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The Case for Theological Humility

Just as God’s eternal character combines truth with grace, so the truth of our theology must be combined with the grace of humility (John 1:14). Unfortunately, theological humility often crumbles under pride’s temptation to post on social media as if our opinions are absolute truth, to talk as if our theological conclusions are always infallible, and to look down our theological noses at those who think or speak differently than we do.

Certainly, we must be unwavering on the core doctrines of our faith. But in a world where we can search the internet for endless blogs, sermon videos, and podcasts that offer definitive opinions on seemingly every nook and cranny of theology, I want to caution against unnecessary divisiveness that claims to have answers where the authoritative Word of God intentionally leaves room for questions.

After many long pages and hours of theological study in preparation for both ordination this month and seminary graduation in the spring, I write now for the sake of the church, but even more so for my own sake – to remind us to always share our theology with humility, to value being righteous over being right, and to emphasize the person of Jesus over the particulars of theology.

Thus, I present the case for theological humility:

1. The Case from Scripture

1 Corinthians 8:2 says that if anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. Theological humility recognizes that we don’t know what we don’t know. Certainly, we should seek answers to hard questions, but we also need to trust that even as we grow in our knowledge, we will not know everything fully like God does.

Romans 11:33-34 confirms this when it says: Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?”

Thus, no one can fully understand the mind of the Lord as Isaiah made clear in the Old Testament when the Lord spoke to him and said: My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9).

Therefore, just as we cannot expect scientists to measure the infinite expanse of the heavens, likewise we should not expect to understand all of God’s thoughts in theology! This leads us to theological humility – an understanding that if we knew everything about theology, we would be God. But we are not God. Nor do we know everything about theology.

2. The Case from Church History

Potentially the most interesting classes I took in seminary were those on church history. It is humbling to see that even the greatest theologians, ecumenical councils, creeds, and leadership structures in church history have not been infallible. Just read through the famous first seven ecumenical councils – you will be thankful for the clear Trinitarian theology espoused at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. yet amazed at how much still needed to be clarified or corrected at each of the following councils in 381, 431, 451, 553, 680, and 787.

Pick any great theologian – Luther, Calvin, Aquinas, whomever – these individuals did not have their theology perfect either. Rather, as you read through church history you see successive generations either challenging or clarifying the theology of previous generations. The words of systematic textbooks, commentaries, ancient creeds, and beloved pastors can be incredibly helpful – but they are not infallible. Unless we are bold enough to say that we did what Luther, Calvin, and Aquinas could not do, then we need to recognize that we do not have all of our theology perfected.

So, let us learn theological humility from church history: if you think you have your theology figured out, give it 100 years. After 100 years, either someone smarter than you on this earth will help refine the specifics of your theology or, more likely, you will be in heaven realizing that even your greatest theological understanding was simply a dim mirror compared to your face-to-face encounter with Jesus!

3. The Case from Experience

The more that I know, the more that I realize I do not know. I remember being so excited to get a four-year bachelor’s degree in Biblical Studies so that I could prepare for ministry, but it seemed that with every theological answer I found in the Bible, I also found five more theological questions that I did not fully understand. The same thing happened these past five years in seminary and full-time ministry. The more answers I get, the more questions I have. This is only to be expected when the imperfect and finite studies infinite perfection.

It is no wonder, then, that I have incredible theologians shaping my life who all share agreement on the essentials of the faith (many of whom also share the name John) – John Calvin, John Piper, John Macarthur, John Perkins, John the disciple whom Jesus loved, a local pastor-mentor named John, and even John Bennett (my father) to name a few – and yet no two of these theologians share full agreement on second and third-tier doctrines nor on their ministry philosophy and practice.

It is no accident, then, that the New Testament is riddled with passages that teach us how to live in unity with a diverse gathering of believers who disagree over various non-essential doctrinal, practical, and philosophical issues.1 We all have dear brothers and sisters in Christ with whom we disagree at times, we all have more questions than answers concerning God, and we all have the need for theological humility.

Theology and Humility

I hope that humility drives us deeper into theological study and not further from it. After all, if we humbly recognize the all-surpassing worth of knowing God, then we should rightly emphasize the importance of knowing theology (“the study of God”). We won’t get every question answered through knowing the words of a systematic theology textbook, but we have everything we need for life and godliness through knowing the Word, Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:3).

This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.­­
– Isaiah 66:2
1Rom. 14; 1 Cor. 8-10; Acts 15; Eph. 2:11-22, 4:1-32, Phil. 4:1-9; Jas. 2:1-13; Col. 3:11-17; Tit. 3:1-11

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