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Theological teenagers shouldn’t preach

January 15, 2011

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.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. Jordan permalink
    January 15, 2011 6:01 pm

    I agree to the extent my limited perspective allows, and admit guilt to the extent I am due. Humbling, yet also comforting, actually.

  2. Chris permalink
    January 15, 2011 8:46 pm

    I agree with you too Jordan. Yes it was convicting, but perhaps I should have also shared how refreshing and encouraging it was. It helps explain my own experience and encourages me strive for greater depth that stems from spiritual formation, i.e. Christlikeness. It makes sense we must spend time reflecting too on that which we learn. It will bear the fruit of maturity and we will become theological adults.

  3. Joel Smith permalink
    January 16, 2011 9:06 pm

    great post. It was the perfect way to sum up Nicodemus in my sermon today. He could have easily gone back to the Pharisees and sounded brilliant by repeating the answers Jesus gave him, but instead he kept asking questions and let the words of Jesus mature in his life.

    Very challenging post for any pastor to think about.

  4. February 19, 2011 3:17 pm

    I agree that a man should be trained and qualified, yet I wonder if this is why so many young people don’t go to church. They have men saying they can’t preach, and they have no idea what else to do to serve the church. Does the author go into anything about how young men can help? How those who are theologically immature can be an active part of the church?

  5. Chris permalink
    February 19, 2011 5:37 pm

    The point of the author is the arrogance and hypocrisy of new students to theology. It has nothing to do with a “teenager” preaching, but rather one who has made a theological truth merely an intellectual pursuit and not an ethical one as well. The title is a figure of speech.

    I don’t think the problem with young people coming to church has to do with the age of the speaker. It has to do with the depth and insight of gospel teaching and its applicability to our lives. Those who are theologically immature need to live out the truths of the gospel. A life that conforms to the gospel is theologically mature. The critique, is people who confess to truth but do not practice it. “Young people” need to be apprentices – or if you prefer – disciples. People need to see people actually live the gospel out. Everything else is just a fad.

  6. February 19, 2011 10:04 pm

    After reading my comment I have to apologize for the rather forward language. I was wondering more of what people who are theologically adolescent can do to serve the church, in any capacity?

  7. Chris permalink
    February 20, 2011 3:53 pm

    Thanks Jack. Well, usually people who are theological “teenagers” have at least leadership potential. So how do we encourage them to continue to grow but not to give in to the dangers of their new-found knowledge? That is a lot of what Thielicke’s book is about, a small 40 pages of great insight.

    Regardless, if the church is raising up new leaders well there will be a period of transition for one growing in knowledge faster in head than in heart. I think they can still be active participants, teachers, leaders, etc. But the responsibilities given should be appropriate to their level of maturity in character… not just knowledge. I would advise three things:
    1) Be patient, its a natural part of the growth process that one part often grows faster than another before maturity blooms.
    2) Work Hard to integrate your whole life to the depth of knowledge you are obtaining. Mentoring and coaching are crucial here. Theological teenagers need lots of coaching. They should be provided with ample amounts of encouraging and challenging oversight. Is this not the picture of Jesus walking with his disciples?
    3) Above all, be humble. Know what you know and what you don’t. You may grasp the kenotic theory but have not figured out what difference it makes in ministry or your life. Know that the humble are the ones whose knowledge of the Lord increases while the proud actually get dumber (Prov. 1:1-7; Rom 1:18ff).

  8. February 20, 2011 7:19 pm

    I should read the book. haha. All excellent points, thank you for your time.

  9. Anonymous permalink
    August 14, 2011 12:52 pm

    Although I agree I still think that the young should be able to talk about their faith because believe we have something to learn from everything and everyone in life, and nothing is an accident. And even Jesus preached before he became a teenager in the Synagogue. I don’t feel as it is the theological teenagers fault they can’t hold an audience, they’re just buzzing with emotion because they are really exited about the Lord. The problem, from my point of view, seems to be the people. We should not profile based on appearance, although the people may be naive in some areas we do have something we can learn from them. The fault lies not with the teenager, but with us. We need not be so judgmental. If the almighty God listens to our prayers and helps us with all the problems in our life, no matter the size, we should be able to listen to these young seminarians. It’s pride that we think that we would know more or that the seminarian has nothing to offer just because he is younger. We have to open our eyes and hearts and change our mindset because the problem lies within us.

    • Chris permalink
      August 15, 2011 12:31 pm

      Read the book – “A Little Exercise for young theologians”. I think you misunderstood the point of the post. Teenager here is a metaphor for new students to theology regardless of age, not to be taken literally.

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