American theology—the saying goes—is the elephants’ graveyard of German heresies. The radical views of the German theological faculties eventually cross the Atlantic and here find their last resting place. Why? In part, at least, because of the veneration of American scholars in general and American theologians in particular for the world of German university scholarship. The logic is as doubtful as it is pervasive: we modeled our graduate faculties on the German plan in the nineteenth century, so we continue to look to German scholarship for our sustenance.
For the American evangelical, this approach poses a cruel problem. Since the rise of modern biblical criticism in the eighteenth century, the German theological faculties have served up the most radical attacks on Christian orthodoxy: Graf-Kuenen-Wellhausen documentary criticism of the Hexateuch, the Tübingen school’s caesura between Jesus and Paul, Schleiermacher and Ritschl’s subjectivizings of Christian theology, Dibelius and Bultmann’s form-critical dismemberment of the New Testament, and so on. Where could the American evangelical turn for German mentors? Since the days of Theodor Zahn, few candidates have been available. Today, Helmut Thielicke is by all odds the favorite.
Dean of the Faculty of Theology at the University of Hamburg, internationally known through his writings and speaking tours, and a popular preacher, Thielicke has much that appeals to American evangelicalism. Unlike Pannenberg or Cullmann, he avoids rigorous epistemological questions; in line with most modern contemporary theological writing, he never defines his terms so precisely that one is forced to make clean distinctions between truth and error, between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Yet he identifies ...1
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