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Humility in Historical and Contextual Perspective

Stephen Pardue

A Theology Course and Syllabus on "Humility"

Professor of Theology, Asia Graduate School of Theology
August 1, 2016

This is a course description and syllabus developed from our 2016 course development grant competition. See below for a downloadable syllabus.

Humility has long been regarded as a keystone of the Christian faith, and is also a foundational virtue for a number of major world religions. This course aims to introduce students to key texts, figures, and concepts associated with the virtue of humility. While the primary discipline of engagement will be Christian theology, students will also interact with material from psychology, anthropology, philosophy, and Muslim, Buddhist, Confucian thought in light of the Southeast Asian context.

The first half of the course will focus on historical debates about humility, while the second half of the course will focus on contemporary challenges. In addition to giving students a deeper acquaintance with historically influential texts, the course will also seek to help students formulate an understanding of the virtue that is relevant for their cultural context, attending to the unique ways in which humility is understood and embodied in various times and places.

Click here to download the syllabus for Humility in Historical and Contextual Perspective

Course Readings

Primary Sources*

Confucius. The Analects. Translated by Raymond Dawson. New York: Oxford, 2008. Holmes, Michael, trans. The Apostolic Fathers in English. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006. Waddell, Helen, trans. The Desert Fathers. New York: Vintage, 1998.

Augustine. Confessions. Translated by Henry Chadwick. New York: Oxford, 2008.

Benedict of Nursia. The Rule of Saint Benedict. Translated by Timothy Fry. New York: Vintage, 1998.

Haleem, M. A. S. Abdel, trans. The Qur’an. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Works. Translated by G. R. Evans. Classics of Western Spirituality. New York: Paulist, 1987.

Thomas Aquinas, Questions 161–162 in the second part of the second part of the Summa Theologiæ.

Luther, Martin. On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518. Translated by Gerhard O. Forde. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997.

Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1996.

David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, ed. John B. Stewart, 2nd ed. (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1966).

Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and A Vindication of the Rights of Men, ed. Janet Todd (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. Douglas Smith (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

*Note that almost all of these sources are in public domain and available readily online; while students may be better able to engage with the readings with books in hand, they are also welcome to inquire regarding where to find the best online translations of these resources. If resources are available, we may also arrange to have a copy of the relevant excerpts of each text bound into a course manual.

Contemporary Sources

Foulcher, Jane. Reclaiming Humility: Four Studies in the Monastic Tradition. Collegeville, MN: Cistercian, 2015.

Essays and articles listed below will be provided to students electronically.

Suggested Choices for Book Reviews

Bobb, David J. Humility: An Unlikely Biography of America’s Greatest Virtue. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2013.

Brooks, David. The Road to Character. New York: Random House, 2015.

Burton-Christie, Douglas. The Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Dickson, John P. Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.

Driver, Julia. Uneasy Virtue. Cambridge Studies in Philosophy. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Lounibos, John B. Self-Emptying of Christ and the Christian: Three Essays on Kenosis. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011.

Richards, Norvin. Humility. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992.

Course Objectives

By the end of the course, students should show measurable improvement in their ability to:

  •   Assemble the biblical data on humility in a coherent and thoughtful manner.
  •   Identify the distinctions between various definitions of humility within the Christian tradition, and between Christian tradition and other faiths.
  •   Explain contemporary social science focused on the measurement and cultivation of humility.
  •   Make critical assessments of the various accounts of humility covered in the course, describing their benefits and liabilities in their own words.
  •   Develop an account of humility that is relevant to their cultural and vocational contexts.

Course Schedule


We will aim to spend about 1/3 of our class time in lecture, about 1/3 in student-led discussion, and about 1/3 in professor-led discussion.

Class #1: Introduction: The Promise and Peril of Humility

DUE: Foulcher, “Introduction: Why Humility,” and “Virtue or Vice? Humility among the Virtues,” pp. xix–xxiii and pp. 1–36 in Reclaiming Humility.

Sign up for student-led discussions.

Class #2: Foundations: Humility in Scripture and the Apostolic Fathers

DUE: Psalm 8; Hebrews 2; I Cor 1:18–2:16; Philippians 2:1–11; John 13:1–20.

Apostolic Fathers (Holmes): 1 Clement (pp. 36–72) and Ignatius’s To the Ephesians and To the Smyrneans (pp. 87–102 and 121–125).

