I presume that most students of theology are familiar with Helmut Thielicke’s wonderful book A Little Exercise for Young Theologians (Eerdmans, 1962). For those unfamiliar with it, Thielicke’s booklet-size volume (a mere 41 pages) is, according to the introduction, an opening lecture presented to beginning theology students concerning the importance and dangers of theological studies. Thielicke’s audience is of course confessional, so his remarks about both topics are driven by an overt concern for the intellectual and spiritual development of his students, namely the difficulty of navigating the risking terrain of growing in one’s intellect without growing (quite as fast) in one’s faith (esp., wisdom and humility). As he remarks in one particularly memorable sound bite,
There is a hiatus between the arena of the young theologian’s actual spiritual growth and what he already knows intellectually about this arena. So to speak, he has been fitted, like a country boy, with breeches that are too big, into which he must still grow up in the same way that one who is to be confirmed must also still grow into the long trousers of the Catechism. Meanwhile, they hang loosely around his body, and this ludicrous sight of course is not beautiful.
Thielicke also touches on (among other things) anti-intellectualism, the seduction of conceit, and warns students about too quickly taking the pulpit.
I myself first encountered Thielicke’s book during my first semester of seminary and was struck then by how often I felt that the author was speaking directly to me; indeed, I feel the same way even today! At the time, I had already completed an undergraduate degree in Bible and Theology and could hardly believe that someone had written such an insightful and engaging book to warn me about the spiritual pitfalls I would (and did) face four years earlier when I embarked on my theological education. If only I had read Thielicke as an undergrad! Due to my earlier struggles, together with my suspicion that my own students face similar difficulties now, I have just this semester begun to assign Thielicke in my hermeneutics course. (I suppose this isn’t the most appropriate setting in which to have them read the book, but those are typically my youngest students and thus my best audience for the assignment). Well, they have just finished reading it, and I am thrilled to report that they really enjoyed and were challenged by it. Many even noted in the reviews they wrote that they wished they had read Thielicke last year (their freshman year) and that the book should perhaps be required of all first-year students to read, alongside of course the college Student Life Guide! Anyway, I thought I’d pass on their positive report and encourage all, who don’t already, to consider assigning Thielicke somewhere in their curriculum.