David Michael Bruno teaches history at Point Loma Nazarene University, a member institution of the Council for Christian College and Universities (CCCU). In this insightful post, drawing from the theological work of German scholar Helmut Thielicke, he provides some much needed perspective on the current debates going on in the CCCU regarding gay marriage
There is this small book by the late German theologian Helmut Thielicke titled, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians. First published in 1962 and just more than fifty pages long, it is a short book in which Thielicke speaks volumes. Disagreements among professing Christians about what it means to be faithful occur at all times and in all cultures. So I am not trying to elevate one particular disagreement in one particular culture to a severity of historical proportions. I simply want to layer Thielicke’s caution on top of some of the disputes brewing among some Christians in the United States. I especially have a concern for Christian higher education..
Thielicke wrote A Little Exercise as an admonition to his young students who were learning fancy theological terms like apophatic and cataphatic, then returning from university to their home churches. At home they interrupted Sunday school classes with their theological erudition. Erudition, not edification. “It is possible,” said Thielecke, “that theology makes the young theologian vain and so kindles in him something like gnostic pride. The chief reason for this is that in us men truth and love are seldom combined.”
So sure, that old lady in the congregation thinks the hypostatic union is what happens to her knee when she wobbles out of bed in the morning. She has a leg up, even so, on many young theologians when it comes to living a charitable life that blesses the body of Christ. Merely possessing knowledge cannot save or satisfy the soul. To earnest yet immature young theologians, Thielecke said, “Love is the opposite of the will to possess.”
…Thielicke pushes further still. He not only chastens young theologians who look down their hermeneutical noses at laymen, but he also cautions them to be gracious with one another. When I was studying systematic theology in school, one of my professors used a memorably simple illustration to express two different postures taken by humans studying theology. He reached out his hands in front of him and made fists. Then he opened his fists and raises his palms upward. We can do theology pridefully or we can do theology humbly. We can battle our way to God or we can submit our way to God. As we choose our posture toward God so too do we choose our posture towards our brothers and sisters in Christ. It is remarkable how many theologians with open palms towards God make fists at each other. Again Thielecke provides an insightful caution.
…those who affirm the doctrinal boundaries of orthodox Christianity must contend with equal earnestness to safeguard those boundaries as well as protect the unity of the church when a dispute takes place outside of those boundaries. This is not easy work because the boundaries are not always clear and because even the disputes outside the boundaries of orthodoxy are important. In this matter it is my personal view that the church must sit at the feet of faithful historians and that those historians must rise to the challenge of faithfully guiding the church through this difficult work. The church needs to be reminded, for example, how John Wesley and George Whitefield ultimately elevated brotherly love above doctrinal differences. Their relationship was messy. In the end, however, it was not characterized by schism. There are a thousand similar examples. So then, fists clenched or palms up? Humility and unity, especially when it is hard, is the way of Christ.
…Perhaps, in keeping with Thielicke’s admonition to his young students that they return to their home churches and keep quiet for an extended time, we could advocate a similar discipline. Thielicke wanted his students whose brains were freshly packed with theological nuance to sit still upon returning to their home churches and observe how the work of Christ takes place without their theological erudition. Perhaps what Christian institutions of higher education need is a silent ambassador program in which an ambassador from one institution is sent to another, not to articulate a doctrinal position or negotiate terms, but to sit still and watch. Would these silent ambassadors observe points of doctrinal disagreement? Most assuredly. Would they observe the work of Christ taking place in spite of disagreement? I think so. Would that change attitudes about disunity? We must hope it would or else grieve that the witness of body of Christ is not what Christ himself desires it to be.
Good stuff, indeed.