Humility and Theology

by Stephen Venable

Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you thinks that he is wise in this age, he must become foolish, so that he may become wise. 1 Corinthians 3:18

I read something recently that reminded me of how necessary it is for a deep sense of humility to pervade theological study and discourse. This is not said enough, and when it is stated, it is often misunderstood. Frequently the role of humility in doctrinal pursuits is interpreted as the importance of being nice to those who disagree with us. This is certainly true, but such respect should be observed simply because we are Christians. Jesus commands us to love our enemies.  If we are struggling to be cordial to other Christians who disagree with us then we really have no business sharing our conclusions about the Bible with anyone. In some instances it is argued that humility, when applied to the present subject, should compel one to be soft-spoken on theological stances and avoid engaging in difficult conversation altogether. What is lacking in both of these perspectives is the recognition that humility ultimately concerns the posture of our hearts as we relate to God, not as we interact with our fellow man.

The outrageous arrogance that can be found in the world of Christian scholarship and online Bible forums is due to the great dearth of authentic lowliness before the One who created and sustains all things. We so easily forget who we are, and then strut about pretending to be what we are not.  Man is but dust enlivened by the breath of God (Genesis 2:7). As soon as we are born we begin our slow journey back to that from which we were taken (Psalm 90:3, 103:14). We are a vapor that appears and then vanishes (Psalm 39:5, James 4:14). Our strength and permanency can only be compared to grass which springs forth and then in a moment is no more (Psalm 103:15, Isaiah 40:6). The direct consequence of this inherent creaturely-dependence, together with the ravages of sin upon our being, is that we possess a mind that is futile and darkened (Ephesians 4:16-17). The sole remedy to this grave condition is not education, but illumination. It is only by the light of the Holy Spirit that we can “see” anything true (Luke 24:45, John 16:12, 2 Corinthians 4:1-6, Ephesians 1:17). We are completely dependent upon God to give us accurate knowledge about His identity, His works, and the things that He has made.

Standing in direct contrast to this view of acquiring knowledge is rationalism. Rationalism, as with any word, has a history of usage and therefore retains varying nuances in meaning. I employ it in its most general sense, which is simply a view where human reason is authoritative. In such a schema, the mind is not considered futile and darkened, it is seen as powerful and enlightened. The infamous confession of René Descartes is often pointed to as the triumph of rationalism, when the basis of epistemology (the way we know things) finally swung from divine revelation to human observation in the collective Western mind. Descartes’ words were indeed defining, but they were also inevitable. Rationalism forms the very core of the Greek philosophical tradition upon which the worldview of the West is unquestionably founded. Thus, it was only a matter of time before all attempts at submitting the mind to its Maker collapsed beneath the weight of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, grossly bloated as they both were with intellectual pride. Still today, it is this haughtiness of mind which is the real issue that shipwrecks our conclusions and poisons our conversation on doctrinal matters. Against all logic, we really think we are smart.

Unable to consistently find our keys and remember names, we turn around and champion our newly-formed opinions about the Bible with unflagging confidence. The underlying role of pride explains why theological speculation so often degenerates into debate. In order to derive our meaning through our intellectual prowess, we desperately need someone to disagree with us. After all, what notoriety is there is agreeing with someone? Who notices a follower? And so it is that as self proclaimed thinkers and truth-seekers we boot up the computer, go online, and take our place in the trenches of one the long-standing theological wars. For the more daring among us, we can showcase how insightful we are by questioning the boundaries of orthodoxy. Few things feed the ego and allow us to make a name for ourselves (cf. Genesis 11:4) as much as challenging some bulwark of the faith (e.g. hell, justification, etc.). We might be branded as fringe, but at least we had the wherewithal to assert our robust mind and think for ourselves rather than being stifled by ignorant traditionalists all around us.

What is the answer to such folly? How can humility and theology actually be married? The answer is not found in acquiescing to shallow doctrine, insipid beliefs, or a fear of critiquing traditions when necessary. The problems often associated with rigorous biblical study no more abdicate us from its necessity than poor cooking frees us from having to eat. The issue does not lie with food, but with those handling it. In the most practical terms, I believe the way forward comes down to motivation and method, moving us from opinions to convictions.

Humility in motivation means we approach theological endeavors with God as the focal point rather than ourselves. While this may seem like it should be taken for granted, it is exceedingly rare to find it genuinely present. The reward for the labor of diligent study is not growing in revelation, winning arguments, and furthering our calling. It is for Him. We exist for Jesus, and our motivation for deepening our understanding of the truth He has revealed must terminate in Jesus and not lesser ends. The discipline of theology should be practiced so that Christ would be treasured more completely, loved more extravagantly, and obeyed more faithfully. Even as what is gleaned through study makes its way to others, the glory of Jesus remains the ultimate goal. Teaching and preaching needs to be firmly anchored in truth so that the body of Christ would strengthened in their allegiance to Him, not so that we have the reputation for being profound.

Humility in method means we approach theological endeavors keenly aware of the limitations of our intellect and our propensity toward error. Frail and given to confusion if left to ourselves, we embrace a methodology where the active work of the Holy Spirit is central to epistemology. The logic is simple. If we do not view our intellectual capacities as a reliable guide to finding truth, then we are much more likely to  depend on the Holy Spirit as our guide in a way transcending rhetoric. No one, myself very much included, is totally free from rationalism. Yet if it remains enthroned and unchallenged, with no war declared on its tyranny over our minds, then there is little hope of having the Spirit play the vital role He must if we are to grow in the knowledge of God and His word. Careful inquiry and thorough research are not even slightly at odds with the perspective being advocated here. Original languages, historical context, literary genre, history of interpretation, and sound exegesis all retain full validity. However, these tools must be wielded in the context of prayer, fasting, and obedience. We may amass mountains of scholarship, but apart from the Spirit leading us into light and truth we will remain blind guides.

The juxtaposition, therefore, is not between mind and Spirit, but rather pride and Spirit. The Church and the world are desperately in need of far more believers engaging their minds with far greater rigor. In fact, we are actually commanded to love Jesus with the totality of our minds (Matthew 22:37). The grand illusion of our age is that somehow it is possible for one to opt for doctrinal neutrality. This must be exposed, dismantled, and condemned. By necessity all souls will have thoughts about the character of God, all will have defining thoughts about their own existence and their salvation, as well as the world around them and their future. It must be graven upon our hearts that only two options exist for the quality of these most formative of human reflections – truth or falsehood. A lack of concern for doctrine is nothing less than a concrete decision to unreservedly partake of the wine of delusion, drinking down its dregs until we exist in a moral and spiritual stupor. It is this stark choice of reality or illusion, of life or death, which we must confront when considering how ardently we will give ourselves to the study of Scripture.

If, by the grace of God, we seek to embrace a motivation and method where the glory of Jesus and the work of His Spirit are truly central, I believe we can begin the journey of moving from opinions to convictions. By this I intend to differentiate between conclusions formed in the microwave of our speculations and those forged slowly in the furnace of prayer-saturated study. The refining process of humbly allowing the Word of God to stand over us must be endured rather than opting to circumvent painful months and years of confusion and wrestling while we cling to our intellectual and ideological preferences. When a conviction is birthed in the soul by the Holy Spirit in this fashion, one is much less likely to hold their ideas with arrogance and much slower to criticize the views of others. In our generation we have almost only known the fissiparous effects of the shallow views of men and not the clean, beautiful quality of sound doctrine. Yet there is another way forward, and to it we must cleave.




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