus.
Each of the 18 chapters of this book focus on one view of Jesus. Some, like Rabbi, Son of Man, and Prince of Peace, come straight from the Bible, while others, like Cosmic Christ, Teacher of Common Sense, and Liberator, relate to a cultural view of Jesus. The chapters are arranged chronologically, but they can span more than a century so there is overlap in time periods. Mr. Pelikan doesn’t provide dates for the chapters, but I get the impression that some time periods are lacking entirely while other periods are covered over several chapters. The reason for this is Mr. Pelikan focused on the different types of views of Jesus over time rather than on how each generation viewed Jesus.
At the start of each chapter there is what he calls an initial cross – an artistic symbol representing that particular view of Jesus. This graphical depiction shows the representation of Christ and is expounded upon in the chapter. Usually, Mr. Pelikan highlights one to three people that represent that view of Christ par excellence. In this way we learn about key figures and their movements in church history, but from the perspective of how they viewed Jesus and how that view prompted them to act. Additionally, Mr. Pelikan sometimes highlights how the broader culture perceived Jesus, and we find examples of these views in the art and literature of that day.
Through symbols, artwork, and Christian examples, Mr. Pelikan briefly summarizes, illustrates, and explains a view of Jesus and how it influenced those in that era. A person’s view of Jesus – if they are at all serious about Jesus – necessarily prompts him or her to act. Jesus, after all, called His disciples to take action, and throughout history there have been those who built churches, traveled to other lands, took up arms, pens, and brushes, started movements, and influenced the world around them. Mr. Pelikan shows how fervent believers have done this throughout history, and in this way we see how views of Jesus through the centuries impacted the church and the world.
I have a problem with this book, but I have a hard time putting my finger on exactly what it is. On the one hand, Jesus Through the Centuries is a unique walk down the path of church history, but on the other hand, isn’t this book supposed to be more about Jesus than church history? Perhaps I got that idea from the book’s title? Then on another hand, this book is about Jesus – or at least how people have perceived Jesus and how that influenced their thinking and actions – but on still another hand, there is hardly any talk about Jesus.
Most of the book is filled with stories of people who are major players in the history of the church with comparatively little talk about the view of Jesus. Yet is is how those people viewed Jesus that compelled them to start monasteries, paint paintings, start revolutions, and give up their lives, so Jesus is there in the pages, just not very explicitly.
So I guess I’m hung up on the title. “But it’s a great title!” It is a fantastic title, but it’s misleading. “But it’s about how the view of Christ has changed over time – it’s all about Jesus!” Yes, but it’s not as much about the view of Jesus as it is about the actions people took based on their view of Jesus. “But the subtitle, His place in the history of culture, tells you to expect that!” Okay, okay, it must just be totally my fault for thinking the title a misnomer. Next time I need to pay more attention to subtitles and not have so many expectations for what a book will be about.
Title bouts aside, I still have reservations about this book: Does it truly focus on Jesus through the centuries? Are the key players and events of church history conditioned on the actors’ view of Jesus or do key people arise more in response to cultural and socio-political pressures? Not to mention the prompting of the Holy Spirit to act out God’s plan through history. So while this book is about Jesus, and despite Mr. Pelikan’s protestations, I couldn’t escape the sense that this book is more about church history than it truly is about Jesus.
To give an example of this, let’s look for a bit at Chapter 11: The Divine and Human Model. In a chapter that talks about how people live out the calling to become like Jesus, Mr. Pelikan engages in what appears to be Francis-worship. Mr. Pelikan displays a pro-Roman Catholic bias throughout the entire book, but in this chapter it gets in the way. Saying that “most people” would call Francis the most Christ-like figure in church history (Even more so than Paul?); the papal designation of Francis as the 2nd Christ; glorifying his stigmata; and treating Francis as the ultimate example of a Christian: to me this appears to be Francis-worship.
Francis of Assisi certainly has been an influential Christian and is worth noting in this book, but the chapter in question was primarily about Francis and had precious little to do with Jesus, illustrating my contention that this book truly is more about church history than it is about views of Jesus. While Chapter 11 is the most egregious example, it is not the only instance of other people overshadowing Jesus, as it were.
That said, this is a unique book on church history as it overlays the view of Jesus on top of history. It focuses more on specific people and movements rather than on dates and events. Most of the time there are no dates supplied, so Jesus Through the Centuries reads as a fresh take on church history. Additionally, because of the emphasis on the church’s view of Jesus, there is a unique lens which produces a unique view of church history. In short, this book is unlike most other church history books.
The perspective that Mr. Pelikan takes also adds an interesting flavor to the study of the legacy of Jesus. Some of Jesus’ lasting impact on society and culture is the same from age to age, but other aspects change. It is these changes on which Mr. Pelikan focuses, and the result is to add broader understanding of how Jesus has changed the history not only of the church but of the world. This leads to some fascinating discoveries about how there came to be monasticism, the Crusades, the Reformation, various art movements, and more modern revolutionaries like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi.
By focusing on the church’s changing view of Jesus, Mr. Pelikan shows how believers live and act in response to their perception of Christ. Though this book was written more than 30 years ago, it shows how each generation views Jesus in light of society around them, thus challenging our current generation to examine how we view Jesus and how that prompts us to act. In this sense, Mr. Pelikan wrote a timeless book that keeps updating itself as culture and society change.
While he doesn’t explicitly train people to critique the contemporary view of Jesus based on society and culture, if one pays attention to how Mr. Pelikan examines culture through the ages it is possible to learn to do the same thing. This also makes for an interesting self-examination: How do I view Jesus, and how does that affect how I live my life?
One more strength of this book is its form. Each chapter is written about a facet or epoch of church history, so the reader is presented with relevant characters and thoughts behind each age and movement. The basic view of Jesus in each chapter is presented clearly at the beginning of the chapter, and the reader gets a good sense of the salient points before getting a more in-depth look at that view of Jesus. And the writing! Mr. Pelikan writes beautifully, succinctly, and majestically. His wording is wondrous to behold; his style, elegant. One gets the impression that in this book you have reached the pinnacle of church histories simply because of the linguistic style of Mr. Pelikan.
There is much to like and appreciate about Jesus Through the Centuries. If one is able to overlook the strong Roman Catholic promotion and doesn’t expect to read a book strictly about Jesus but approaches this as a unique church history, this is a superb book and well worth the read. Mr. Pelikan spends most of each chapter illustrating how people viewed Jesus rather than writing about the view of Jesus itself, and because of this we can see more easily how believers were spurred into action by their view of Jesus.