The Individual and the Church: Helmut Thielické and the Lutheran Perspective

Helmut Thielické’s ecclesiology and anthropology, like Rahner, was unique in that he was greatly influenced by the events of WWII. As a German theologian and pastor living under the harsh realities of the Nazi-Regime, and side-by-side with Russian communism after the war, Thielické became a world authority on the destructive nature of collectivism when fused with the idea of the church community. Nearly two decades after the war, he wrote a number of books addressing the subject of the individual Christian and the Church.

In The Freedom of the Christian Man, Thielické contrasts the Stalinist view of man with the biblical one, stating: “In the Stalinist view it is not a matter of the infinite ‘value’ of the soul of man, which follows from his being a child of God, or … in the Biblical sense ‘bought with a price,’ but rather of what value can be got out of a man, of his ‘utility.’” The “value of man” and the “utility of man” represented for Thielické key terms in understanding modern anthropology, both of which elicit profound results when adopted into mainstream thought. If humanity is not seen to have a privileged dignity, a transcendent value, over the “material world of technical apparatus” (as Thielické put it) then man is valuable so long as he remains useful to the collective. If one’s usefulness is not maintained and he or she becomes a drain on the collective, then, as in Bolshevistic Society, the individual is, “quite logically, put on a starvation diet and allowed to die.” This is of course a radical collectivism, but even in a moderate collectivist mindset, Thielické believed, “there is a tendency to deal with people in mass that comes with technology, stripping man of his intrinsic value as an individual person.”

Thielické dealt with the obvious aftermath of the Stalin-like view of humanity, stating: “In what sense has the ‘I’ lost itself? Above all it has lost itself by giving up its ultimate foundation, by ceasing to be unconditional and becoming a conditioned, relative thing, a function.” By nature, a person will always relate him or herself to something; people will not be satisfied, at a deep existential level, with the idea of being a “relative thing.” Thielické found a perfect expression of this internal drive to transcend mere physicality (when played out in European type nihilism) in Sartre’s play entitled, “No Exit,” when he says: “Hell is—other people! The other person is my enemy, who wrenches away my self-being. For I possess self-being only in my solitariness.” But this “self-being” discovered in solitariness, for Thielické, is actually a loss of freedom.

Thielické explains that when one cuts oneself away from God as his or her Lord, they do not cease to have a “lord,” instead one runs immediately to other “cruel and tyrannical” lords who help to strengthen the prison of solitariness. He uses the example of how opportunism can begin to master individuals and cause them to walk over others when it serves their purposes. This of course causes apprehension and a loss of trust between people; between nations. Thielické notes:

The reverse is also true: if you know that a person obeys the commandments of God, he is “predictable.” We know what to expect of him. On the other hand, if he obeys only the dictates of his own instincts, he becomes unpredictable. We don’t know what will come over him while he is under their invisible tyranny. Where this sort of anxiety holds sway, confidence ends. And where there is no longer any confidence, all fellowship, from marriage and friendship all the way to the state and the commonwealth of nations, dissolves … just as it is described in the story of the Tower of Babel. Then the age of isolation and loneliness begins.

Thus, the kind of individual Christianity forms is one that is free to fellowship, whereas the kind of individual the world forms is one in isolation and loneliness. One can, again, see here the contrasting conclusions of existentialism in the hands of Kierkegaard versus those of an atheistic or agnostic perspective.

However, Thielické noted that the Lutheran Church had been unsuccessful in maintaining an authentic, spiritual unity within its fellowship. He diagnosed this phenomenon as a product of Christians misunderstanding the Lutheran doctrine of the two kingdoms. Where Lutheranism traditionally taught that the spiritual realm and the physical realm represented two “kingdoms,” the modern Church had applied the doctrine existentially, treating the realm of the spirit as wholly separate from the realm of the world in everyday life. Thielické commented: “Thus the split, the dichotomy, the separate existence of the house of life and the house of doctrine side-by-side was even given theological sanction and the doctrine of the two kingdoms had to take the blame for being the cause of this dichotomy of the Christian life.”

Upon further investigation, Thielické found that this phenomenon contained a sort of Docetism, not of the ancient variety that attached itself to Christology, but one that worked its way into anthropology. Rather than the ancient Church’s error of presenting Christ as a spirit that only appeared to have a physical body, the modern Church made a similar error of presenting the Christian as essentially a spirit whose physical body was of little or no concern. Thielické explained that: “When we speak of ‘man’ in this nominalistic collective concept we speak of something that does not exist, just as when we speak of ‘God’ in a general way.” When this message goes out from the pulpit to the “real” person sitting in the pew he or she remains unaffected because, writes Thielické, “He is incapable of performing the task here imposed upon him of subsuming himself as an individual case under this general category.”

For the Church to regain its vital communion, anthropomorphic Docetism must be dealt with. Thielické suggested that, “The disaster of Docetism has arisen from the fact that we leap from the text into the sermon without having traversed the field of ethics.” By “ethics,” he means the Christian categories of reality; of “man’s-being-in-the-world.” For him, it is the preacher who must correct this by becoming what he/she preaches. Thielické, pulling a page out of Kierkegaard, said: “As long as we have not conquered the ‘Sickness unto Death,’ which is seated in our unconvincing Christian existence and nowhere else, all secondary remedies are meaningless and restricted to very innocuous symptom-therapy.”

By focusing on the existential realities of the Christian life, Thielické defined the Church as: “those who have recognized that being a Christian means two things: to be accepted by God and at the same time to receive a commission. A church of do-nothings is unthinkable for the Bible.” The Church as an accepted and commissioned people, in Thielické’s thought, brings the context of the Church back to its biblical and historical roots. He pushed this idea even into the realm of the two foundational sacraments, saying: “The Lord’s Supper is not a cultic act, some sort of ‘high point of the worship service’ or communion of the ‘nucleus of the congregation.’” But rather, he continues:

It should still be today what it was originally, namely, a strengthening for our departure, when we must go out again to the battle and the work and the testing … That is no cultic celebration; it is the assurance that the Lord remains with us when the worship comes to an end and when the world of the deadline, the telephone, and the motor surrounds us with its curtains of noise.

He pictures the Church as that which serves the believer in order to send him or her out into the world. Thielické considered the following as his thesis on ecclesiology: “The church is never an end in itself … we are not Christians so that there can be a church; there is a church so that we can be Christians.” In many ways, one can detect the influence of Kierkegaard in Thielické’s criticism of the Church, but, as in Kierkegaard’s case, he made a point to note that his criticism: “comes not from indignation but from a suffering love for it.”


Helmut Thielické, The Freedom of the Christian Man, trans. John W. Doberstein (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1963).

Helmut Thielické, Nihilism: Its origin and Nature—with a Christian Answer, trans. John W. Doberstein (New York: Harper and Row, 1961).

Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit: A Play in One Act, (New York: Samuel French, 1958), 24;quoted in HelmutThielické, Nihilism, 171.

Helmut Thielické, I believe: The Christian Creed, trans. John W. Doberstein and H. George Anderson (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968).

Helmut Thielické, The Trouble with the Church, trans. John W. Doberstein (New York: Harper and Row, 1965).

Helmut Thielické, The Faith Letters: Thielické, trans. Douglas Crow (Waco, TX: Word Book, 1978).


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