Pronouns Matter: "I and Thou"

Helmut Thielicke (1908–1986), the German theologian, customarily gave a series of short talks to new seminary students as they began their scholarly training. These talks were later compiled into a short book entitled A Little Exercise for Young Theologians. I revist this book often as it contains a treasure trove of sagacious cautions one ought to heed in order to maintain mental and spiritual vigor in the course of thinking hard thoughts after God. One danger Thielicke points out is the theologians’ proclivity to depersonalize God and his Word.

God has spoken: in his world and in his Word. His words, then, must be understood and answered. But this is only possible when we first realize that “what has been said is directed to me.”[1] Why so? Thielicke elucidates:

Consider that the first time someone spoke of God in the third person and therefore no longer with God but about God was that very moment when the question resounded, “Did God really say?” (cf. Genesis 3:1).[2]

Thielicke sets the words of Satan about God in contrast with the words of the crucified Jesus to God. Even in this ostensible moment of uttermost abandonment by God, Jesus does not go to men, nor complain about God. “He speaks to Him at this very moment—in the second person. He addresses Him as My God and even expresses His complaint in a word of God, so that as it were the circuit between Him and the Father is complete.”[3]

What are the dangers of said depersonalization? Thielicke answers:

…[T]he flattening and relativizing of the gospel is the consequence of a very subtle and at first hidden spiritual occurrence; the role of one personally addressed by the divine message is changed for the role of a neutral observer, and therefore in effect there is a transition from the second to the third person.[4]

When we move away from an “I and Thou” relationship we cease to see ourselves as the direct recipients of God’s love, promises, and commands. Instead, we become disinterested, “objective” third-party observers of the indicatives and imperatives of Scripture. Like a wife syntactically diagramming her husband’s wedding vow, or a scientist monomaniacally obsessed with discovering the nutritional value of the meal his wife prepared for him, we can easily break the line of communication between God and us by missing the central purpose of the communicative act. Yes, we must study (2 Timothy 2:15; 3:14–17)! The telos of our effort, however, is not merely to understand, but to receive and act on what we have understood.

Calvin wrote, “man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.”[5] Inadequate ideas about God, false presumption of God’s acts and character, are as much idols as an Asherah pole. C.S. Lewis argued that God Himself is the idol smasher, destroying these small or false ideas about him in order to enlarge our vision: “My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast.”[6] Pay attention to your pronouns: speak with God, and not merely about him. Live in the tension of God’s wholly otherness (transcendence) and his wholly presence (immanence). And as Thielicke stated, the first step to understanding and answering God rightly is to realize that “what has been said is directed to me.”

  1. Helmut Thielicke, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, Kindle Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1962), location 317 emphasis original.  ↩

  2. Ibid., location 322.  ↩

  3. Ibid., locations 321–2.  ↩

  4. Ibid., location 324–5.  ↩

  5. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 108.  ↩

  6. C.S. Lewis, The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (Zondervan, 2002), 460.  ↩