Helmut Thielicke did me a great favor!
This German theology professor and pastor (1908-86) wrote a skinny little book entitled A Little Exercise for Young Theologians. I read this forty-one page book during my first year of seminary. He got my attention and made me look into a mirror; the creature in the reflection was concerning.
While overdosing on the books of men during my college years, The Book had taken a back seat in my young ministerial life; and, it was my fault. I had allowed the knowledge I had attained in college, along with my new degree and scholarship to work on another degree to puff me with pride.
Looking back, I must have seemed cocky, brash, and pretentious. Thielicke’s little book punched holes in my deflating ego. He informed me that young theologs can allow their “exegetical endeavors” to kindle a “gnostic pride” where “truth and love are seldom combined” in our lives.[i] He warns us never to stop reading the Holy Scriptures as “a word to me.” At the soul-level, I was anemic.
Thielicke says, “…knowledge is power” and the “joy of possession can kill love” if we allow ourselves to feed a superiority complex that is void of God’s love. This spiritual uppitiness can breed contempt for “lesser” members of the Kingdom who rely on a down-to-earth devotional understanding of God, the Bible, and doctrine. This disdain is a real spiritual disease. He says, “This conflict is precisely the disease of theologians. Like a child’s disease, it is often especially acute. Even ordained pastors can still catch this disease without its power to do harm becoming diminished.”[ii]
Insecure and unripe ministers have been known to unleash a barrage of Greek & Hebrew words, philosophical constructs, and theological arguments onto laymen who dare question their answers or authority. As this high and mighty tactic is used over and over the sheep start looking elsewhere. As members choose to leave the church in droves due to their keen perception of the lack of love in their parson or priest, the juvenile theologian may even boast that the scores of empty pews are a testament to his love of truth and that he is not an “ear-tickler” like other pastors around the city whose worship centers are packed with people.[iii]
The only cure for this vexing spiritual problem, insists Thielicke, is an active faith that constantly cultivates love while purposefully living out one’s faith in the life of the church. Can you imagine the great revivals and spiritual awakenings that could happen …if…prideful ministers would allow the Holy Spirit to exorcise the arrogance from our heads and hearts so that the love of Jesus could flow freely through our churches and communities?
Helmut Thielicke ministered in dangerous times as Adolph Hitler and his Nazi-Regime rose to power. He personally faced the harshness of Gestapo interrogation for being a member of the Confessing Church movement. I may be wrong, but just maybe—it is possible that professor Thielicke had seen the “cousin” to the swelling national pride of Nazi Germany in his classroom as young theologians squared off on separate sides of theological issues and conceitedly declared their fellow seminarians as heretics, enemies of God, and deserving of (gulp) an old fashioned stake burning. We can become plank-eyed peacocks with condemnation always oozing from our lips and lives—if our studies become cold, abstract, academic, and lopsided.
Seasoned practicing theologians and pastors can have their problems too. They have lived long enough to know how to tap into the rebellious nature of youth—if they wish to throw a little petrol on the four hundred year old fracas whose smoldering burn path leads back to the Synod of Dort in 1618-19. Even non-prodigal church kids can quickly join the medieval mêlée if they are led to believe their small town or country pastors (and parent’s generation) have intentionally hid certain truths of the Faith once delivered to the Saints.
It is fairly easy for a PhD academic with the credentials of book authorship, white papers published, and lectures to fellow colleagues to convert young wide-eyed students to their theological tribe and send them off by the thousands to tribal conferences and book buying frenzies. They know how to “pit” one side against the other and stand back and watch their young zealots go at it—while they profit from the ongoing spiritual skirmishes. Thielicke said, “Whoever ceases to be a man of the spirit automatically furthers a false theology, even if in thought it is pure, orthodox and Lutheran[iv] (add your denominational tag). But in that case death lurks in the kettle.”[v] He says of theology, “It can be sacred theology or diabolical theology. That depends upon the hands and hearts which further it.”[vi]
While the love and pursuit of learning should never be shunned or stifled–intellectual pride leading to inflamed agitation and hatred— needs to be exorcised from our hearts, congregations, colleges, seminaries, denominations and Christianity as a whole. We are to first love God and always seek the highest good for our brothers and sisters in Christ. The love of God doesn’t make us look at those who hold to a different system of theology as our arch enemy. The love of God doesn’t promote blog wars, twitter terror, and cold wars among the Beloved.
Sometimes we must “exorcise” ourselves from certain people or groups. Listen to the closing words of the Apostle Paul to young Timothy:
If anyone teaches otherwise and does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the doctrine which accords with godliness, he is proud, knowing nothing, but is obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, useless wrangling of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. From such withdraw[vii] yourself.” (I Timothy 6:3-5).
Thank you professor Thielicke for warning me that, “Theology can be a coat of mail which crushes us and in which we freeze to death.”[viii] So Lord, guard my head and heart as I study all the “-isms” of man, and help me to surrender myself wholeheartedly to You each day; and I will promise to:
“I will meditate on Your precepts,
And contemplate Your ways.
I will delight myself in Your statutes;
I will not forget Your word.”[ix]
Amen and amen!
[i] Helmut Thielicke, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, trans. Charles L. Taylor (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962), 16.The phrase “exegetical endeavors” is found on page 33.
[ii] Ibid, 17.
[iii] Ibid, 19.
[iv] Thielicke was an ordained Lutheran pastor and was mainly writing to his denomination. This booklet could represent a beginning lecture to students in systematic theology.
[v] Ibid. 36.
[vii] The word “exorcise” could be used here, as we deliberately choose to remove ourselves from those continually stirring up strife within the body of Christ.
[ix] Psalm 119:15-16 NKJV