It’s about fifteen years since I first read Helmut Thielicke’s masterful work “A Little Exercise for Young Theologians” (first English publication was 1962). I have read it at least biannually ever since: it usually takes an afternoon to get through, followed by a week or two for recovery and application! His wisdom is at once simple and profound; his manner simultaneously pastoral and commanding. Thielicke was a churchly theologian who knew the power and responsibility of theological study. It is not something to be undertaken lightly — for it trains those who are called to serve the people of God; nor should it be worn too heavily — for its speech about God is contingent.
This time in reading it I have been struck by Thielicke’s remarks about prayer as the proper context for theological study. It’s not a new idea, and is certainly something we pursue at St Mellitus College. But there’s a freshness in the way Thielicke expresses himself:
“Faith must mean more to us than a mere commodity stored in the tin cans of reflection or bottled in the lecture notebook, whence at any time it my be reproduced by the brain."
His objection, which I share, is to the static and archival trap of some kinds of theolgical study, where what was once the lively focus of our Christian faith and life becomes confined by our concepts, entrapped by our langauge, and thus deadened. Such theology comes about because it ceases to happen in the second person address of the prayerful Christian, but solely takes the form of third person observations about God. God becomes the object of our theologizing, rather than, as Karl Barth would have it, the proper Subjective ground of our thinking and speaking — the basis on which we theologize. For the latter to be true the spiritual life — in particular, the prayer life — of the theologian is all important. As Thielicke puts it here, “essentially dogmatic theology is theology which is prayed.” The prayer-connection between individuals and God is the substance of the relationship which encourages theologians to speak truly of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit, and not of someone else, for such is the essence of theology. Theologians speak of God, the true and living God, as we are permitted and enabled to do so. But first, Thielicke would say, we must speak to God.