Class #3: New Development: Humility in Early Christian Monasticism

DUE: Desert Fathers (Waddell): pp. 63–135.

Benedict of Nursia, Monastic Rule: chapter 7, on humility. Foulcher, “Humility and Community,” pp. 95–164.

Recommended: Foulcher, “Humility and the Self: Desert Monasticism,” pp. 37–86.

Class #4: Deus Humilis: Augustine on Human and Divine Humility

DUE: Augustine, Confessions (Chadwick): Books 1 and 7 (pp. 3–23 and 111–132).

John C. Cavadini, “Pride,” pp. 679–684 in Allan Fitzgerald and John C. Cavadini, eds.,

Augustine Through the Ages: An Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999).

Dunnington, “Humility: An Augustinian Perspective,” Pro Ecclesia, forthcoming.

Class #5: Mystical and Rational Developments: Medieval Meditations on Humility

DUE: Thomas Aquinas, Questions 161–162 in the second part of the second part of the Summa Theologiæ.

Bernard of Clairvaux (Evans): pp. 99–144, “On the Steps of Humility and Pride.” Overmyer, “Exalting the Meek Virtue of Humility,” Heythrop Journal 56, 650–662. Recommended: Foulcher, “Humility and Public Life: Bernard of Clairvaux,” pp. 165–242.

Class #6: From Luther to Kant: Early Modern Accounts of Humility

DUE: Luther, The Heidelberg Disputation (Forde): theses 19–24, pp. 23–102. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (Pluhar): pp. 334–355, 408.

Grenberg, Kant and the Ethics of Humility: pp. 133–162.

Class #7: Things Get Complicated: Modern Objections to Humility

DUE: Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (Stewart): pp. 106–124. Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and A Vindication of the Rights of Men (Todd): pp. 198–209.

Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals (Smith): pp. 87–100.

Final Project Proposals

Class #8: Intellectual Humility, Part I Definitions and Measurements

DUE: Wood and Roberts, Intellectual Virtues: A Regulative Epistemology, pp. 236–256. Whitcomb et al., “Intellectual Humility: Owning Our Limitations,” Philosophy and

Phenomenological Research 91 (2015).

Selections from forthcoming special issue of Journal of Positive Psychology on intellectual humility.

Class #9: Intellectual Humility, Part II: Implications and Cultivation

DUE: Griffiths, Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Grammar, pp. 1–22

Pardue, The Mind of Christ: Humility and the Intellect in Early Christian Theology, pp. 157–182. McElroy, Stacey E., Kenneth G. Rice, Don E. Davis, Joshua N. Hook, Peter C. Hill, Everett

L. Worthington, and Daryl R. Van Tongeren. “Intellectual Humility: Scale Development and Theoretical Elaborations in the Context of Religious Leadership.” Journal of Psychology and Theology 42 (2014): 19–30.

Class #10: Kenosis: Christian and Buddhist Developments

DUE: Daphne Hampson, “On Power and Gender,” Modern Theology 4 (1988): 234–50. Sarah Coakley, Powers and Submissions (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002), pp. 1–39.

Lounibos, Self-Emptying of Christ and the Christian: Three Essays on Kenosis, 85–102.

Class #11: Alternative Accounts: Humility in Islam and Confucianism DUE: Qur’an, Surrahs 7, 18, 43.

Analects Book 15.

Jamie Schillinger, “Intellectual Humility and Interreligious Dialogue Between Christians and Muslims,” Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 23 (2012): 363–80.

Sara Rushing, “What Is Confucian Humility?,” in Virtue Ethics and Confucianism, ed. Stephen

C. Angle and Michael Slote (New York: Routledge, 2013), pp. 173–181.

Class #12: Practices: Interventions for Cultivating Humility

DUE: Lavelock, Caroline R., Everett L. Worthington, Don E. Davis, Brandon J. Griffin, Chelsea A. Reid, Joshua N. Hook, and Daryl R. Van Tongeren. “The Quiet Virtue Speaks: An Intervention to Promote Humility.” Journal of Psychology and Theology 42 (2014): 99–110.

Results of Andrew Cuthbert’s Experiment, “A Church-Based Humility Intervention.” Foulcher, “Conclusion: Reclaiming Humility for the Twenty-First Century,” pp. 307–316.