In this brief treatise I want to look at how theology should be done and what some of the dangers are in “doing theology” (maybe I should have published this as my first article). My interest in the subject was first stirred up by a little book by a German theologian – Helmut Thielicke A Little Exercise For Young Theologians. Two other articles should be mentioned alongside: “Rescuing Theology from the Theologians” by Gerald L. Bray and “The Religious Life of Theological Students” by the famous Princeton theologian B.B. Warfield. Let us look at what these theologians have to say to us today.
In using terms like “theological puberty” (12; cf. 15) and “intellectual hypertrophy” (31) Thielicke states that the dangers of the study of theology are that young theologians become puffed up with their knowledge – this reminds me of a verse – and are further unable to communicate rightly with the church body (i.e., the congregation). The latter point is crucial to the professor of the University of Hamburg. The theologian and the pastor have to be able to communicate to the “common” people (the populus pauper). Bray states that it “would of course be nice if everyone knew what an infralapsarian antediluvian postmillenarian apocalyptic Arminian is, since you never know when you might meet one, but surely there is a simpler way of explaining the concept” (56). I got my dictionary out for that one…
An “incomprehensible theologian” (a contradiction of terms to Bray) is of horrific consequences “because there can be nothing more distressing than to find that the words of eternal life are being hidden behind a veil of obfuscation so thick that no-one can gain access to them” (56).
Thielicke is further concerned about right and orthodox theology; this is of utter importance to him as it is to Bray. But both of them make some interesting observations. Bray for example writes that “[a]n illiterate grandmother in New Guinea who has met with Jesus is a greater theologian than a university professor of the subject who has not […] [w]ithout a personal experience of God, theology is a waste of time – indeed, it is quite meaningless” (49). And Thielicke in his eloquent style writes about the possibility of spiritual death of an orthodox theologian “while perhaps a heretic crawls on forbidden bypaths to the sources of life” (37).
For Thielicke theology practiced rightly can only be done in conversation with God – or as he writes: “A theological thought can breathe only in the atmosphere of dialogue with God” (34). In chapter XI – “The Study of Dogmatics with Prayer” – he starts out writing,
The man who studies theology, and especially he who studies dogmatics, might watch carefully whether he increasingly does not think in the third rather than the second person. You know what I mean by that. The transition of one to the other level of thought, from a personal relationship with God to a merely technical reference, usually is exactly synchronized with the moment that I no longer can read the word of Holy Scripture as a word to me, but only as the object of exegetical endeavors. (33)
This he calls the “first step towards the worst and most widespread minister’s disease” where one “can hardly expound a text as a letter which has been written to him, but he reads the text under the impulse of the question, How would it be used in a sermon?” (idem). Man, does Thielicke cut to the core! He additionally warns that “the first time someone spoke of God in the third person and therefore no longer with God but about God was that very moment when the question resounded, ‘Did God really say?’ (cf. Genesis 3:1)” and concludes, “[t]his fact ought to make us think” (34).
Not only in my reading of Holy Writ but also in my pleasure of watching a movie (or reading a book) there were hardly any times where I was not thinking about how the material could be used for the purpose of preaching. It is not wrong to think in those terms at some points in time, but once in a while we do have to enjoy culture and creation in which God has put us in. There is time for put-your-feet-up and time for preaching.
It is also very convincing to see how Thielicke describes using the Bible as a mere textbook, a frog to be dissected, instead of God’s spoken and written Word to us. B.B. Warfield in his address to the students of the Princeton Theological Seminary points out another danger of the theological student. He writes,
We are frequently told, indeed, that the great danger of the theological student lies precisely in his constant contact with divine things. They may come to seem common to him, because they are customary.
[…] The very atmosphere of your life is these things [i.e., God, religion, and salvation]; you breathe them in at every pore; they surround you, encompass you, press in upon you from every side. It is all in danger of becoming common to you! God forgive you, you are in danger of becoming weary of God! (35)
Along with this conviction comes the usage of the third person in our theologizing. We are speaking about God, but what does it mean to exercise theology in a dialogue with God? This is something I do have to ponder a whole lot more and ask God for wisdom –maybe even forgiveness – in how to “do theology” which is honoring and keeps me close to Him.
Bray, Gerald L. “Rescuing Theology from the Theologians.” 24, (February 1, 1999): 48-57.
Thielicke, Helmut. A Little Exercise For Young Theologians. Grand Rapids : Eerdmans, 1962.
Warfield, Benjamin Breckinridge. “The Religious Life of Theological Students.” 24, (May 1, 1999): 31-41.