The Importance of Humility in Knowing God
I recently took a theology test online. It consisted of 33 questions on the Trinity. I got them all right, at least from the perspective of the test giver, and he gave me an electronic “attaboy” for doing so. I was made to feel like I was in a select group of people who had accomplished this feat, numbered among those who really know God. It reminded me of a conversation I’d had in seminary long ago.
It was the end of a semester. A fellow student stopped me in the hall one day to ask me about my grade. “How did you do in theology?” he wanted to know. I told him, and then he said proudly, “I got an ‘A’ in God!”
An “A” in God?
Well, I’d gotten an “A” in that class too, but that’s not the same thing as getting an “A” in God, and that’s an important distinction if you ask me.
God is not an object that we examine. God is not a subject we master. God is a personal being whom we encounter, and with whom we can develop a relationship. This is why Eastern Orthodox Christians don’t think of people who have read the books, gone to school, and passed the classes to be the real theologians, but rather those who know how to pray, those who are in a sustained relationship with the living God, and this is not an idea that is alien to our own spiritual tradition.
Alexander Campbell (1788 – 1866) one of the founders of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), frequently championed in his writings some basic rules for the proper interpretation of Scripture using the very best tools of scholarship at our disposal (http://www.thebiblewayonline.com/Studies/A-%20Bible%20Rules%20for%20bible.htm). And after naming six rules that require us to fully engage our minds when opening our Bibles to read, Alexander Campbell concluded with his all-important seventh rule –
RULE 7 – For the salutary and sanctifying intelligence of the Oracles of God [his way of talking about the Bible], the following rule is indispensable: We must come within the understanding distance. There is a distance which is properly called the speaking distance, or the hearing distance; beyond which the voice reaches not, and the ears hear not. To hear another, we must come within that circle which the voice audibly fills. Now we may with propriety say, that as it respects God, there is an understanding distance. All beyond that distance cannot understand God; all within it can easily understand him in all matters of piety and morality. God himself is the center of that circle, and humility is its circumference… He… that would interpret the Oracles of God to the salvation of his soul, must approach this volume with the humility and docility of a child, and meditate upon it day and night. Like Mary, he must sit at the Master’s feet, and listen to the words which fall from his lips. To such a one there is an assurance of understanding, a certainty of knowledge, to which the man of letters alone never attained, and which the mere critic never felt.
Now, I hear in this an echo of something that the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) had written long before –
I want you to know how to study theology in the right way… You should completely despair of your own sense and reason, for by these you will not attain the goal… Rather kneel down in your private little room and with sincere humility and earnestness pray God through his dear Son, graciously to grant you his Holy Spirit to enlighten and guide you and give you understanding… Although he knew the text of Moses well and that of other books besides and heard and read them daily, yet David desired to have the real Master of Scripture in order by all means to make sure that he did not plunge into them with his reason and become his own master.
Gabriel Fackre says that “mystery” and “modesty” are the two most undervalued theological virtues of all, and so I have tried to consciously cultivate them in my own life of faith. Valuing “mystery” means that I try to constantly keep in mind the fact that there is always so much more to God and His ways than I could ever possibly comprehend. As someone has put it, “If I had God completely figured out, then He wouldn’t be much of a God would He?” Valuing “modesty” means that I try to hold onto my own settled convictions just as generously and gently as I possibly can, appreciating the way that others have their settled convictions too, borne of their own struggles and experiences just as mine are borne of my own deep struggles and meaningful experiences. And so, rather than using mine to clobber them with “the truth” that I “know,” I want to humbly put it into conversation with “the truth” that they “know,” in order that together we might be mutually engaged and enlarged. And when this actually happens, inevitably I find that we wind up on our knees.
At a recent seminar I attended the speaker talked about the “4-D’s” of good theology – Drama, Doctrine, Doxology and Discipleship.
Doctrine grows out of the Biblical drama… then those doctrines rooted in the drama fill us with thankful hearts – doxology… and finally doxology yields the fruit of love and good works – discipleship. (Michael Horton)
That speaker argued that unity comes from getting the doctrine that is rooted in the drama right. But it seems to me that this is the approach that has gotten us to the hundreds and hundreds of denominations that currently litter the religious landscape of Christianity. If I insist on a faith that says A-B-C-D, the minute you conclude that the way faith really goes is A-C-D-B, then we’ve got to part ways. The more exact our doctrine becomes the more fragmented the church must be.
But what happens when we start from the other end? What happens when we start with doxology and discipleship? By joining our hearts together in prayer and worship, and then by living out our faith together by joining our hands together in acts of concrete and specific service to one another and the world, I believe that we have a basis for the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace that we are told as Christians that we need to maintain (Ephesians 4:3). But it’s going to take an appreciation for mystery and a commitment to modesty if this is to happen — a willingness to acknowledge the limits of our own knowledge while at the same time creating space for what others have come to know.
Os Guinness in his terrific 2014 book Renaissance (IVP) startled me when he wrote –
Few controversies among Christians are so fruitless as the perennial debate over God’s sovereignty and human significance… Overall, it is quite clear that the general discussion of the issue has commonly been unproductive. Far too many hours have been wasted, far too much ink has been split, and because of the disagreements far too many have dismissed others as not being true Christians and have been dismissed by other Christians in their turn.
Some simple truths are worth recalling…
First, the Scriptures show plainly that reality contains both truths, and not just one or the other. God is sovereign, humans are significant, and it is God who made us so.
Second, history shows equally plainly that human reason cannot explain both truths. Those who try to do so almost always end up emphasizing one truth to the exclusion of the other, one side majoring on divine sovereignty and the other on human significance.
Third, the lesson of the Scriptures and Christian history is that we should rely firmly on both truths, and apply the one we most need when we most need it. (90-91)
And then Os said it –
There is a mystery as to how God’s sovereignty and our human significance work together, and there always will be.
A recognition of “mystery” that fosters in us an attitude of “modesty” is what brings us within the hearing distance of the divine, and that’s the goal. DBS +