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Humility: the Mind of Christ, and the Early Church Fathers

Stephen Pardue


Is it dangerous to make humility a virtue?

Professor of Theology, Asia Graduate School of Theology
September 21, 2015

Try to remember the last time you paid someone a heartfelt compliment. How did they respond? Some people are prone to deny compliments profusely. Others offer a simple, “Thanks.” Still others might have resented the fact you didn’t notice sooner or shower them with even more praise!

But have you ever tried to respond to a compliment with humility? What about one that you feel is deserved in some way? If so, then you are already familiar with the challenges that humility brings to our moral and intellectual lives. On the one hand, if we are honest people, we ought to be inclined to accept the recognition of our strengths with openness; on the other hand, it hardly seems appropriate or humble to respond to a compliment with, “Yes, I agree that I am quite good at such-and-such.”

The Paralyzing Effects of Admitting Our Limits

A similar dilemma often presents itself in the academic life. As students and scholars, we are often made aware of how limited and confused our understanding of various issues has been in the past, and are aware that there are many people smarter and better educated than us. But this awareness of limitation can be paralyzing for many of us, keeping us from making the kind of courageous leaps that a flourishing intellectual life requires. This is an inconvenience if you are already relatively privileged and successful in your career as an academic; but if you are a person already marginalized by many social norms, then it can have weighty consequences. As some have pointed out, social expectations related to humility—particularly that women and members of minority groups should embrace humility as a way of living cooperatively with others—have and continue to radically shape our social fabric for the worse.

Is Christianity to Blame for Humility?

Some view this problem as having its source ultimately in the Christian tradition. After all, followers of Jesus are encouraged to take as their leader and example a God whose signature image is a lamb being led to slaughter, and whose religious texts extol a radical form of humble living before God and others.

All of this should make us wonder: Is Christianity responsible for introducing a muddled—and even damaging—notion to our understanding of moral and intellectual life? Namely, that we ought to be humble? Or are there resources within the Christian faith that could help us avoid the most problematic of these consequences?

Intellectual Virtue and Early Christian Writings

When I was in graduate school, it was the serendipitous confluence of two texts that instigated my interest in intellectual virtue generally, and intellectual humility in particular. The first text was by Jay Wood, and was an introductory text on epistemology that, in a lively and meaningful way, introduced me to the notion of intellectual virtue and vice.1 The second text was First Clement, one of the earliest extant post-New Testament texts that Christians possess. Like some of Paul’s letters, it is addressed to the church in Corinth, and though it is technically anonymous, tradition attributes its authorship to Clement of Rome, one of the first bishops of the noble city. Reading the letter is like stepping into a time machine and being transported into the world of first century Christians.

As I toggled between these two texts, I was struck by the ways in which virtue epistemology—a trendy, relatively recent movement in contemporary philosophy—seemed anticipated in certain ways by 1 Clement. The author does not hesitate to encourage his audience toward virtue generally; but more than other authors in his era, he fixates on the mind as a crucial locus of virtue. Repeatedly, where we might expect him simply to refer to the virtue of a particular character, Clement adds intellectual vocabulary, especially when he’s talking about humility. For example:

For Christ belongs to those who are humble-minded, not to those who vaunt themselves over the flock. The scepter of God’s majesty, the Lord Jesus Christ, did not come with an ostentatious show of arrogance or haughtiness—even though he could have done so—but with a humble mind, just as the Holy Spirit spoke concerning him.2

Admittedly, the connections between contemporary virtue epistemology and statements like this are somewhat tenuous. Notably different assumptions are in play, and Clement’s aims in writing his letter have well nigh nothing to do with the concerns of modern epistemology in its efforts to analyze and understand human knowledge.

At the same time, it was evident that an overlap was present, and that the distinctions between Clement and contemporary thinkers would be worth some closer analysis. What’s more, further research convinced me that Clement was hardly unique in describing the intersection of the moral and intellectual life in a way that could inform contemporary discussions of epistemology.

Taking on the Mind of Christ

My book The Mind of Christ came together after years of effort to bring early Christian texts—from the New Testament to Augustine of Hippo—into dialogue with contemporary theologians and philosophers thinking about virtue and vice, especially as it relates to the intellectual life. If that conversation was going to happen, I realized it needed to be around a specific virtue, and humility presented itself as an obvious candidate.

At the time, while many other virtues (love, hope, faith) had been treated in connection to the intellectual life, humility had not received much attention at all in this vein. Moreover, humility has special problems that make it an enjoyable challenge. Not unlike the puzzle I introduced earlier about receiving compliments, thinkers have struggled for ages with the conundrum of how a humble person should evaluate themselves. Can we recognize our own humility without immediately losing it? If not, then the virtue would seem to be unique in this way—you can certainly know that you are a determined or faithful person without negating your embodiment of those virtues.

Perhaps more poignant than this problem is the one that feminist thinkers have noted for several decades: that communities in which humility is exalted as a key virtue may become susceptible to problematic power relations in which the established powers can always enforce the status quo by encouraging the marginalized to simply “be humble” and know their place.

Humility is a virtue with its own special history that makes it fascinating. Often despised in the Greco-Roman culture in which Christianity first grew, humility was then elevated almost to the level of primary virtue in medieval Christianity. In modernity, humility had come in for heavy criticism once again (more on that in a moment), only to return slowly to favor among some (but not others) in late-modernity.

