In his short but punchy treatise, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, Helmut Thielicke warns his students of the many pitfalls for young theologians and offers pointed advice for growing out of “theological puberty” (Kindle, 194-196). Just as there’s a period during puberty when a young man should not sing so there’s a period during a young theologians growth when he should not preach. During this period the aspiring theologian can catch many diseases, with pride being the worst disease of all.
Pride often emerges from the joy of possessing truth and manifest itself in disdain for the “uninitiated” (Kindle, 192). Such “gnostic pride” reveals that the young man has embraced truth but neglected love. Doug Wilson calls such young men “thunder puppies;” their overzealous bark surpasses their maturity (Wilson, Future Men, 40-41). They will often use truth as a bat to beat others down. According to Thielicke, “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” (Kindle, 219-220). The irony of such an approach to theological knowledge is its disregard for the reality that all spiritual insight is a gift from the Holy Spirit and that “every theological effort is bound up with the act of faith itself” (Kindle, 251-252).
Indeed, both Augustine and John Calvin highlight the essential role of faith guided by the Spirit in the quest for theological knowledge. Augustine begins De Trinitate by warning his reader that “my pen is on the watch against the sophistries of those who scorn the starting-point of faith” (Bk I.1.1). Theologians must begin with faith because “it is difficult to contemplate and have full knowledge of God’s substance” unless our minds are purified by the “inexpressible reality” that is God. We must be “led along more endurable routes, nurtured on faith as long as we have not yet been endowed with that necessary purification” (Bk I.1.4). Knowing this should produce humility in every theologian, whether young or old.
In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin further explains why theological humility is necessary: only the Holy Spirit unveils the truth to us. Spiritual understanding of God’s Word is possible only for those whom the Holy Spirit enlightens. He says “the Word itself is not quite certain for us unless it be confirmed by the testimony of the Spirit” (Bk I.9.3). Augustine, Calvin, and Thielicke all diagnose the disease of pride—or as Augustine says “talkative reason-mongers who have more conceit than capacity” ( Bk I.1.4)—because of its strong temptation for theologians. Thielicke is so concerned that we not be “bewitched by the mere form of faith which comes to us in reflection” (Kindle, 286). Rather, we practice faith seeking understanding in every theological exploration, whether it be Trinitarian relations or ecclesiological practices.
James 4:1-10 contains a great promise for Christians who heed Augustine, Calvin, and Thielicke’s advice. James declares the promise of Proverbs 3:34: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (4:6). He then gives a series of imperatives in verses 7-10 about how to kill pride and seek humility. Indeed, he climaxes in verse 10 with a concluding imperative coupled with another promise: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” Thielicke is concerned that his students will exalt themselves rather than humble themselves before the Lord. Instead, he desires that they let God do the exalting. James offers an antidote in the form of a promise to the disease of gnostic pride. The promise of James 4:6-10 is simple: God helps those who humble themselves before him. So humble yourself!
The value of Thielicke’s book could be proven by the testimony of my own short journey as an aspiring theologian. My journey has been full of gnostic pride. While I have not yet shoved a Greek manuscript under someone’s nose to prove the superiority of my argument, I have committed similar errors. Thielicke aptly describes what is often true in my life, namely, that “there is a hiatus between the arena of the young theologian’s actual spiritual growth and what he already knows intellectually about this arena” (Kindle, 151-152). Too often I have blazed an exegetical trail in some passage without a thought toward prayer or of thanksgiving. Thielicke, I think, would question whether this is even true theology. He says that, “a theological thought can breathe only in the atmosphere of dialogue with God” (Kindle, 315). Furthermore, he describes the function of theology in a unique and compelling way: theology is “the conscience of the congregation of Christ, its compass and with it all a praise-song of ideas” (Kindle, 334). I have been the young theologian who sees theology more as an arena to display my prowess rather than an opportunity to humble myself before the Lord. Thielicke has offered valuable corrective in my personal theological journey.
But Thielicke’s book is not only valuable for the young theologian like myself but also for the church as a whole. The church as a whole can learn two lessons from Thielicke’s book and it can encourage its pastors to heed one other lesson. First, the church should trust its spiritual instinct. In his section “The Instinct of the Children of God,” Thielicke identifies a “spiritual instinct” in the church that senses theological assertions or projects that are bent. Piper describes this instinct as smelling theological rot (in his 2015 message at The Gospel Coalition, What Jesus Demands from the World). He says a Christian’s theological nose can sniff out the error even if it cannot expose or refute it. Thielicke’s book teaches the church not to be afraid of using its theological instinct to sniff out bad theology even from seemingly smart theologians.
Second, the church should avoid two errors when a young theologian emerges in the congregation. They should (a) avoid affirming mere knowledge acquisition without corresponding spiritual maturity and yet also (b) be wary of squelching an eager desire for knowing God by developing an anti-intellectual atmosphere born out of fear. These opposite errors will equally misdirect an aspiring theologian. Finally, the church should encourage pastors (and aspiring pastors) to value clarity over cleverness. In Preaching: A Biblical Theology, Jason Meyer explains that “Someone wants clear speech so that what he preaches will be clearly recognized; someone uses clever speech so that how he preaches will be clearly recognized” (Meyer, 214). The temptation to be clever rather than clear in preaching is always there, but I think especially for the out-to-prove-himself seminarian preacher.
While Thielicke’s book focuses on theology not preaching, I think the disease of gnostic pride easily carries over into preaching for the young preacher. Thus, the church would do well to affirm how a preacher makes the message of a passage clear rather than praising them for clever speech or fancy illustrations.
Zach is the Director of of Admissions and a fourth year MDiv student at Bethlehem College & Seminary. He is husband to Betsy and the father of Molly. Follow Zach on Twitter @zachahoward