Helmut Thielicke: Theology & Ministry Vs. Arrogance In the Academy

January 3, 2015 — Leave a comment

Helmut Thielicke To Young TheologiansSome months ago I picked up Helmut Thielicke’s, ‘A little exercise for young theologians’ (1962).

In cautious sympathy with the church, Thielicke presents a range of caveats for theologians. His ultimate aim is to remind theologians-in-training that ministry and theology are interlaced and reciprocally connected[i].

This concludes with Thielicke lifting up the importance of ‘theological reflection’. Which is, simply put, the necessary tension between theory and practice; how what we think theologically {embedded theology}, is challenged by how, what we think is actually applied, or could have been applied {deliberative theology}.

These thoughts are reinforced by a preamble-like evaluation by Martin E. Marty in the introduction:

‘I have tried to think what are the enemies of theology in America.
First is the pervasive unbelief that makes its way into ecclesiastical circles.It motivates the counsel to avoid theology, counsel which says: the Christian faith cannot pass intellectual tests; therefore keep busy, do not subject Christian affirmation to analysis and scrutiny, and it may survive.
Second is an apathy or low imagination extended to many crucial ventures of the church.If something does not immediately seem to affect what goes on within the walls of my church tower, the confines of my parish, I do not often care.
Still another enemy is the idolization of the “doer” as opposed to the “thinker.” The Big-time Operator or the Good Joe somehow builds more buildings, raises more budgets, and preaches louder sermons than does the craftsman who pours over his Greek New Testament.
It is of little consequence to some that he contributes to a greater divorce between Christ and the meaning of life, between the faith and other verities. So long as his engines puff and his and his wheels roll, all is well.[ii]

Ministry in these instances is overshadowed by fear, inflated egos and jargon. As a result theology is abandoned, no longer seen as having anything to say to the Church or society.

As Marty outlines, Thielicke acknowledges the timidity (anxiety) of most Christians with regards to the theological task (read: anti-intellectualism). Balancing this criticism with the observation that the academy and its esoteric narcissism (read: academic arrogance) stiffens and hides the accessibility of theology behind a veil of self-importance, ironic ignorance, yardsticks and insensitivity.

For example:

‘If the theologian does not take more seriously the objections of the ordinary washerwoman and the simple hourly-wage earner, and if he then thinks that the spiritual proletariat is not aware of the delicate questions and must have nothing to do with them – {which is just the way of that esoteric club} – surely something is not right with theology.[iii]

For Thielicke, ‘theology has to do with life[iv]’. However, theology is threatened by what he identifies as “theological puberty”. Defined as the overbearing delivery (bulldozing) from young theologians towards non-theologians about theological concepts.

This problem occurs when pride (or insecurity) permeates good intentions. Overbearing corrections can ‘smother the first little flame of an inquirers own spiritual life and extinguishes a first shy question with the fire extinguisher of the young theologians erudition…For instance: the inquirer becomes too embarrassed ever again to launch into a “naïve” exegesis in the presence of those profoundly knowing ears’[v]

Thielicke is a little heavy-handed, still he shoots straight and for good reason. He is challenging young theologians to stop and think before they comment.

‘It is possible – and laymen have a very exact perception in regard to this – that theology makes the young theologian vain and so kindles in him something like gnostic pride. The chief reason for this is that in us men truth and love are seldom combined.
It is also possible to say precisely why. Truth seduces us very easily into a kind of joy of possession: I have comprehended this and that, learned it, understood it. Knowledge is power. I am therefore more than the other man who does not know this and that.’[vi]

In many ways this is Thielicke excavating Paul’s exhortation for us to rein in any ego built on cognitive ability alone; restraining ourselves from any association with special/scholastic – super spiritual – self-serving human ‘knowledge that over-inflates, and instead lean on the love (and truth) that builds’ (1. Corinthians 8:1).

In a similar way Barth touches on these same caveats in his discussion on the ‘Veracity of Man’s knowledge of God’:

‘Theology can of course, be sheer vanity. It is this when it is not pertinent, and that simply means – not humble. The pertinence of theology consists in making the exposition of revelation its exclusive task.
How can it fail to be humble in the execution of this task, when it has no control over revelation, but has constantly to find it, or rather be found by it?
…Our thinking, which is executed in views and concepts, is our responsibility to ourselves. Our speech is our responsibility to others’[vii] 

There is always going to be the danger of excessive introspection, however, by the willingness of God, though the aid of the Holy Spirit, with teachable hindsight, like good wine {or so I’m told}, Christian theology (and the theologian) can improve with age.

As Thielicke brilliantly articulates:

‘Whoever ceases to be a man of the spirit automatically furthers a false theology, even if in thought it is pure, orthodox and basically Lutheran. But in that case death lurks in the kettle.
Theology can be a coat of mail which crushes us and in which we freeze to death. It can also be – this is in fact its purpose! – the conscience of the congregation of Christ, its compass and with it all a praise-song of ideas.
Which of the two it is depends upon the degree in which listening and praying Christians stand behind this theological business.’[viii]

Christian theology does not belong to the museum of superfluous thought or singularly to the upper market echelons of Western society.

Thielicke’s final warning might thus read:

For the serious Christian theologian who becomes detached from a concern for responsible ministry, an “ivory tower” becomes a sterile and lifeless “padded cell”.


Source:

[i] Marty phrases this as Practical Churchmanship and Scholarly Inquiry. For example: ‘Thielicke argues that every minister of Jesus Christ must be both a disciplined theologian and a practicing churchman.’ in Thielicke, H. 1962 ‘A little exercise for young theologians’ Wm.B Eerdmans Press Kindle Ed. (Loc. 62-63)

[ii] Ibid, 66-70

[iii] Ibid, 112-114

[iv] Ibid, 97

[v] Ibid, 182-184 & Loc. 134-135

[vi] Ibid, 194-198

[vii] Barth, K. 1940 CD. II.2 The Limits of the Knowledge of God; The Hiddenness of God Hendrickson Publishers, 1957 (pp.203 & 211)

[viii] Thielicke, ibid, 332-335

Related post:

On Entertaining Angels & Academic Arrogance

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