So, I’ve already broken one of my New Year’s resolutions. I promised myself that I wouldn’t read any new (or new-to-me) books until the three dozen or so that I currently have going right now are finished. Well, I must confess that that lasted less than a day. I’m not sure what that says about my self-disciplinary fortitude, but I wanted to share with you the bounty of my self-sabotaged resolution.
A few years ago during one my deep-dives into the Internet Archive, seeing what theological works might turn up (you know, as one does), I stumbled across Jaroslav Pelikan’s Fools for Christ: Essays on the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. I quickly downloaded the volume in hopes of one day working my way through Pelikan’s essays on “classical and contemporary Christian madmen” who’ve been used by God to turn the world upside down. Until recently, it has stayed buried among other files and volumes I hope to one day read. For whatever reason, I opened this book and began reading — and I’ve hardly been able to put it down since.
These essays on, as Pelikan terms it, “the True, the Good, and the Beautiful,” seek to explore various evangelical misconceptions that have arisen throughout the ages in Christendom. This he does by examining semi-biographically the lives of various theologians from a wide spectrum of denominations and backgrounds. From St. Paul to Dostoevsky to Luther, Pelikan covers a veritable kaleidoscope of theological contributions — all in the effort of upholding the truth, goodness, and beauty of God’s holiness and grace.
I found myself enormously impacted right out of the gate. The first of the six essays deals with Søren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher and theologian of whom I have little knowledge. I’ve heard the name Kierkegaard before, but I couldn’t tell you much about him or what he contributed to the Christian faith. In that regard, I must confess that I’m relying on Pelikan’s insights here. There’s probably some who would differ from Pelikan’s assertions and assumptions of Kierkegaard impact — but choosing to take Pelikan at his word, I’ve found incredible benefits and insights which have informed my own faith.
Throughout the essay, Pelikan seeks to cut through the notion of the union of “the Holy and the True” — by which it is meant that one is able to achieve holiness merely by knowing the right set of data or doctrine. Essentially, I find this to be a teasing out of the verses in James’s epistle where it is said that “even the demons believe — and they shudder.” (Jas 2:18–19) Mere mental, intellectual assent doesn’t equal saving faith. We might go so far with St. James to say that even Satan’s hoard are “doctrinally correct.” But does that save them from eternal condemnation? Not likely. And so it is that “doctrinal correctness,” writes Pelikan, “[is] no sure indication of a truly Christian life.”1
Therefore, however obscure or esoteric it might seem on the surface to endeavor to cut through the union of “the Holy and the True,” there is immense profit to be had in this examination of the method by which one acquires holiness. Pelikan’s essay on Kierkegaard and the subsequent one on St. Paul do just that. Like a sieve, man’s intellectual predilections are exposed as falling woefully short of what actually constitutes saving faith. Realized holiness isn’t acquired through means we can master (or get Master’s in). Which isn’t to say that doctrine doesn’t matter. It does matter — a lot. But mere doctrine alone doesn’t hold the power of salvation. Sinful man’s reconciliation with a holy God isn’t about crossing the right T’s and dotting the right I’s. If that were the case, there again, the onus for holiness would rest squarely on our shoulders, contingent on a knowledge of the correct information. But, in fact, that’s not true.
Indeed, rather, realized holiness only comes through the Spirit of God and one’s faith in he whom that Spirit points — namely, the Lord Jesus Christ, whose salvific death secures for everyone who believes Jesus’s own holiness as a gift of faith. This is a frustrating notion, in some respects, as holiness perennially functions as the carrot dangled in front of men for the betterment of the world. Yet while that is true in some senses, the acquirement of holiness is not a matter of getting the data arranged or getting the facts right. It’s a matter of knowing the One who is True and Holy by the means of supernatural faith. “Knowing the history of Christ was not enough, one had to know Christ Himself.”2 The Holy and the True, we might say, is a Person. “The truth of God,” Pelikan continues, “was not an assortment of ‘doctrines’; it was an organic unity, as Christ was one.”3 One is, therefore, made holy the more one comes to know that Person.
Truth came in Christ, then, not as a body of truth to be learned or a set of propositions to be grasped by the human mind, but as a new life of faithful obedience to the faithfulness of Him by whose obedience many will be made righteous . . . The truth came in Christ to make man holy because it brought the Holy Spirit. The relation of the Holy and the True, therefore, was not that the acquisition of enough truth would somehow or other make a holy man out of an unholy man. The Holy and the True were related in that the True, coming in Christ as the faithfulness of God to possess man, made him over into a new image by the gift of the Holy Spirit.4
I’m really enjoying this engagement with Pelikan and his perception of “the True, the Good, and the Beautiful” as evidenced in these theologians’ lives. I’m looking forward to having my faith challenged as I work through these essays in pursuit of the timeless truth of grace. Soli Deo Gloria.
Jaroslav Pelikan, Fools for Christ: Essays on the True, the Good, and the Beautiful (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1955), 15.
Ibid., 44, 46.