The Mind of Christ takes aim at understanding humility better, first within the Christian tradition, and then in the context of contemporary theological and philosophical discussions. To that end, it starts by attending to the texts of the Old and New Testament that frequently governed early Christian reflection on humility. One of the most prominent of these is Philippians 2:1–11, which seems to have influenced thinkers from Clement of Rome (writing just a few generations after the time of Christ) to Augustine of Hippo (writing in the fifth century) and beyond.

Imitate the Mind of Christ: Defining Humility in Philippians 2:1–11

In Philippians 2, Christians across the ages have found humility defined not in analytic detail—the way that some of us might wish!—but in a person. Paul exhorts believers to participate in and imitate the mind of Christ, who set aside the power and authority of heaven in order to submit to death of the most shameful sort. In light of recent New Testament scholarship, I contend that the best way to understand Paul’s description of Jesus here is in concert with the book of Isaiah, allusions to which are scattered throughout the text. These echoes ultimately make two things clear: first, that Jesus is being regarded in this passage as a part of the divine life, and second, by implication, that God himself is implicated in the humility displayed in the incarnation and the cross.

Following Two Christian Thinkers in Pursuit of Humility

All of this leaves many questions unanswered, of course. And the rest of the book does not necessarily seek to answer all of them. Mystery is, without question, at play in trying to understand Philippians 2 as well as the general principles involved. But like Jacob seeking the angel of the Lord’s blessing, I try in the rest of the book to wrestle with these deep truths alongside other Christian thinkers. I focus particularly on Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine of Hippo.

Humility According to Gregory of Nyssa

In Gregory, we find a fourth-century theologian who—partly because of his disposition and partly because of the theological conflicts in which he was involved—is deeply conscious of what humility rightly requires of those seeking to know God better. In Gregory’s exposition of biblical texts and his description of the moral life, we find him thinking long and hard about what it means to acknowledge the limitations of human beings and their intellectual capacities.

To put it briefly: Gregory thinks that as human beings being drawn toward the triune God, we are creatures being pushed towards our limits. And when we respond to our limits in a manner appropriate to our creaturely status, divine grace has a way of lifting us beyond those limitations.

Humility According to Augustine

In Augustine, whose concern for humility is more widely recognized than Gregory’s, we find a similar pattern. While Augustine never directly attributes humility to God, he does argue that the consistent pattern of Scripture (not to mention our experience of God) demonstrates that he is the kind of being who willingly condescends to his creatures rather than remaining aloof. This is true in the salvation of our intellect as much as it is true of the salvation of our souls and bodies. Scripture represents for Augustine the ultimate intellectual condescension, for we cannot even imagine the reductions and simplifications necessary for the triune God to speak in impotent, clumsy human words. Finally, Augustine argues that the Christian embrace of the via cruces—the way of the cross which embraces our limitation and even death—is the most important aspect of discipleship for anyone intent on being a Christ-follower.

Vexing Problems: Is Humility a Tool of Oppression?

It is at this point in the argument that the most vexing questions raised by feminist thinkers are posed. Isn’t it likely that promoting as an exemplar a person who was literally crucified a recipe for disaster? Isn’t it often the case that the call to imitate this suffering Jesus are issued by the strong toward the weak, especially toward women, who already experience disproportionate suffering on behalf of others? And note that these concerns should not only hold sway over our thinking about the moral life, but have special intellectual import as well. To mention just one example, Christian arguments against the sciences have often taken humility as their motivating force.

None of these are easy questions to resolve. Resolving them with a wave of the hand wouldn’t quite be a mark of intellectual humility, would it? And I cannot summarize here the detailed ways in which I suggest some resolution in the book. For the sake of brevity, I wish to introduce just one observation in response to these challenges: The struggle to deal with the apparent downsides or risks of humility is not (as we might think) a merely modern one.

Humility: The Unpopular Virtue

Humility was even less popular in the Greco-Roman world than it is today, with detractors voicing their disgust with it even more vehemently. When Greco-Roman thinkers like Aristotle critiqued humility in this way, they were not entirely unjustified in so thinking. Their concern was that the natural human desire for greatness (or “magnanimity”) could be too easily suppressed, yielding pusillanimity rather than nobility.

Similarly, contemporary concerns about humility often have valid concern behind them. There are problems in many communities in which humility is used as a tool of oppression by the strong. And this is true just as much in the academy (where professors may shush students, or where calls to intellectual humility may mask an effort simply to silence an alternative view) as it is in families, churches, businesses and governments.

From the Cross to the Throne: Following the Humble Lamb Who Was Slain

But as early Christians were also aware, followers of Jesus have a countervailing force to consider as well. The lamb slain on the cross is also the lamb exalted to the throne:

Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” (Revelation 5:11-13)

The humiliation of Christ described in Philippians 2 does nothing to detract from his divine authority and worthiness, as the end of the Christ-hymn indicates, Moses, the man described in Scripture as consummately humble, is nevertheless granted perhaps the closest communion with God ever experienced this side of heaven.

Buried in the Christian faith that made humility a blockbuster virtue, there are signs everywhere that the kind of humility God reveals in Christ, and that Christ-followers seek to cultivate, is not the sort that leads to moral and intellectual dead ends—

“I am worthless.”

“I’m just not good enough.”

“My intellectual abilities are just too limited.”

“Know your place.”

The case can be made, in fact, that this is a modern, somewhat secular counterfeit of the virtue. Instead, the kind of humility that Jesus embodies and commands is the kind that marks a constant expansion of boundaries, that empowers the weak to lead the strong, and that privileges the marginalized over the privileged. This kind of humility is worth holding on to, even if we must do so with eyes wide open to its risks.

About the Author

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