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Humility for Creatures and Sinners: A New Testament Vision of Intellectual Humility

Grant Macaskill

However far science advances, it will never have access to those truths that originate and exist beyond the cosmos.

How might the New Testament contribute to our understanding of intellectual humility? And specifically, how does it offer unique perspectives in the context of philosophical and scientific research?

Recent Philosophical, Theological, and Scientific Approaches to Intellectual Humility

Let’s start with some context.In May 2014, I participated in a conference bringing two research projects together: one on the Philosophy and Theology of Intellectual Humility and the other on the Science of Intellectual Humility. As the two projects came together in Saint Louis, those working on the science of intellectual humility presented some of their preliminary findings, all of which were fascinating and provocative. But two broad features of the discussion were quite striking.

1. How to Define Intellectual Humility

The first was that the precise meaning of the expression “intellectual humility” still wasn’t entirely clear to many of the contributors, a problem they acknowledged openly. Typically, it was approached by contrasting it with “intellectual arrogance,” with one project seeking to catalogue popular (or “folk”) views on what constituted the respective virtue and vice. This should not be surprising: The very idea of “virtue” has limited currency in the late modern West and even where it has been maintained, humility is not universally considered one of its forms.

It is often pointed out that the Jewish and Christian traditions were unusual in their positive estimation of the virtue of humility in ancient times and in modern times it has been harshly criticized as a “virtue” that serves only those who subjugate the humble, reinforcing uneven power relationships. As such, the idea of humility, of which intellectual humility is a sub-species, has been largely marginalized in modernity. The current study of intellectual humility, then, is a work of recovery: small wonder that its students do not tacitly know the details of its composition.“The idea of humility, of which intellectual humility is a sub-species, has been largely marginalized in modernity.”

2. Viewing Intellectual Humility Through Open-Mindedness

The second feature of the discussion perhaps reflects this first difficulty: Most of the work being undertaken in the scientific studies concerned one particular aspect of intellectual humility, namely open-mindedness. The intellectually humble recognize the limits of their knowledge and are, therefore, open and respectful to the views and insights of others. This is undoubtedly a key element of intellectual humility, but is it the only element? Is there a danger of neglecting other important factors in such a discussion? Furthermore, does this way of thinking about intellectual humility provide the necessary resources by which we can understand how the virtue operates when the humble person is right (and knows it!) and is dealing with someone whose beliefs are undoubtedly foolish or misguided? In that case, open-mindedness is no longer applicable; does that also mean that intellectual humility has reached its limit?

The New Testament as a Source for Understanding Intellectual Humility

Here is the point where the New Testament contribution prompts us to think about things a little differently.

The Humility of the Creature

It is certainly the case that the biblical writings share in the common emphasis on intellectual humility as involving a recognition of our limits. In fact, they take this emphasis even further than is generally the case by recognizing that it is not merely that we have constitutional limits as investigators (for limits can be pushed or exceeded), but that there are some things that are ontologically beyond investigation by scientific method or rational inquiry. Certain things can only be known by us if they are “revealed” to us, and this revelation involves both the object that is made known and a transformation of those enabled to recognize it for what it is. We could pile up the evidence for this particular emphasis in the New Testament, but let’s just take one example. In Matthew 11:27, Jesus says: “All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (NRSV). The statement is dramatically enacted in Matthew 16:16-18, where Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and Jesus states: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven” (NRSV). The theme echoes throughout the New Testament and subsequent Christian theology: some of God’s truths, particularly those that bear on his self-disclosure in Christ, require revelation. However far science advances, it will never have access to those truths that originate and exist beyond the cosmos, for all that we can investigate are those things that belong to the same created order as ourselves.

The Humility of the Sinner

To this basic humility of finitude—which we may designate the humility of the creature—the New Testament adds a further dimension, which may or may not be shared with science and philosophy: the humility of the sinner in need of, or in the process of, redemption. The two elements of humility are not separate, of course. The things that are revealed by God to creatures who could not know them without such an “apocalypse” are precisely matters of salvation or redemption from sin. But the fact that we are, in the context of this revelation, diagnosed as sinful is an important truth in its own right. We are, in key ways, damaged or corrupt; our processing and transmission of the truth that we observe is, consequently, corrupt. We can see what it suits us to see, know things only as they are comfortable to us. We suppress even the manifest truth in our wickedness (Romans 1:18-19). Science and philosophy, of course, have versions of this insight, whether it is the tenacity of the obsolete paradigm in Thomas Kuhn’s analysis of scientific communities, or the potential for cognitive dissonance to prevent us from seeing things as they really are.

The Bible, though, sees this as a moral and spiritual problem; it cannot merely be labeled as a social or psychological phenomenon. The recent interest in “virtue epistemology” represents a fascinating movement in philosophy towards recognizing the contribution of the character of the knower to the kind of knowledge they are capable of obtaining, but it typically remains some way off from approaching the matter as one of sin and salvation. For the New Testament, though, these are the categories used to describe the epistemic afflictions with which we must deal, meaning that the process of redemption—the application of the incarnation and work of Jesus to our lives by the Holy Spirit—is necessary for a theology of intellectual humility. That word “process,” of course, is of huge importance. There is no room for the kind of arrogance that Christians often evince as the privileged recipients of divine knowledge, because what we have been told reminds us that our minds are still to some degree afflicted by sin. Hence it is that Paul, in Romans 12:2, writes: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (NRSV).

