The reformation as 'tragic necessity' revisited

William W. Emilsen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


On the cusp of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) the distinguished American Lutheran historical theologian, Jaroslav Pelikan (1923-2006), then at the University of Chicago, published a groundbreaking volume titled The Riddle of Roman Catholicism (1959). In this book Pelikan gave a sympathetic yet critical examination of the evolution of Roman Catholicism, its distinctive beliefs and, most importantly, he offered a discussion of the theological issues Protestants face in their conversations with Roman Catholics on Christian unity. The Riddle of Roman Catholicism met an obvious need. It was quickly reprinted by Abingdon Press in the United States and published by Hodder and Stoughton in Great Britain the following year. It was also widely acclaimed in both the Protestant and Catholic presses. The Christian Century magazine, representing the voice of mainstream Protestantism in America, published excerpts from the book claiming that it 'sets the stage for realistic discussion of Christendom's sad divisions'. The Presbyterian theologian and ecumenist from Princeton, John A. Mackay, reviewed it in Theology Today as an 'outstanding book', 'the most significant to appear on Roman Catholicism in many years'. Daniel Walther, professor of church history at the Seventh-day Theological Seminary at Andrews University in Michigan extolled Pelikan's book as 'a significant omen of the new Protestant approach', one that attempted 'to end the "hot war" between the confessions'. Catholic scholars, too, were receptive. Bonaventure Schepers's review in the Thomist, for example, thanked Pelikan for his 'courage and honesty' and invited the journal's readers 'to rejoice with us at the appearance of his important work'. Gustave Wiegel's lengthy review in the Jesuit review, America, named it as 'probably the most important' of the many interesting Protestant studies of Roman Catholicism at the time. Although Pelikan was still a relatively young scholar at the time, The Riddle of Roman Catholicism established him as a serious thinker on the topic of Christian unity.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)415-426
Number of pages11
JournalAustralasian Catholic Record
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2017


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