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Helmut Thielicke: Between Pulpit and Lectern

  • Robert Smith Associate Professor of Preaching at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala., and a contributing editor of Preaching
  • Published Jun 28, 2009
Helmut Thielicke: Between Pulpit and Lectern

Helmut Thielicke was a preacher-theologian who stood between two worlds: the academy and the church.
Thielicke was born in early December of 1908 in Barmen, Germany. He was born in an area called Wuppertal. This area was a boiling pot for cultural and religious development. It was here that Thielicke’s cultural teeth were cut as he received his early schooling. Thielicke satisfied this university prerequisite and attended the renowned Gymnasium in Wuppertal that had been known for its successful graduates and astute teachers. Thielicke’s heart was moved to become a theologian. His desire was strengthened when he attended a conference in which Karl Barth displayed profound theological argumentation in a debate with Pietists.
Thielicke married Marie Luise Herrmann in October of 1937 during that period when conflict between the Confessing Church and the Nazi Party had escalated. They had four children.
Helmut Thielicke originally chose the academic discipline of theology because he perceived that it was the most learned and complex of all disciplines, and he was challenged by it. He entered the University of Greifswald at the age of 20 in 1928. From Greifswald he went to Erlangen, where he studied with Paul Althaus. From Erlangen he enrolled in the University of Bonn, where Karl Barth taught. He concluded his university studies at the University of Marburg, the domain of Rudolf Bultmann. Thielicke wrote two dissertations for which he received doctorates in philosophy and theology in 1931 and 1934, respectively.
Thielicke had great problems with the Nazi regime. One of the immediate repercussions of his criticism of Nazism was that he was expelled from a teaching post at Heidelberg in 1940, where he had served as a professor since 1936.
The Bishop of the Regional Church of Wurttemberg, Theophilus Wurm, aided Thielicke by ordaining and offering him a pastorate in Ravensburg in 1941.
In 1942, one year later, Bishop Wurm transferred Thielicke to Stuttgart, where he was a lecturer and a pastor. He saw many friends injured and killed in Stuttgart, and he found himself without many basic necessities. Thielicke gave credit to his regular preaching for keeping him in touch with the essential themes of theological ministry. More than anything else, his preaching during these times was influenced by a closeness to his parishioners in which he experienced the joys and sorrows, health and pain of common life.
As a theological professor, Helmut Thielicke had the capacity to communicate to the academia as well as the laity in Germany. He was not a theological pioneer seeking to change the face of theology. However, Thielicke was interested in updating the language of theology so that theology addressed people from all walks of life.
After the war was over, Thielicke resumed his professorial career. On Aug. 1, 1945, he received his preliminary call to become a member of the faculty in Tubingen. He accepted it. He would remain in Tubingen from 1945-1954 as a full professor of Systematic Theology.
His professorship on the faculty of the University of Tubingen ended in 1954 when he resigned his teaching post and joined the newly forming theological faculty of the University of Hamburg.
Shortly after the student revolution began at the University of Hamburg in November of 1967, Thielicke suffered what he called the greatest disappointment of his academic life. He had been working for university reform and now felt betrayed by the students with whom he had dialogued and worked in Hamburg for over a decade. Soon after the student revolution, he concentrated more on his writings.

Theological and Ethical Writings
He took on the dilemmas and perplexing problems the German people were facing in their families, churches, institutions and government and tried to set forth theological and ethical premises and guidelines for living within the German milieu. Thielicke wrote A Little Exercise for Young Theologians (1965) in an effort to send out a call to theologians and preachers to reclaim the task of seeking theological excellence and community responsibility. One of Thielicke’s lifelong concerns, which is evidenced in this book, is his conviction that theologians and preachers should be able to dialogue with common people.
During the Tubingen and Hamburg years, Thielicke began to assemble and publish his two most important series, Theological Ethics (four volumes in German text and three in English—1951to 1958) and The Evangelical Faith (three volumes—early 1960s to early 1970s). Both of these major treatises represent one of the most extensive systematic theologies in the 20th century.
He demonstrated in his writings, especially in The Hidden Question of God (1979), how God in Christ offers the German people hope in that, in the incarnation, God becomes “Immanuel” and participates in human suffering while remaining the transcendent God.

Preaching and Published Sermons
Helmut Thielicke received national attention for his preaching primarily through his proclamation at St. Michaelis Church in Hamburg. Here he preached to congregations of several thousand people, each time filling the largest church in normally non-churchgoing Hamburg.
His theology and ethics were sustaining notes that gave solidity to the whole of his preaching. He viewed theology and ethics as partners in the task of proclamation. He believed that preaching was never intended to proceed independently of theological endeavor. On the contrary, theology and preaching are one substance.
To modern issues and problems within the context of his sermons, he sought to answer the question, “Is there any word from the Lord?”
Thielicke’s most popular and widely read sermonic work is the book The Waiting Father (1959). This treatise is a book of sermons on the parables of Jesus that features an exposition on Thielicke’s favorite parable and illustration, “The Prodigal Son.” This series unquestionably shows that Thielicke had his hand on the nerve center of the people who came to hear him. He understood their needs and was adept in his use of graphic word pictures that communicated in a contemporary fashion the meaning of the parables for his times.
In his book The Trouble with the Church (1965), Thielicke presented his treatise on preaching. Although he called attention to the fact that the church is in trouble, he located the trouble in the area of preaching. He exposed much of modern preaching as the kind that addresses people in irrelevant and unrelatable ways.

Philosophy of Preaching
Thielicke’s sermons are textual-thematic. He had a penchant for taking a theme from a problem society was facing and then bringing his homiletical and theological resources to bear on the text, in the process arriving at a solution to the problem.
He was clear about the fact that the church and the Christian faith must penetrate the world without being taken over by the world. For Thielicke, the incarnation of Christ was the key element in his sermons regarding the solution to the theological dilemma revolving around the “worldless God and a Godless world.”
Another key element in the preaching of Thielicke was his belief in and dependence upon the Holy Spirit before, during and after the actual preaching event. The doctrine of the Holy Spirit was foundational for his entire theological framework. For Thielicke, the Holy Spirit is the means for the appropriation and application of the proclamation of the gospel. In Thielicke’s thought, the Holy Spirit is the motivation for recognizing the reality and presence of God.
In December of 1984, Thielicke was invited by the deacons of the main church at St. Jacobi to celebrate his 75th birthday there, since it was his first pulpit. He died in Hamburg, Germany, on March 5, 1986, at age 77. Though gone for more than two decades, Thielicke continues to influence our understanding of God, the church and the preaching of the Word.