Reading & living with humility

For a number of years now I’ve been attracted to William J. Abraham’s contention that scripture is a means of grace rather than a source of claims and facts to settle theological arguments. (He does not use those exact words, but I think that is fair to what he means.)

The longer form of his argument can be found in this book. A less exhaustive version can be found here.

As a means of grace, the Bible challenges us and calls us into the life of God. Its complexity and internal arguments are not problems to be solved. They are rather reminders that we see now only in part. The Holy Spirit uses the Bible to meet us in different ways at different times, calling us ever deeper into the life of God.

If this is true, then one of the things we are called to surrender to the Holy Spirit is our need for certainty. Not only is the truth the Spirit teaches me today not necessarily the same the truth you need to be taught, it may not even be the same truth I need to learn tomorrow or next year.

This kind of attitude toward scripture plays havoc with our desire for certainty and system. All those virtuoso tomes of systematic theology are beautiful but can never be the final word. No pastor — no matter how successful — can ever claim to have captured the final truth of faith. No blogger — heaven help us — has been given full access to the mind of God. We all must be more humble than that.

And this humility must extend especially to the forms of Christian life and faith that we find least comporting with our own. My theologically liberal friends who sneer at the Sinner’s Prayer and greet with incredulity talk of spiritual healing and demonic attack could be more humble, as could my theologically conservative friends who did not know how to comment on the recent death of Marcus Borg without first pointing out that they disagreed with a lot he wrote and find themselves wanting to put air quotes around the word “Christian” when they refer to some of their brothers and sisters.

I know these comments extend to me as well. In recent months, I’ve learned the hard way that things I once regarded as certain can quickly melt into nothing. I have been guilty as any of confusing what appeared to be clear for the whole truth.

Yes, to exist, the church needs borders and boundaries. It needs bishops to exercise discipline. I do not for a moment doubt that. But I am reminded these days that I am not a bishop, nor am I well suited for that office.

Part of humility may be leaving to those called to that office the tasks of that office, even when it looks from my vantage point as if they could or should be doing something differently than they are.

The great paradox I feel in all this is that while we are called to be humble about what we think we know of God, we are not called to sit on our hands. What we know only in part should still should shape the way we live and act, while we remain ever ready for the Holy Spirit to challenge and call us into new paths.

And so, today I find myself seeking to be more humble about what I know even as I — perhaps paradoxically — try to be even more intent on following the one who has called me.

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4 thoughts on “Reading & living with humility

  1. You rightly point to the irony of gospel understanding, that gospel doctrine is to be lived, not simply to be claimed as defensible high ground. I’m cutting my way slowly (deliciously) through Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s Faith Speaking Understanding (the drama of believing in Christ). He offers this: “Grace is opposed not to effort but to the idea of earning” (page 19). I’ll go with that, humbly.

  2. I like your emphasis on humility, John. We all need more of it, including within our theology. At the same time, while I would affirm the flexibility of the Holy Spirit to teach us various things through Scripture and form us in unique ways, I would want to argue that new “truth” will not contradict old “truth.” That is one of the values of Tradition, to keep us on a consistent path theologically. That way, we are not tossed this way and that by every wind of doctrine (as Paul puts it). The Tradition has established the parameters around “the Faith” that keep us from going over the cliff in our subjective experience of God’s grace. Too many today are not sufficiently versed in the Tradition, let alone committed to it, to keep them safe from wandering. I’ve been around plenty of evangelical and charismatic Christians who distort their theology based on personal experience. I’m all for allowing the Holy Spirit to minister to each of us as befits our circumstances of the day, as long as we preserve a connection to the deep, abiding reality that Christian doctrine seeks to portray. Thanks for exposing me to a new way of thinking about Scripture.

    1. Thank you, Tom. Your point about our lack of grounding is one that really rings true to me. We do need a balance between freedom and foundations.

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