Second-Person Theology

I was just reading through Helmut Thielicke’s little classic, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians. This 41-page booklet should be required reading for everyone that studies, reads or talks theology.

He writes of the tension created in the adolescent theologian between truth and love.  (Adolescent is not determined by physical age, incidentally.) The danger of dealing in truth, which we must, is that it brings with it the temptation of the possessor.  Knowledge is power.  If I have it, then I must be greater than the one who does not.  And yet, in Christian Theology, the truth we engage is that of a God of love – not a possessor powerbroker, but a self-giving, others-loving God.

So the danger is that as we read theology, we can easily slip into an attitude of heart that is essentially opposed to the very content on which we dwell.  The problem is only exacerbated by the issue Ron raised a couple of weeks ago.  Since truth can smother love, too much theology has grown loveless, being written by those somehow blinded to the absence of God’s heart in their ponderings (and thereby letting the truth of the Bible slip through their fingers).

Later in his book, Thielicke writes of the shift that occurs from second-person theology to third-person theology.  As knowledge puffs up, so the participant in the theological exercise loses the interactive nature of the pursuit.  That is, puffed up by knowledge, the young theologian can grow independent from the God they claim to be fascinated by.

Thielicke cites the first biblical example of God being spoken of in the third person, found in Genesis 3 – Did God really say? Let us not go down that path!

Theology is a vitally important subject worthy of our study.  But we must beware.  There is second-person theology and there is third-person theology.  The latter tends quickly to lose sight of love as the joy of possessing knowledge takes its grip on a life.  This kind of theology tends to climb up pyramids of power, always looking to push others down.  God becomes a subject, an exhibit to be understood, or even a possession to be owned.

Second-person theology responds to the God who has given of Himself in His Word.  He has spoken, I listen and respond.  Thielicke writes of theological thought that can breathe only in the atmosphere of dialogue with God.

It is a simple, but profoundly important question:  When I am reading theological books, or when I am reading the Bible itself, do I do so in dialogue with God?  That is, do I pray more than a token “starter’s gun” kind of prayer?

Perhaps this is simplistic, but pursuing knowing God in a keen relationship with Him has to be the way to go.  How else can I, or you, avoid becoming proud possessors of knowledge?  How else can we avoid studying an inherently loving God, in a seductively loveless pursuit of personal accumulation?

3 Responses to Second-Person Theology

  1. Huw August 1, 2011 at 9:42 am #

    Thanks Peter, very helpful. I’m off to buy this book….!

  2. Lisa Donald August 1, 2011 at 2:32 pm #

    Thank you so much for these very needful thoughts!

  3. Ronnie Ding August 2, 2011 at 8:29 am #

    Thanks for a brief well-thought out comments from the book. I do study and teach theology and sometimes fallen into that “I got it and you don’t” mentality.

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