The Wisdom of Helmut Thielicke

A Little Exercise for Young Theologians is one of the most insightful and convicting works that I have ever managed to read in less than an hour. Weighing in at a meager 41 pages (in my edition), Thielicke has nevertheless squeezed a wealth of wisdom into his work. The quotations I’m going to provide by no means do the whole book justice. I recommend this “exhortation to spiritual hygiene” to every aspiring theologian and every lay person who has a distrust of scholarship or theology.

“Theological thinking can and ought to grip a man like a passion.”

True theologians “think within the community of God’s people, and for that community, and in the name of that community.”

“Dialectic and paradoxes are the way a law-abiding church’s thought overcomes the most monstrous frictions.”

Overzealous theologians “have smothered the first little flame of a man’s own spiritual life and a first shy question with the fire extinguisher of their erudition.”

“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. I have greater possibilities and also greater temptations. Anyone who deals with truth – as we theologians certainly do – succumbs all too easily to the psychology of the possessor. But love is the opposite of the will to possess. It is self-giving. It boasteth not itself, but humbleth itself.”

Of the proper use of theology when correcting another: “The purpose of his action was not to impart to the other man some understanding of what we theologians are driving at, or to lead him gently beyond the stage of his previous knowledge, but to render him helpless – this person who because of his previous education could not be equal to this literature set before him – and to suffocate his perhaps very simple objection to the historical-critical study of the Bible by throwing over them an overbearing and imposing blanket of arguments. Here truth is employed as a means to personal triumph and at the same time as a means to kill, which is in the starkest possible contrast with love.”

“…history reconstructed apart from faith cannot possibly be the foundation of faith…”

“To express this in another way, theology can never “prove” preaching, but it has the same outlook as preaching; it is also a witness, only with other methods and means.”

“Esoteric concealment on the perfidious ground that “I can’t expect the people to be equal to this” could even lead to that offense against those least, for which Jesus coined the momentous picture of the millstone.”

“My plea is simply this: every theological idea which makes an impression upon you must be regarded as a challenge to your faith. Do not assume as a matter of course that you believe what ever impresses you theologically and enlightens you intellectually.”

“I don’t believe that God is a fussy faultfinder in dealing with theological ideas. He who provides forgiveness for a sinful life will also surely be a generous judge of theological reflection. Even an orthodox theologian can be spiritually dead, while perhaps a heretic crawls on forbidden bypaths to the sources of life.”

“Before the young freshman has really looked at the cornerstone of the Biblical story of salvation, for example, the story of Creation, and the account of the Fall, before he has come to know the Alpine peaks of divine thoughts in their majesty, he is made familiar with the mineralogical analyses of that stone. But anybody who studies geological formations on maps and graphs, and learns mineralogical formulae from a set of tables before he ever climbs the Alps, is hardly in a position to comprehend at all what the Alps are.”

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