“Think, if you will, of this modest book as if it were a greeting card…
The book could say ‘Happy Anniversary’ to a practical parson
humble enough to look back, to measure himself against his intentions.”
Martin E. Marty, “Introduction,” A Little Exercise for Young Theologians

If you have kids in your house (or if you ever had kids in your house), you probably have a doorjamb covered with messy scrawls and dates and hatch marks – most likely in your kitchen. As soon as kids are old enough to be aware they’re growing, they want to mark that growth – and so do we moms and dads. Junior stands in in his stocking feet, back up against the doorway molding, maybe inching up on tiptoe to gain a covert advantage, then pressed down to flatfoot by a parental referee. The Sharpie levels against crown, the mark is made – in a flash, your child whips around to see where the new mark falls in the pecking order. “Is that all I’ve grown?” he asks. Mom smiles and wistfully records the date next to the mark. She takes in the full range of the doorjamb’s incremental history and knows that growth is indeed happening – and happening all too quickly for her taste.

That makeshift kitchen growth chart will likely be preserved over the years. It’ll be bypassed with each successive remodel and paint job, and it’ll take on the character of a built-in family heirloom – a point of conversation for holiday get-togethers over the years, a place for grandchildren themselves to see how they measure up against their parents’ developmental record. Those dated markings are tangible proof for young ones that grown-ups used to be little like them, and they’re a stark reminder for grown-ups of where we’ve been and how far we’ve come.

Recently it occurred to me that we have another ersatz growth chart in our home: our library. Amongst the stacks we’ve acquired since Nancy and I married – piles of picture and chapter books, homeschool curricula, cast-off texts from high school – there are plenty we’ve been lugging around from our own youthful pasts. In my own case, most of those tattered volumes have a date scrawled in the back – a record of when I first read them, often accompanied by a location and maybe even a cursory comment. On those occasions when I happen across a volume from my earlier days, I can usually turn to the back cover and easily call to mind the circumstances when I first plowed through it and the impact it made.

A few years back, as my oldest kids were graduating from high school and launching into college, I contemplated what extensions of my bibliophile heritage to send along with them – which books from my reading past, that is, that I thought might assist them in making the transition from adolescent schooling to the wilds of independent intellectual exploration.

I came up with a short list of short works – short in both cases to up the chances they’d actually get read. In the end, my list included three works – Strunk and White, Humanae Vitae, and The Peter Principle – but there was a fourth work that didn’t make the cut: Helmut Thielicke’s A Little Exercise for Young Theologians (1962). It was definitely part of my own literary growth chart, and it played a crucial role in my intellectual coming of age, but eventually I put it aside. As pivotal as that book had been for me, it really had no place in my own children’s literary bon voyage.

How come?

To answer that question, let me first sketch out a summary of that little volume and when I say little, I mean little: 41 pages, start to finish. Truth is, it’s less a “book” than an edited transcription of Thielicke’s preliminary talks to his theological students. Thielicke himself was a prominent German Lutheran theologian of the last century, a prolific author, a competent administrator, and an accomplished and popular preacher – that is, he didn’t just think about God and Christ and the Word, he ably conveyed what he thought to the faithful. For Thielicke, the esoterica of scholarship wasn’t merely window dressing; it wasn’t meant to grow moldy in the study and the lecture hall. Instead, theological study added depth and nuance to Thielicke’s personal faith, and it informed how he shared his faith with others.

From experience, Thielicke was well aware that serious study of Scripture and doctrine too often resulted in a cliquish, self-congratulatory spirit of superiority – what I suppose these days might be labeled an “indie” attitude among the theologically initiated. He also knew that it’s a perilous attitude that can have an erosive effect. “Theology can be a coat of mail which crushes us and in which we freeze to death,” Thielicke writes, and it can also crush those with whom rookie theologians associate.

