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A Little Exercise for Christians Considering Disunity

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. If you are not familiar with the debate unfolding around Union University’s decision to leave the CCCU, you can get up to speed by reading a few posts and the links you will find in them. (John Fea provides a good overview; Chris Gehrz and Carl Trueman and Scot McKnight all weigh in.) Here is my question: How might unity prevail in a situation in which it is sorely needed?

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.

Sacred theology therefore is not a word to be lightly taken upon our lips. Theology is a very human business, a craft, and sometimes an art. In the last analysis it is always ambivalent. It can be sacred theology or diabolical theology. That depends upon the hands and hearts which further it. But which of the two it is cannot necessarily be seen by the fact that in one case it is orthodox and in the other heretical. I don’t believe that God is a fussy faultfinder in dealing with theological ideas. He who provides forgiveness for a sinful life will also surely be a generous judge of theological reflections. Even an orthodox theologian can be spiritually dead, while perhaps a heretic crawls on forbidden bypaths to the sources of life.

I think C. S. Lewis expressed this sentiment well in his poem, “A Footnote To All Prayers.”

All prayers always, taken at their word, blaspheme,
Invoking with frail imageries a folk-lore dream; …
Take not, oh Lord, our literal sense, but in thy great,
Unbroken speech our halting metaphor translate.

And Augustine said it succinctly in On Christian Doctrine.

For God, although nothing worthy may be spoken of Him, has accepted the tribute of the human voice and wished us to take joy in praising Him with our words.

At our very best, we get theology wrong. Thielicke is right, theology always is ambivalent. Lewis is right, prayer always is blasphemous. Augustine is right, worship always is unworthy. If not for God’s grace and willingness to translate our “halting metaphor,” all that we say about God is heretical.

Does this mean there is only heterodoxy? Of course not! It merely means that 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.