Theological teenagers shouldn’t preach
I began reading a very short little book that was a gift from my wife for Christmas. It is a rather obscure book that I had on my wish list from seminary. It is called “A little exercise for young theologians” by Helmut Thielicke. In this book he discusses for both the lay person and trained minister how to approach theology. So far it has been great. But this one really hit me.
There is a hiatus between the arena of the young theologian’s spiritual growth and what he already knows intellectually about this arena. (p. 10)
He depicts a first semester seminary student who before his formal training, teaches or preaches with what little he knows and his full of life. It is good because of its liveliness even though it may lack theologian depth and exegetical precision. However, they then become a student and now become filled with knowledge that often stifles and intimidates the lay person. The problem is they lack spiritual maturity to match their knowledge. As the scriptures say, “knowledge puffs up but love builds up” (1 Cor 8:1-3).
The caricature he lays out I found all too true and convicting. Seminary students often are all too ready to offer their profound insights and are simultaneously blind to their own lack of character. They identify with a particular theologian, or great saint of the past, assuming they have shared their experiences and know what they are talking about. It often makes the faithful Christian with no formal training feel inferior because they do not possess the same “knowledge,” as if you can only grow in Christ if you have been to school. Unfortunately, those with vast amounts of knowledge are sometimes allowed to teach and preach in churches. And this is where Helmut Thielicke offers his penetrating conclusion.
“Speaking figuratively, the study of theology often produces overgrown youths whose internal organs have not correspondingly developed. This is characteristic of adolescence. There is actually something like theological puberty. Every teacher knows that this is a matter of signs of natural growth over which there is no need to become excited. Churches must understand it and must have it explained to them in every possible way.
It is a mistake for anyone who is just in this stage to appear before a church as a teacher. He has outgrown the naivete with which in young people’s work he might by all means have taken this part. He has not yet come to that maturity which would permit him to absorb into his own life and reproduce out of the freshness of his own personal faith the things which he imagines intellectually and which are accessible to him through reflection. We must have patience here and be able to wait. For the reasons I have mentioned I do not tolerate sermons by first-semester young theological students swaddled in their gowns. One ought to be able to keep still. During the period when the voice is changing we do not sing, and during this formative period in the life of the theological student he does not preach.” (p.12)
Oh Lord forgive me for the times I have taught without true knowledge! I have often taken pride in my own intellect and failed to see where my life does not correspond. Forgive us for living off of the faith of saints we admire. May we live by your very word and may our love exceed our knowledge. Let your Spirit sanctify us and conform us to the likeness of Christ, that by your grace we may teach as ones with authority. Amen.
Helmut Thielicke. A Little Exercise for Young Theologians. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1962.