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A Call for Theological Humility

Remember the Size of Your Boat

We must engage those with whom we have theological disagreements with humility, asking questions to make sure we understand, remembering that we don’t see things perfectly, and always seeking to grow in understanding where we may have blind spots. Our attitude toward theology should be, and should always remain, like the Old Breton prayer inscribed on a block of wood on John F. Kennedy’s desk: “O God, thy sea is so great, and my boat is so small.”

Now, it’s easy to admit in principle that you have blind spots. But humility will cause this recognition to make a noticeable difference in your actual interactions with people. It will lead to more clarifying questions, more pursuit of common ground, more appreciation of rival concerns, more delay in arriving at judgments.

In life and theology, it is usually not sheer ignorance that causes the most intractable problems but ignorance about ignorance: not the unchartered territory but the stuff that is completely off your map. This is one reason why humility is so important. Humility teaches us to navigate life with sensitivity to the distinction between what we don’t know and what we don’t know that we don’t know. This encourages us to engage in theological disagreement with careful listening, a willingness to learn, and openness to receiving new information or adjusting our perspective. Pride makes us stagnant; humility makes us nimble.

Finding the Right Hills to Die On

Gavin Ortlund

Pastor Gavin Ortlund uses four basic categories of doctrine to help church leaders consider how and what to prioritize in doctrine and ministry, encouraging humility and grace along the way.

Some worry that too much focus on humility will make us wishy-washy. But humility is not the antonym of strength. On the contrary, those who tremble at God’s word are those most likely to stand against human opposition. Consider the courage of Martin Luther, who stood upon God’s word against the fiercest opposition even though, as a younger priest, he had been so terrified while administering the Mass that he spilled the wine. As Spurgeon described it: “I believe Martin Luther would have faced the infernal fiend himself without a fear; and yet we have his own confession that his knees often knocked together when he stood up to preach.”1

In Isaiah 66:2, God himself identifies the qualities that he highly regards and commends:

This is the one to whom I will look:
he who is humble and contrite in spirit
and trembles at my word.

I am less concerned with convincing others of the particular judgments I have made and more concerned that, even where we disagree, we do so in a spirit of trembling before the word of God. This attitude is both the ground and goal of theological triage. “If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God” (1 Cor. 8:2–3).

Humility Is the Way to Unity

Some Christians are eager to defend sound doctrine. Well and good. But is the unity of the body of Christ one of those doctrines we jealously guard? The unity of the church is one the objects of Christ’s death (Eph. 2:14). This, as much as anything, is what the New Testament calls us to cherish and uphold. Therefore, our zeal for theology must never exceed our zeal for our actual brothers and sisters in Christ. We must be marked by love. We must, as my dad always puts it, pursue both gospel doctrine and gospel culture.2

In the New Testament, humility is the pathway to unity. For instance, Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians about “being of the same mind” (Phil. 2:2) is followed by his appeal to “in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3), in imitation of Christ’s action toward them in the gospel (Phil. 2:5–11).

Or consider Paul’s appeal to unity in Romans 14. The presenting issue in this chapter is a conflict over Jewish food laws, but the principles Paul invokes could apply to many other issues as well. His overriding concern in this chapter is that the different convictions held by Roman Christians not be a source of division among them. Thus, the “strong” and the “weak” are called to mutual acceptance. Specifically, amid their differences of conscience, Paul calls them to be welcoming (Rom. 14:1), not to quarrel (Rom. 14:1), not to despise each other (Rom. 14:3), and not to pass judgment one another (Rom. 14: 3, 13). Paul even calls the Romans to let go of their rights and adjust their practice in order not to violate the conscience of a brother: “If your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died” (Rom. 14:15).

Today, as well, there are plenty of issues over which Christians will be tempted to quarrel, despise each other, and pass judgment on each other. Instead, we must resolve “never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother” (Rom. 14:13). Like Paul, we must even be willing to make sacrificial adjustments for the sake of our unity with others in the body of Christ. If maintaining the unity of the body of Christ is not costing you anything—if it doesn’t hurt—then you probably are not adjusting enough.

The unity of the church is one the objects of Christ’s death.

Paul grounds his appeal in Romans 14 in the fact that each person will stand before the judgment seat of Christ: “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God” (Rom. 14:10). This is healthy to remember: we will give an account of our theological speech and conduct, no less than any other area of our life. When we are standing before the throne on judgment day, what battles will we look back on and be proud we fought? I suspect most of our Twitter debates will not be among them.

Friends, the unity of the church was so valuable to Jesus that he died for it. If we care about sound theology, let us care about unity as well.

Notes:

  1. Charles Spurgeon, sermon 2071, “Trembling at the Word of the Lord,” in The Complete Works of C. H. Spurgeon, vol. 35, Sermons 2062 to 2120 (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim, 2013), quoted in Steven J. Lawson, The Heroic Boldness of Martin Luther (Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust, 2013), 99.
  2. Ray Ortlund, The Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014).

This article is adapted from Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage by Gavin Ortlund.



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