5 Exercises in Theological Humility

by Brandon D. Smith September 19, 2018

In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul penned some of the most famous words on love. This passage is quoted at weddings, among friends, and about our posture toward our neighbors. And it’s not wrong by any means to appropriate this passage in those settings. But it seems that Paul was directly addressing a specific issue in the Corinthian church—theological pride.

In chapter 12, Paul takes up the issue of spiritual gifts. His point can be summarized in verse 12: “For just as the body is one and has many parts, and all the parts of that body, though many, are one body—so also is Christ” (1 Cor. 12:12). Paul’s primary concern is to see the church at Corinth not bicker about who has the best gift, but instead for them to appreciate how each person contributes to the overall mission of the church.

Then, in chapter 13, he shifts into exhortations about loving one another. He says,

If I speak human or angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so that I can move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give away all my possessions, and if I give over my body in order to boast but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Cor. 13:1-3)

The Corinthian church is famously divided, and the division always seems to come back to various theological debates. They argue over whose teaching is best (chapter 3), food offered to idols (chapter 8), liberty in Christ (chapter 10), and so on. And Paul continually tries to remind them that they’re not all right about everything all the time. In a partisan world where Jews and Greeks had several wildly different customs and philosophies that informed their theology, Paul wanted them to embrace the others’ perspective while also focusing on the more important issues of the gospel, the resurrection, and their call to be united even in their diversity.

In an attempt to offer five exercises in theological humility, I hope we can recover some of what Paul was so doggedly fighting for in his attempt to unify the theologically and culturally diverse church in Corinth.

1. Remember that you’re not the only person who has ever thought about God. This is pretty self-explanatory, but something we all forget, even if implicitly. (Almost) no one would say, “I’m the only person who’s ever figured out God,” but many of us behave like we believe this. We have no room for anyone else’s thoughts, and whatever random nuance we’re currently hyped up about can turn into an eternal life-or-death issue.

2. Learn to be self-critical. We all bring theological presuppositions and baggage to the text. We all believe certain theological axioms because of our upbringing, culture, personal preferences, personality ticks, and peer groups. With that in mind, we should first question our own theological judgments and assertions before questioning others. Have we considered the other side’s best position? Do we believe that what we think is true simply because our theological heroes told us it was? This isn’t to say that we should always be doubtful and skeptical of ourselves, but it does mean that we should be keenly aware of our own biases before launching into attacks on others’ biases.

We Protestants love the idea of “always reforming” so long as it is isn’t our own beliefs we’re opening up to reform. We act as though Luther’s entire theological project was to tear down the Catholic Church. Quite the contrary: he wanted to reform the Church based on what he himself came to believe after his own self-critical reflection. The spark of the Reformation was Luther’s own (borderline insane) humility, in which he couldn’t even oversee Mass because he was so aware of his own sin and of the fresh way he began reading the Bible. Luther first changed his own view of the Bible after careful study and reflection before he began trying to help his tradition agree with him.

3. Read people outside your camp. Notice that I didn't say read about others outside your camp. Instead, actually read their work in their own words first. Don’t start by reading summaries of their work by others. Don’t start by reading your theological heroes’ thoughts about their works. Read them for yourself. This will help you sift through others’ thoughts about their work.

There is nothing wrong with subscribing to the Baptist Faith and Message or the 1689 Baptist Confession or the Westminster Confession or any other tightly-knit theological system. In fact, using time-tested creeds and confessions as theological guardrails is a good thing. If we are going to get cute or novel with our theology, we better have an exceptional biblical case to disagree. However, we sometimes over-commit to these guardrails to the point that we aren’t willing to avoid oncoming traffic even if the Bible is clearly warning us otherwise.

4. Read others with an eye toward charity. While being able to critique and push back against anyone—whether someone in your theological camp or outside of it—is a good thing, we often read those with whom we know we’ll have some disagreement with an immediate eye toward skepticism. If we are looking for weaknesses in others’ positions, we’ll most certainly find them. But if we start with charity—looking for the positives and redeemable parts of their arguments—we’ll show them the respect they deserve as fellow humans trying to comprehend God and his Word.

Remember that most people writing on the Bible and theology aren't trying to undermine God and his Word. Most of the time, they are simply trying their best to understand some of the most mysterious and wondrous truths under the sun. Let’s love others theologically; let’s hope, believe, and endure all things as much as possible.

5. Avoid exaggeration. In the blog-and-Twitter world we inhabit, exaggeration and rhetorical flourish have a propensity to get retweets and link clicks. If we’re honest, we all know that taking an extreme side of one argument and pitting ourselves against the other extreme is red meat to the sharks of social media. They eat it up. But while we watch the political sphere burn hot with partisan rage, Christians can offer a different way. We can reflect a way of disagreement that shows how lazy and shortsighted exaggeration and alienation really are.

Anyone can assert his or her own belief and demonize everyone else. However, this kind of posture is arrogance and bravado under the guise of conviction. Conviction is not tearing down others and making ourselves seem superior; rather, conviction is simply a firmly held belief. It is not immediately a verb—it’s a noun. What you do with that conviction is the difference between arrogance and humility, immaturity and maturity. A theologically humble conviction is one that is rooted in biblical truth as best as we’re able to discern, while also acknowledging our first two points above—that we could be wrong about it.

This will take intentionality on our parts. We’ll all stumble and bumble our ways down the path of theological humility. At times, we’ll get angry and spout off, only to regret it later. But with the gifts of Christ and the Spirit, who live to intercede for us and bring us into unity, we can make steps forward.

If we defend every theological nuance with a chapter and a verse but do not have love, we are clanging cymbals in an already noisy world.