A Little Review of Helmut Thielicke’s Little Exercise: Guest Post
From the first page to the last, Helmut Thielicke’s A Little Exercise For Young Theologians, engages the student with his heart for theology, whose fructus operis shows forth as a concise treatise that is rightly understood as a modern, classic work on the dynamic that exists between the professor and the pulpit. With both clarity and brevity, Thielicke is able to diagnose that malady which plagues the aspiring theologian who, though his path seems straight and pleasing to God, is kept from fully grasping his calling by a hubris that poisons the soul. Thielicke’s main argument concerns the apparent discrepancy between two particular types of Christians: on the one hand, there are those seated in pews, observant, carefully and thoughtfully listening to the word of God; and on the other are those seated in the classroom, and while they too are as passionate about the word of God as their brethren with the hymnals, they desire more than a Sunday morning has to offer. Once that thirst is quenched by the varied doctrinal formulations and catechisms one finds in such lecture halls, knowledge itself becomes ever more seductive until, alas, the parishioner vanishes and the academic emerges without an ounce of humility left from the metamorphosis that has just occurred. Thielicke’s illustration is an exaggeration, admittedly so. Nevertheless, the truth of such a caricature resonates with the audience even now, and extends beyond the realm of the student to teachers and pastors alike.
This does not mean, however, that the young theologian has abandoned the Church, quite the contrary. As the author has explained, the student returns from abroad to share the wealth of information gained at the university. It is from this interaction that divisions are created between the brethren, and, subsequently, the reason for Thielicke’s concern. He approaches the issue from two directions: the first entails experience (6) and the second, principle (21). The first approach takes into account that a transformation comes about after the young man leaves for the university. Upon his return, a drastic change in vocabulary is evident, the substance of which is, regrettably, found wanting. Therefore, experience, as described by Thielicke, also involves that which the young theologian is lacking in matters of content.
To wax poetic when discussing doctrine, recalling the minutiae of Augustine’s oeuvre, The City of God does not endow the orator with a sense of what it took to produce such a work. Moreover, the ability to cite many of the early creeds and confessions does not lend to the student any sense of what it meant to form the creeds, or the battles that raged on behalf of the theology therein. That is the essence of which is missing in the life of the young theologian, who has taken a disproportionate dose of truth, one that catapults the student into a place beyond his years, an awkward stage Thielicke describes as theological puberty (12). The distinction here is described as a primary versus conceptual experience (11), the confusion of which throws the student into waters above his head.
The second approach concerns a person’s motivation for subjecting the Word of God to criteria for more answers, as if what the Lord has offered in the text of the canon is somehow deficient. Faith, the skeptics argue, must triumph over the kind of knowledge that desires to further unveil the word of God by means of critical methodologies. Arguments of this sort are leveled against the young theologian on grounds of principle (21). After all, the methods employed for the purpose of analyzing Holy Scripture are formulated by fallible, finite human beings whose reliance on the ways of the world appears to supersede God himself. Though such arguments and concerns of the Church may seem naïve, even echoing back to the problems of Enlightenment theology, they are warranted to a degree, and must not fall on deaf ears (26).
One of the problems illustrated by Thielicke involves the young student and those whom he interacts with when he returns from the university. A problem occurs when the slightest hint of arrogance creeps in and allows the student to think that having such knowledge makes him or her more in tune with God, or puts one in a better place, intellectually, to understand God. Now, some of that, I think, is justified. What you learn in class directly affects your ability to read and study Scripture. This is a good thing. However, I believe that wanting to learn theology for the sake of gaining knowledge alone, without the purpose of using that knowledge for the kingdom of God becomes counter-productive, and even detrimental to the spiritual life of the student.
Within the same vein is the necessity for dogmatics to be conditioned by faith. Due to its scope, dogmatics systematize the subject of theology, and in so doing can often lead the student down a path that does not end with Jesus Christ, though it most certainly should. As noted by Thielicke, Jesus is replaced by a Luther (31) or an Augustine for that matter. I do not mean to pit one against the other, nor should they be. Dogmatics has its rightful place in the life of the theologian as long as it does not replace the authority of Scripture.
As a remedy to what he describes as the most sinister and widespread disease among the pastorate, Thielicke seeks a balance between dogmatics and prayer (33). We are cautioned that theology of this sort needs be pursued while maintaining dialogue with the triune God (34). It is from this intimate communion that one’s theological interpretation is governed. Lest we think that spiritual matters impede the use of historical-critical methodologies, the fruits of such endeavors prove to be edifying to the soul just so long as the approach does not forbid the combination of the two. What is gained from a proper study of dogmatics benefits both the student and the teacher by creating yet another theologian on whose shoulders one can stand to further the study of Jesus Christ.
As for the distinction between “sacred” and “diabolical” theology (36), Thielicke rightfully places the onus on that of the theologian’s heart and hands. Orthodoxy that fumes of spiritual decay breathes no life into the souls that seek it for understanding and relationship with God. Theology, however, is not to blame for such a deficiency. This malady comes from a decision made by the student to divorce the heart of exegesis from the mind, as if one could exist without the other. When the spiritual life of the student coalesces with task of Biblical exegesis, only then does theology make sense.
Thielicke’s exacting portrait of the problem that exists between the theological and ecclesial community puts things into perspective. Theology is presented as a communal activity, one that neither abandons the congregation, nor leaves the student in isolation from the body of Christ. There is an expectation that reciprocity would exist between each one. That which is learned at the university must be integrated into the church by the shepherd in order to nourish the flock of God properly. The dynamic between the role of the professor and the job of the pulpit, however, should not only be emphasized for the benefit of the church, but the lecture hall should also gain from a proper understanding of the reality that theology, the subject of which is Jesus Christ, permeates every aspect of our daily lives.
While the object of Sunday morning is for the community of God to come together in worship and hear the preaching of the word, the theology expounded should not be void of relevant details that help communicate the heart of the message. The responsibility shared by both schoolman and churchman is to equip the people of God with a proper understanding of Scripture, which almost certainly entails an exposition of the text that goes beyond one’s conceptual experience to the primary force that lay behind such teachings. From crystalline form we begin the study of theology, focusing our lens ever closer to the source, only later to experience the heights to which it can take us. Thielicke’s awareness of the tension that exists within the church and academy has prompted his thoughtful and accurate work, and for that we must remain humble and reflective, never losing sight of our subject amidst the trials of critical study.
Michael McCoy III is working on a postgraduate degree in Islamic Studies and History at the University of Oxford. He has a B.A. in Biblical & Theological studies from Biola University and a M.A. from Talbot School of Theology in New Testament Language & Literature. Michael is interested in the relationship between Eastern Christianity and early Islam, and the various sources for interpreting the Qur’an that emerged during Islam’s first two centuries. He enjoys spending time with his family, drinking tea (with milk of course) and reading classic Christian texts.