Reversing roles

Years ago I was impressed by what I read about Helmut Thielicke as he toured the United States. When he was asked by a reporter what impressions he had of the American church as a whole he responded to this effect: the church is wide and lively but it seems not to understand the benefits of suffering. That from a German pastor and teacher who had remained faithful to the gospel even under the World War II regime of Adolph Hitler. Thielicke refused to conform to the Nazi effort to reshape the church to their own ends—and he was one of too few pastors in his day to stand firm even though his refusal might well have cost him his life. As it was he was sent off to internal exile until the Nazis were defeated. 

Since that first exposure I’ve read sections of a theology series he wrote called The Evangelical Faith. He has been dead for a couple of decades now—but the force of what he wrote still stirs my thinking. He was a man of remarkable courage and special insight: a model to follow. Let me share one of his central insights here. 

But first let me say why he caught my attention. As a teacher myself, with more than 20 years in college and seminary settings, one thing is certain: change happens! This is as true in longer stretches of time as in shorter stretches. My father, for instance, when he was a young man knew the daughter of a famous evangelist. Her father was concerned about the loss of many once sound seminaries—they had all turned to liberal theology and away from the Scriptures. So he helped launch a conservative evangelical seminary that would be as strong academically as any of the liberal schools, while remaining boldly conservative and fully devoted to the integrity of God’s word and to what it offers. His dream was fulfilled: the school is now a premier academic center. But the founder himself, were he still living, would certainly be devastated by what some teachers in that school now embrace and affirm. 

So, too, changes are taking place in the Bible college I attended in the 60’s, although not at the same pace nor with the same features. My lesson: change happens! And some changes, by any measure are needed and good. But what measures are used to make these decisions, whether good or bad?

One item is certain: there is a pattern of change in theological colleges. They seek to move from being less academic to being more academic; and with that shift they become less devoted to the Scriptures as an ultimate and authoritative resource. They also shift in their range of interests. Harvard College, launched in 1636 to train pastors, is now Harvard University and scarcely a bastion of evangelical biblicism today. Princeton became Princeton; Yale became Yale; and so on. Each began with an ambition to train students in the Word of God but that changed over time from a primary role to a marginal feature. Evangelicals can still be found in each setting, but the central thrust of each center has changed. And, dare I say, been reversed in some key aspects. Harvard, Princeton, and Yale are now great universities, but good Bible Colleges? Ah, well . . . no. 

Yet new Bible colleges keep springing up. People want what faithful, humble, face-value-reading-of-the-text teaching centers offer. That appetite, I’m sure, comes from the impact of real conversions birthed by Bible content shared by faithful believers. On the other hand, droves of people would do almost anything to have a child attend Princeton, or Harvard, or Yale. And, with that, Bible colleges continue to become universities. 

Before I go on let me address a suspicion that may be forming in some readers: am I opposed to education? Or am I anti-intellectual? Is this a diatribe against those who like to think? Do I see the past as always superior to the future? 

My response is conflicted: I love studies. I loved getting every degree I ever earned. My time at King’s College, University of London, was saturated with exposures to every value and viewpoint under the sun and I loved the entire exercise. And what I’m reading at coffee shops on most mornings causes most of my friends’ eyes to roll. But I don’t like the loss of faith and faithfulness that I see as a pattern in so many academic centers. I grieve over it and I pray for a reversal of those trends. 

That’s where Thielicke came into my life. I think he nailed the issue better than anyone else I’ve read or heard. In a nutshell, he held that the cause of the changes I’ve noted in theological training centers is not a battle of conservative values versus liberal values. Instead it is a battle between Cartesian and non-Cartesian approaches to the study of Bible and theology. 

So, what is Cartesianism? And how can it be that influential? 

It is the approach to learning conceived by Rene Descartes (1596-1650) and adopted by those who led the Enlightenment transition away from faith. Let me say right away that Descartes, a studied Roman Catholic, believed he was being helpful to the defense of the Catholic faith against radical skeptics. The key feature of his approach was expressed by his aphorism, “I think, therefore I am” (Latin: cogito ergo sum). 

What did that mean? It was the outcome of his doubts. He took the tool of skepticism that was then being used by some of his companions to dismiss prior orthodoxies, and tested everything with it. That is, he sat down and began to doubt. After doubting everything he could think of he concluded that the one thing he could not doubt was the fact that he was sitting by his fireplace doubting—that is, thinking. That truth, he concluded, was one thing that is beyond doubt. And with that starting point he then restored the rest of the world to some level of certainty. If he existed, Descartes concluded, so does God because someone (God) had to have made him in order for his presence to be explained (this, remember, was a pre-Darwinian event). 

Here’s the nub of the issue: he reversed roles. Before Descartes all of Christian Bible and theology started with God, not with Descartes (or some other Cartesian successor). So instead of “In the beginning was the Word” we now have, “In the beginning was cogito“. Revelation had been given a inferior standing to reason. Or, to underscore the reversal, reason had been made greater than revelation. Man was the new measure of all truth. God was now an object of doubt until human reason could find a way to restore his status. 

With that reversal came another tendency: accommodation. Reason, with its new Cartesian primacy, had to find a proper set of values for measuring what should be doubted and what should be affirmed among the pantheon of possibilities. 

The answer to that question came by returning to the starting point of the Cartesian process: with the self.

What, then, offers the greatest benefits to the self? Self had been raised (unwittingly, I suspect) to a god-like status by Descartes, so that revelation—including God’s words and even the Logos/Jesus himself—now needed to be measured by what reason finds useful and satisfying. All of knowledge needs to be accommodated to the needs of the Self, and each Cartesian thinker has that as an ultimate aspiration. The task is so challenging that universities took it on as their main order of business. Thus Thielicke’s complaint: the roles of God and man had been reversed. And with that, the purpose of education itself. 

I conclude by cheering Helmut Thielicke’s courage, both during World War II and as a German seminary professor: he was in favor of reversing faulty reversals, no matter what the social and personal consequences might be. May many of us follow in his footsteps.



  1. Debbie

    “Revelation had been given a inferior standing to reason. Or, to underscore the reversal, reason had been made greater than revelation. Man was the new measure of all truth. God was now an object of doubt until human reason could find a way to restore his status.”

    Thank you so much for this reminder. I have been lurking here for a while now after your blog was recommended by a friend and I will remain forever grateful for it.

    Your thoughts have been very important in my turning process and this one has been like a thunderbolt.

    Thank you and thank you Mr Thielicke from a single mum of four in Australia.

  2. L Morgan Reynolds

    your post reminds me of something you said to me many a year ago…read the classics! am marinating in william gurnall presently, and the Word Of God. thanks ron..

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