Helmut Thielicke on the Christian Life


[1] Helmut Thielicke (1908-1986), after obtaining doctorates in both philosophy and theology, became professor of theology at Heidelberg in 1936. He was removed from this position by the Nazis in 1940 because of his active participation in the confessing church. Though prohibited from public lectures, he continued preaching during the war years, building a reputation as an outstanding preacher. After the war Thielicke became a professor at Tübingen and finally at Hamburg. It was during his time at Hamburg that he completed his massive Theological Ethics, which we have in English translation in three volumes. For all its length the English version is still an abridgement of the thoroughly comprehensive German original. The first of the volumes deals with foundations, the second with politics, and the third was originally published separately under the title, The Ethics of Sex. Although Thielicke wrote a great deal more in the realm of theology, ethics, and preaching, some of the key themes from the Theological Ethics will be the focus of this brief reflection on Thielicke’s contribution to Christian ethics in general and Lutheran ethics in particular.


[2] The appearance of the English translations between 1964 and 1969 coincided with the American experience of the so-called counter-culture during which time traditional values and modes of thought seemed to be up for grabs. In Christian ethics, Joseph Fletcher was “kicking over the traces” with his 1966 publication of Situation Ethics: The New Morality. Thielicke provided an antidote to traditional legalism, Fletcher’s dear enemy, but not one with Fletcher’s antinomian and rationalistic tendencies. Rather, Thielicke, as I hope to show, offered a realistic ethic, appreciative of life’s ambiguities but one thoroughly grounded in the evangelical faith and theology of his Lutheran heritage.


[3] As a young, newly appointed college instructor in 1968, I was told by the dean that I needed to develop a new basic course in Christian ethics. As things stood, he said, students didn’t like ethics and wondered why they even had to take it. They may have been preparing for ministry but they were not immune from the cultural influences of the day. Being a neophyte in the field I immediately turned to Thielicke for help. In no time I became his disciple and he remains one of the main influences on my own formation in Christian ethics. His work was so timely. Yet it also transcends that time in its faithful appropriation of the church’s theology for the enterprise of ethics. His goal stated in the preface must remain our ongoing goal: “I did not plan to present a doctrine of what the Christian has to do, i.e., a book on morals. Such a book would be possible only on the basis of a legalistic orientation which would conflict with the message of the Gospel, and hence with Reformation theology. The Christian stands, not under the dictatorship of a legalistic, ‘You ought,’ but in the magnetic field of Christian freedom, under the empowering of the ‘You may.’”[1] His ability to contextualize the Christian ethic as an interpretation of life through the eyes of faith is an enduring model, reflecting his companion career as a preacher.


Justification and the Christian Ethic


[4] For Thielicke the Christian ethic is an expression of the gospel at work in the lives of the faithful. It is the other side of the coin of justification. It is a function of living out the given life under grace. Thus, Thielicke distinguishes his approach not only from various legalistic forms of Christian ethics but also from secular philosophical ethics. For the latter the beginning point is the task (Aufgabe) that the moral agent must accomplish by determining the right thing to do and then doing it. For the Christian ethic the tasks are the same and the patterns of reasoning on the way to decision are often similar but the starting point is different. Christian ethics begins with the gift (Gabe) of justification by grace through faith. Motive and energy come from the grace of God rather than the autonomous individual will. The ethical strivings of the Christian reflect back, then, on that divine grace at work among the faithful rather than the moral achievement of the individual will.[2] Christians therefore face the often agonizing ethical choices in our broken world with the assurance that they do so as God’s people accepted and accompanied on their journey of decision and action by the ministry of the Spirit.


[5] The radicalization of the Law in the Sermon on the Mount is at the same time a statement of how the Sermon is the “impossible possibility,” for the radical ethical claim of its demands is at the same time preceded by the promise. Because Jesus has come for us we are the light of the world and the salt of the earth. We are thus called to be what we are, to be light and salt, in the pursuit of the moral life.[3] The indicative and the imperative belong together. If the imperative is isolated from the indicative one is led to a works righteous effort in conflict with the solus Christos of the gospel. If the indicative is isolated from the imperative the danger of antinomianism immediately arises. The imperative and the indicative co-inhere because they both refer to the relationship we have with God, which God has established in creation (imago Dei) and redemption.[4] In that relationship the Law continues to judge us, but it also serves as our guide. There is, then, for Thielicke a third function of the law that accords with the discussion of it in the Formula of Concord. “The Law retains its significance because, from a human standpoint, the Christian state is always incomplete and in process of becoming. The Law serves to relate the individual spheres and stages of existence to the fact of justification…it is a constant reminder of the real theme of our justified existence.”[5]


Ethics, Eschatology, and Christian Realism


[6] “Theological ethics is eschatological or it is nothing.”[6] The Christian lives in the tension of the overlapping of two aeons: the old that continues in its fallen state and the new that has broken in Christ and still coming to eschatological fullness. The theme of ethics, then, is life between two worlds: “It lives under the law of the ‘not yet’ but within the peace of the ‘I am coming soon.’”[7] This tension of two worlds is the eschatological corollary of Luther’s simul justus et peccator. It is a key foundational construct for Thielicke’s realism. In the in-between life of the overlapping aeons we are set free to love as we have been loved while yet the Law confronts us with the realities of our own frailty and the terrible ambiguities of ethical choice in a broken world.