The Intellectual Humility of Jesus

More radically, though, the New Testament ascribes the quality of humility to the object of our worship: the God who is incarnate in Jesus. Jesus is represented as humble in Matthew 11:29 and his humility of mind (ταπεινοφροσύνη), specifically, is held as the pattern of Christian attitudes towards others in Philippians 2:3-4: “In humility regard others as better than (or ‘exceeding’) yourselves. Let each of you look not (only) to his own interests, but (also) to the interests of others” (NRSV). The parentheses in the translation are important and concern my growing sense that what is spoken of here is a reciprocal refusal to allow self-importance to obscure the interests and needs of others, rather than a (perhaps insincere) assignation of relative worth.2
“More radically, though, the New Testament ascribes the quality of humility to the object of our worship: the God who is incarnate in Jesus.”

Be that as it may, the point of relevance for us is that the model of humility, as the virtue of which intellectual humility is a specific element, is the Incarnate God. If we are committed to classical Christian doctrine, this means that we have to try to understand humility not just in terms of deficit or limit, but also in terms of plenitude and perfection. Behind this statement lies a conviction on my part that approaches to the atonement that compromise the fullness of Christ’s divinity—kenotic approaches, for example, or some modern forms of Spirit Christology—simply fail to engage with the challenging representation of Jesus as the one who is simultaneously exalted and humble. Indeed, the very logic of Philippians 2:5-11, as it enjoins us to think with the same humility of thought as Jesus, is that this humility was not the result of the Incarnation, but the cause of it: Because he was humble, he made himself nothing.

Presence and Gift: Two Keys to Intellectual Humility

The key for us, I would suggest, is the combination of two concepts: presence and gift. God gives himself to us in the Incarnation, making himself present with those of lowly form and sinful nature. He does not consider his fullness something to be possessed selfishly, but something to be shared with others, a sharing that requires his own willingness to “descend” to be with us. His fullness, including the fullness of his wisdom, is shared as a gift with us, and this model of grace is at the heart of the humility that we are enjoined to participate in. Furthermore, this is not simply a narrow matter of how God relates to us in the process of salvation from sin; it is part of his relationship to the entire cosmos that is held together in Christ (cf. Colossians 1:15-20) and is central to what is referred to as the divine “economy,” the way in which God relates to all that is not God. That economy is essentially one of grace: all that is good in our experience is ultimately a matter of the grace of God towards those who do not deserve his kindness, blessing, or presence. The Incarnation manifests and realizes that basic relationship between God and his creation.“Applied to the intellectual life, this model of gift and presence challenges our very identity as thinkers and knowers, as intellectuals.”

Knowledge as Commodity?

Applied to the intellectual life, this model of gift and presence challenges our very identity as thinkers and knowers, as intellectuals. For we naturally approach knowledge and understanding as possessions; we seek to “master” the things that we study and to obtain status by doing so, whether in the form of a degree or the social acknowledgement of our wisdom by the communities to which we belong. In such terms, knowledge and understanding become commodities, functioning within an economy of achievement and honor. They are things we acquire and then trade upon. If we start from below, from the way the world seems to work, this is a natural way to evaluate these things. If, however, we consider them differently; if we start from above; if we consider that our own life (including our intellectual life) is constituted by divine gift, and our redeemed life doubly so; then knowledge and understanding take on different properties. Rather than being merely achievement (though they do not lose this dimension), they are also gifts, to be received with gratitude and, in turn, shared. Rather than fullness of knowledge serving to maintain strata, between the wise and the foolish—the “haves” and the “have-nots”—fullness becomes a source or wellspring that transmits its content to others in order to communicate blessing.

Knowledge as Gift

That, perhaps, begins to open up further the meaning of Jesus’s prayer and summons in Matthew 11:25-30, to which we have already referred:

At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (NRSV)

Jesus himself, as the one who is humble in heart, considers the chain or process of revelation of which he is part to be a matter of gift, something that is to be received with the gratitude that he himself articulates and then shared. This passage parallels in quite interesting ways the material in 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16, where earthly standards of wisdom and intelligence are called into question by the nature of the divine grace of revelation. Considered apart from this, taken by itself, human wisdom become mere hubris.

Now, these examples concern a particular kind of knowledge: the knowledge of God. There is some validity to the distinction between that kind of knowledge and the kind of knowledge that we can obtain by empirical or rational inquiry about the cosmos. As we have already noted, the latter is naturally available to us as those who are part of the cosmos; the former requires revelation because it concerns a God who is other than the cosmos. But that distinction is more limited than it is sometimes considered to be: If we see the cosmos in its entirety as constituted by and dependent upon divine grace, then even our knowledge of the material cosmos must be located within the gracious economy of gift. All knowledge, all understanding, is graced. All knowledge, all understanding, ought to be received with gratitude. All knowledge, all understanding, should be treated as gift and not commodity.

Gratitude and the Intellectually Humble Life: An Exhortation

What all of this suggests is that both the New Testament, and the theological traditions that draw upon and are normed by it, open up radically different ways of thinking about intellectual humility. What I haven’t touched on here, but will be necessary to explore as a result of these considerations, is how this might bear on Christian dialogue with other religions (after all, seeing our own understanding of things as a gift alters the way that we seek to share or defend it) or how it might be appropriated into other philosophies of intellectual humility.“If we see the cosmos in its entirety as constituted by and dependent upon divine grace, then even our knowledge of the material cosmos must be located within the gracious economy of gift.”

Perhaps, though, I can close with a personal comment and an exhortation to Christian readers of this post. Studying these themes has prompted me to treat my own research as something to be explored in a spirit of gratitude and thanksgiving, more than I have in the past. I am grateful to those whose work has contributed to my own, but behind this and around this to God, as the ultimate source of blessing.That experience of gratitude has spilled into other areas of my life and has been truly liberating. I hope, then, that Christian readers of this will see their own calling to an intellectually humble life as one that begins and ends with gratitude, that is, with worship.


Learn more about Grant MacGaskill’s  “New Testament and Intellectual Humility project here.