Get Yourself A Christmas Present

The stream of comments in response to my post on Theology and the Knowledge of God has slowed and, although David has promised a lengthy comment soon, I figured that it would be alright to put up another little post in the holiday spirit (especially since I don’t plan to post until after the new year). So, I thought I would use all the authority and respect that I have collected since this blog launched a few months ago, to recommend to you all that you go and buy yourself a Christmas present.

Helmut Thielicke, A Little Exercise For Young Theologians.

Amazon lists this book for $8, but you can get used copies for under $4, so you have no excuse for not picking one up. Use that money your grandma Silvia or auntie Cecelia gave you for Christmas. This book will profit you more than the amount of beer, wine or liqueur that these few dollars will bring you.

This book is a spiritual exercise for those who study theology, and specifically for those just starting out in that study. I have read it a few times, and it continues to do me good. It will be especially valuable to those seminary students in the midst of field education, for it will make clear what lies behind some of the tension that they might experience when trying to figure out how it is that the rubber of their theological studies is to meet the road of pastoral ministry. Thielicke reminds us of our all too common approach to theological knowledge as power, and therefore as a tool to help us “win” in discussions with those to whom we should be ministering in love. He also reminds us that just because we can wax poetic about the union of the divine and human natures in Christ, breadth and depth of theological knowledge does not equal breadth and depth of faith and spirituality. We have to grow into our knowledge, much like a farm boy must grow into his new breeches (his example, not mine!).

Thielicke wrote this book for theological students, and it is intent on showing them that they should approach the people in the pews with humility. Because this is his focus, the people in the pews tend to get off easy. I know that much of my frustration with the church is that the church (especially in the United States) has turned its back on theology (even though to do so arises from certain theological commitments). Your average churchgoer is not particularly interested in what homoousios, or hypostasis, or decretum absolutum mean. This is a shame. However, I believe that this is ultimately the fault of academic theology. During the ascendancy of liberalism, and before the neo-orthodox revolt, academic theology found that the people in the pews were not interested in their demythologization, historical Jesus research, or [insert theological claim here]. As a consequence, a gulf developed between church and seminary.

(Aside: Princeton Theological Seminary was able, somehow, to stay relatively close to the church throughout this period and that is why PTS continues going strong while seminaries such as Union have found funding hard to come by, etc. Hopefully, PTS will continue in this pathway, although certain developments afoot at PTS these days suggest that it will not necessarily do so.)

Over the course of this period, the church turned its back on the academy, and the academy turned its back on the church. Among church members, a suspicion of academic theology has become a much-cherished reflex. This creates problems when those who study academic theology figure out that they need to serve the church with their study, and seek to help the church grow in theological sophistication. These people, for all their good intentions and in spite of their relative orthodoxy (often more orthodox than the congregations in question!), are given the cold shoulder. It can easily become for these students of theology, like myself, an increasingly uphill struggle to remain interested in trying to help the church through theological study.

But, none of that is meant to detract from the value of Thielicke’s book. That is simply my augmentation of this already superb little volume. So, get yourself a Christmas present. Snuggle up with this little volume next to a fire and with a cup of hot chocolate, egg nog, single-malt scotch, or - in the spirit of Thielicke's Lutheranism - a stein of your favorite micro-brew. Read it early, and read it often.

Merry Christmas!


That sounds like a beautiful book, Travis. I'll keep my eye out for it. And thanks for sharing about the frustrations of translation in the parish ministry. While I often used to have a "trickle-down" view of the academy and the church, this view has become part of the problem I think. If translation is to happen, then it needs to happen both ways.

If I may get something off my back - at the church I visited this morning, the youth ministry led the worship service. At one point we said their creed. Now I think it's beautiful that youth would be empowered to write their own creed, but the content was atrocious: "We believe Jesus was a historical figure, who taught us how to live morally, and that he is in a spirit which is in us all."
Anonymous said…
Thielicke's book was, by complete happenstance, one of the first works of theology I ever read. I picked it up at a library booksale my freshman year of college. Although the main outline of the book has slipped my mind, I remember just the necessary exhortations--Do not allow that a first-year theology student should preach!--to keep me in my place, even these years later. The call to humility I learned from that book is a call that has lingered. Thanks for reminding us of this little volume.

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