The German Antidote Against America’s Theological Enemies

Rediscovering Forgotten Classics

Editors’ note: 

Taking the advice of C. S. Lewis, we want to help our readers “keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds,” which, as he argued, “can be done only by reading old books.” Continuing our Rediscovering Forgotten Classics series we want to survey some forgotten Christian classics that remain relevant and serve the church today. This is an adapted introduction from Eerdmans’s reissued edition of Thielicke’s A Little Exercise for Young Theologians (Eerdmans, 2016).

Think, if you will, of Helmut Thielicke’s A Little Exercise for Young Theologians (1962) as if it were a greeting card.

It can serve best in its first purpose: as a bon voyage greeting to a person venturing for the first season into theological studies. Just as well, the book could say “Happy Anniversary” to a practical parson humble enough to look back, to measure themself against their intentions. Then again, it may be needed as a “Get Well” for a pretentious theologian or—in radical instances—as a sympathy card to someone who’s forgotten the excitement and promise of the theological task.

In the paragraph I’ve just written, some version of the term “theology” appeared three times. Thus it carefully reproduces the intention of Thielicke’s book: in clear and forceful language he sets out to speak of the difficult language of theology. If used to greet a young theologian, the book will not soon be placed among his or her souvenirs. To begin to exhaust its meanings, one must consult the book again and again. Thielicke expects the budding theologian to take from it good counsel.

Thielicke’s Aside 

Born in 1908, and later pursuing a conventional German theological education, Thielicke underwent a personal crisis in the 1930s. Then as his career blossomed he was to be tried by the terror of National Socialism. He won a new kind of right to speak by his opposition to Nazism. After World War II he came to prominence.

The particular set of virtues Thielicke combined is rarely come by, sorely needed, and essential for the task before him: the giving of advice. I shouldn’t wish to make it seem theology is to him a superficial task in either the intellectual or moral sense. You’ll see him define it as “reflection” on the one hand, or as “conscience” on the other. His work reveals an inner consistency that certifies the impression Thielicke’s many expressions come from one radiating center.

In naming this an “exercise” Thielicke has in mind the format of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises and other books of Christian self-discipline. That’s how I’d describe this book: It’s a lesson in theological self-discipline. It may be only a “little exercise” in a profound field; it may be Eine kleine Nachtmusik, or a grace note alongside the De Profundis of the theological library, a pen-sketch to be left at the foot of the mural. But in its modest way it can inform the whole. An “aside” whispered in a stage play can deal a glancing blow to every other direct line. Here is Thielicke’s aside to a theological audience.

Thielicke’s Argument

A temptation often comes to one who introduces a book to anticipate or rehearse its contents. Instead, I’d rather converse with its argument. Does the Christian who’s becoming or has become a self-conscious theologian in America have the same problems as those cited here? On the Continent—so it’s said—the theologian lives more in the ivory tower than does their American counterpart; the activist there is less activistic; theology there has less to do with the life of the church than with rigorous, scientific, respectable discipline. In evangelism, stewardship, pastoral care, administration, the American church leader heads the field.

But the conventional picture is changing. German theologians were flushed out of their towers by the courage called forth in Hitler’s era, and they haven’t been allowed to return because of the challenge to relate the faith to a secularized world. Meanwhile, the European parson has had to work harder to gain attention, to hold and minister to the flock.

In America the 21st-century theologian has a similar task. He or she doesn’t speak only to the theologian but to the “outsider.” The practical church leader may have it easier—at least in a superficial sense—than the Continental colleague who experienced less religious revival. The day has come, however, when we must speak of difference in degrees, not in kind, between the intentions of theologians and the intentions of parish ministers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Seldom does the lay congregation recognize or trust the worth of academic theology. Seldom do the academic theologians empathize with the workaday parsons.

Despite the lessened tension, a tragic breach remains between theological ventures and activist programs, between the communities and persons who support them. Seldom does the lay congregation recognize or trust the worth of academic theology. Seldom do the academic theologians empathize with the workaday parsons. Christianity allows for a variety of gifts, with the same spirit. Some of these gifts must be allowed for and encouraged in the same people. Thielicke argues that every minister of Jesus Christ must be both a disciplined theologian and a practicing church leader. That’s another concern of his little exercise.

America’s Theological Enemies 

Independent of Thielicke’s outline I’ve tried to think o what are the enemies of theology in America.

First is the pervasive unbelief that makes its way into academic circles. It motivates the counsel to avoid theology, counsel that says: The Christian faith can’t pass intellectual tests; therefore keep busy, don’t 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 doesn’t immediately seem to affect what goes on within the walls of my church building, I don’t often care. Still another enemy is the idolization of the “doer” as opposed to the “thinker.” The big-time operator somehow builds more buildings, raises more budgets, preaches louder sermons than does the artisan who pores over the Greek New Testament. It’s of little consequence to some that this type contributes to a greater divorce between Christ and the meaning of life, between the faith and other verities. So long as the engines puff and the wheels roll, all is well.

Finally—I hesitate to make too much of this—there’s an anti-intellectualism in American religion, a legacy of 19th-century concerns for pious and warm hearts for God; or anti-intellectualism may be a byproduct of 20th-century generalized religion with its relativism.

Whoever wishes to do these exercises in America should also, if he or she follows Thielicke’s rules, empathize with the enemies of theology. There are reasons for mistrust, the first being the frustration occasioned by its limits. Theology can’t always deliver. It can’t answer where the revelation does not (“What is the ontological origin of evil?” and so on). At other times, false claims made for the intellect alienate pious Christians. Eunomius, bishop of Cyzicus in the fourth century (“I know God as well as he knows himself”), has too often seemed to be the patron saint of theologians. The well-known odium theologicum, the pettiness of little people who care much about big issues, is a proverbial problem. The tendency to abstract oneself from church life and concrete concerns often represents to laypeople and parish ministers of activist bent a tragic misreading of the Christian faith. The fact that theologians change their opinions as they learn more and experience more sometimes causes mistrust, though it should not: Complete truth belongs alone to God. No doubt the most criticized fault of all is the specialized vocabulary, the shorthand, the jargon developed by theologians. We welcome technical terms in medicine (who wants just a “stomach ache”?) and in science (where any child can spit out “world wide web”), but we mistrust it where the simple gospel is concerned. Thielicke has wise words on this.

Despite the enemies of theology, despite the legitimate reasons for their mistrust, a theological necessity is laid upon the church. There’s a mandate: Love the Lord “with all thy mind.” There’s a changing world that presents ever new problems, basic new questions of language and meaning. Shall one build a tiny corral or a high wall around the faith, or shall one relate it to larger questions? The theological task possesses an intrinsic character: Depth demands witness. There will inevitably be theology: Will it be good or bad, conscious or unconscious, disciplined or diffuse?

Whoever cares about the American setting of problems such as these will welcome the translation of Thielicke’s advice. We’re in danger now of letting the envelope grow larger than the greeting card, or of cluttering with props the arena where the exercise should begin. The temptation to carry on prolonged dialogue is hard to resist. Spiritual exercises call for response, arguments, commitment. If they awaken similar temptations in the minds of other readers, be they theologians or not, young or not, this book will have served its purpose.