The Law of God forces us to keep in view our worldliness, the res form of our existence. It compels us to realize that so long as we are here below, we are implicated in innumerable, suprapersonal webs of guilt, that we live in the half-light of the orders of this world, that we are actors in a thousand plays which we individually have not staged, which we might wish would never be enacted, but in which we have to appear and play our parts.[8]


[7] Thielicke’s realism compels him to revise Luther’s idea of the “orders of creation” which include the structures of government. Instead he calls them “emergency orders,” structures that God uses for our good but yet participate in the ambiguities of the old aeon that is still with us. The intersection and interaction of the two aeons provides an eschatological corrective to a possible danger of Luther’s two kingdoms thought. By recasting the two realms as two intersecting aeons, Thielicke obviates the possibility that the two realms may be seen to exist as separate autonomous spheres, a development not really true to Luther that overtook the church under Hitler.[9]


[8] The ambiguity of moral life in the fallen world of the in-between time confronts the Christian with a variety of “borderline” situations. In the borderline situation no purely good choice is possible and all ethical attainment is “relative.” These are situations in which the obligations of love conflict with one another and result in the compromise of love’s true demands. The relationship of the church to political life in the “emergency orders” is replete with examples of borderline situations. In this sphere the situation of the intersection of the old and the new challenges the Christian conscience with thorny public policy issues, questions of justifiable resistance to authority, and the justification of war. Love operating in the emergency orders of this world may be forced to adopt non-peaceful means in the cause of peace and justice. This alone demonstrates the ambiguity of the borderline but it is also compounded by the variety of circumstances that impinge upon the decision to support war and what we might call the moral “trade-offs” involved in one choice or another. Borderline experiences are voices of the Law that return us continually to the Gospel for the strength and assurance in the Spirit to carry on in the face of radical uncertainty.[10]


Borderline Cases and Sexual Ethics


[9] Among the borderline situations we commonly meet in personal experience are a range of cases in the realm of sexual ethics and marriage and family life. In Thielicke’s volume on sexual ethics the pastoral sensitivity that is woven into his ethical reasoning is amply illustrated. He wants us to know that we cannot approach such matters by simply asserting principles. We must come to the principles by entering into real life cases, cases involving marital problems, divorce and remarriage, the termination of a pregnancy, family discord, and homosexuality. All these can present borderline situations fraught with painful human dilemmas. Sometimes the choices they present are not simply uncertain but also complex.


[10] Thielicke’s discussion of homosexuality is as illustrative of these features of his ethics as any of the topics in the volume. He is concerned with how we minister compassionately and evangelically to persons who are homosexual. He is critical of the ethicists of German-speaking Protestantism who were his contemporaries for ignoring the subject. Worse yet, he complains, when it is mentioned, it is simply condemned by doctrinaire use of orders theology or fundamentalistic use of biblical quotations, often accompanied by misinformation regarding the phenomenon of homosexuality. The result of such attacks is an á priori defamation of the humanum of those who are “conditioned” [Thielicke’s term] in this way. He takes Karl Barth to task for this kind of perfunctory rejection of persons who are homosexual. So, Thielicke says, “…we may be permitted to ask whether Barth has ever accompanied a homosexual pastorally on the ‘way’ he has to travel. We suspect that if this had been so the fundamental theological orientation of this [Barth’s] position would be different.”[11]


[11] The key for Thielicke is his conviction that heterosexual marriage is a true order of creation – not an emergency order – but the very design of God’s creation. For this reason homosexuality is inherently disordered. However, this is a theological judgment rather than an ethical one. With this distinction in place, Thielicke’s pastoral sensitivity to the human situation comes to the fore. He recognizes that persons who are homosexual are so not by choice. He also recognizes that calls for therapeutic intervention are largely ineffective. He appreciates the fact that persons who are homosexual need the same kind of fulfillment in mutual love that heterosexual couples require and that the demand for celibacy is no more appropriate for them than for heterosexual persons. Celibacy is a rare gift. In the face of these facts he concludes that homosexual persons should seek fulfillment in their relationships on the basis of the same norms we associate with heterosexual marriage. In sum, homosexual couples living by the norms of marital love can achieve a “relative ethical order” even though, theologically speaking, their reality is contrary to the order of creation.[12] While Thielicke’s position on this question faces all the hazards of being located between more conservative views, on the one hand, and more liberal views on the other, it sets an example of humane pastoral sensitivity when doing ethics in the borderline realities of life. Moreover, it is an example of how theology, ethical principles, experience, and empirical investigation combine in ethical thinking.


[12] Helmut Thielicke has left us a legacy of evangelical ethics in a Lutheran key that endures in its approach even as the circumstances of life continually change. In addition to the lasting features already noted above, the thoroughgoing theological grounding he brings to the Christian ethic reminds us that ethics is not a sidebar in the theology of justification but a way of living the justified life as a testimony to its promise, a grace filled, Spirit-led effort, however imperfect, to reenact the love of God in our love of neighbor.


[1] Helmut Thielicke, Theological Ethics, Foundations, vol. 1, ed. William H. Lazareth (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966) xi-xii.

[2] Ibid., 51-52.

[3] Ibid., 52-53.

[4] Ibid., 82-93.

[5] Ibid., 133.

[6] Ibid., 47.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 436.

[9] Ibid., 369-382. Thielicke offers a thorough discussion of both the dangers and the safeguards of Luther’s two kingdom doctrine. While he recasts it in some respects, he actually does so in order to preserve its truth.

[10] See Thielicke’s discussion of borderline situations in part three of Theological Ethics, Politics, ed. William H. Lazareth (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969).

[11] Helmut Thielicke, The Ethics of Sex, tr. John W. Doberstein (New York: Harper & Row) 269-272.

[12] Ibid. 283-288.



© September 2009

Journal of Lutheran Ethics

Volume 9, Issue 9