Brandon Smith: 5 Exercises in Theological Humility

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.

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Source: Church Leaders