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A Little Exercise for Young Theologians

Gregory E. Reynolds

When I think back on my brashness as a young theologian, I shudder; and whenever that same brashness rears its ugly head today, I shudder still; but age and Christian experience have at least taught me to recognize this monster within.

Very early in my Christian life, while still considering a call to the ministry, I came across a little booklet first published in 1962 by Eerdmans entitled A Little Exercise for Young Theologians.[1] I recognized the author, Helmut Thielicke (1908–86), from my reading of his Encounter with Spurgeon[2] in Bible school in 1972. I have exercised myself with this sage booklet at least once a decade ever since, and never without profit, since the demon of pride is ever in need of being exorcised.

While avoiding the dangerous dichotomy of setting the Christian life over against doctrine, Thielicke doesn't confuse the two by eliding doctrine into life. One without the other is a sign of spiritual illness. Thus, he addresses his seminary students like a wise father:

You can see that the young theologian has by no means grown up to these doctrines in his own spiritual development, even if he understands intellectually rather well the logic of the system ... There is a hiatus between the arena of the young theologian's actual spiritual growth and what he already knows intellectually about this arena.[3]

Thielicke goes on to liken early theological training to puberty, during which it is as unwise to unleash the novice on the church as a preacher, as it would be to let the young singer sing while his voice is changing.[4]

Furthermore, time spent in the lofty realms of truth makes the novice susceptible to the "psychology of the possessor," in which love is sadly absent. "Truth seduces us very easily into a kind of joy of possession."[5] "But love is the opposite of the will to possess. It is self-giving. It boasteth not itself, but humbleth itself." But when "truth is a means to personal triumph,"[6] the young theologian returns home with a keen sense of membership in an esoteric club, displaying his rarefied tools to the annoyance of all and the hurt of some. Thielicke observes, "Young theologians manifest certain trumped-up intellectual effects which actually amount to nothing."[7]

The only cure for this malady, insists Thielicke, is an active faith that cultivates love, that is, living one's faith out of love for God and those around us. Our theology must be worked out in the life of the church,

We must also take seriously the fact that the "subject" of theology, Jesus Christ, can only be regarded rightly if we are ready to meet Him on the plane where he is active, that is, within the Christian church.[8]

and it must be worked out in light of eternity,

A well-known theologian once said that dogmatics is a lofty and difficult art. That is so, in the first place, because of its purpose. It reflects upon the last things; it asks wherein lies the truth about our temporal and eternal destiny.[9]

and it must be worked out in spiritual battle,

Thus it is possible to become an eschatological romanticist ... Such a person nevertheless has not comprehended a penny’s worth of what it means to live on the battlefield of the risen Lord, between the first and second coming, waiting and praying as a Christian.[10]

Thielicke knew the true exercise of a theologian's faith in spiritual battle. In 1935, he was refused a post at Erlangen due to his commitment to the Confessing Church, which opposed National Socialism, and in which Dietrich Bonhoeffer was famously active. In 1936, he became professor of systematic theology at Heidelberg. But he was dismissed in 1940 after repeated interrogations by the Gestapo. He went on to pastor a church in Ravensburg, and in 1942 began teaching in Stuttgart, until the bombing in 1944, when he fled to Korntal. After the war ended, he began teaching at Tübingen, and finally in Hamburg, where he pastored the large congregation of St. Michaelis.

Finally, Thielicke warns the young theologian—older ones need this, too—to beware of reading Scripture only as a matter of exegetical endeavor rather than God’s "word to me." He urges a "prayed dogmatics,"[11] in which theological thought breathes "only in the atmosphere of dialogue with God."[12] "A person who pursues theological courses is spiritually sick unless he reads the Bible uncommonly often."[13]

While we will not agree with Thielicke's theology at every point, the gist of his message to young theological students is so pointed that there is nothing quite like it in English. Within our own tradition, Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield delivered an address at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1911 entitled "The Religious Life of Theological Students."[14] In the strongest possible terms, Warfield pleads for a godly and learned ministry: "But before and above being learned, a minster must be godly. Nothing could be more fatal, however, than to set these two things over against one another."[15] He sums this emphasis up nicely, "Put your heart into your studies."[16]

No exercise in the young theologian's or minister's life is better calculated to keep him humble than regular contact with God himself. Warfield cautions his students:

I am here today to warn you to take seriously your theological study, not merely as a duty, done for God's sake and therefore made divine, but as a religious exercise, itself charged with religious blessing to you; as fitted by its very nature to fill all your mind and heart and soul and life with divine thoughts and feelings and aspirations and achievements. You will never prosper in your religious life in the Theological Seminary until your work in the Theological Seminary becomes itself to you a religious exercise out of which you draw every day enlargement of heart, elevation of spirit, and adoring delight in your Maker and Savior.[17]

We are, after all, called to be warriors; but the kind of spiritual warrior that Scripture calls us to be is not the gladiator seeking personal victory and glory, but rather the soldier of the cross who seeks to magnify the person of his Savior and Lord. J. Gresham Machen captured this spirit well in his sermon "Constraining Love." Christian militancy should never be confused with sectarian belligerence, hubris, or meanness of spirit. But pride can also move us to shrink in cowardice from defending the truth of the gospel. Machen made this clear in his sermon to the second general assembly of our, then, new church. How many movements, he asked,

have begun bravely like this one, and then have been deceived by Satan ... into belittling controversy, condoning sin and error, seeking favor from the world or from a worldly church, substituting a worldly urbanity for Christian love. May Christ's love indeed constrain us that we may not thus fall![18]

If Christianity teaches us nothing else it must teach us the value of the cross—the chief expression of God's constraining love for sinners. If we learn nothing else from the cross we must learn humility—a humility that clings to the Savior who died to save us. As we minister, whether young or old, we must always remember that "we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us" (2 Cor. 4:7).

Endnotes

[1] Helmut Thielicke, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, trans. Charles L. Taylor (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962).

[2] Helmut Thielicke, Encounter with Spurgeon, trans. John W. Doberstein (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1963).

[3] Thielicke, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, 10.

[4] Ibid., 12.

[5] Ibid., 16.

[6] Ibid., 17, 19.

[7] Ibid., 11–12.

[8] Ibid., 23.

[9] Ibid., 27.

[10] Ibid., 29–30.

[11] Ibid., 33.

[12] Ibid., 34.

[13] Ibid., 40.

[14] Benjamin B. Warfield, Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield, ed. John E. Meeter (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1970), 1:411–25.

[15] Ibid., 412.

[16] Ibid., 416.

[17] Ibid., 417.

[18] J. Gresham Machen, "Constraining Love," in God Transcendent and Other Sermons, ed. Ned Bernard Stonehouse (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), 141.

Ordained Servant Online, February 2012.

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