I must confess I was so very guilty of the very offense that Thielicke decries in Little Exercise. I went off to college an enthusiastic evangelical with years of Sunday school and youth ministry under my belt, and I was very excited about studying theology in college. Right away, I was brought up short by the rigors of serious Bible scholarship – a radical departure from sharing our “quiet time” insights around the campfire. Higher criticism, lower criticism; source, form, and redaction; canon and Sitz im Leben – the new vocabulary alone was exhilarating, even daring, as if we were being initiated into an exclusive club. Armed with this vocabulary and rudimentary exegetical tools, my peers and I began murmuring during Chapel services and Bible studies, dismissing what we heard as simplistic devotional interpretation rooted in hermeneutic naiveté.

Getting wind of this priggish attitude among the classroom rank and file, one of my professors directed us all to read Thielicke’s short essay. “Little exercise?” I thought. “Young theologians?” I was miffed. Still, he insisted – like a doctor insisting on an unpleasant cathartic.

That professor (if I could only remember his name!) was so right and so wise. Thielicke’s Little Exercise gently, yet firmly, directed our gaze to our spiritual peril – not because of any latent tendency of theologians to drift away from orthodoxy, but rather the tendency of theologians (young theologians in particular) to substitute ideas about God for an intimate relationship with him. It leads to what the author calls the “minister’s disease,” wherein Scripture is read, not as a love letter from God, but primarily as a font for clever sermons. Plus, there’s the added risk of creating a de facto gnostic-like separation in the church between the “in the know” academics and the humble, untrained faithful occupying the pews.

Thielicke’s books was a much needed slap in the face. I stirred from my self-absorbed slumber and recognized the threat: theological hubris leaves little (or no) room for spiritual intimacy. The rest of my time in college I strived to balance my studious dissection of Scripture with nurturing a passion for the Word himself. Largely I failed, but Thielicke’s words were an important corrective that frequently brought me back to my senses.

Jump to the present. After a roundabout intellectual and spiritual pilgrimage, I became a Catholic and fell in love with the Word all over again. There’s a freedom that only converts know when we begin reading Sacred Scripture within the nurturing arms of the Church. No need to wonder any more about our personal interpretations vs. the findings of the experts. There’s a liberality in Catholic theologizing, whether formal or informal, because we’re confident in the Church’s magisterial authority to provide guidance along the way (CCC 119).

Some, no doubt, see the Magisterium as an oppressive force in Catholic intellectual pursuits, but converts from Bible-only traditions know it as a liberating one – in fact, a leveling one. “Philosophy and theology are democratic to the point of being vulgar,” observed convert G.K.Chesterton, “to the point, I was going to say, or being rowdy.” It’s as if trusting in the teaching authority of the Church makes room for devotional Bible reading without stifling dependence on commentaries and expert opinion. True enough, scholars have a role to play in helping preachers and pew-sitters alike comprehend the finer intricacies of biblical texts. But Catholics are totally free to splash around in Scripture on all kinds of levels – not just the literal sense (which is the purview of the professionals and the foundation of all the other senses), but also the allegorical, moral, and anagogical (that is, future-oriented) senses. “Sacred Scripture is written principally in the Church’s heart rather than in documents and records,” the Catechism teaches us, “for the Church carries in her Tradition the living memorial of God’s Word” (CCC 113).

My children grew up with these ideas. They soaked in nuanced preaching and catechesis that acclimated them to the Bible’s integrated literal and spiritual senses. Consequently, the tensions and temptations that Thielicke laid out so clearly in A Little Exercise have no relevance to them. There would be challenges to their faith when they moved beyond adolescence, to be sure, but I couldn’t see how they’d be tempted to the kind of pretensions I fell prey to.

For me, though, A Little Exercise was a tonic and a touchpoint. It helped me preserve my faith in the Author behind the written Word, and it hinted at a broader vision for how we encounter Him. “I should like to add to all this that the church has the prior right to question us,” Thielicke writes. “The church is our pastor.”

When I first read those words as a young evangelical, I doubt I understood what they implied. Today, looking back after a quarter century in the Church, I couldn’t agree more.