“Now it is almost a devilish thing that even in the case of the theologian the joy of possession can kill love. It is devilish because the truth of theology is concerned with the very love of God, with His coming down, His search, His care for souls. So the theologian, and not least the young theologian, gets into a horrible internal conflict. He is studying Christology, which means that he is busying himself with the Saviour of sinners and the Brother of the lost. In connection with this he learns, shall we say, the Chalcedonian formula and the form-history of the Synoptics. And, in possession of this truth, he despises—of course, in the most sublime way—the people who as simple Christians pray to this Saviour of sinners and cling to each of His—even perhaps legendary—miracles.
In his reflective detachment the theologian feels himself superior to those who, in their personal relationship to Christ, completely pass over the problems of the historical Jesus or demythologizing or the objectivity of salvation.
This disdain is a real spiritual disease. It lies in the conflict between truth and love. This conflict is precisely the disease of theologians. Like a child’s disease, it is often especially acute. Even ordained pastors can still catch this disease without its power to do harm becoming diminished.
Some years ago a student from Tübingen got into a discussion about Bultmann with his landlord, a worthy and well-established pietist from Swabia. Quite understandably stirred up by Bultmann’s reputation, the pietist saw in Bultmann the embodiment of evil. Now it so happened that the student was what is called a Bultmannite—a type, by the way, about whom the master would have fully as much right to be unhappy as Karl Barth and Ritschl about their corresponding Barthians and Ritschlians. It was no effervescence of genuine chivalry which prompted the student to defend angrily and zealously his badly misunderstood master. Rather it was a Pharisaic feeling of triumph, as he thrust into the hand of the man unfamiliar with Greek the Marburg professor’s Theology of the New Testament underlined in blue and red.
His purpose unquestionably was to crush the man by the impression of an overpowering erudition to which he could never attain, and thus to reduce him to a feeling of helplessness. The combination of the pietist landlord’s intellectual impotence and his agitation over heresies, which he was bound to regard as magnified all the more when underlined in red and blue, produced no doubt a very malicious joy in our student—and angered the pietist.
Nobody would maintain that this dubious pleasure of the student had even the least bit to do with Christian love for one’s neighbor, not even in a much demythologized form. The purpose of his action was not to impart to the other man some understanding of what we theologians are driving at, or to lead him gently beyond the stage of his previous knowledge, but to render him helpless—this person who because of his previous education could not be equal to this literature set before him—and to suffocate his perhaps very simple objections to the historical-critical study of the Bible by throwing over them an overbearing and imposing blanket of arguments.
Here truth is employed as a means to personal triumph and at the same time as a means to kill, which is in the starkest possible contrast with love. It produces a few years later that sort of minister who operates not to instruct but to destroy his church. And if the elders, the church, and the young people begin to groan, if they protest to the church authorities, and finally stay away from worship, this young man is still Pharisaical enough not to listen one bit.
On the contrary, he glances triumphantly over the empty pews and says to himself: “Take thine ease, my dear soul, by thy truth thou hast produced a legitimate scandal and mayest regard thyself as justified,” or even, “I thank thee, God, that I am not a rat-catcher or ear-tickler like those colleagues yonder after whom half the city is running. My empty pews testify on my behalf.”
The brethren in actual pastorates who with undeviating fidelity are wearing themselves out on stony ground must forgive me for that last remark. I did not mean them, and they are made of quite different stuff. Just as babes can praise God, empty pews can testify to the fidelity of the ambassador, but in a very different way from that of those fellows with their vexatious dialectic.”
Helmut Thielicke, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, trans. Charles L. Taylor (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1962), 17–20.